Sola Fide. If I am saved by faith alone, why do anything? Welcome to the first in a series of sermons where we focus in on the Book of James. A book from the Bible which is known for its heavy leaning towards doing God’s work. Throughout this series we will consider how James’ writing influences our lives as disciples of Christ.
Text: James 1:17-27
Giving and Receiving
Pastor Francis Chan writes, “We need to err on the side of action, because we tend to default to negligence.”
Today and for the next several weeks we are going to look at the book of James. A book in the Bible which Martin Luther described as “a right strawy epistle … for it has no gospel in it.” Of course Luther was biased, he had just proclaimed a doctrine of grace through faith. James’ words in chapter 2 seem to be in direct contradiction to this. However, I do assure you that the gospel is found in James’ letter. More than anything else, this is a letter about discipleship. Grace is found through its depictions of Christian living.
Our passage this morning grounds pastoral care and its human responsibility within the divine initiative. In that context the gospel is found in abundance. Furthermore, James is all about practical applications for ministry. Let’s work our way through our passage from James together and see what we can discover.
Our section from James begins with a wonderful reminder, “Every good gift and every perfect present comes from heaven; it comes down from God, the Creator of the heavenly lights…” Every week we paraphrase this passage in the doxology, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.” God is the giver and architect of life. Through his abundance God gives to us gracious and freely.
However, I wonder if our passage by opening this ways, does it and the attitude it may convey put us in a position to count our blessings? Do we name them? In the counting of our blessings do we observe that perhaps we are owed more blessings? That our life might be more complete if only we had received more from God? Harry Emmerson 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.
Is this life really about the things that we receive? How often do we talk about the things which we have the ability to give? Is it better to receive or to give? If giving is the answer, why do we count our blessings?
James moves from here to begin speaking about doing. He starts this section by talking about anger. It is interesting to note that James does not advise us not to be angry, instead he tells us to be slow to anger. Like a kettle which is boiling. We need to hold off on our judgment until we are aware of the whole situation, to not be impatient with ourselves or others. It takes discipline to respond this way when quick, white hot anger is our natural inclination. Let’s be honest, the society and culture which we are a part of prefers to respond this with flashes of white hot anger.
This letter from James is not meant to be an easy one. It is full of tough love. James addresses the deception of passive faith, when we believe we are just to receive. James provides wise counsel when he writes, “Do not deceive yourselves by just listening to his word; instead, put it into practice.”
James reminds us that we are called to action. Consider the story of a man cutting his lawn. It was a scorching Saturday afternoon. He had a lot of lawn. Perspiring, he thought how good a tall glass of lemonade would taste. He went inside into the air-conditioning, poured an oversized glass, and settled into a big easy chair. He decided to look up the word ‘weed’ in the dictionary and found ‘any plant growing where it was not wanted’. He went back outside, surveyed the lawn, and decided that every blade stood exactly where he wanted it! He rationalized away doing.
We have a social conscience but have dismissed personal morals. It is easier to hit the ‘like’ button on Facebook, wear a badge, or sign a petition than it is to actually do something. Simply because something is trendy and popular we believe that it is right and true. However, often an issue or cause is neither of these things and when it is the question becomes so what? So what are you going to do about it?
What good does joining another thousand people in hitting the ‘like’ button accomplish? The following quote is attributed to Mark Twain, “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”
Twain, or whoever the author of the quote is, was speaking more about thinking for yourself. However, today as Christians we could re-interpret this quote as being about taking our thinking to the next step. How do we take our reflections to the next stage, how do we take concrete action? James tells us to put it into practice.
He concludes our passage this morning by reminding us that “What God the Father considers to be pure and genuine religion is this: to take care of orphans and widows in their suffering and to keep oneself from being corrupted by the world.” We don’t think about orphans and widows much today or at least we don’t phrase it that way, it is a commandment from the Old Testament. Interestingly the Foundation to help the families of deceased Firefighters and Police Officers in many cities is called ‘The Orphan and Widow’s Fund.’
However, what James is suggesting is clear. We need to be out and visible in the world. That is something that the Session and the Congregation of St. Andrew’s has made clear. We need to be doing God’s work in our community. Our faith should compel us to action.
Consider the following parable that Soren Kierkegaard told when writing to a Denmark filled with “Christian” people who didn’t act very Christian. 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.
Our passage began with a reminder of where generosity comes from. That every good and perfect gift is from God. We realize that generosity is grounded in the character of God. If that is true then mission is grounded in the character of Jesus Christ. James reminds us that in Jesus Christ we are called to a higher standard than the society of which we are a part. We are called to take part in the world around us.
Friends, I do not want you to sit here vacantly to listen to my words, to hear scripture and then to go home unchanged, unmoved. My desire, God’s desire for you is to do what is written in scripture. To follow and live out the teaching of Jesus. To love one another and your neighbours.
To end as I began, we need to take action because the world we live in tends towards apathy. God wants more from us than that. God deserves more from us than that. Give thanks for the blessings you have received and remember that God has empowered you to be a blessing. Amen.