“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…be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” (James 1:17, 22)
Joseph is a Christian. He came to accept Jesus as his savior during his teen years. He really can’t remember just when it happened, but he came to understand his need to rely on Christ and has worshiped every Sunday morning for nearly half a century.
Lately, Joseph has become disillusioned with society and his church’s response. The poverty roles continue to grow. Homelessness abounds. He can’t understand why people can’t seem to get a job and keep it, rather than living off government subsidies. Gays have come out of the closet. He’d like to see them get back in it. Crime is on the increase. He wonders what the police are doing about it.
Joseph has his own view of how the world should be. Too often, anymore, he finds himself in arguments with those who disagree with him. His temper mounts as he argues his point, and he can’t understand when people fail to agree with him.
“What’s happening to our world?” he wonders. “When did we become so polarized?”
Joseph loves to attend worship. He has his favorite pew and enjoys visiting with his friends. The minister delivers a nice message, most of the time. Sometimes, she gives one of her let’s-get-out-there-and-help-others sermons, but not very often. Most of her sermons speak of the love of God and articulate and strengthen his knowledge of the Bible.
He sees worship as a kind of weekly fill-up so that he can make it through the week. And, during the week, there are many things that come up to annoy him. Some days it’s enough to lose one’s religion!
He crosses the street when a dirty drunk comes into sight. He agrees with his boss even when he sees harm in the decision. He believes that tithing is Biblical and should stay there and shuts down when the church talks about mission. We have enough problems in our own church; we don’t need to spend our money on people we don’t even know, he says.
Lately, Joseph has been talking more than listening. He believes he’s right. He can’t understand why others are so misguided in their thinking.
“What’s happening to our world?” he wonders.
This is a story about a man who loves God. He’s trying to grow in his faith. He’s aware of our society’s ills and he’s concerned about how to fix them.
On the other hand, is he avoiding that drunk because he fears he may be violent or because he doesn’t want to get involved? When did he become a “yes-man” with the boss? And when did he quit listening to others’ points of view?
He’s just one of millions of Christians who struggle with their faith every single day.
After reading the scripture from James, we might we agree that Joseph could use a change of attitude. The writer challenges us to look in the mirror and not forget what we see. But, how many of us are willing to look into that mirror? How many of us have thrown up our hands in despair and crossed the street to avoid it?
I can relate to Joseph’s love of worship. I, too, love worship whether I’m leading it or sitting in the congregation. I love the music. I enjoy visiting with those I know and meeting new people. Worship can be in a tent or a cathedral; I love it. I soak in the presence of the Spirit and feel God’s grace forgiving me for all that I’ve left undone.
But, don’t we all miss the point at times? We promise to do something this week in response to that worshipful moment: use my money to help others;
listen more and talk less; stand up for injustice. We have the best of intentions. But, the minute that final chord of the postlude slips away into silence, We’re out the door. There are places to go and things to do.
Now, if this sounds as if I’m suggesting that works is more important than faith, please don’t shut down, yet. Let’s make one thing clear: we are justified by faith. Works doesn’t guarantee us a ticket into heaven.
Consider Elizabeth. She, too, is concerned with the ills of the world. You’ll find her serving meals at the homeless shelter every Monday and delivering Meals on Wheels every Tuesday and Thursday. Every year she joins a group of fellow Christians who journey to Mexico to construct homes.
She attends worship every week. The sermons are okay, but a bit light in her opinion. She can’t understand why the Minister spends little time on society’s ills and how we can help. Sermons about God’s love and grace are nice, but everyone needs to get to work. She can’t do it all, you know.
She tithes to the church. She raises money for charity, often using her own resources.
Elizabeth is tired, though. Her Minister reminds her, too often in her opinion, that she should rest from time to time. “You’ll burn yourself out,” he warns her. But, that idea abhors her. There’s too much work to be done. So she signs up to work at the community food bank every Friday.
Elizabeth is involved in works. She has a heart for serving and many people have benefited from her hard work. I can feel her compassion and her sense of helplessness. There is so much to do and so few laborers. But, like Joseph, something is missing in her life.
Our scripture reading from James may appear to be simple, even simplistic. Some people don’t care for this book. It’s like the book of Proverbs in the Old Testament: filled with pithy, but obvious, advice. Martin Luther referred to it as, “An epistle of straw.”
With all due respect for the great reformer, I believe it’s much more than straw.
The author cautions us to listen with our brains engaged. Listen more, talk less and don’t go getting all hot and bothered. It’s easier said than done, isn’t it? Try approaching some people and having a sensible conversation about a few of your own “hot” issues. Perhaps you’ve met people who hijack conversations simply because they have the loudest voice.
The writer further advises us to open our hearts to God’s word. Clear out hatred and bias and anger and all that “stuff” that blocks us from hearing the word in fresh, new ways. Look in a mirror, he challenges. Take a really hard look and ask, “Am I deceiving myself and, therefore, avoiding my vocation to God?” Another hard reality.
Joseph is right to ask, “What’s happening to our world?” If he’s courageous, he’ll discover that he can be a part of the solution. Opening his ears and unlocking his heart, he will begin to view his world through God’s eyes.
Elizabeth, with her heart for serving, may see in that mirror someone too wrapped up in trying to please God. She falls short when she can’t see the people she’s serving through the eyes of the one who ate with the poor and the tax collectors.
Being doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive ourselves is tough work. The author of James challenges self-indulgent religion that avoids the ugliness and shuts down wisdom.
John Calvin believed that the doer is someone who embraces God’s word from the heart and bears it out in his or her life. Jesus said, “Blessed are they who
hear God’s word and obey it.”1
Look at this passage again. It begins, not with challenges or exhortations, but with a message of love. “All that counts in this world is God,” the author writes.
This God, who “spins the whirling planets” and “molds the mountains” and “calls forth sunshine, wind and rain”2 is the One who calls us out of the old ways living.
This God, who blesses the wine and the bread and the waters of baptism, is the One who calls us out to life made new.
Pleasing God isn’t about works over faith, nor is it faith without a right response. Pleasing God is about our response to “God’s innumerable blessings, which we receive daily from [that One’s] hands.”3 When we become so affected by God’s love and mercy and blessings in our lives, we become spiritually grounded and our lives are transformed.
God is unchanging and God is all that counts. It is from God that we receive the gift of wisdom. It is from God that the law is written on our hearts.
Christ’s mirror can be difficult to view. But, it serves to remind us that our job, our mission, begins with our first step out the front door of our church. Perfect worship is complete worship. Complete worship is one filled with love for the God who cares for others. It completes our Sunday morning worship. It directs the right response to pleasing and loving God.
“The test for good worship, the mark of a good church is not what we do here, during this hour of worship; it’s what we do outside those doors for the rest of the week.”4
All glory and honor be to God.
1 Calvin’s Commentaries Volume XXII (Grand Rapids, Baker Books, 1999)
Luke 11:28 NRSV
2The Presbyterian Hymnal (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 1999) Number 285
4William Willimon “Doers of the Word” 8/31/97 http://www.chapel.duke.edu/worship/sunday/viewsermon.aspx?id=46