August 30, 2015 – Doers of the Word

Pentecost 14 August 30, 2015   James 1:1-8, 9-16, 17-27   Doers of the Word

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James, author of this letter that bears his name, is almost certainly the same James, whom we meet in Acts, named there as brother of Jesus, leader and chief spokesperson for the early church in Jerusalem. James has been called the first Bishop of the Church. The title “bishop” probably wasn’t in use yet in James’ lifetime, but he did fill the role. Modestly, and/or because no introduction was necessary, James never identifies himself anywhere in this letter as any kind of office holder in the church, or as brother of Jesus, or as anything but a slave (or servant) of God and of Jesus. But he writes with power, wisdom, and eloquence, addressing this letter simply “to the twelve tribes in the dispersion” – a clear reference to the twelve tribes of Israel, and a reminder of James’ deep roots in the ancient Jewish wing of the still very young Christian church. James is an elder spokesperson for ancient living traditions newly alive in Christ.

This letter was written sometime (we can’t be sure when) in the first few decades of the Christian movement, a time of great transitions and rapid change. The church was now rapidly growing and spreading far beyond its place of origin in Galilee and Judea. This was a time marked also by the beginnings of persecution of the church, and the emergence of new leadership in the church. The apostle Paul, who had been a persecutor of the church, was now a convert and chief ambassador to the Gentile non-Jewish wing of the church. Paul’s telling of the gospel assumes some of the teachings of Jesus but emphasizes above all else the saving grace of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and the power of the resurrection. James led the older Jewish wing of the church. His telling of the good news assumes the cross and resurrection of Jesus, but stays especially close to the teachings and lifestyle of Jesus.

The letter of James sounds a lot like Jesus, but in a different time zone. Most of what James says is traceable to Jesus. But this can take a while to notice. In the gospels we encounter Jesus as the lead character in a narrative filled with other characters and conversations that shape our hearing as we follow Jesus from Galilee through the countryside and on to Jerusalem…

James, on the other hand, is a letter, composed mostly of brief teachings and sayings, many in the form of parables. The content of James is very close to what Jesus says. But the packed-tight-together-writing-style-of-James requires a different manner of listening. Like the biblical book of Proverbs, James is probably best read a few verses at a time, prayerfully and meditatively…

We’re reading the whole first chapter today, because it brings together the main themes of the letter, and serves as introduction to the rest of the letter. But we’re reading it divided into short sections… Hear now again the word from the letter to James, chapter 1, verses 17-27:

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Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.

You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.

But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.

If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

(The word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.)

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Like his brother Jesus, James has a way of saying rather astounding things with a straight face. When James tells us ‘look in the mirror’ – he’s expecting us to see the face of a person looking recognizably like Jesus.

Well? If we belong to Jesus, we ought to look like a chip off the block of the rock of Jesus. And we need to always remember who we are, and who we belong to. Jesus tells us this many times. James says “amen.”

When we look in the mirror of life we ought to be able to see ourselves as Christ has made us – as Christian believers, redeemed by the love of Jesus into the image of God, restored. This is who Christ makes us. Don’t forget. Thus –

Be hearers of the word, who listen – hear – and recall what Jesus says. And – be doers of the word – doing what Jesus says. Hearers and Doers; both/and. Because hearing and doing are two sides of the one undivided person we’re created to be in Christ. James says there’s to be no double-mindedness in us, as we believe, pray, and live. A simple lesson, not too hard to remember. And…

Back when I was in my twenties, pretty new to Christian faith, the letter of James was actually my favorite New Testament letter. At the time my day job was working to feed the hungry and help the needy. I believed my life’s work was indeed making a difference for orphans and widows of the world – ‘orphans and widows’ being a biblical short-hand phrase meaning all the poor and needy… I was an activist, a doer of the word, I thought. And a little proud of it sometimes.

Now and then, however, I’d be seized with pangs of conscience, because I would be made aware at times, that my life was not unstained by the world. I was not very quick to listen, nor slow to speak, nor slow to anger. I was not free from all sordidness, etc. I did not always welcome the word of God planted in me. I was living, in short, as James says, ‘double-mindedly.’ Doing perhaps some good… But also being a blatant sinner in other parts of my life. (Jesus and my wife and some friends and mentors have all heard my confessions…) Suffice it to say, I’ve pleaded guilty to breaking all the commandments, according, at least, to how Jesus interprets them in his Sermon on the Mount. (Don’t even nurture the thought, or you’ve effectively done it….)

And I’ve come to know the love of God and the forgiveness of God in generous measure. Forty years have gone by, and I still appreciate the letter of James, maybe more than ever, but I appreciate it differently now than I did back then. Yet I still identify with the singer Phoebe Snow, whose song Either or Both from the mid-70’s reminds me of James’ counsel to look in the mirror of metaphor and see myself and reflect on how… “Sometimes this face looks so funny – I have to hide behind a book. Sometimes this face looks almost all right – and I go and steal another look…” And I sing the song to God now – “What I want to know from you – if you hear my plea – do you like or love, either or both of me…

And Jesus lets me know – “yes, I love you. But – you still tick me off and make me weep, when you do stuff you-know- better-than-to-do… And yes, when you are doing the word, that’s good. I’m not judging you on technical merit – but (as you know, and need to remember) – as soon as you think you’re doing just fine, it puffs you up. Then it isn’t fine.” And Jesus loves me this I know. And Jesus sets the bar high for those he loves, I also know. And James sure looks to be the brother of Jesus, because he channels Jesus so well.

When James says “consider it nothing but joy when you face trials of any kind” and “blessed is anyone who endures temptation” – we’re reminded of Jesus, tempted by the devil yet without sin (Matthew 4), and Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount saying: “blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, theirs is the kingdom of heaven…” (Matthew 5.) Jesus tells us all along, life with him is not easy. Trials, troubles, temptations are to be expected. James says just the same.

When we hear James say, ‘ask God for wisdom but ask with faith and never doubt’ – we remember Jesus, scolding disciples for lack of faith. When disciples fail to carry out a difficult healing (Matt 17) Jesus doesn’t say “never mind, good try.” He says this is “because of your little faith..” When Peter starts to walk on water then has second thoughts and starts to sink (Matt 14) Jesus doesn’t say “Wow! You almost did it!” He says, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Jesus sets the bar high. James does too.

Likewise, when James tells the poor to boast in being lifted up by God and the rich to rejoice in being brought low, he’s just recycling what Jesus says all through Luke’s gospel, most bluntly in his Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6), where Jesus says, “blessed are you poor, yours is the kingdom of God… Woe to you rich, you’ve had your fun, you’ve received your consolation…” Jesus keeps hammering this theme of God’s leveling of the rich and poor all through Luke, maybe partly because he’s heard it from his mother, singing her Magnificat while he’s still in her womb (Luke 1): “My soul magnifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant…He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty…” James gets this teaching straight from Jesus. And he and Jesus both get it from their mother from the get-go… And now we’re talking Jesus’s family values…

As the letter of James continues the teachings of Jesus in the next generation. Providing continuity with the living past in a time of great transitions. All the first disciples of Jesus were of course Jewish. But by the end of the first century, as the Christian movement spread out in all directions, Jewish Christians gradually became a receding minority… And as the traditions and culture of Israel became an increasingly distant memory, and as the church continued to change and grow…Through all the changes of the ages, the letter of James has endured… serving as direct linkage with our earliest Jewish Christian heritage. Which makes this letter perpetually fascinating for scholars and bible wonks, but –

Why should we in this small church and this fast-paced day and age spend time here and now with James? If we want quick results, James is certainly not our guy. There’s no quick fixes or plug-and-play-programs anywhere in this letter.

But for those not in a hurry…for those willing to hear the word patiently… here’s deep wisdom for the long run…from a time-tested veteran servant of God who helped shepherd the church through some of it’s most difficult times…

And perhaps this letter still speaks especially to churches like ours today, in another time of huge transitions. For the letter of James is a living reminder that –

Doing the word according to Jesus is never easy. But for all willing to work at hearing and doing the word… For all determined to persevere in doing the gospel in spite of the inevitable trials, temptations, set-backs, short-falls, sure to come… The letter of James still speaks the wisdom of God, powerfully, eloquently… as we humbly persevere in following Jesus. Hearing him… Loving him… Doing his word… Thanking him always for every good gift… Most of all his perfect love.

Thanks be to God. Amen.