Year B, Pentecost 14 James 1:17-27
Whenever I am in a new environment and not around church people, I kind of dread the question about my profession. If it’s one on one, it’s ok, but in a group setting, it’s always awkward. Because inevitably, someone will say something like, “I guess I will have to try not to swear.” Really there is no good way to respond to that. I can’t say, “Go ahead, swear as much as you like.” But I also don’t want people to change the way they are talking just because I am there.
Yet what bugs me most about this comment is the assumption that it’s based on—that we in the church are more concerned about how people present themselves, than bigger things, like how we love one another. What I want to say, but rarely do is, “You know, I think God has bigger things on his plate right now.”
I have found that non-church people’s first impression of Christians as a group is a bunch of very boring and condescending people telling them what they can’t do. That might be true in some churches and denominations. Some churches have a lot of rules that they like to emphasize. And I am not saying that they aren’t good rules—most of the rules have purpose. But when we focus on what we can’t or shouldn’t do, we miss the bigger picture. We would be a lot more effective, if we focused on what we can and should do as Christians.
James is an interesting book of the Bible, which is good because we will be reading from it for the next 5 weeks. One of the things that I appreciate about James is that he was trying help people apply their faith to their everyday lives. James is one of the more practical books of the New Testament. His words were intended for a community of new Christians. They might not have even been calling themselves Christians at that point. They didn’t yet have a canon of scripture for the Christian faith. Most of what very early Christians had were oral traditions, stories about Jesus. If they were converts from the Jewish faith, then they also had the Hebrew scriptures (what we call the Old Testament).
Some early Christians felt that the best way to be Christians and to follow Jesus was to separate themselves from the world—not get involved with worldly concerns or even the concerns of their neighbors. It’s not surprising that people would come to this conclusion when James recommends to people that they be unstained by the world. But James never intended for people to separate themselves from the concerns of the world. In fact, he said that the way to be unstained by the world was to care for orphans and widows in their distress.
The Bible talks a lot about the importance of caring for orphans and widows. There was a huge emphasis on that group, especially in the Old Testament. The widows they were talking about were women. In Biblical times the women’s only source of livelihood was through the men who were caring for them. It was the father and then the husband. If the husband died, there were even Jewish laws that said that the unmarried brother of the deceased husband had to marry the women to care for her. However if there was no brother and the woman’s father had died, then the widow would almost surely live in poverty. There was no social safety net for orphans or widows.
Therefore they came to represent the most vulnerable of society. There are certainly vulnerable widows and orphans today, but the best way to interpret James words for our context is to consider not just the widows and orphans, but all those people who are vulnerable and powerless today. It might be children who have parents or a parent but are still hungry because their parents cannot provide for them, or children or teens who live in neighborhoods that are so violent that they cannot leave their home without fear. It could be the elderly who live alone and might have money and resources, but struggle with loneliness and depression. This list could go on forever. There is no shortage of people in our community who desperately need compassion and action.
Action, that is one of the things that James emphasized in his writing and especially the reading today. “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers of the word…” That is how we live a pure and undefiled life. It’s not about simply following rules and maintaining the appearance of a good Christian, it’s how we care for our neighbors. He writes, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress…” So often purity is associated with avoiding getting dirty, but for James and Jesus, purity meant associating with the very people who most would consider unworthy of their attention.
Please understand I am not saying that we can avoid all rules and moral conduct. Jesus gives quite a list of things to avoid in the Gospel. But the emphasis of Jesus was always on how we display and embody God’s love, rather than the rules we are to follow. In fact, right after the Gospel reading we heard today, Jesus helped a woman who was considered completely unworthy and unclean. So you see, Jesus spoke the words and then he showed what those words meant. That was exactly what James was telling people to do. Don’t just hear the Gospel or speak the Gospel, live the Gospel.
All of us here live in the real world. None of us are cloistered in a monastery. That means, we all have opportunities to help those around us and be doers of the word. Instead of worrying about how we might be negatively affected by whatever is going on in our culture, let us consider how we might be doers of God’s holy and life giving word in our everyday lives.
I want all of you to consider your upcoming week, what you will be doing, who you will be seeing. Then think of one time when you can be a doer, when you can take what you have heard today, and turn it into an action that shows compassion and love. Because I guarantee you, whatever your job is, whether you are a lawyer or a teacher, whether you are retired and volunteering, even if you are at home and can’t go out—there will be an opportunity to care for someone who desperately needs to experience God’s love.
Every Sunday, our deacon ends the service with, “Our service is ended, but your service has just begun.” We come to church to be nourished with God’s words. And I hope that God’s presence here brings you peace, but also fortification. This is not the place where the disciples of Christ do the work of God. You carry God’s word and work into your lives so that you can be Christ for someone else. Because there is someone who needs God’s love and you might be the best person to share that love.