The book of James is one of those books you probably know a couple of quotes from, even if you couldn’t specifically place them. James 2:20 says that “Faith without works is dead” and in today’s reading, James 1:22, working the same angle, urges the reader/listener to “Be Doers of the Word, and not Hearers only.”
Even for those who aren’t overtly religious, these quotes ring true. The things that we say are most important to us, the principles that we claim most closely, are not worth a thing if they don’t impact the way we conduct ourselves in the world.
But there’s a twist to James’ take on faith and works, hearing and doing. Jenny McDevitt, a Presbyterian Pastor in South Carolina, states it well: “Admittedly short on that which is Christological, [the Book of James] is long on that which is practical and tangible, [written] to a community of believers, people entirely aware of Jesus and his story. The letter was written not to bring its readers to faith, then, but to advise its readers on how to live out the faith they already had”.
One of the downsides of preaching outdoors, is that I don’t have my usual visual tools available, otherwise I’d note that final sentence in the PowerPoint on-screen and possibly leave it there for the duration of the sermon. Failing that, here it is again: “[The Letter of James] was written not to bring its readers to faith… but to advise its readers on how to live out the faith they already had”.
And what was the faith they had? As Jenny McDevitt notes, James says almost nothing directly about Jesus, but he does talk a lot about God, and the gifts received from God, saying “17 Every good action and every perfect gift is from God. These good gifts come down from the Creator of the sun, moon, and stars, who does not change like their shifting shadows.” What beautiful language here, connecting the gifts we experience and share, with the sacred artist who is responsible for the sun, the moon, the stars, these mountains and waters and creatures and soil and atmosphere. All of life, from our most intimate relationships to the farthest reaches of the cosmos, are active, dynamic connections of the holy, creative, life-sustaining light that we address as God. The faith that the people have already been called to, then, is not small and as we shall see, is definitely not small-minded either.
Richard Rohr (pp.6.7.15) writes about this, expanding on the words of G.K Chesterton: “‘Your religion is not the church you belong to, but the cosmos you live inside of’”. Rohr continues, “Once we know that the entire physical world around us, all of creation, is both the hiding place and the revelation place for God, this world becomes home, safe, enchanted, offering grace to any who look deeply…. When I know that the world around me is both the hiding place and the revelation of God, I can no longer make a significant distinction between the natural and the supernatural, between the holy and the profane…Everything I see and know is indeed one ‘uni-verse,’ revolving around one coherent center. This Divine presence seeks connection and communion, not separation or division – except for the sake of an even deeper future vision”.
James builds his theology on this great big understanding of God, but makes it clear that us humans don’t just get to bask in that and do nothing. Those who recognize the fingerprints of Divine love in all of nature, are called to go beyond mere appreciation. Here in verse 27, James puts it plainly, writing “Religion that God accepts as pure and without fault is this: caring for orphans or widows who need help, and keeping yourself free from the world’s evil influence”. I see the two parts of that statement saying the same thing: in spite of a societal focus on self-centeredness and victim-blaming, a God’s eye view of the world calls us to attend to those who are most vulnerable.
There was a long-standing, significant tradition within Judaism of noticing and attending to the needs of the marginalized, and James repeats it to the earliest Christian communities. Generally articulated as the concern for widows and orphans, with refugees and foreign sojourners often added in, the people who already understand the connection between their lives and the intentions of the Creator, are called to care not only for these specific groupings, but for anyone who is vulnerable. To be a doer of the word, in the words of James and through much of the Bible, is to be engaged in addressing the plight of those who are being targeted, marginalized, disadvantaged. Given the connections James draws between God and all the earth I think we could safely add being attentive to the cries of planet earth itself, in these days of climate crisis, as part of the action plan he calls us to.
James, then, moves from describing the generous God from whom all manner of good gifts emanate, the author and artist of Creation itself, to God’s special concern for all who are in a position of vulnerability, to our responsibility to share in that same mindset and that God-motivated action-sequence. And with that in mind I’d like to come back to that line from Jenny McDevitt, for I think it has even more for us to consider:
“[The Letter of James] was written not to bring its readers to faith… but to advise its readers on how to live out the faith they already had”.
To be honest, while I have always appreciated James’ greatest hits, i.e. “Faith without Works is Dead” and “Be Doers of the World and not hearers only” I have also found them to be a bit finger-waggy, with a tone of being scolded. But when I put these admonitions in the context of James speaking to people who already have a spiritual foundation, I find them to be more empowering than reprimanding.
James starts with the assumption that his readers already know this stuff. His readers will, by and large, already be members of early Christian communities. They will already be familiar with scripture and more than that, they will already be blessed by a God whose creativity and love is evidenced in things like generosity, graciousness, forgiveness, and the sun and the moon and the stars and everything we see around us. They know these things already.
And they also know, that this glorious and gracious God does not just want us to think good thoughts. They are called, as people who recognize God’s life-affirming intentions, to embrace the actual heart of God in the way they live their lives. And the heart of this loving, creative God, they are reminded, is a heart they know in Christ which is drawn first and foremost to the vulnerable. God is always on the lookout for those who for whatever reason, are at risk, God is always challenging unjust systems that keep people at risk… and we are called to do likewise.
Some of the most powerful times in my life, have been times when people have lifted up what I already know and have already successfully done, as points of encouragement for me to find my next steps. Sometimes I’ve had to be confronted with that – sometimes it’s been more like, “come on Greg, you know this!” rather than “hey buddy, you got this” – but whether it has been gentle encouragement or snapping me back to my best self, reminding me of my deepest and most honourable hopes for the world acknowledges and empowers me. That goes for each person here and for the mission we undertake together.
James urges, encourages and challenges us to not forget what we know about God, and God’s focus on those in perilous situations. Rather curiously, in his time and place where mirrors were not plentiful, James also challenges us to look ourselves in the mirror, to use our own leverage to align the person I profess to be and the actions I actually undertake.
To be a doer of the word, and not a hearer only, assumes that we end up doing both: we learn, we internalize, we embrace our mission in the world, and we do it. Thoughts issue in action. In a “minute for mission” coming up in a few minutes we will speak more about that but for now, I want to underline the importance of this both/and approach. For the past seventeen months, we have done our best to continue on the path of deepening our understandings of the world, acknowledging our role in what’s going on, and choosing life-affirming actions moving forwards. If the fourth wave of the pandemic will settle down enough to let us, in coming weeks we will seek ways to resume in-person functioning toward those goals. In all of it, we express our gratitude to God, the indwelling source of light and love and life, for the call to be involved in building relationships and systems on a foundation of justice – the same foundation we receive from God. And we invite one another’s encouragement and truth-telling, as we seek ways to honestly engage that agenda in all we do as individuals and as Church.
“Be doers of the Word and not hearers only”, we are reminded. This has a home in your hearts already, be encouraged in your journey to make it true. Amen.
Rohr, Richard. The Universal Christ. NYC: Convergent, 2019.
© 2021 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church.