This morning we begin a five Sunday journey through the Book of James. I’ve chosen to do this as a way to reflect on the wisdom we need to discern the mission & vision of St. Athanasius. The need is especially acute when society is dealing with deeply divisive issues that require a deep wisdom and a broad mission. The issues come in many forms: abortion and Planned Parenthood, sexual orientation and marriage equality, religious and sexual abuse scandals, racism and the black lives matter movement, climate change and those who deny it, gun control and the freedom to bear arms, free speech and the license to discriminate. Many churches speak as if the Bible had one obvious thing to say about all that. The truth, as usual, is more complex.
As I wrote in the Gazette, biblical wisdom takes three forms: history, prophecy and poetry. History and the law link us to the elements that formed us into the people we are today, revealing the history of people’s journey with God, including the laws that guided them. The prophetic voices of protest that arose around that shared history raise awareness of how the dominant story often ignores the negative impact it has on the poor: especially widows, orphans and immigrants. The poetic voices observe how creation grounds wisdom in both the natural and human worlds. James uses all three types of wisdom.
Today’s passage speaks of 3 great deceptions. The first is thinking that the word of God is we read in a book. James clarifies that we become the word of God when we embody the truth of the new creation. The second great deception is that the word of God is something we hear. James insists that the word of God is rather something we do. The third and final deception is that religion is about talk. James argues that religion is about taking care of the poor. So, contrary to what we often think, that the Word of God is something we read, or hear or say, it is something we embody through action, especially on behalf of the poor. I want us to unmask the deceptions and discover the liberating truth.
First, James says ‘Every generous act of giving is from above … God gave us birth by the word of truth so we might become the first fruits of a new creation.’ That means first of all that I’m not a self-made man; and second, that God’s message becomes the word of God when we embody it rather than when we read words in the Bible. I reposted a cartoon on the St. Athanasius Facebook page this week that puts racism & white privilege in perspective. It shows how whites climbed to where we are on the backs of black people. When blacks ask for a hand to get up to our level, some people call it reverse racism. We have a very short term memory; we forget that we didn’t achieve all that we have and are through our own efforts. The gifts that God gave us, and the sweat and tears of others, created the platform on which we stand. It’s a deception that hurts us and hurts the poor when we forget how others helped us get where we are.
For people of the book – Christians, Muslims and Jews – it’s tempting to believe that the Word of God is the Bible, the Koran or the Torah. But that’s not what any of those books say. For Christians, the Word of God happens when we embody the character of God and of Jesus. The word of God isn’t a list of qualities of people who are a new creation in Christ, but the people who embody that list by acting as the new creation – the first fruits of God’s creatures. The Word of God is dynamic, active, and sharper than any double edged sword, not because we can quote propositional truths from the Bible to an “ignorant” world, but because we embody the truth of hope for a “hurting” world.
For those of us who walk through Echo Park regularly and see the ducks, perhaps a parable told by Soren Kierkegaard will put this in perspective. Once upon a time there was a land inhabited only by ducks. Every Sunday morning, the ducks got up, washed their faces, put on their Sunday clothes, and waddled off to church. They waddled through the door of their duck church, proceeded down the aisle, and took their familiar places in the pews. The duck minister entered the pulpit and opened the duck Bible to the place where it talked about God’s greatest gift to ducks --wings. “With wings we can fly. With wings we can soar like eagles. With wings we can escape the confines of pens and cages. With wings we can become free. With wings we can become all God meant us to be. So give thanks to God for your wings. And fly!” All the ducks loudly quacked, “Amen.” And then all of the ducks waddled back home. Let’s stop waddling, and start embodying God’s truth.
The second great deception is that the word of God is something we hear. Sermons aren’t any more the word of God than is Bible reading, which makes this sermon a little tricky to preach. James rightly insists that the Word of God is something we do. If we merely listen and don’t obey, we deceive ourselves. This second self-deception echoes the words of Jesus himself: "why do you call me 'Lord, Lord,' and not do what I say?" In today’s Gospel, Jesus confronts the shallowness of external ritual purity through hand washing, compared to the depth of genuine spirituality he was teaching the disciples.
James uses the analogy of the mirror. If we hear but don’t act, it’s like looking at ourselves in the mirror, and not acting on what we see. We don’t comb our hair nor straighten our clothes; we walk away and forget what we’ve seen, because we didn’t act on it. Only when we act on what we hear in the Word will we be truly liberated from the flaws that ruin our lives. When we act upon “the perfect law that gives freedom,” we will be blessed.
Of course, hearing is not a bad thing. Listening to others is a good thing; the act of listening to another can become the word of God. That’s important to remember in a political climate in which words are spewing out of people’s mouth. We can’t even hear the Word that gives new life (let alone do it), if our mouth is always open and our ears are closed because we’re so angry about our favorite causes. The sound of our own voices drowns out the Voice of God in the Word. There are too many “talking heads” who are all mouth and no ears! In this contentious political climate Christians needs to hear this word. We get so involved in arguments about the “issue du jour” that we don’t hear the Word of God. Becoming justifiably angry, we fail to meekly accept the word planted in you, which can save you. Taking even one step helps overcome anger and depression when the challenge seems too overwhelming. Matthew 7:21-29
We had a conversation in Bible Study the other night about God’s response to our protests and questions. It’s legitimate to be angry, and complain and protest to God. We are looking for answers; but what often comes is an encounter with God, which changes the question and melts the protest. It’s ok to question and protest. But we need to hang in there until God meets us. Therein lays the response. A response is different from an answer.
The third great deception is to consider oneself religious and not keep a tight rein on our tongue. James contrasts such "worthless" religion with the "faultless" religion of caring for widows & orphans. With one statement, James casts aside what far too many churches make as their priority: telling people to stop doing bad things. For James, true holiness isn’t the absence of bad things; it’s the presence of compassion, especially for the most needy in society. I have the privilege of serving this diocese as a member of the Program Group for Ecumenical and Interreligious Life. Our focus this year is on the practice of compassion, because we notice that it is common ground for many of the world’s religions. Two weeks from tomorrow we are holding a four hour retreat led by my friend, Frank Rogers, which by the way is open to the public if any of you are interested. The focus of the retreat will be on spiritual practices that help us become people through whom compassion can flow. That is practically the definition of true religion for James. When we allow ourselves to be channels of compassion, rather than being reactive, self-centered and critical, we allow the Word of God to flow through us.
If we can avoid these three deceptions, our mission and vision will be both clearer and more biblical.