I recently had a conversation with a young person who is not currently attending church. And as they shared some of their story with me, it became pretty clear to me why that might be. There were two things I heard in the story.
One was the way in which God moves in our lives, to draw us into relationship with God and with other people. The story revealed a repeated and continuing pattern of God’s invitation; this person was repeatedly and continually drawn to participation in Christian community. They wanted to be part of a community that worshipped God, and that supported one another in living Christian faith in the world.
The second thing I heard in the story are the ways that church people often get in the way, or even thwart, God’s invitation. While God draws us in, the behavior of church people can push us out.
I think that’s perhaps a fitting backdrop to today’s reading from the Letter of James, this letter that offers some clear and strong advice for our practice of Christianity.
The Letter of James is an example of wisdom literature in the Bible; that is, writing that gives advice on how we should live, in a practical way. The whole of it is only five chapters long, or about three pages in our pew Bibles. And it is worth reading, because it contains some of the best zingers in all of Scripture.
This directness is a characteristic of James. James knew the church well, he knew the type of sins we are most liable to, even though he wrote two thousand years ago. I’m not sure if it should be a comfort to us, or a worry for us, that the church and church people have changed so little in two thousand years.
Some examples: in the second chapter, James challenges our hypocrisy, as we make distinctions between how we treat those who are poor and those who are rich.
In chapter three, he warns us of the dangers of an unbridled tongue, and in chapter four he challenges our covetousness and materialism, our seeking after more and more that leads us into all kinds of trouble. In chapter five, he calls us to confess our wrongs to one another, to pray for another, to offer healing to one another.
One the whole, the Letter of James is a model of a behavioral covenant, a guide to how we should live with one in the church, and how we should live as Christians in the world. But our focus today is on this portion of chapter 1, and I think there is challenge enough for us in this one section.
Our passage begins with a description of God as the giver of every gift, and of God as perfect and unchanging. God is constant; God is always good. God has given us the ability, God has planted within us the ability, to be like God. God invites us to be like God. But, unlike God, we’re not perfect; we’re human. We have to work at it. Christian community—the church—is the place we are given to practice, to nurture the seed, to grow into the people God created us to be.
So, the first piece of advice we’re given today is “let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” Okay. Anyone hear themselves in that one? Sorry—I’ll try not to point, or to call out names. Feel free, though, to identify yourself or call out; just don’t point or call out other people’s names!
This is one that I sometimes struggle with. In general, I think I’m a good listener. But if it’s a subject that I feel passionately about, I sometimes struggle to restrain myself from jumping in; I’m not always “slow to speak.” And anger? Well, sometimes we fall prey to that. Sometimes we feel that our anger is appropriate; what we call “righteous anger.”
Jake McNair reflected on that with you a few weeks ago. And I think what Jake had to say is echoed in today’s reading: “your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” Jake reminded us to be reflective, to not be so quick to assume that we know what God wants, and to feel as though we have to fight God’s battles for God.
On the whole, I think we’ve been getting a lot better at this over the past few years at Trinity. We’ve been learning that we can talk about our differences, that we don’t have to shout about them. We’ve learned to appreciate the gifts and the wisdom of other people, people who don’t necessarily agree with us. We’ve learned that as we take in the perspective of others, something inside us changes. We grow in our understanding of God, of other people, and of ourselves.
Perhaps this is what is meant by ‘welcoming with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.’ Learning to love each other across our differences is a key way that we become like Jesus, a way we become the people God invites us to be.
The next piece of advice in the text is to “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” And this is a tough one, because it challenges us on the level of our actions. James is telling us that it is not enough to believe the right things; we actually have to do something to express our beliefs; we have to roll up our sleeves, and get our hands dirty.
In chapter two, there’s a passage that reads, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?”
It’s not enough in Christian community to wish each other well, and hope for the best. As important as prayer is, sometimes even prayer is not enough, if it’s not accompanied by some tangible action to show our care. This can be hard for us in an individualistic culture. But this is where we need to remember that the church, in some important ways, is meant to be countercultural. We’re meant to counter some of what’s wrong in our culture.
In our culture, we tend to privatize the painful stuff: poverty, grief, illness. When we experience these things, we tend to want to keep it to ourselves. When we’re on the other side of it, and we hear of someone’s struggle, we also tend to want to privatize it, to refer someone on to a specialized service, or an agency, or a specific person, like a minister. We keep things quiet, and we keep each other at a safe distance.
Now of course there are times when confidentiality is important, but when we keep these things so private, or when we limit our community’s response to the response of a minister, then we miss out on the opportunities to grow into the people we’re meant to be, and the community we are called to be.
The text uses the metaphor of looking in a mirror, and then immediately forgetting what we look like. It’s the notion of a faith and belief that is taken for granted, like we might take our image in a mirror for granted, without really seeing ourselves, without stopping to really look, because we assume we know everything we need to know. The idea is that practicing our faith makes it more real for us. It reminds us what it really means to be a Christian. When we take our faith for granted, it may have been a long time since we really felt, really noticed, really experienced what it means to be a Christian.
Practices—like visiting, or sharing a meal, or listening to someone’s story, or going out of your way to welcome a stranger—practices enable to see the face of Christ, in the here and now.
I’m sure the pastoral care team could affirm this. But I think they would also affirm that this work—the work of pastoral care, the work of hospitality and welcome—belongs to all of us. I know they would be happy to share this work, to invite you to participate in the work of caring for one another.
And this is work that extends beyond our walls as well, as we seek out ways to be of service in our community. But here, this is where we get to practice. This is where we get to remind ourselves. This is where we get to meet Christ, to be as Christ to one another, to demonstrate that we are children of God by showing what we have inherited from our perfect parent.
The last word in this text is a definition of “true religion”: ‘religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.’ Practical help for the vulnerable, and not getting sucked into the vortex of our culture’s distorted values. We live in a time when “religion” is no longer fashionable; it’s increasingly common to describe oneself as “spiritual but not religious.”
But I’m not prepared to give up on religion. Not when it’s defined this way. Organized religion, communal religion, a community that enables us to draw closer to God, to claim our spiritual inheritance as children of God, and to do all that through our care and love for one another—a religion like that has a lot to offer in our world.
To go back to where I started: I have no doubt that God is active in the lives of young people, and people who don’t attend church, urging them, inviting them to draw near, to seek out communities that worship God, and offer support in living lives of faith, lives that make a difference in the world. God is moving in people’s lives, and moving some of them towards us.
Our job is to keep practicing our faith; to not take it for granted; to keep stretching ourselves to love one another across our differences; to allow our care for one another to spill over, and nurture the bonds of community. As we do this, those who come will no doubt find a welcome—ours and God’s—in this place. Amen.
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