A sermon preached at Southminster’s Sabbath Worship service
Aug 29, 2015
James 1: 17-27
James tells us we are to “be not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.”
Which means we aren’t supposed to just listen to the reading of the scripture, hear the teachings of the church, say “isn’t that nice”, and then go back to what we were doing before we heard the good news.
We are supposed to live out our faith in our actions.
Which is not the same as saying we are to earn our faith with our actions.
We don’t earn our faith because we do good deeds.
Instead, our faith is the gift of God, and our lives are the response.
Listen to how James describes it:
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 fulfilment 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.
That language of “first fruits” indicates an offering. As the harvest is collected, a choice portion of the harvest is brought to the temple and offered to the divine. This was a practice among the Hebrew people. But it was prevalent in other middle eastern cultures as well. It’s different than the “last fruits” offering, which is where people pay their friends to take their extra zucchini.
In this passage, however, God offers us as first fruits. We are the gift that is shared, signifying abundance and provision.
We are an offering from God to the world.
So James’ instructions to us are less about earning our way into any good graces with God. Instead they are more about calling us to live in ways that reflect God’s love for the world. Because God has already offered us as gifts to the world God created and loves.
How might that change things for you? I’m guessing that most of us haven’t considered being the first fruits, being the offering, before.
I suspect many of us try to do the right things because we know we “should” or because we harbor some deep seated fear that “God will only like us when….”
And when our actions are based from that place of scarcity and fear, they are exhausting.
But what if we approached the way we serve God as James suggests? What if we first saw our lives as gifts and then became “do-ers” of the word in response to what we’d heard of God’s love? What if we saw ourselves as God’s offering to a world that needs to know of God’s love?
Because lots of people are hearers of the word. How many people really take it in, though, and allow themselves to be changed by the doing of the Word?
There are plenty of appropriate opinions about whether or not Jimmy Carter was a good president. But I defy anyone to claim he has not been the best EX President in modern memory. Since leaving the White House in 1981, he went back home to Georgia, and he has taught, almost weekly, a Sunday School class at his home church in Plains.
Every single year since 1984, he and his wife of 69 years, Rosalynn, have given at least a week of their time to build houses for Habitat for Humanity around the country and around the world. They have helped build over 3,800 homes. He’s traveled into war zones and disaster areas, to promote peace and to monitor elections.
“The Carter Center has eradicated the debilitating disease known as Guinea worm. According to the center, in 1986, when it began its Guinea worm eradication efforts, there were an estimated 3.5 million cases that occurred annually in Africa and Asia in 1986. In 2014, there were 126 cases.
But Mr. Carter said that was too many.
“I’d like for the last Guinea worm to die before I do,” he said.
How he has lived his 90 years shows that he understands what James says about being a do-er of the Word. He knows how to respond to the good news that he’s been offered as an offering to the world. Even the way he announced his cancer diagnosis recently speaks to the way he did more than just hear the word. He took the Word and let it transform his life and bring him peace even in the face of a terminal diagnosis. Our prayers are with him, with his family, as he nears the end of his earthly journey.
James ends this passage with this instruction about pure religion:
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.
I’ve been thinking of what it means to keep ourselves unstained by the world. Because if you obey the first part of the command, and get in to the midst of the messiness of people’s lives, you’re going to get dirty. It’s going to leave a mark on you. When you spend time with children at an orphanage, when you feed people at a shelter, however you place your lives in the presence of people in God’s name, you will be stained. If you’re really present with people in their suffering, it will change you. Some things don’t rub off.
This summer while Elliott and I were at Montreat, the entire youth conference went out in the communities around Asheville and spent much of the day in different service projects. (We were with Asheville Youth Mission. Check ’em out. They do good work.) Our group was sent to an old motel that had been purchased by a religious community group and re-purposed as a transitional housing facility for homeless veterans.
Like all of the other experiences I’ve had like that, this one has stayed with me. On some levels, my life is very different from the lives of those men. I’ve never served in the military. I’ve never been homeless. On other levels, though, I recognized how much we had in common. One of the men with whom I ate lunch has a daughter who is the same age as one of my kids and was about to start a new year in high school across the country.
I’m stained by experiences like that because it doesn’t wash off. I can’t wash my hands and just forget the struggles of the men at that shelter who are working to rebuild their lives.
And so I’ve been wondering what James meant with his instruction not to be stained by the world.
And I wonder if some kinds of stains are better than others. I think the stains I got that day at the Veteran’s home were good stains. I’ve been stained to be more compassionate, and stained to remember the common ground we share.
There are also ways the world stains us that I wish didn’t happen. This past week, yet another shooting happened—this time on air, as a disgruntled former employee killed a cameraman and reporter, before he killed himself.
I heard myself think, and I heard others say, “oh well. There’s nothing we can do about it. There are too many guns on the streets now. We can never change. We didn’t change anything after 20 elementary school students were gunned down at Sandy Hook. Why do we think something will change now?” And when I heard those thoughts, I felt the stain of the world,
I think our despair is a stain of the world. And it keeps us from attending to the first part of James’ instruction to care for others. When we think the task is too great, we walk away. When really, God is not calling us to fix all of the problems of the world. By offering us to the world to provide help, God would use us to repair the world.
We can’t afford to be stained by despair—or else it will keep us from responding to God’s call to be an offering to the world.
It isn’t just in the gun violence issue either. Whenever we see the pain of the world—homelessness, people who face chronic food shortages and hunger, underfunded schools, people without access to health care, people displaced by war and turmoil—the list is long, but when we are paralyzed into inaction by the enormity of the task, we’ve been stained by the world.
I believe those are the stains James warns us about. Stains of apathy. Stains of isolation. Stains of despair. For me, right now, those are the stains of the world.
I don’t know how many of you were here my first few months on the job, seven years ago. The first few months, I successfully presided at communion without any injury or incident. And then my family told me I needed bigger movements and more flourishes when I poured the juice into the cup.
So I did. I held the pitcher up high and poured it into the chalice, way down below. And I hit the bottom of the cup just so—none of the juice stayed in the chalice. It flew all over the place. It was all over the table cloth, all over me. There was an audible gasp from you in the congregation. And I’m sure a look of horror was on my face as I thought, “I just broke communion. They’re going to fire me.”
I don’t remember what all I said, but I do remember, after I recovered, inviting people to the table, to the abundant feast where God’s cup overflows. People laughed. We recovered and moved on. The stole I was wearing that day was Justin’s grandfather’s. And it immediately went to the dry cleaners. But if you know where to look, you can still see the stain.
I’m grateful for that communion stain. I see it and remember that there are some things I want to stick, to not wash off. I want to remember who I am and whose I am. I want to remember the time I made a huge mistake in front of a ton of people and received forgiveness, grace, and laughter. I want to remember I’m nourished at the table to be a first fruits blessing to the world. I want to see my stains from where my life intersects with other lives.
We’ll be coming back to the table in a few minutes. As we do, I invite you to be stained by this meal as you are fed at it. May we be nourished to go out in to the world as do-ers of the world, stained by all the right things.