A sermon preached at Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, California
August 29, 2021
One of the Reformers famously referred to the Letter of James as an “epistle of straw’ and thought it should be removed from the canon. I don’t agree with that assessment but I’m not a fan of James’ idea that my anger somehow doesn’t produce God’s righteousness. Maybe it is other people’s anger that he’s concerned about?
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 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.
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 beg 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. You can only give the first fruits if you trust there will be more fruits to come.
We are an offering from God to the world.
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 some of us try to do ‘the right things’ because we care about other people and the society in which we live. I also suspect that mixed in to our motives is that we harbor a deep seated fear that “God will only like us when….” and so we better be good in order to win divine, and maybe human approval and acceptance.
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 “doers” 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 successful 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 75 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 worked alongside 103,000 volunteers in 14 countries to build, renovate and repair 4,331 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 97 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. He took the Word and let it transform his life.
Be doers of the Word and you will be blessed by your doing.
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. And I do understand what James was trying to say. We are called to look to God, whom James calls “the father of lights, with whom there is no shadow or variation due to change”. That means God made the moon, sun and stars—the lights—and while the moon may wax and wane in our viewing, and the sun may disappear to us for the night—God doesn’t change. We’re called to follow unchanging God, then, and not some TikTok challenge or other fleeting opinion we see from the world around us.
But I want to invite us to question James’ instruction to keep oneself unstained by the world.
Because if you obey the first part of the passage, 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 changed. It may not be a visible mark, as if you poured coffee on your white jacket, but if you’re really present with people in their suffering, it will change you. Some things don’t rub off.
And I confess my natural inclination is to treat the challenges of the world from a distance. Intellectually, I want to be able to solve the problems of the world while keeping my heart out of the conversation. Caring about homelessness because of statistics and crime rates and such is one thing. Caring about homelessness because I’ve spent time with actual people who are unhoused and I’ve heard their stories and seen our common humanity is a whole different thing. Because when I let the stories into my heart, it can break wide open and I am changed.
I’m stained by being a doer of the world because the stories of other peoples’ lives doesn’t wash off. I can’t wash my hands and just forget the struggles of other people when I let their stories into my heart.
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 we get as doers of the word are good stains. They stain us to be more compassionate, and stain us to remember the common ground we share with people.
There are also ways the world stains us that I wish didn’t happen. This past week, yet another shooting happened—this time I read about a toddler who got ahold of a loaded gun and shot his mother while she was on a work zoom call.
This story may not have even registered for us because there are so many stories of gun violence in the US. As of this morning, gun violence has claimed 29,375 lives in our country this year.
I hear myself think, and I hear others say, “oh well. There’s nothing we can do about it. There are too many guns 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 hear those thoughts, I feel the stain of the world,
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.
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, 637,000 people dying in our country of Covid-19—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.
When I was first ordained, I successfully presided at communion without any injury or incident for a few months. 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, like a crime scene. There was an audible gasp from 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.
The image on the bulletin cover was made by Samantha, our very talented co-worker. She took coffee and turned a stain into art.
My grandfather did that once for me when I was a kid. I spilled some of my drink on the unfinished floor at his brother’s cabin. You could still see the mark on the plywood after it was cleaned up. I felt bad about the mess I had made. My grandfather called me over to him, and he took his pen and traced around the stain on the floor to show me that it was actually a frog sitting on a mushroom and that I had made art. What I had seen as a stain was transformed into something else. He went on to trace other shapes he saw in the grain of the plywood too—which is an act I only recommend doing on an unfinished floor in a cabin in the midst of renovation. Don’t do this at home, kids. But I’m thankful my grandfather taught me to have eyes to see that stains can be transformed into beauty if we take the time to care for each other.
Remember you are God’s offering to the world. May the work we do stain us in all the right ways. May we find beauty in brokenness and hope in our despair. Go and be the love that saves the world.