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We must understand this, my beloved brothers and sisters. As we go through the letter of James, we see that faith looks like something. We might say faith is a verb in the same way that we say love is a verb and hope is a verb. Faith, hope, and love are not simply ideas that we have or things in which we believe or even just speak. The people who ran the Kamloops Indian Residential School believed in the same creed and recited the same creed we do. I hope and I pray that we are living and seeing examples of what the love of God and our love for God and humanity and creation should look like. I pray that this is the case, and this is a good prayer for all of us to be praying – “May we abound in works of faith and hope and love in your service Lord.”
This is serious stuff and James was a serious man and they called him James the Just. You would need this sort of title to be able to write these kinds of things. Do you know what’s good about preaching to an empty room? A preacher can be tempted to think that the message is only for the people in the pews. There’s no hiding behind others when you’re preaching in an empty room. Reading the truths contained in this passage has made me look at myself and ask when my words have been said in anger. James takes faith so seriously that he wants us all to be considering what it looks like in our lives. He wants us to be seeing faith as an action. Faith as an event. I can hear his brother repeating something at the family table about not everyone who says to him “Lord Lord” will enter his kingdom but only those who do the will of his Father in heaven. I can see his brother looking over at James and saying something like “You may want to write something about that in the future bro.”
Faith is an action. Faith is an event. In our passage today, James begins to write of what this event looks like. Let’s ask for God’s help as we look at God’s word for us today.
“Words matter” as someone has said and you know I’m a big proponent of this. May God give us wisdom in the words we use. One of my commentaries starts off by saying this about this passage – “The first example of how persons exhibit wisdom in their lives touches an area that most Christians today never think of, attention to speech.” I wrote in big letters beside this “Really? This is something most Christians today never think of?” This is one of those stones that James throws in the pond that creates ripples and he’ll continually come back to the same spot. Words matter hugely and the words that we speak matter hugely. From the same mouth come blessings and curses, James will write a little later on, and we’ll come back to it too in a couple of weeks. It’s that age-old choice that is before us every day and every moment of every day. Blessings or curses. Life or death. Which way are we choosing? In a world in which so much speech is not used for blessing, how could we not think of what is coming out of our mouth? “It’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles, but what comes out,” James’ brother once said, and again you could see James noting this idea for future use. What does this have to tell us about what we say? About what we say online? About the messages that we put out there? We know the value of an encouraging word. A word that speaks of love or “I’m praying for you” or “I really appreciated something” or simply “Good job.” We know the pain and hurt of discouraging words and words said in reactive anger.
I have a friend who has a policy of not sending that angry email that we sometimes write but waiting for a day. Things usually look quite different in 24 hours. It’s good to have someone to run things by too, and if you don’t have someone to help you be accountable for your written words, let me know and I will try to connect you with a brother or sister. “You must understand this,” says James. Or “Know this” or “Be aware of these things” my beloved brothers and sisters.
“Dearly beloved.” You used to hear this kind of thing at weddings and funerals. “Beloved friends” works too, or “Beloved sisters and brothers.” Do you know why we say this? Not only because we love each other, but as a reminder that we are beloved of God. Another stone. It’s a stone whose ripples meet the ripples caused by the stone that James threw right before our passage begins. The thing is, James is not merely dispensing advice or wisdom about how to get ahead in business or win friends and influence people, as valuable as such advice may be. I heard a politician recently talking about first coming to Washington and hearing from then-Speaker Paul Ryan – “You have one mouth and two ears – listen and speak at the same ratio!” This is not just folk wisdom from James when he talks about being slow to speak and slow to anger. Doing good – speaking good – speaking blessing is based on the goodness of God, the Father of lights, from whom comes every generous act of giving, every good and perfect gift.
Which we do well to reflect on. We may have grown up with differing ideas about God’s goodness. It’s not something to take for granted. It’s not something for which we should ever stop giving God thanks. Look at the verses that precede our passage today – “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.”
God’s purpose is to bring all things back to himself. God’s purpose is the renewal of all creation. God’s purpose is the fulfillment of the kingdom of God – a kingdom of justice and peace and righteousness. This is truth. God gave us new birth by the word of truth. This is a gift! Why? So that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creation. The first of the crop. Fruit.
- Your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. What does this have to tell us about having reactive verbal confrontations? With one another. With anyone. Don’t!
“Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness…” The word for rid here is used for “take off.” As in taking off dirty clothes. This is reminiscent of a great scene in Zechariah. The prophet has a vision of the high priest Joshua standing in front of the angel of the Lord and on his right hand is Satan, the adversary. The accuser. “Now Joshua was dressed with filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. The angel said to those who were standing before him, ‘Take off his filthy clothes.’ And to him, he said, ‘See, I have taken your guilt away from you, and I will clothe you with festal apparel.’ And I said, ‘Let them put a clean turban on his head.’ So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him with the apparel, and the angel of the Lord was standing by.” (Zech 3:3-5) What a great image. See, I have taken your guilt away from you. Paul picks up this same image in his letter to the Colossians. There we read “…clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience… Above all clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” (Col 3:12, 14) This is a great image. We can think of it each time we get dressed. Clothes are visible and in the same way, our trust in God is meant to be visible. Welcome with meekness – with humility, with the ever-deepening knowledge of my need for God – the implanted word.
Hearing the word is to result in doing it. We are not called to have selective hearing in the kingdom of God. If we’re only hearing then we are deceiving ourselves. Let us look at ourselves. Remember the examen of conscience that we talked about earlier this year? Going back over our day, our week, depending on how often we examine ourselves. Let us examine ourselves as carefully as we examine ourselves in the mirror to make sure we’re looking presentable. Another great image to remind us as we go through our days. We can look at this mirror scene in two ways. “For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in the mirror, for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.” The first way to look at this is to, as we said last week, remember who you are. Remember who you are, my beloved sisters and brothers. A beloved child of God, adopted into the family of God through Christ Jesus the Son. Welcomed at the family table. Remember who you are. The second way to look at this is to remember why we tend to use mirrors. We tend to remember what we look like after all. We generally use mirrors to make sure everything is in place. Do you know what’s it like to come home after a day spent doing various things and to find something like one of the buttons on your button-down was unbuttoned for a good part of the day? You’re like (if you’re like me) “Why didn’t anyone tell me?” The sartorial equivalent of spinach in the teeth I suppose. We look in the mirror to make sure that what we are looking like checks out, and faith is meant to look like something. We look into a mirror to evaluate ourselves, and as someone has said, “the person who hears the Word and does not do is like the person who sees his or her own sinfulness but does nothing about it.” The Greek philosopher Plutarch wrote about this kind of thing. I love this quote as I love to think about people going to the barber 2000 years ago (I really enjoy going to the barber). Plutarch wrote this – “There is no point in his getting up out of a barber’s chair, standing by a mirror and touching his head to check on the haircut and the difference it has made, but failing, as soon as he leaves the lecture or lesson, to observe himself and inspect his mind, to see whether it has lost any of its troublesome or unnecessary features, and has become less burdensome and distressing.” Of course, when it comes to our own shortcomings, we often need others to point out to us the unbuttoned button or the spinach in our teeth. Looking out for one another in love.
To live in the law of Christ is to live in liberty. It is to know freedom. “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.” Good on them in their doing. They are in a good position in their doing. We can not get away from these beatitudes it seems. At the service for our dear sister Betty Hillyer, not long ago, we heard about those who trust in the Lord as being blessed. Listen to these words from the prophet Jeremiah (17:7-8): “Blessed are those who trust in the LORD, whose trust is in the LORD. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.”
- The thing about trust, it’s not simply a feeling either. Trust is worked out in action. Trust is deepened by action. Faith is more than simply belief about something or someone – it’s trust, fidelity, devotion. “Blessed is the one who trusts in the LORD,” Jeremiah said, “they shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream.”
How are we sending out our roots? In what ways are we turning to God weekly, daily, hourly? Is our trust in God just something that we talk about? “James is going to make us feel uncomfortable,” I said, and I know it’s not only me. Is our religion true or not? The more I read and chew on James’ words the more I see there’s no middle way for Jesus’ brother. Good. Our religion is either true or it’s not, and by religion here I mean I don’t mean our belief system or doctrine or dogma but what those beliefs look like – how they’re manifested. Are we acting truly? James will talk about favouritism in the next section. Do we play favourites in our faith family? Are we our own favourite? If we think we’re religious and we’re not bridling our tongues we’re deceiving our hearts and we’re looking in that mirror with spinach all over our teeth and going on our way and our religion is worthless.
I said last week that James can be salty.
That’s the bad news. But here’s the good news. James never leaves us in the bad news! “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress; and keep oneself unstained by the world.” (1:27) This word for care means to look after, to see to, to visit, to seek out, to concern oneself with. This is not an exhaustive list of what acts of faith, hope and love look like. Social responsibility is what we’re talking about. I just found out that the word social comes from the Latin word for friend. Responsibility for those around us, particularly those in need. How could we ever be up to such a task? Keeping ourselves unstained by the world not in the sense of removing ourselves or isolating ourselves, but in the sense of not being stained by things like envy and greed and competition, and selfish ambition. James reminds us here. Before God the Father, he slips in that last verse. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father. The one who called us friend. The one who makes us new. The one who gives us a new set of clothes and invites us to come sit down at the family table.
So let that be our response this day friends, whether you gather with us today at noon or gather with me at the end of the service. May this act of trust in God effect all that we do and all that we say as we go from here and go about our week. May this be true for us all. Amen