Listen to what God would have you DO

September 2, 2012

Christ Church Episcopal, Norcross, GA
Sermon on James 1:17-27, given while serving as seminarian

Proper 17 – Year B (RCL) – Song of Solomon 2:8-13, Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10, James 17-27, Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

It’s great to be back at Christ Church. Classes at Candler started a few days ago, but this morning I’m going to talk a little bit about a class I took last semester, it was Christian Ethics… I assure you, that’s not an oxymoron.

As the primary assignment, each person in the class had to come up with their own moral question – it could be related to the ENVIRONMENT, to the issue of WAR or VOILENCE, or one with a focus on POVERTY. I chose Poverty. This is an issue I have consistently struggled with – not from a personal experience perspective, but from a “what are we to do about it?” perspective.

Like many of you, I learned the value of a dollar from my parents, but we were always fairly comfortable, financially speaking. Growing up in the Christian faith, going to church and reading the Bible… to the extent Episcopalians do that… I have consistently heard passages and said prayers about taking care of the poor. Even so, I’ve struggled with how to respond effectively to the issue of poverty.

Although I’ve worked in food pantries, and other organizations helping those in need, the overall condition of those in poverty doesn’t seem to be getting better , especially as it relates to multi-generational poverty, so I decided to focus on this for my class.

Over the course of the semester, we looked at sources that have framed our perspective, including our personal experience and what’s being said in societal discourse. And since this is CHRISTIAN Ethics, the Scriptures and elements of our Faith Tradition were also explored to see what each says about our moral question.

When looking at my faith tradition, being a faithful Episcopalian, I pulled out the Book of Common Prayer. No surprise, right? I encourage you to do that with me now… for visitors, or those less familiar, it’s the often untouched red book in the pew rack in front of you… feel free to grab it – if you’d like to follow along…

If you haven’t looked beyond the weekly Eucharist service, there’s a wonderful section near the back called Prayers and Thanksgivings. The prayers in this section offer something for everyone, with a wide range of topics, one of which is Social Justice and Poverty. If you flip with me to page 826, at the top of the page we find a prayer entitled:

For the Poor and the Neglected and it says:

Almighty and most merciful God, we remember before you all poor and neglected persons whom it would be easy for us to forget: the homeless and the destitute, the old and the sick, and all who have none to care for them. Help us to heal those who are broken in body or spirit, and to turn their sorrow into joy. Grant this, Father, for the love of your Son, who for our sake became poor, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

There’s a lot packed into that prayer, and it reminds me of today’s reading from James. The prayer says: We remember before you all poor and neglected persons whom it would be easy for us to forget…

And then James, v. 25 says:

But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this [person] will be blessed in what [they] do.

Not having become a forgetful hearer, but an effectual doer – they will be blessed in what they do!

There is that link between those who are easy to forget, and James, warning that we can become forgetful hearers.

Now, just before this charge, James gives us an indication that he’s about to say something that isn’t going to be easy for his audience to hear… You can tell it’s coming because he asks them to be quick to listen… slow to speak… and slow to anger.

Maybe you’ve done this yourself when you’re about to say something to someone that may be hard for them to hear… we start with something like “this is hard for me to say but I care about you… please don’t get defensive… instead, just hear me out (listen)… don’t speak right away (listen),… don’t get angry, just listen and think about it.

So what is it that James is telling them that’s hard to hear? Well, the entire epistle of James has several things that his hearers need to work on, but in today’s reading, James says:

…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.

In this message, it seems that James is saying that these early believers are SAYING they are Christian, and are hearing the words, but they aren’t ACTING in a way that is consistent with these words.

This can be a tough message to hear, even today. And I have to admit, there are some days they are hard for me to hear, because they are no less true.

You see, each Sunday, we read prayers in church together, yet, when we go home, how easy is it for us to look to ourselves (looking in the mirror), to decide how we are to spend our time, instead of remembering what the “perfect law” has asked us to do. We forget what God has called each of us to – which is to care for those in need and to see the face of Christ in others.

This caring for the needs of others will take some effort, sure, but the good news is that we don’t have to do it alone. God is with us and we have been uniquely equipped to do this work in the world. We see this affirmed in the beginning of today’s passage – it says “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above”

This phrase struck me when I looked at it closely… not only is every perfect gift from God, but “the act of giving” is a gift from God, too. God implanted in each of us something that sets us apart from other creatures of the earth. We can act apart from our instinct.

This uniqueness is never more clear to me than when I look at our three dogs each morning at mealtime. To keep the rivalry down, they eat in shifts. The young ones, Kaki and Dudley, eat first and then are ready to play.

Radisson, on the other hand, is seventeen. Even though he’s blind and deaf, he still manages to get around pretty well, but he takes his time getting to his food. He makes several laps around the kitchen before deciding to eat – Alice and I joke that he’s hoping a nice juicy steak will appear in his bowl instead of his dog food.

But, because Radisson takes a while to eat, if we aren’t paying attention, Dudley or Kaki will slip into the kitchen and eat Radisson’s food without a second thought! They have no sensitivity to this – their instinct is to eat what smells good… there are no feelings involved, that they are eating Radisson’s food – it’s all instinct.

The good news is that God has implanted in our hearts something different from other animals. It is this difference that allows us to be the first fruits of all God’s creatures. James tells his audience to welcome this implanted word. We must nurture and grow it, and in nurturing God’s truth, good can overcome our self-serving nature. But we have to choose to do it.

If we don’t choose it, we will continue to look in the mirror and see what our human nature wants to do. When we do this, we are more likely to walk away and forget what we heard – forget what God has called us to do.

James challenges us to live a life that demonstrates that we have embraced God’s word by being effectual doers… showing compassion and care for those around us – those who are neglected and easy to forget.

We see evidence of this compassion at Christ Church. We have various ministries focused on the poor and those in need. We collect food for the Norcross Cooperative Ministries; we actively support Rainbow Village, and parishioners give their time to both of these ministries. We also have an active ministry in Haiti, with several members of the parish having gone there over the years. Many more of us, although unable to go ourselves, have seen pictures and heard the stories of the children and families there.

Consequently, last week, when hurricane Isaac barreled across Haiti, we couldn’t help but think about those sweet faces… we care more deeply about the impact of the storm on a distant island because we have a connection to the people who live there.

Each week, we remember these outreach ministries in our prayers because we have seen those who have been cared for, and they are in our hearts.

I contend that this is precisely how we don’t forget what we pray… by keeping those in need at the forefront of our lives; by acting in the world on behalf of those who are in distress. It is then that we cannot forget them.

I realize that some of us have more time to devote to these efforts than others – but we can all do something. We each have the gift of giving.

Our natural instinct is to take care of ourselves, our families, our property. In these hard economic times, we hold on to everything we have to ensure we have enough for our future. That’s our instinct – even when what we have is abundant by many people’s standards.

Yet, God implanted in us something that allows us to go beyond our animal-instinct. To allow our works, those very gifts given on behalf of those in need – to allow these things to become the first fruits given back to God. It is in doing these things that we nurture and respond to God’s word of truth implanted in us.

When we find ourselves unsure of what we can do, James asks us to LISTEN. In listening intently to God’s Word, we are better able to discern what God would have us do. We can more effectively work out what it means in the prayer read earlier, when we ask God to “Help us to heal those who are broken in body or spirit, and to turn their sorrow into joy.”

As children of God, and as Christians, we are called to see Christ in every person and have compassion for one another. This is a good place to start, and God has given us the ability to do this… but we must choose to do it.

In a few minutes, we will partake in the bread and wine of Holy Communion, the Holy food and drink of Jesus Christ in us. Immediately following this communal sacrament, we will say the prayer that sends us out into the world each week… it says in part: “And now, Father, send us out to do the work you have given us to do, to love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.”

When we say this together, let us not merely be hearers of these words, forgetting them when we walk out the door. Instead, let us be effectual doers, embracing the Word of God, and choosing to live the life that we PRAY.


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