Sermon given at Church of the Ascension, Sierra Madre, August 30, 2015, on the following text (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.
Now that I’ve told you to sit, I’m sorry to inform you that I’ve put all of you in great peril to your health, because in case you haven’t heard, sitting is the new smoking. In fact, every hour you spend sitting removes two hours from your life, whereas smoking a cigarette will only set you back about 11 minutes. Dr. James Levine, the researcher who discovered the link between death rates and sitting, says “Sitting is more dangerous than smoking and kills more people than HIV…We are sitting ourselves to death.” He wrote a book called, appropriately enough, “Get Up!” showing how our sedentary lifestyles are actually killing us and giving some remedies for our aching and crumbling bodies. 2000 years ago, James the Just wrote a book (a letter really) and made a very similar point: that our sedentary faiths are killing our spirits.
The book of James almost didn’t make it into the New Testament at all. It is not found on the earliest known list of New Testament books and some early church fathers disputed its authority for three hundred years until it was canonized, and even this didn’t put the issue to rest. Theologians throughout history have complained about James, most famously Martin Luther who called it an “epistle of straw” and advocated that it be thrown out of the Bible altogether. Modern Evangelicals, following Luther, seldom use James and typically criticize what’s known as the “works-based faith” James espouses as being inferior to true faith which is found not in our actions but in our beliefs. In other words, what you believe in your heart and mind, what some people call your “personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” is more important than practicing charity or doing good deeds.
That is an interesting philosophical question, but why is the book of James so shunned, so seemingly dangerous that it was almost kept out of the Bible altogether, and has been either actively criticized or passively ignored by most Christians ever since? Because talking about the redistribution of wealth is always dangerous. And make no mistake, James is clearly advocating for the giving of resources from those who have them to those who don’t have them–something we might call socialism. James’ text is, in fact, closer to what we know of the sayings of Jesus than any of the other New Testament letters, and reading James is not much different than reading the words of Jesus himself. James tells it like it is, much like the prophets of Israel, which Jesus in fact was. Perhaps his words are so similar because, according to tradition, James was Jesus’ brother, so you might expect similar thinking and language between the two. You also might expect that we would take more seriously what the brother of Jesus had to say. But we really don’t hear a lot about Jesus’ brother because we don’t much like what he has to say. He’s so clear about what religion should be. We tend to prefer teachings that are more vague: “only believe and have faith and you’ll be saved,” –that could mean anything. But caring for orphans and widows in their distress? That’s not really open to interpretation. No one wants to hear that, and certainly no one wants to do it. We want to accumulate as much as we can for ourselves, not remain “unstained by the world,” as James puts it. We’re happy to be stained by the world as long as it’s by the green and gold of wealth. When someone comes along and tells us to give away that wealth, we do not react well. What we prefer to hear is that we should hold on tightly to what we have and keep everyone else out, and that’s the message of at least one presidential candidate–probably more. Sadly, we find that same kind of greed and worship of wealth in the church. But I won’t name names, because as much as James hammers the wealthy, the topic he hits even harder in his epistle, mentioned in this morning’s lesson as well, is people who don’t “bridle their tongues.” So I won’t call out the abuse of wealth I see in the church in deference to James, and also with a healthy dose of self-skepticism. I’m often drawn to preach on texts that criticize wealth and its pursuit–fortunately for me, there are a lot of them–but it’s admittedly an easy thing for me to do because I stand outside that world of wealth and privilege that many of my brothers and sisters in the church enjoy. And to be honest, my motivations for making those criticisms are much less pure love for those even worse off than myself and closer to a Biblically-sanctioned chance to criticize others just because I haven’t gotten my fair share!
But that’s where I find James’ message so comforting: He doesn’t question our motives. He says if you simply practice this message that you’re hearing, if you give away what you have to others less fortunate, it doesn’t matter what horrendous doubts in your faith you may be suffering, you are on God’s side. Unfortunately, we are much more likely to hear from our spiritual leaders the exact opposite message, that we don’t have to give away our money, as long as we’re good people in our hearts. “I’m a good person, so I deserve this beautiful home, this nice salary, this nice car,” is much more appealing than “I don’t know if I’m a good person inside, but I give away as much as I can in order to try to help out others.” That’s a much harder message to swallow.
When Martin Luther criticized James and insisted in the doctrine of Sola Fide, meaning by faith alone we are saved and not by our works, in his defense, he was reacting to a corrupt church that defined works not the way James does, as caring for those less fortunate, but works were understood as giving money to the church, which was then supposed to take care of those in need. But somehow a lot of that money found its way into church buildings and property and even into the pockets of clergy, finding its most extreme expression in the practice of indulgences: essentially a penalty paid to the church that magically wipes away all sin from your immortal soul. Well, if that is your definition of doing good works, no wonder Luther rejected it. This was towards the beginning of the Renaissance when there were still extremely stark economic divisions, basically you were either dirt poor or one of the nobility, so Luther’s message was one of justice. He was teaching people that being right with God did not require being wealthy enough to give to the church, what mattered was not the power of the church but the power of God working in our hearts and lives. That is a message of hope and it is the Gospel and it’s easy to see why it has been so triumphant these past 500 years.
But 500 years after the Reformation, it’s time to put the division between faith and works to rest. We live in a world drowning in doubt, it is extremely difficult with our postmodern brains and our easy access to any and all competing views and facts to believe almost anything, and doubt is a constant, painful companion. But the cure for doubt is not forced faith, drumming up feelings we’re not sure we really have. The cure for our aching spirits is very similar to the one for our aching bodies: get up and do something!
James is giving us a justice message for our age, because we live in a time where faith is much harder to come by than good deeds. We are awash in good deeds. People practice paying it forward or random acts of kindness all the time, and whenever there’s a crisis, we open up our pocketbooks and the money pours out. So in our age, to insist on Sola Fide, you’re saved only by your faith, not your actions, is less a beacon of hope for those unable to afford giving, and more a way to judge other people for their lack of faith. James gives us an equalizer for today’s pluralistic society–if you see someone helping out those less fortunate, you don’t need to worry about what they feel in their hearts, what race they are, whether they’re gay or straight, what religion they profess or don’t profess because you can see with your own eyes: they are practicing religion that is pure and undefiled before God. James offers a solution when our faith is lacking. It’s not that God requires good deeds to love us, but that we experience our salvation in the here and now–relief from all our nagging doubts–getting up and getting involved. What James knew is something Anglican poet T.S. Eliot discussed in his famous poem “Hollow Men:”
Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
There is a shadow between what we intend to do and what we actually do or don’t do. It is notoriously difficult to get ourselves to act, whether it’s to put down that bag of chips, or get up off the couch and stop being so sedentary. James says to us, ignore that shadow and go straight to the action–you don’t have to believe the right things or be pure of heart for God to love you–if you do a kindness for someone in need, you have eliminated that shadow. You are pure and undefiled.
We are about to enter the fall season, a time when everything speeds up and you have to get the kids ready for school and go to all those church meetings on top of PTA or board meetings, then fast on the heels of fall will come the Christmas shopping season, and then Lord help us, we have more than a year to go of the election season, so there will be many, many voices competing for your attention, both in your life and in the media, but all these voices will really be saying the same thing: “You need more–you need to own more you need to buy more, you do not have enough therefore you are not good enough. I have the answer: buy my product, vote for me.” I hope that if you find yourself in a moment of feeling overwhelmed by these voices, you will stop to consider the voices of those whom we don’t often hear: the poor, the left out, the lonely, the ones James would have had us listen to. What would they be saying to you? I imagine instead of telling you that you’re not good enough and have nothing to give, they’d be telling you you have everything to give. You have the capacity to be generous, which is perfection–that’s what James is selling us and it’s not the perfection that comes from a nice home or a new car, or a dream vacation–it is perfect the way God is perfect, God the Father of Lights, in whom there is no shadow. So be doers of the word who get up and act and be blessed in your doing.