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Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Isaiah 35:4-7; Psalm 146; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:31-37
Today we begin a series following the lectionary through the letter of James. This is a part of Scripture that has often confused or baffled people. Because of that, many will skim over it or not read it, or will only read their favorite bits or controversial passages. I am taking us through James so that we can gain a clearer understanding of this marvelous letter, and more importantly, be shaped and exhorted by its powerful message to live more faithfully as followers of Jesus.
James is is focused upon God and Ethics, and specifically, that Christians follow the Messiah Jesus by obeying the Law of loving God and Neighbor.
James appeals to us to follow the Law of God, because God has given us new birth and thus enabled us to do so. His theology is not speculative, nor highly technical, nor addressed to those with a perhaps more philosophical bent. It is much more rooted, theology lived out. James is a theologian on the ground, dealing with very real human questions, problems, and sins, like how we speak, economic justice, and anger. It is the intense, sharp, very pastoral and context-shaped theology of James that can sometimes make us uncomfortable. Let it.
The first 11 verses of James give us the direction of the first chapter: The poor messianic community (the Church) is being oppressed by people in power (McKnight).
In the previous verses to today’s reading, James tells the people to avoid the temptation to doubt God under oppression. Who among us hasn’t done this? Who among us hasn’t asked God “why?” when life and circumstances have not gone our way, when we have been discouraged or harmed by others, or when we have experienced the sorrow of losing one we love? James tells them, Do. Not. Doubt.
Verse 17 concludes James’s exhortation not to doubt God by telling us, “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.” God does not send us the evil we experience; that is the result of human sin. God is the one who sends all good things, and God is one who does not change. He is not the flickering, uncertain light of dim stars, but the blazing, ever-present reality of the Sun. And the God who does not change gave us a law to follow, a way of life as members of his kingdom. This law, this way of life, is summarized as: Love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself.
The basis for our love of God and our love of neighbor is this: “In fulfillment 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.” God has given us the new birth, adopted us to be his children. As it goes on to say, he has implanted the word, his truth, in us. We have new lives, and so are able like we were not before to live according to that word.
We must, James says, “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” Lots of people hear the word. But to believe something, to truly embrace it as your own dearly held belief, demands response. To say you believe that God has saved you and adopted you into new life requires that you also live life according to that new reality, as a part of that new family. This is not outside of our experience. When someone tells you they love you, you expect that their behavior, their treatment of you will reflect that assertion. Many relationships, marriages included, have disintegrated because people’s professions of love are proven false by their actions. If I say I love my wife, I have to follow that up with support, with care when she is struggling, with understanding. When my child is sad, I need to listen, and to comfort.
Be doers, not merely hearers. Another way to say this is, if you truly believe something, you cannot help but live according to it. To do otherwise than to seek to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves is like looking in a mirror, seeing that we are image-bearers, but with distorted desires, and then we walk away and forget what we have seen.
What does it mean to be a doer of the word here? Well these Christians are being oppressed by the rich. They were tempted to do what so many in our history have been, to resort to anger and violence. This isn’t speaking about the frustration of everyday life, but the desire to resort to violence to solve the problems of oppression and hardship.
To turn to anger, resentment, and violence is to fall back into the desires of the world to deal with injustice. But James appeals to us to be formed by Christ into the community that reflects his Law: Love God and Love Neighbor. When you feel you are treated unfairly, oppressed, or discouraged, that is when our faith is put to the test; that is when we find if we will be doers, or just hearers. The Way of the World is anger, harsh words, and violence; the Way of the Church, the Community of the Messiah, is patience, peace-making, and generosity like that shown to us by God. We all want to speak harshly to or about those who have wronged us. I get it, and they probably deserve it. But so do we. And James tells us, when you are put upon by others, if you think you are “religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.” Is it easy? No. But it nurtures the kingdom, and brings some of the peace of heaven into the present. Will you always fulfill this Law? No. But you can bring reconciliation with repentance, and faith.
The fact is, we can slide into resentment against others as much as we can with God, more so even. Just like these poor Christians, oppressed by the rich, we will be tempted to question God, and to take matters into our own hands. And those people who oppress are wrong, and they will be condemned. But rather than throw our energies into overthrowing those who put us in trials, we are to throw our energies at solidarity, at building up those who are even more marginalized than ourselves, at one another. “Religion that is pure and undefiled…is to care for orphans and widows and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”
Do not doubt that God loves you, and gives good gifts. Receive them, and then pass them on to your neighbor. Build up, do not destroy; encourage, do not insult; love, do not hate. Who are the vulnerable in your sphere of life? Who needs your help? How can we, as individuals and as a church, care for the widows, orphans, and others who struggle even more than ourselves? Blessedness comes from remembering our God is the unchanging one who has adopted us into life, and to then turn and give that life to others. Do you want to fight the world, and the evil in it? Then trust God, and Love Abundantly.
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