Aug 29th | The Reverend Kevin Scott Fleming | James 1:17-27
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If the New Testament has a counterpart of the First Testament’s collection of wisdom books, that counterpart would be the Letter of James. Like wisdom literature, we don’t really know who authored or edited this collection. The attribution is simply “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” The audience is identified as “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion.” These were congregations of Christians that were dispersed around the Mediterranean basin.
The letter reads like the Book of Proverbs. They are pithy sayings. Nearly each verse reads like a fortune cookie.
Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. (1:12)
How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! and the tongue is a fire. (3:5b-6a)
You do not have because you do not ask. (4:2c)
You could create enough bumper stickers to cover a bus, just using verses from the Letter of James.
But, when you step back a little and look at the overall message of James, the picture begins to come into focus. The author of James issues us a challenge to a new way of life. The words of the book may seem aimed at individuals, but the letter is being sent to faith communities. It seems that James is interested in how communities of faith live among themselves and in the world around them.
The authentic believing and living to which James calls them and us begins with this: do not substitute doctrinal understanding for faith. Casey Thornburgh Sigmon reminds us:
There is a gap between knowledge (knowing in my mind ideas about God) and wisdom (living and acting from the soul what I know of and about God in my mind).1
I have known some people – and you probably have too – who know the faith – the ins-and-outs, the intricacies and particulars. These are people who can hold an intelligent discussion of the details of Christianity. They have a “head faith” that understands and processes the claims of our beliefs.
But their faith stays in their heads and never makes it to their hearts. Their lives and living bears no expression of the faith their mind holds. It is not enough to be able to explain the Trinity, if you ignore the poor. It is not enough to be able to discuss the incarnation, if you disregard the hungry. It is insufficient to be able to quote the entirety of Scripture from memory, while failing to practice compassion and kind-heartedness.
The Letter of James tells us that such people are like those who look in a mirror and immediately forget what they look like. That would be impossible, you might say, and you would be right. But to know the faith but fail to live it is an impossibility as well. Faith is a combination of knowing and doing. A Christian community is a combination of knowing and doing.
“Be doers of the words, and not merely hearers…” (1:22)
Next, authentic believing and living is mindful of the power of speech. James teaches us:
…let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger… (1:19b)
Do I need to remind you of the divisive power of speech that is on display in our society? Do I need to bring to your remembrance that destructive power that comes with labeling, name calling, and derision that is practiced in our community and nation?
We have become accustomed to talking past one another. We are concerned about propagating our position and disregarding our partners in conversation. It is fascinating that the Letter of James tells us:
…let everyone be quick to listen… (1:19b)
The story is told of a gathering of Presbyterian ministers at an evangelism conference, being led by one of the foremost authorities on the subject. The pastors were instructed to draw a symbol for the word evangelism. They went to work and after a few minutes the leader called them back together and proceeded to have each pastor display their symbol. There were crosses and Bibles and hearts and lots of other presentations. The leader complimented them and proceeded with the lecture. “Wait a minute,” one of the pastors cried out. “What is the correct symbol for evangelism?” “I don’t know if it is correct,” the leader said, “but here is what I would draw.” And on a piece of newsprint in front of the group, the leader drew an ear. “Maybe we should begin by listening,” the leader said.
Listening is critically important for life in community. In listening, we value the thoughts and feelings of others. In listening, we honor the image of God in another – even one with whom we might very well disagree. In listening, we can sense the pains and frustrations, the hurt and brokenness, that might otherwise go unnoticed.
Once we have listened, we must take time to frame what we want to say. Too often, we speak before we think. Our words can inflict pain, encourage division, and feed discord. We see and hear it all too clearly in our world today. Because everyone walks around with a video camera we can see and hear the racist words, the partisan words, the homophobic words that are spoken far too frequently. We can see and hear the violent words, the cruel words, and hateful words. Perhaps if we were a little slower to speak, we could do away with some of the vitriol and viciousness that passes for speech today. Maybe James was on to something when he taught us to listen more, think before we speak, and put anger away.
Finally, James teaches us:
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. (1:27)
Remember that the phrase “widows and orphans” means those who are powerless, those who are defenseless, those who are unable to sustain the life that God gave them without help from others. Suppose, instead of the word “religion” – because that is a very tricky word – what if, instead, we used the word faith.
Faith 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. (1:27)
The problem is that faith is a noun. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, faith is defined as:
allegiance to duty or a person
fidelity to one’s promises
sincerity of intentions
belief and trust in and loyalty to God
belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion
firm belief in something for which there is no proof
All of that sounds just about right, doesn’t it?
But the more you read the Letter of James, the more you become convinced that faith is a verb. Faith is something you do. Faith is something you live. Faith is the way you act. Faith is what you speak. Faith is how you think. Faith is the foundation for values.
Faith is so much more than a devotional exercise. Faith is building a house with Habitat for Humanity. Faith is preparing and serving a meal at United Caring Shelter. Faith is advocating fair and equal housing for all. Faith is packing food boxes at the food bank. Faith is discovering and dismantling structural racism. Faith is demolishing systemic poverty. Faith is befriending the friendless. Faith is creating a community where all are welcomed and valued and loved – simply because they are created in the image of God.
Faith is a verb.
And when we can believe and live in this way, we can discover a new and far more authentic way of life than what we once lived. Our hearts soften. Our sharp words lose their edge. Our anger dissipates. Our blood pressure drops. We begin to smile more, laugh more, dream more. When we live our faith we live the life God created us to live.
In his book, Living Faith, Jimmy Carter tells of a group of Christian laypeople involved in missionary work approaching a small village near an Amish community. Seeking a possible convert, they confronted an Amish farmer and asked him, “Brother, are you a Christian?” The farmer thought for a moment and then said, “Wait just a few minutes.” He wrote down a list of names on a tablet and handed it to the lay evangelist. “Here is a list of people who know me best. Please ask them if I am a Christian.” It wasn’t about what the Amish farmer believed. It was all about how the Amish farmer lived.
“Authentic Living and Believing.” Faith in action. Faith is a verb.
For now and evermore. Amen.
© 2021 Kevin Scott Fleming
1) Working Preacher, August 29, 2021