Listening, Doing, Caring

James 1:17-27
14th Sunday after Pentecost
2 September 2012
                                       
Elizabeth M. Deibert
 
Spirit of the Living God, help us to welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save our souls.
The letter of James has sometimes been seen as “junk mail in the New Testament, thanks to the reformer Martin Luther,” who was a fan of the Apostle Paul.   (Frances Taylor Gench) Because James counter-balances the theology of justification by grace and faith alone in Paul’s epistles with a theology of sanctification by faithful living, Luther was not enamored with James.   James says little about Jesus’ life, death or resurrection, and lots about how to be a faithful disciple.   James is relevant for our day because it challenges the integrity of the Christian – just as many skeptics are doing today.   People are looking at Christians and saying, “They are any different than anyone else.  They are quick to speak and to be angry, and not especially good at listening to others.   They hear the Word and have a lot of opinions about things, but when it comes to living, they are no different than others.    They are not more compassionate – in fact, the opposite, Christians seem to be more judgmental – quick to point a finger.   I don’t see Christians doing much to help the poor and underprivileged.   Civic organizations do just as well.   The local schools and grocery stores collect food and donations for the poor.”   That’s what skeptics say about us, because we are not always on our best behavior.   Beliefs need to be back up by behavior.
 
And so we have the challenge today from James – a call to discipleship with integrity.    A call to better listening, acting on what we know to be true, and caring for those in need.   This is not too different from our Mission Statement – Our mission is to make God known by growing as disciples of Jesus Christ, building a community of peace, and caring for the needs of others.   I think James, (said to be the brother of Jesus, but we don’t really know whether he was the biological brother or brother in the faith), I think James would be satisfied with Peace’s Mission Statement – at least as a statement, but his question to us would be:   Are you living it out with integrity?
Let’s quiet all the voices in our heads and listen to what the Spirit is saying to the church: 
James 1:17-27
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.
 
                                                                        NRSV
 
Before you speak, think.   I saw this word THINK posted at the Camphire’s house as an acronym.   T –is it TRUE?   H – is it HELPFUL?   I - is it INSPIRING?   N – is it necessary?   K – is it kind?    Eirinn said she got it from Bill Kemp’s Facebook page, which just goes to show that there can be some eternal value to spending time on Facebook if your peeps, your friends are posting things that are true, helpful, inspiring, necessary, and kind.
James has a lot to say about the tongue.   In chapter one, he says, our religion is worthless if we do not bridle our tongues.   Think about that for a moment.   Worthless.   Later in chapter 3, James says, “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire, and the tongue is a fire….No one can tame the tongue – a restless evil, full of deadly poison.   With it we bless the Lord and with it we curse those made in God’s image.”   Whew.   (slide)  I think I’ll just stop talking right now and we will sit quietly for a while and ask God to forgive us for all the blazes we have started this week, by not being slow to speak and quick to listen.
 
And in this modern world the imperative that we be “slow to speak and quick to listen” includes texting, tweeting, emailing and messaging people.
The essential message of James is that faith without works is dead.   Don’t go on talking about your faith.   Show me your faith.    Walk the talk.  If there’s not some behavior to follow your beliefs, then you must not believe very much.   Preach the Gospel, when necessary, use words.   (St Francis of Assisi - slide) We’re a wordy people.  There are too many words and not enough action in the church and in our nation.
The Reformers always were eager to quote Paul, who said we are saved not by works of righteousness, but by grace through faith.   But even Paul followed his own argument about being saved by grace with the challenge to be dead to sin and alive to all that is good.  So while James says little about grace, Paul covers that well, and Paul agrees with James that cheap grace (assuming that because you are forgiven you can just go on sinning, not striving to become faithful disciples of Jesus Christ) cheap grace is just that, cheap, worthless, and as Bonhoeffer challenges us, discipleship is costly.   It cost his life.
 
(slide) So our scripture lesson from James teaches us to listen, to act on our faith, because action speaks louder than words, and finally he teaches us to care especially for those who are the most vulnerable.   In the first century, widows and orphans were those people.   Today, the poor, the uneducated, those marginalized by language, culture, or circumstance.    It is the responsibility of those who call themselves Christian to protect those who might be trampled by the powerful.  The Bible calls us to work toward having churches, communities, and governments that protect from evil and promote the good.   Governments should provide a check on powerful people, institutions, and interests in the society that, if left unchecked, might run over their fellow citizens, the economy, and certainly the poor.  
James says in our scripture lesson today that religion that is pure before God is all about caring for the poor and vulnerable in society.   And as Christians, we must act on what we know to be just and right, and we must model the kind of peaceful dialogue not often seen in our world today.   We must not disparage people when discussing issues.   We should seek to trust the motives of those with whom we disagree.   We should speak the truth in love, after we have listened carefully, seeking as much to understand and to be understood.  
Real Christian maturity, according to Joan Chittister, modern interpreter of the Benedictine rule of the 6th Century, requires that we immerse ourselves in the presence of God by worship and prayer, by patient listening, by committing ourselves to an ardent search for maturity of faith – spiritually, emotionally, physically.   We must care deeply about peace and justice, about the poor and needy, and about honesty and integrity.   (The Monastery of the Heart)
Or as James said to the early church, five centuries before Benedict:  Listening, Doing, Caring.   As the prophet Micah said, Doing justice, loving kindness, walking humbly with our God.   As the Savior Christ summarized the commandments, the law of God:   Loving the Lord with all our heart, mind, strength, and soul, and loving our neighbor as we love ourselves.  
As Peace summarizes our purpose as a church:  our mission is to make God known by growing as disciples of Jesus Christ, building a community of peace, and caring for the needs of others.  
It is time for me to stop talking because as the English-born American, the people’s poet Eddie Guest said once, so I’m sure you all agree:
I'd rather see a sermon
Than hear one any day.
I'd rather once you walk with me
Than merely show the way.

The eye's a better pupil
And more willing than the ear.
Fine counsel is confusing
But the example's always clear.

I soon can learn to do it
If you let me see it done.
I can see your hands in action
But your tongue too fast may run.

And the lectures you deliver
May be very fine and true.
But I'd rather get my lesson
By observing what you do.

For a person must understand you
And the high advice you give.
But there's no misunderstanding
How you act and how you live.

Holy Spirit, stop us when too much advice we give.  
Instead please help us focus on exactly how we live.
Help us, Christ, like you to care for weak, not just for strong.
And lead us brave to bear your love, and stand against all wrong.   Amen.