Sunday, September 2, 2012

What You Are Speaks So Loudly...

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 Christian.

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 week.[1]

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 yourself?
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 Michael Jackson:

“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.



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