Aug30MonA sermon for Pentecost 14 August 30, 2021 by Sebastian Meadows-Helmer
Our second reading today is from the letter of James.
Traditionally the author was thought of as James the brother of Jesus, leader of the church in Jerusalem, but nowadays, we aren’t that sure.
What is sure, is that the letter is full of good instructions for living,
ethical teachings, and an emphasis on prayer and moral conduct.
The letter asks the question: “what is Godly behaviour?
And, why is Godly behaviour important?”.
Today James begins by telling us that:
(V17) “Every generous act of giving (with every perfect gift) is from above: coming down from the Father of lights.”
“God cares for the whole world and creates it anew through the divine Word.”
“God nurtures us, gives us gifts, and provides direction for our lives”
God supplies good things!
The Father of light, the Father of the angels, of sun, moon and stars and all Creation, this God gives to us what we need.
Giving is at the heart of the universe.
Generosity is universal.
Now you may say, “impossible!”
There are so many instances of need,
So many people go hungry or don’t have the necessities of life!”
Please, note that James doesn’t say that God gives everything to everyone, and everyone gets everything they need or want.
But James says that generosity is God-given.
James reminds us that all good gifts come from above.
James prods us to remember to count our gifts, our blessings, and remember whence it comes.
Just like that old song:
“Count your blessings, name them one by one,
Count your blessings; See what God has done!”
“Emerson Fosdick once observed that in his experience those who reflect upon their lives and conclude that they have received far less than they deserve tend to be among those from whom no great living comes.
Others evaluate their lives, think they have broken about even,
and conclude that they got about what they earned.
Rarely do you see any exceptional living from them either.
However, those who readily reckon they have received far more than they deserve are among those who do indulge in great living”.
(Peter Rhea Jones)
Acknowledging generosity received from others and from God just makes sense, and there are countless popular books describing the health benefits to gratitude,
not just the great living that Fosdick describes as seeing.
So if you start by claiming all good gifts come from above,
what follows from this?
What are some good ways to live your life,
knowing that God’s gift of life and God’s gift of the Word
is all you really need?
One good place to start is to be a quick listener.
(V19) “Understand this: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger (for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness).”
Or in the Message translation:
“lead with your ears, follow up with your tongue and let anger straggle in the rear.”
I think most of us recognize that as citizens, as society,
we don’t do a good enough job of listening.
We’re so often concerned about recounting our successes, telling about our last tasty meal, our great vacation, this great Netflix show, talking about me, me, me.
But when we make listening our first priority, we put others first, we try to understand what motivates others, and we turn from a selfish posture,
to a posture of acceptance and learning.
Be quick to listen, slow to speak.
But of course, introverts have it a little easier in this regard.
As an introvert, I’ve always found it relatively easy to be a good listener,
as I tend rather to hold my tongue.
If someone tells me something that upsets or surprises me,
I normally don’t have something immediate to respond.
I might mull it over for hours or days, and let much time pass before I come up with a suitable response.
This does have its benefits,
as I’m less likely than some of my extroverted colleagues
to shoot off my mouth and get into trouble.
However, I have been particularly challenged in the past few years to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger, when it comes to raising my three young children.
With three energetic kids, often at the end of the day,
esp. if I’m tired or stressed,
being slow to anger, and caring and listening can be very challenging.
After the fifth request to go and get on pyjamas or “brush your teeth” and the kids aren’t listening or they’re still doing their shenanigans,
I occasionally have lost my cool and have gotten angry,
or said some mean things.
(And I suspect most parents will understand).
Prior to actually being a parent I thought: “I’ll never scream at my kids!” But the reality is that I’ve sometimes failed.
I was slow to listen to my kids, fast to speak and fast to anger.
I was often impatient, blaming them for not being able to do things I couldn’t do at their age, and most children couldn’t do at their age.
Keeping your calm, and not blowing your top can be very difficult with your children,
and I haven’t yet made it to the teenage years!
But the reality is that while initially anger might help blow off some steam, it really doesn’t help the situation.
And a young child won’t understand the connection,
they’ll just see you as being mean.
So, losing your cool is completely pointless.
I know it, but when I reach my limits, I fail.
Anger can be very destructive.
It cannot give new meaning, or inspire creativity.
It shuts things down, and we resort to behaving like primitive animals.
So it’s important for anger to straggle in the rear, and not be the first option to use.
However, as you may have noted,
Our author doesn’t say we should never be angry!
He doesn’t say: anger is forbidden.
He just advises: be slow to anger!
Anger can be a completely appropriate emotion.
It can be OK to be angry, esp. in the face of wrongdoing.
A spouse who has been cheated on, has every right to be angry.
A parishioner who feels hurt by their church, has every right to be angry.
A citizen who feels ignored or marginalized by society, is entitled to anger.
Anger, in certain circumstances, is completely justified.
But it shouldn’t lead.
It should follow listening, and talking, and dialoguing.
Our choice of listening, and talking, of how we use words, to what end,
is obviously important, and we should choose our words carefully,
But as the author goes on to say:
Words matter, but actions matter even more!
Actions add value to words.
For James, faith and actions are inseparable.
(V22) “Be doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves,“ he writes.
It’s impossible to be a Gallery Christian,
it’s a contradiction in terms.
You can’t just listen to the service on a Sunday, read your Bible,
and not have it affect you, and not act in accordance with your faith.
It’s foolish! Just like someone who looks in a mirror and then forgets what they look like.
The heart of Christianity is the Golden Rule.
“Do to others as you would have them do unto you.”
It doesn’t say: “think about doing to others as you would have them think about you.”
No, it says do unto others.
Be doers of the word and not merely hearers.
We gotta live generous and respectful lives.
We can’t just rely on doctrine.
Good actions are a natural outflow of our faith life,
of realizing we have a generous God who gives us every good gift.
We have a law of liberty: allowing us, freeing us to love our neighbour as ourselves.
We are freed to live honest and peaceable lives, to love mercy, and humble ourselves before God.
And those who are
“pure and undefiled before God, care for orphans and widows in their distress.” (v27)
As symbol for all the needy,
orphans and widows represent those affected by homelessness,
those with substance use issues, the earthquake survivors
and those fleeing totalitarian leadership.
Help those in need.
That’s a way to live out our faith.
It’s simple really.
And blessings will abound for the doers.
Because as we share our blessings, others will be blessed in return.
Good deeds include caring for the poor and oppressed, for sure.
But James reminds us, it’s also important to keep ourselves unstained by the world.
And what precisely does James mean by “stains of the world”,
that we should keep away from?
He includes in his list: wickedness, showing partiality to the rich, adultery, murder, speaking evil against one another, judging one’s neighbour, pride, and arrogance.
And James criticizes particularly rich oppressors, like those who commit wage fraud, stealing workers of their just wages,
Those who hoard wealth, and don’t share with those who need it.And one might add in today’s world, tax evasion… just remember the Panama papers…
Or how short-term rental units drive up the cost of housing.
The stains of the world are selfish worldly values with a me-first attitude, where profits come before people,
and quarterly growth comes before environmental concern and our descendant’s quality of life.
Good actions as result of our faith in God is so important, James reminds us, as they affect all our relationships.
Small acts of kindness are the nuts and bolts of everyday life!
James’ ethical teaching is applicable for home and work,
in congregations and in government.
To “lead with your ears, follow up with your tongue and let anger straggle in the rear.”(MSG) is great advice for marriages, relationships with siblings, or colleagues.
James reminds us that pure and good religion is one that combines social ministry and personal morality,
and he warns us (of which we’ve seen time and time again across history) of the evils of bad religion,
esp. when it is hypocritical and selfish.
Be doers of the word, and not hearers only.
Let it be so. Amen.