Tuesday, September 04, 2012

live it


James 1:17-27
Manassas Church of the Brethren
September 2, 2012

This morning’s text is from the first chapter of James, verses 17-27. I invite you to hear these words, and let them settle, down into your soul.



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. In 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. You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore 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. But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But 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. 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.



 My sister gave me a birthday present last week when she was here...this shirt:
 
 
This shirt is part of a major effort by my cousins, who are in the middle of a complicated and expensive process of adopting a child from Ghana. Adam and Lynsey already have two beautiful kids, Eva and Eli. They’re not particularly rich, their house is not exactly filled with empty bedrooms waiting to be occupied by more kids, and they’ve never been to Africa before...but Adam and Lynsey have heard God’s voice, calling them to adopt a child, and they’re doing it.

The process of international adoption is hard, and complicated, and expensive, it turns out. On their blog, Lynsey details the step-by-step checklist: research, prayer, applications, application fees, contracts, paperwork, home visits, classes, more paperwork, interviews, home inspections, etc., etc., etc. The adoption is taking a lot of time and effort. But Lynsey and Adam and Eva and Eli and their families and their church are working hard at figuring out ways to share this love that they’re feel blooming in them across an ocean. That’s the front of the shirt - love like an ocean.

This particular passage from James has a complicated history in the Christian church. Because James is so blunt about what he thinks being a Christian means - we are to Be DOERS of the Word, James tells us, and not just HEARERS - he has a propensity to stir up an age old controversy over which is more important: believing or acting. Is it more important to profess our faith, or more important to witness to it with the ways that we act?

James’ words are hard - both hard to hear and hard to do. They can sound convicting, convincing us to take action on something we’ve just been thinking about for a long time; but they can also sound exhausting, especially to those of us who already do and do and do some more.

So which is it? Is it more important to believe, or more important to act? Later on in the letter, James says that “faith without deeds is dead.” It might seem, then, that James is casting his lot solidly with the action crowd. But I think we need to look closer, to read a bit more carefully.

Different eras have heard these words from James in different ways. The conversation about whether belief or action is more important is as old as faith itself. In the time of Martin Luther (aka 16th century Germany) the Church at large was focused on a kind of bare morality. Christians kept tallies of their sins, and the Church offered to sell them “indulgences,” little tickets that would absolve you of sin for a pretty price. Think of them as sort of expensive, spiritual “get out of jail free” cards. This extreme focus on action crowded out the importance of belief. Luther argued that works, or actions, were NOT what saved us - that faith alone could do that. So, it might make sense why Luther would call the book of James “an epistle of straw.” He didn’t much care for James’ claim that “faith by itself, unaccompanied by action, is dead.” The church in Luther’s day had gotten so obsessed with action that it had ignored the importance of belief.

By the time theologian Soren Kierkegaard came along, things had shifted significantly. Kierkegaard lived in Denmark in the early 1800s, and the Christians he saw around him were concerned mainly with presenting polished academic arguments to explain the existence of God and the goodness of Christianity. Kierkegaard hated the lofty, irrelevant sermons he heard in church, and despised the way Christians had rendered Christianity impotent in their own lives. Kierkegaard, predictably, loved the letter from James. In writing about this particular passage of the book, he explained that “God’s word is given in order that you shall act according to it, not that you shall practice interpreting obscure passages.” Take that, seminary Greek professors!

Over time, James has been slammed as heretical and held up as the answer to all the church’s problems. I doubt James himself could have anticipated all the controversy his letter would stir up.

But here’s the thing: the book of James isn’t ACTUALLY all that controversial. Listen to the passage again:
 
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. In 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. You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore 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. But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But 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. 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.


“Welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls,” James says. He’s not advocating action without faith - he’s actually suggesting that IF we immerse ourselves in the gospel, then a faith will grow in us that compels us to act. It’s not one or the other - faith or works - but something of both. Don’t just be hearers, James says, be doers, too! Don’t be one or the other - be both!

For some of us, caught up in the believing parts of faith and forgetting to put those beliefs into action, this reminder to DO is important. For others of us, exhausted from our unending efforts to work our way into heaven by DOING it all, the first part of that clause is what we need: be hearers, first.

Maybe THAT is how this faith thing works: we hear, we let the words settle into our souls, and then we are compelled to act. It’s not that we have to force ourselves into action, but rather that our faith, grown from seeds of gospel, leads us around to action. One is not really all that distinct from the other...but it does take some intentionality to both hear and do.

Where are you, now? Are you stuck in the hearing cycle of faith, unable to translate what you believe into what you do? Or are you worn out from the effort of working so hard at the tasks of faith, forgetting the very reasons you’ve done them? Maybe the answer to both conundrums lies in letting the word plant itself deeper into our hearts.

 What really fascinates me about my cousins and their decision to adopt an orphan from Ghana is the process of discernment that led them here. When I asked them to tell me more about how they finally decided to adopt, Lynsey pointed me to the testimony that she gave in their congregation. It turns out that their decision came from a feeling of being called, a lot of earnest prayer, and immersing themselves in biblical stories. Over the course of the last year, they’ve been active in several different bible study groups, and the studying has turned into a process of discernment and transformation. “I have asked myself why I feel like we should adopt an orphan,” Lynsey wrote, “and this is what I have come up with so far:

Because of Paul who taught me this year that my life is not my own...I am here for a purpose. Because of James who taught me that pure religion is to care for orphans and widows in their distress and because he calls us to be doers of the word, not just hearers, Because of Nehemiah who taught me that with information comes responsibility, Because of Jesus who told us he would not leave us as orphans, that he would come for us, and the final reason and the most important to me is simply because I know that he told us to….and so we are.”

They listened, and they heard. They were given direction, and they took it. Lynsey and Adam model, for me, what it means to be both hearers and doers of God’s word, listening carefully, letting the word seep into their very being, and then gathering the courage and the guts to DO what they hear God telling them to do.

I think this kind of listening, this listening with expectation to hear God’s voice and learn from it which direction to go, is hard. I think it’s not something we practice very often. I’ve been really grateful to get to join in a couple of times on the discussions that happen during the Wednesday night bible study here at Manassas, which is starting back up next week. Surely those conversations in community are one way to allow the word to sink deeper into us.

Another way that I have learned in the last few years to practice intentional listening to God’s words is a way of reading scripture called lectio divina. In this practice, we hear a single text read aloud three separate times. The first time you hear the passage, you simply listen to the words, hearing them for the first time. The second time you hear it, you pay attention and listen closely for a word or phrase that jumps out at you, hits you differently than the rest, or, someone once said, “sparkles.” And the third time you hear the passage, you begin to ask yourself: why was it that word, or that phrase, that stuck out to me. What might God be trying to say to me right here and right now through this piece of scripture?

I’ve used this simple practice with lots of BVS volunteers, and with our youth here at Manassas. It can be strange because it’s new, but it can also provide an opportunity for God’s word to bury itself deeper in our hearts - to implant itself in our souls, granting opportunity for it to truly blossom into rooted action.

 So, this morning, we’ve already heard the passage from the first chapter of James twice. I’m going to read it again, a third time. As you hear the words again, begin to ask yourself: what is it that God is speaking to me in this passage? What am I hearing? And what is it that I am being called to do?

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. In 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. You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore 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. But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But 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. 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.

Lynsey and Adam made these t-shirts as fundraisers for the adoption process. You’ve seen the front. Here’s the back:


Live it. It’s simple, when you put it like that. And it seems to me that LIVING something requires hearing AND reflecting AND doing. So, what is it that God is asking you to live? What have you heard? What will you do?

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