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Because...We Can

This is the message I preached at St. Timothy Lutheran Church on Sunday, 9/2. The text was from James 1:17-27 

When my family and I lived in Bethlehem, my son Christian, went to an Arab Christian boys’ school. One day Christian came home and was singing in Arabic, 
Shwee, shwee ya idie shu bisouwee.
Oh, shwee, shwee ya idie shu bitsouwee.
I don’t remember how the rest of the song goes in Arabic, but here’s the English.

O be careful little hands what you do,
O be careful little hands what you do,
for the Father up above
is looking down in love
So, be careful little eyes what you see

It continues with verses about ears, eyes, feet and mouths. This little children’s chorus kept running through my mind as I was studying this week’s passage from James, with its own priority given to faith that works.

All good gifts are from God, in whose character there is no change at all. James insists that only good comes from God. How many of you have heard people try to explain why God does evil things like giving us cancer, causing car crashes, a broken marriage and of course, natural disasters—all for such reasons as “Everything happens for a reason,” or “God must have needed another angel in heaven.” This just isn’t so and is terrible theology! Good and bad happen to all.

The truth that we must remind ourselves of over and over again is: God is good, all of the time. All of the time, God is good. Let’s say this together, “God is good, all of the time. All of the time, God is good.” 

God is not moody or capricious, like the pagan deities of old. We were made God’s own when he “gave us birth by the word of truth,” (v. 18), which happened in holy baptism. The phrase, “he gave us birth,” may remind us of Jesus’ and Nicodemus as Jesus tells Nicodemus,  “You must be born from above” (John 3:7). It is on the basis of this, of who God is and what God does that James can give the instructions to the church that he does. 

We are to become a “first fruits of his creatures” (v. 18). What does it look like to bear good fruits? What is the evidence that you have received God’s gifts of faith and wisdom? That comes next. 

The theological claim of the beginning of this passage grounds human responsibility within the divine initiative. Now that James has laid the foundation of who God is, he shifts gears to what it looks like to be fruit bearers—the dos and the don’ts. 

“O be careful little ears what you hear, O be careful little mouth what you say, for the Father up above is looking down in love so, be careful little mouth what you say.” 

How do we talk? It seems that today, in our hostile political climate, even Christians need a primer on how Christians should speak. James instructs us, “let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.”

We also need to work on the feelings we nurse in our souls. Anger is not from God, at least not the kind we see on a daily basis. Such anger is like a barbed wire barrier between God and ourselves.

What James is forbidding is rashness or nastiness on our part. There is a time for righteous anger, as our Lord displayed when he overturned the money changers’ tables in the temple (Matthew 21:12; Mark 11:15; John 2:15). 

James encourages us to transform anger into a virtue and gives us a strategy for overcoming destructive anger. Being slow to speak, means we listen, listen deeply, not thinking about what we’re going to say next. Is anyone else guilty of this? Maybe we need to turn off our gadgets that can so quickly consume our attention so that we can be “quick to hear” others and God. 

Sometimes it is possible to listen and really hear what our conversation partner is saying. Our faith is not based on works, but the entire picture of what it looks like to be a Christian includes action on our part. Actively living our faith means listening and understanding. Scripture takes listening very seriously. The term for “listening,” is usually translated as “obey.” Scripture doesn’t know the difference between “listen” and “obey” (Craddock).

“Be careful little feet where you walk, O be careful little feet where you walk, for the Father up above is looking down in love so be careful little feet where you walk.” James says to “put off” or rid ourselves of all this junk that is a barrier between us and God and our neighbor. The Greek literally means to “take off your clothing.” We have to take off our dirty clothes and put on clean ones. 

We are to “welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls” (v. 21). This is a word received from God. It is not inherent in our natures. The implanted word is an internal gyroscope, which guides the community of faith. 

What can we do to nurture God’s implanted word in us and others? Can we examine our own self-absorption, self-obsession and self-righteousness? Nurturing the implanted word is not a purely metaphysical or spiritual action, but must be embodied and lived-out.

“Be careful little hands what you do, be careful little hands what you do, for the Father up above is looking down in love, so, be careful little hands what you do.” James writes, “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves” (v. 22). It’s hard to get this Christian life right, isn’t it? Some get the part right about being doers. Others get the hearing part right. Some do and do, but never get close to the heart of Christ, while others are swooningly spiritual, but don’t engage with people in need at all. 

To hear God’s word and not to do it is like forgetting what you look like—forgetting the image of God within you—forgetting that the word is within you waiting to come forth in abundant love, mercy and grace (Fistler and McCoy).

Those who are only hearers are not living as the people God has claimed us to be. Such faith practices focus on surface things, rather than the core. We fail to be what God has created and is creating us to be. We look at ourselves in the mirror and walk away, forgetting who and whose we are.

Is the dissonance between your words and your actions driving you crazy? You are not alone. As we gather weekly, as imperfect, broken people, the bread and wine, the fellowship of the family of God: these things center life in Christ. God’s mercy washes over us and is implanted in us. God recreates us, creating new life in us; deformed hearts are re-formed for works of mercy and love. What do you see when you look at yourself in the mirror? Do you see in yourself a disciple, leader and child of God?

The final verses summarize what faithfulness looks like. James takes us back to the issue of speech as he comes to the summation of this passage. We don’t know much about the church James was writing to, but they must have been experiencing a reality that many churches experience. It’s bad enough to be struggling with outside persecution. That can threaten a body of believers, but inner strife, often caused by an untamed tongue, can do irreparable harm to the body of Christ.

Many problems in the church have occurred because someone was talking much more than listening. The issue is that we cannot talk and listen at the same time. If we spend all of our time talking, then we will likely miss hearing God’s word for us. Talking busies our minds to the point that we don’t have much room for peaceful contemplation with our Lord. It can inhibit our relationship with Christ, which will harm the fellowship of believers. 

Who wants to be in a relationship with someone who does not listen? Also, failing to control our tongues can hinder our Christian witness. We never know who is listening. If we are eating out or at some other public place and start talking about and complaining about our church family, what will that say to an unbeliever that hears us? 

Controlling the tongue is not the end of the matter. The kind of faith that is being called for is one of action: “to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unsustained by the world” (v. 27). Being unsustained by the world is to look at ourselves and others as having the word implanted inside them. This means we can no longer be blind or deaf to “orphans and widows in their distress.” 

In the 16th century, Luther was concerned with the condition of the underprivileged of society. He developed the concept of a common chest. This was an early contribution to a centralized relief system. Long before the dawn of the United Way, there was the common chest to meet people’s needs.

That’s pretty simple. Isn’t it just like supporting the Promise Children in Honduras? Yes, but there is more. It gets complicated when we hear the cry of Amazon employees striking for better pay, or iPhone factory conditions or the environmental and humanitarian costs of mass-produced meat. Can we be pious while we eat our Hormel pork and set up our Amazon Prime subscriptions and save on our iPhones?

Labor Day was established in 1894 in response to years of strikes and protests of poor working conditions by workers and labor unions. The issues were child labor, 12 hour days, 7 day work weeks, oppression of company towns and paternalism. 

These protests culminated in Chicago when the American Railroad Union workers went on strike to protest wage cuts and union busting. The U. S. government sent troops to end the strike, resulting in riots and over a dozen deaths. 

Later that year, Labor Day was established by the U. S. Congress, acknowledging the contribution of workers and mandating a day of rest. There were strong Sabbath ties, ordained by God not simply as a day of rest, but as a day of justice. In order to “rid [ourselves] of sordidness and rank growth of wickedness” (v. 21), perhaps we need to reclaim Sabbath living and justice work environments for all (Fistler and McCoy). Let’s keep the origin of this holiday in mind this Labor Day, being thankful that we have food to eat, as we watch fireworks and enjoy time with friends and family.

Amen!

References

Tracey Alreed, “Listening Ears,” ministrymatters.com

Eric Fistler and Robb McCoy, pulpitfiction.com 

Susannah Hall, Social Thought, Winter 1079, National Conference of Catholic Charities

Mary Halvorson, Currents in Theology and Mission, 45:3 (July 2018)


Martin Luther, Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Easter, James 1:16-21, A Sermon by Martin Luther; taken from his Church Postil

Lee Sparks and Kathryn Hayes Sparks, editors, Craddock on the Craft of Preaching


Aaron L. Uitti, Peter Rhea Jones, Feasting On the Word: Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 

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