A sermon on James 1: 17-27 preached September 2. 2012, at First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
(c) Christina Berry
James 1: 17-27
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 book of James is an interesting little book, one that has drawn some strong reactions and supported some pretty vehement arguments. There are pages and
pages of argument about who wrote it, and when, whether James is a
composite, as most scholars have concluded, or actually the brother of
Jesus, as tradition suggests. Martin Luther thought this book should be
removed from the Bible, because of the emphasis on what Christians do,
rather than on what Christ has done for us – on works rather than grace.
I’m glad that Martin Luther lost the argument, because there is some
great stuff here. But sometimes, it would be easier if he had won.
This Sunday we are beginning a new series, on Discipleship. We’re
going to be following the lectionary in James and then the gospel of
Mark, looking at what scripture tells us about how to be Jesus’
disciples. James 1 is a good place to start, because it is clear that
James is preaching to the choir – that is, he is addressing himself to
baptized Christians, and not seeking to make converts. His little
epistle is not about how to BECOME a Christian, but about how to BE a
Our reading today can best be divided into three parts, with a final
summation about true religion; so while it isn’t my normal practice to
preach a “three points and a poem” sermon, that’s what we have today!
The first section covers verses 17-21, and it is about the
characteristics of God. You may recognize some of the text that made its
way into the hymn “Great is Thy Faithfulness” – there is no shadow of
turning with thee. God is creator, steadfast in love, boundless in
goodness, and the source of all generosity. Not just the source of some
good stuff, but the source of ALL generosity and righteousness.
Given this, the second section addresses us – and instructs us in
living a life of faith. The very first point the writer makes, and it is
the basis for the rest of his instruction, is that we must be quick to
listen, and slow to speak. I recently read an interview about Christians
with two very thoughtful atheists. The interviewer was asking the
atheists how Christians can best talk with unbelievers. One of the two
said that very bad impressions are made by Christians who come to the
table with “everything to say and nothing to learn.” It struck me that
James might be talking about just that: we have plenty to say and little
to learn. That’s a tough critique, especially for those of us who make a
living talking! But it’s also a crucial bit of wisdom, especially in
these contentious times, for every Christian in every context. If we are
indeed the first fruits, offered up to God in gratitude, we need to be
ready to receive God’s word, implanted in us, so that we may grow.
It gets even more challenging in the next section, in which we are
told that after we get done listening, and hearing, we aren’t finished.
We must also be doers of the word. There’s a tricky balance here for
most of us – balancing action and belief. We believe in salvation by
grace through faith, but there’s that additional challenge that Jesus
gave – for us to be fruitful, to demonstrate our faith through our
works. But we are also to be those who see ourselves clearly. Imagine
looking in the mirror and seeing that your hair is a mess, but then
forgetting to comb it, or seeing that you have lipstick on your teeth,
but failing to do anything about it.
Frequently, we see our own failings only fleetingly, and as soon as
we can divert ourselves, we forget that image in the mirror, and
rationalize our behavior. But others see us, and they notice that what
we do is not in keeping with what we say, and they conclude that
Christians are hypocrites. For example, according to a report by
University of Notre Dame sociologists, about a fourth of those who
responded to a national study on generosity reported that they tithed 10
percent of their income to charity. But when their donations were
checked against income figures, only 3 percent of the group gave more
than 5 percent to charity. Here’s the kicker: The people most likely to
misreport high levels of giving were those who said faith was very
important to them and those who attend services more than once a
Too often, what we hear and what we say are at odds with what we do.
And it is our actions that speak most loudly to those who observe us. It
was the Scottish poet Robert Burns who said,
“And would some Power the small gift give us
To see ourselves as others see us!”
At the other end of the spectrum, many of us look in the mirror and
see only our failings, rather than the blessings given to us by God,
that make us beautiful, beloved, precious. Then we underestimate our
potential, and fail to live up to our own gifts. Here we are, standing
in front of a mirror. James asks, "Do you see who you are?" Do you see
Do you think yourself
thin or overweight,
blemished or beautiful,
dishy or disheveled,
stylish or wrinkled,
stunning or scarred?
Physical appearance is not what James is getting at. He has told us
who we are – the first fruits of God’s creation. So here we stand, in
front of this mirror that James is holding up to us, and he says to us,
“Take a good long look, and remember who you are.” Because when you
forget who you are, your life changes course. When you forget who you
are, you start to think you are on your own, and it is all about you,
and what you want, or think, or do or say.
When you remember who you are, and whose you are, the choices become
easier. Remembering how much we have been given makes it easy for us to
be generous. When we have been given everything, we have no more need to
join the great race to accumulate the most stuff. When we look at
ourselves and see a new life, we look at our lives and see a new self --
a self that belongs to God, a self that is built by God’s word and
called to good works, a self that is shaped by love, that speaks love,
that lives through acts of love and kindness.
And all this, then, leads to the final section of this text, the
discussion of the definition of true religion. James has called us to
pay attention, to look at our intention determine our conviction, and
decide upon our action.
Now, he says, get real:
If you think you are religious and can only talk without listening,
if you think you are religious but you lie to yourself if you think you
are religious and you do not act, that religion is not worth a thing.
Because what matters to God is that your religion matters to you, and
because it matters to you, it matters what you do.
And the definition of true, pure religion?
Is it belief? No.
Is it the Apostles’ Creed? No.
Is it the right denomination – being Presbyterian? No.
It is caring for the widows and orphans, caring for those who are in
distress, caring for those who are in need, not just a feeling or a
thought or a belief, but an action. That’s what keeps your image clear.
So, I promised three points and a poem, and even though we had Robbie
Burns in there, the poem that comes to mind was made popular by singer
“I'm starting with the man in the mirror
I'm asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer
If you want to make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself, and then make a change.”
That change can begin here and now, as you come to this table, come
as one of God’s first fruits, ready to be given entirely to God’s good
will, to be an instrument of God’s generosity, to be not merely a
hearer, but a doer. At this table, God sees you as you truly are, a
person made in God’s image, made perfect by love. You are welcome here,
for no matter how you may see yourself, God sees you through the lens of
Christ, and through the eyes of grace, and you remember who you are:
holy and beloved, a child of God.