Text: James 1:19-26
Theme Verse: “But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers but doers who act - they will be blessed in their doing.” (James 1:25)
You might call the letter of James a practical primer for living faith. In a culture obsessed with orthodoxy and bogged down by dogma, the letter of James is sharp reminder that our faith demands practical, real world actions of love and justice. This Sunday, we go to the mirror with James to gaze deeply - beyond our airtight theories and eloquent proclamations - to reveal the faith that blesses us in the doing and living of the word. We will also welcome with us in our worship a delegation from our international partnership with JustHope and the community of Chacraseca, Nicaragua.
reading : Mike Moore
preaching : Rev Kevin Howe
“You can keep explaining it to me,” my coach interrupted, “but the judges aren’t gonna award you any scores for talking to them about this dive. Now why don’t you hop up on that board and do it already!” In silent statement of consent to his proposition, I turned and starting walking towards the diving board. From here on out, I knew my options: it was put up, or shut up.
With a big exhale, I took my first step down the fiberglass board, trying desperately to clear my mind of all the complexity that I had spoken into existence about what I was to do. For all that I could say about the mechanics of a one and one half somersault with a full twist, I knew dive itself would be over within the first three words of any explanation.
Reaching the fourth and final step of my approach, I press down, the board bent, then sent me up into the air as it had done countless times before. Now, I will tell you that nothing took place in the air that would have gotten me more than a few sympathetic points from a panel of judges, but much to my surprise, my hands hit the water first, the rest of me in tow, and instantly I knew something had changed. From that moment forward, I have known deeply, what it means to perform a forward one and a half with a full twist. All of the explanations—the thinking and imagining—all of it washed away in the icy water, resurfacing as a deep knowledge that only comes with lived experience.
Just like that moment you and I first started peddling, wobbling at first, but moving forward, propelling us further on a journey down the street into a deeper understanding of riding a bicycle, so it is that our actions of faith propel us into a more authentic spirituality.
The Letter of James is an often-overlooked, little book towards the end of the New Testament. It was written to an early church that had become obsessed with orthodoxy and weighed down by doctrine. It seems that in their passion for outward displays of religious purity, these church-goers had created a kind of spiritual self-importance. And amidst their airtight theories and eloquent proclamations, these Christians had forgotten to live out the truths that they spent so much time promoting and defending. The letter of James is an in-your-face reminder that our faith demands practical, real world actions of love and justice. Let’s call it a practical primer for living faith.
Following the passage that we heard this morning, James asks his readers: what good it is if a brother or sister is poor, or sick, or hungry and you walk by them and simply say, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat your fill,” and do not give them what they need to survive? The question: What is your faith if it makes no difference in your life or the lives of others? James’ answer: “faith without works is dead.” When it comes to faith, serving those who need to be served, putting our faith into action, isn’t extracurricular. It’s not icing on the faith. It IS our faith. It’s foundational. Take it away and you no longer have pure religion, James proclaims. Saying or believing the right things, does not make one pious. Or said more boldly, simply declaring a belief doesn’t make one a Christian any more than owning clubs makes one a golfer.
The word of God is the living word of God in good part because of the way it comes alive in you and me—a living word. To that end, posturing devotion will not suffice to purify our hearts. The flaw in that kind of piety is the fact that it misses the point of it all: true piety always translates into action. It’s about living the word that God has implanted on our hearts, and this Good News is a word that you and I must bring alive: a living word. “Don’t merely listen to the gospel story and so deceive yourselves,” James says. “Do what it says.”
Jesus similarly contrasts external ritual purity with sincere interior spirituality, in the Gospel of Luke, when he says: “why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46). Don’t be deceived; hearing and doing are very different things.
To make the point most vividly, James sets up a sharp distinction between those who hear the word of God, and those who do it. If all you do is hear the word, he explains, you are like someone who looks in the mirror and then walks away and forgets what you look like. However, those who do the word will recall their appearance long after they have left the mirror behind. In other words, being doers of the word gives us a way to remember who we are. You might say the purpose of the practice is to prevent spiritual amnesia!
We can come to worship each week and sing hymns and pray prayers and be hearers of the word for—given this short sermon (you’re welcome)—less than an hour, but unless we walk out those doors and become doers of the word, we will forget who we are and whose we are.
In fact, James goes even further than that. Did you notice the curious way verse twenty-five reads? It says that those who are not merely hearers but who respond with action will be “blessed in their doing.” That is, God does not bless us for our acts of love and justice—as if we could ever gain spiritual brownie points—but we are blessed by these acts themselves. And, indeed, we are. How many of us have been blessed by living faith in the world? Whether its journeying alongside our sisters and brothers in Chacraseca, serving a meal at the Day Center for the Homeless, or choosing to listen more compassionately to the plight of our neighbor, we are blessed to know more deeply on that experimental level what it means to serve our God. I am sure you could all tell stories of the blessings that come simply by putting into practice that which you profess to believe. We are truly blessed in living the word.
One thing that I cherish about the Letter of James is that the writer reminds us that living out the faith does not have to be a heroic effort. Case in point, in the passage we heard this morning, we are offered some very reasonable and actionable steps: “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.” Now, I know that it is far easier said than done in my own life, but I think it is in reach for you and me. For example, what parent doesn’t want to be slower to anger with his or her children? Or have you witnessed the anger that can come with defending one’s position? James invites us to work towards slowing down; not being so reactionary, whether we are right or not, because our “anger does not produce God’s righteousness.”1 As blogger A.K.M. Adam says: “that if one thinks oneself secure simply for praising the Lord and carping at sinners, one has not made spiritual progress.”2
When we’re at our best, the church choses faithful use of words and becomes a counter-narrative to the angry one-upsmanship that we witness in the world. But at our worst, we worsen the problem by praising ourselves and enshrining one particular perspective…namely ours. “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.”
All of this makes the small stuff of our daily lives important, consecrating the everyday routines and responsibilities that we so often take for granted. By living the word, we keep faith. “Preach the Gospel at all times, use words if necessary.” St. Francis reminded his community. “Faith without works is dead,” James insisted. “Just as you did it to one of the least of these, who are members of my family, you did it to me,” the Lord proclaims.
A living word. Friends, we can always talk about the Good News, but I invite us to take that leap off the diving board and into the spiritual depths of faith that only come with living the word. When we do, we remember who we are. When we take our faith beyond this sacred space, we will be blessed.
The service had just ended and the preacher was standing at the back of the sanctuary greeting those of us leaving worship. Finally, it was my turn to shake the pastor’s hand and I told her what a wonderful sermon she had preached—so inspiring and moving. And with a smile on her face and a seriousness in her voice, the she replied, “That remains to be seen.”
Will you pray with me? God, grant us the strength to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. May we hear your Word in a way that transforms our hearts and, in turn, gets translated into the way we live our lives today and always. We pray this in the name of Christ, who shows us what it means to be your living word. Amen.
1 Rick Morley. Cool It – a reflection on James 1:17-27. http://www.rickmorley.com/archives/1889
2 A.K.M. Adam. Commentary on James 1:17-27. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2605