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Pentecost 14B Sermon
James 1: 17-27
August 29, 2021

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James 1:17-27

17 Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18In fulfilment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
19 You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 21Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.
22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.
26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27Religion 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.

May the grace, mercy and peace of God be with us in the name of our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ; Amen.

When I decided to embark on a five-week preaching series on the appointed readings from the letter of James, I knew it probably wouldn’t be received with cheering or applause. To be sure, James is an approved part of the biblical canon - the books of our Bible which the church, guided by the Holy Spirit, have accepted as our rule and authority for faith and life; even so, there have been mixed feelings about it for centuries. Martin Luther wanted it removed, calling it an “Epistle of Straw.” He points out that Jesus is mentioned by name only twice in the beginning of the letter, and then only as a reference to the author and readers as followers of Jesus Christ. He also found it to be contrary to Paul’s writings, which emphasized justification by grace through faith. Finally, the Christian Church of his day was using it as their primary source for telling people how to live, elevating it higher in importance than other books of the New Testament. He said, “The epistle of James gives us much trouble, for the Papists (Roman Catholics) embrace it alone and leave out all the rest … accordingly, if they will not admit my interpretations then I shall make rubble also of it. I almost feel like throwing Jimmy into the stove, as the priest in Kalenberg did!”

Even if he was satisfied to leave it in the Bible, he was opposed to teaching it at Wittenberg. “We should throw the epistle of James out of this school, for it doesn’t amount to much.” He went on to espouse a bit of a tongue-in-cheek conspiracy theory involving those about whom Luther unfortunately said harsh things: “I maintain that some Jew wrote it who probably heard about Christian people but never encountered any. Since he heard that Christians place great weight on faith in Christ, he thought, ‘Wait a moment! I’ll oppose them and urge works alone!’ This he did.” Indeed, the greatest threat that Luther saw in common, everyday Christians reading this book was that it could be used to justify a relationship with God based on merit, that we do good works in order to earn God’s love. And not only could it be used in this way, but in Luther’s day, it was used this way with full backing of the Pope, bishops, priests and scholars of the church!!
Jimmy, or James, the namesake or author of this letter, is a bit of a mystery. He may have been James, the brother of Jesus Christ himself who was a leader of the church in Jerusalem until his martyrdom somewhere between 66 and 70. This would make the letter one of if not the earliest writings of the New Testament. But most scholars claim that because it is addressed to “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion,” it was more likely written somewhere between 130-140, and the anonymous writer put James’ name on it as a dedication to this hero of the faith, which was common practice in the ancient world, and not intended to deceive anyone. Whoever wrote it, it is intended to encourage people to continue to live faithful lives filled with good works even when tempted to adopt the ways of the society in which they live.

The passage we heard today begins with a strong word of grace and gospel: “Every generous act of giving with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights …” Already James is proclaiming a graceful God who freely gives us all that we need to share those gifts with our neighbors. Probably the best-known verse in this passage is, “…be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” In this short verse the second reading joins our other two readings this morning in condemning a faith that is merely lip service, one that never influences the Christian person once he or she leaves the doors of the sanctuary and returns to their daily lives. Moses, in Deuteronomy 4, says that if the Israelites will be led and guided by the gift of God’s law, the nations around them will revere them as a great nation, and witness their God as being very near to them. Jesus reminds the Pharisees and scribes that the people who honor God with their lips while their hearts are far away, worship in vain. This is a good reminder for those of us who know that God has claimed us in our baptisms and has promised to walk with us through our celebrations and our challenges, that our response to that gift and promise is to reflect the love of Christ like a mirror shows the reflection of whoever stands before it.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of this passage is found in the final two verses, “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 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.” The word “religion” has become so loaded in recent days that these two verses might not mean much to many people. Religion has come to mean a set of rules that a person must follow to belong to a church, which turns it more into a club where some are in better standing than others. Whether that is their own misunderstanding or the result of how they have been treated by churches in their lives or a combination of both, some have taken to call themselves, “spiritual but not religious.”

If we look at the root of the word religion, we see that it comes from the Latin re, meaning again, and ligio, from which we also get the word ligament, that piece of tissue that binds muscles to bones in your body. To be bound again, to regularly, daily return to the one from whom all good gifts come in order that we can complete that blessing by caring for the orphans and widows among us. Orphans and widows were those without any rights or any hope except upon the kindness of people of their community. They are representative for us today and are found in all who are without power, wealth or voice; these are the ones who depend upon mercy for their very lives. These are the Afghani allies who translated for our troops and intelligence officers for 20 years and need a safe place to live. These are the people who, because of Covid or other illness missed days at work or lost jobs and are facing eviction. These are people who are discriminated against because of their race, sexual identity, age, health status, occupation, socio-economic class or a variety of other reasons. But most of all, these are our neighbors, those whom the greatest commandment encourages us to love as much as we do our God or ourselves.

Jimmy - or James, rather - takes it as a given that we know that God has created us, loved us, and has saved us through Jesus Christ crucified, raised and ascended. He is now encouraging us to daily reconnect with the one who has so generously given us these gifts through our spirituality and by loving our neighbors every day. This is a good start and solid base for us as we delve into this letter from a faithful disciple thousands of years ago to people who, just like us are wondering how to connect with God in meaningful, substantial ways whenever we walk out those doors into our everyday lives. It is a challenge, to be sure; but we can face this challenge with certainty because of the perfect gifts that have come down to us from the Father of lights. Amen.