Let us pray:
Bless our hearing of your words today, O God. Speak to us and show us your path, that we may be doers and not hearers of your word. Give us the faith to go forth and put our faith into practice. In your holy name we pray, O Lord, Amen.
As I was preparing for my sermon this week, someone asked me if my sermon title was a reference to the song “True Religion” by Hot Tuna? The answer is “No, but now I’ve heard of a new band!” No, instead I was almost-quoting from our reading from James today. The last verse is fairly well known: “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.” (v. 27). And maybe you have better Facebook friends than I do, but I seem to mostly see it thrown about in angry arguments about how person A is doing Christianity all wrong and so they’re going to hell and/or are a horrible, terrible person, because they’re not passionate enough about That One Issue That Everyone Should Die For.
Which is a shame, because violently angry shaming isn’t really what James meant to do. I mean, he’s certainly passionate about how people act, but he’s not trying to shame people into anything. In fact, it’s pretty much the opposite of what James is trying to do here.
Don’t get me wrong, he isn’t pulling punches. He calls some people’s religion “worthless” and upbraids those Christians who don’t live according to the gospel, but he isn’t trying to use his words as weapons, the way we so often use the Bible in public discourse: as something to bludgeon our enemies into submission with, by finding that one verse that says exactly what we want it to say and then shoving it into people’s faces because we all agree with the Bible, right?
Let’s turn to the letter. James starts, not with creating fear or shame in his audience, but by reminding them of who God is: our God is a God of light, unchanging and eternal, who has given all of us good and beautiful gifts.
Can we just sit with those truths for a minute? God loves us.
God has given us so, so much.
God is eternal, unchanging and ever-faithful.
If we rest in these truths, there’s no need to use words as weapons. There’s no need to scream at people that they’re doing it wrong. We can talk about how to live as Christians, not as something we do out of fear, not as something that we are forced into by lists of rules or others’ glares, but as something that just makes sense. If God is infinite and ever-faithful, there is no need to hoard what we have–to hold our time in a death-grip, to grasp at our money like our next paycheck will be the last, to watch our reputation and how others treat us like it will be destroyed the second we look away. If God is infinite and ever-faithful, then then our love can’t run out, because our love is a gift from God. Time spent loving someone is never wasted. Money given away is never a bad investment. God promises enough.
And we are called to give, to be generous, not as one rule among many, not as one more thing on the to-do list that God handed down along with the Ten Commandments. No, we are called to give because we are called to follow God, to bring all parts of our lives into alignment with who God is, to live all of our lives like we believe the words of the Apostle’s Creed we say during our service. And, as James points out: living well as a Christian isn’t about getting the trappings of religion just right, our ability to change liturgical colors when we’re supposed to and organize to cover the sanctuary in poinsettias at Christmastime. No, living well as a Christian is about how well we love, how well we live out God’s love for others: it’s about the donations we gather for the food bank, it’s about the work we’re preparing to do next Sunday for God’s Work Our Hands and the school supplies drive we just had. It’s about what we do when we leave this building, about how we treat the check-out cashier at Target or Shop N Save and how we tell the truth to our friend and about finding some way to spread God’s love, in volunteering or writing letters, in sending in a check or saying a prayer. It’s about going to vote and letting go of our anger and trying not to scream at that driver in front of you.
And living well as a Christian is about knowing that we do all those things, and strive to do them, and look at ourselves and try again, on a foundation of God’s love. We don’t do these things out of our strength and our own love and our own determination. They stem from God’s eternal, never ending love for each one of us and for each of the people we meet and for every single human being on this earth.
James writes that Christians are meant to “become a kind of first fruits of [God’s] creatures.” (v. 18). First fruits are the first of any harvest, the first sign that everything is well and there will be food after all–after all the uncertainty of watching the plant sprout and grow, after watching the weather and praying for it to not be too dry or too wet, after hoping that there would be no floods and no invasion and no locusts–at last, the crop has grown, and the food is harvested.
And in the Law, Jews are instructed to take that first fruit and give it to God: to take that first crop to the Temple, or to sell it and bring the money.
That is an enormous act of trust, of faith. There is still time for a flood or locusts or disease or anything else to wipe out the rest of the crop, and yet the first of everything went to God–because God will provide. Because God calls us to generosity rather than hoarding, opening our hands rather than holding tight to what we have.
This is incredibly difficult. James wouldn’t have needed to write his letter otherwise, for the act of giving is one that is difficult. There is fear that it will go wrong, that it won’t be welcomed or there will be nothing left for us after it’s been given. There is anger, at how they don’t deserve it and haven’t worked for it and have no right to what we have earned.
I pray that God will bless all of us this week: that we will have the courage to step out in faith and give out of what we’ve been given, that we will through God have the strength to be the light for someone else.
May we all give this week.