Practicing What We Preach

James 1:17-27
Ordinary Time
Elizabeth M. Deibert

St. Jerome said it back around the year 400 and it’s still being said today by people inside and outside the church: Why don’t you practice what you preach? The full quote goes like this: Do not let your deeds belie your words, lest when you speak in church someone may say to himself, “Why do you not practice what you preach.” It’s a matter of accountability, of authenticity. Do not let your deeds turn your words into a lie. A great deal of damage has been done to the church by people making pronouncements about sin and then getting caught in the very sin they denounced. “Hypocrisy!” we cry, but we quietly recognize hypocrisy in ourselves. In our world of easy documentation and quick access to information, the hypocrite is easily exposed, and not only do whole congregations get damaged, but those who have doubts about the church as institution are re-fueled with antagonism toward the church.

The book of James could effectively be summarized with these words. “Let us practice what we preach” James is not so concerned with theology itself, but that theology gets lived out. He’s a practical sort of guy, James. I like him. Martin Luther might not have liked him, but I do. Luther called the book of James the straw epistle. Nevertheless, I did find online a sermon by Luther on James chapter one – these very verses. But apparently he criticized James for missing the heart of the Gospel message, as it rarely mentions Christ. Being concerned to teach that salvation is by “faith alone,” Luther argued that James might lead us to think that we are saved by works, by what we do.

We are not saved by our works, but as James says, we must remember that “faith without works is dead.” So our works are the evidence of our faith. They are the fruits of our faith. And as our text says, those who do are hearers and not doers of the faith deceive themselves. They are like those who look in the mirror and then forget what they saw. It’s like the kid who looks in the mirror, see the food all over his face and then moves on to play, forgetting to do something about the mess.

Hearing the word, then, could be said to be time in front of the mirror – not the vanity of primping, but the more serious work of self-examination. Personal self-examination but also examination of the world in which we live and the church in which we serve. So let us peer into the mirror, friends, and do not despise ourselves, because God does not despise us, but loves us. In the full view of God’s love, let us but examine our hearts and see where the word has not taken root. Let us see where the mess of our lives is and do something about it. Let us be honest with ourselves about who we are, and submit ourselves again, more deeply to God to be changed by God’s Holy Spirit.

Let us prepare ourselves to hear the word of the Lord from the Book of James, but what we will hear is that hearing is not enough. We must be willing also to do something.

NRS James 1:17 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. 18 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. 19 You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for your anger does not produce God's righteousness. 21 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. 22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25 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. 26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.27 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.

Everything generous, everything good and perfect comes from God, the God who gives us birth by a word of truth. And what is that word? That word is the grace we have come to know through our Lord Jesus Christ, who practiced what he preached. He said, power is made perfect in weakness and he proved it by living it. He said, “The greatest is the servant of all, and he showed them by the way he became a slave to all.”

We are to welcome with meekness, with humility the word of God, which has the power to save our souls. I love that sentence. Welcome with meekness the word of God which save the power to save your soul. It is a gift from God, freely given, as the Apostle Paul would be quick to say. But James would emphasize that we have a role to play in welcoming with humility this word of power, the gift of God, which needs to be planted, watered, nurtured in our souls. I hear the good news and then I live a good news life. To sustain the good news life, I must spend time hearing good news and living a sacramental life.

James teaches us that there are two essentials to doing the word, not just hearing it.

The first has to do with communication. Communicate in love. There are three parts to communicating in love – listening well, guarding our words, and managing our anger.

You know there nothing more insulting that to be talking to someone and realize after a while that they have not been listening. They’ve been distracted. They haven’t cared enough to pay attention. They’ve been so quick to get their comments in, that they don’t take time to hear what you’re saying. Many arguments are started when one or two persons are not really listening, not really trying to understand what the other person is saying. And we all are bad listeners sometimes. It is an tremendous act of disciplined love to listen well.

Guarding your words, being slow to speak is a second discipline in conversation. As we are reminded in Proverbs, “It makes a lot of sense to be a person of few words and to stay calm. Even fools seem clever when they are quiet.” (Prov.17:27-28) I use the silent technique quite a bit. If you don’t know what you’re talking about, better to be quiet. No one will know just how uninformed you are.

Being slow to speak goes hand in hand with managing anger because quite often, if we can wait just a few moments and calm down, we will not say the damaging words which are yearning to come out of our mouths. Our heads will catch up and we’ll think before we speak. Always a good idea, thinking before speaking. But anger has a way of thrusting us into a conversation that should not have happened. Self-control, one of the fruits of the Spirit must be cultivated by prayer and an attitude of humility.

The great Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel once said, “In a controversy, the instant we feel anger, we have already ceased striving for truth and have begun striving for ourselves” He also said, in the maturity of his latter years, “When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.”

We Presbyterians love to discuss things. Presbyterians are proud of the mind of faith. This is a strength and liability. How many session and presbytery meetings have soured because someone was desperately trying to be clever or right on a subject, rather than focusing on being kind. And how many churches, Presbyterians and other, spend so much time debating issues, they are slow to actually DO anything.

James said, there’s more than communicating well. He said we can’t just talk about the word of God, we have to do something. When a truth is learned, it must be practiced. Indeed, knowledge that is not put into practice is not truly learned; Religion that is pure means caring for the neediest among us. Doing the word means communicating well and taking care of others, especially those in desperate circumstances. In Jesus’ day, widows and orphans. In our day, the poorest of the poor, those on the margins of society.

The first item on our Leadership Team agenda this past Thursday night was figuring out how to be more supportive of Mission Beth-El, our covenant partner doing ministry with farmworkers and their families, as they struggle with budget cuts. The number of people coming for help increases while the funding from churches decreases in the recession. It is unacceptable for us to hear the word, knowing that Christ calls us to care for the needy, to hear that Mission Beth-El is struggling and do nothing. You will hear more about this soon.

St. Francis said, “Preach the gospel every day. When necessary, use words.” Actions speak much louder than words. Actions give words their power.

In 1982, Karen Olson was a marketing executive who developed promotional campaigns for consumer products. One morning, on her way to a meeting, she saw a homeless woman, someone she'd seen over and over again on her way to work. She decided to buy a sandwich for the woman. The stranger accepted the sandwich but asked for something else -a moment to be heard, to be comforted, and to be considered as more than a mere statistic on a cold street corner.

Soon, Karen and her two young sons began frequent trips to New York to hand out sandwiches to the homeless. As she came to know some of the city's homeless people, she began to understand the profound loss and disconnection that homelessness causes. That understanding turned into an enduring commitment. Karen is the founder of Family Promise, a ministry to homeless families started four years after this experience. She had heard the word for years. She had probably talked about her concern for the poor for years. But one day, she began to act on it. The Interfaith Hospitality Network of Family Promise provides shelter, meals, and housing and job placement support to more than 31,000 homeless family members annually, 60 percent of them children. (This story comes from the Family Promise website)

Mother Teresa said, "There should be less talk; Take a broom and clean someone's house. That says enough. It is not the magnitude of our actions but the amount of love that is put into them that matters. Do not think that love, in order to be genuine, has to be extraordinary. What we need is to love without getting tired. When a poor person dies of hunger, it has not happened because God did not take care of him or her. It has happened because neither you nor I wanted to give that person what he or she needed." Mother Teresa’s words have an authenticity because we know how she lived in service to the neediest of Calcutta. Mother Teresa practiced what she preached.

Will you?

Let us take a moment of silent prayer now to reflect on how we might simplify our lives a bit more, so that we are able to help those who desperate for assistance.... Let us pray for a humble spirit to receive the word implanted in our soul.... And let us ask God to build in us, as we take prayerful action, the ability to communicate with kindness and to reach out with compassion.....