A sermon delivered by Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va., on September 2, 2012.
The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
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 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. 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 (NRSV).
In the month of September we will be making our way through the Book of James, and I thought it might be helpful to begin with an introduction. So…church, this is James; James, this is the church! James is found near the back of the Bible, just after the Book of Hebrews. Martin Luther, the great Protestant reformer, didn’t care for it very much because it seemed to contradict the doctrine of justification by grace through faith. He called it “an epistle of straw,” and if it had been up to him, it would be even farther back in the Bible, maybe somewhere after the maps. James is a letter of some kind, but it’s hard to say which kind. It has an introduction but no conclusion, and in between it’s filled up with all sorts of do’s and don’ts—more like the Book of Proverbs than the letters of Paul. So, don’t expect a lot of poetry in this series; James is filled with good, practical advice for everyday Christian living. At some points it gets personal, and you may feel that I’ve stopped preaching and “gone to meddling.” But don’t blame me; blame the fellow who wrote this book. Tradition tells us it was James, the brother of Jesus, the one who became the leader of the church in Jerusalem, and the opening lines claim that it was written to the “Twelve Tribes in the Dispersion,” which may require a little more explanation.
Do you remember how the church got started in Jerusalem? How those 120 people were gathered together in one place when the Holy Spirit suddenly came upon them with a sound like the rush of a mighty wind? Do you remember how Peter stood up in front of the crowds and preached that magnificent sermon and at the end of the day 3,000 people were added to their number? That was on the Day of Pentecost, the day the church was born in Jerusalem, and Luke tells us that in the days that followed those new church members, “spent much time together in the temple, broke bread at home, and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (Acts 2:46-47). But that was before Ananias and Sapphira lied about their contributions to the church, and before there were complaints about some of the poor widows being neglected in the daily distribution of food. The apostles appointed seven “deacons” to handle those complaints and one of them, Stephen, was hauled before the Jewish council where he gave his testimony about Jesus. When the members of the council heard what he had to say they were “filled with rage” and “ground their teeth” and in the end they stoned poor Stephen to death.
Imagine how it would be for us if one of our deacons was brought up before the city council here in Richmond, and what if he gave his testimony about Jesus, and what if, afterward, they dragged him out in front of City Hall and stoned him to death? It’s hard to imagine such a thing, isn’t it, in a time and place like ours? But 2000 years ago in Jerusalem that’s exactly what happened. Luke says that a “severe persecution” began against the church, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. Again, can you imagine this congregation running for its life, looking for places to hide in Powhatan, Goochland, Louisa, Ashland, Caroline County, New Kent, West Point, Williamsburg, Hopewell, and Petersburg? And what if only the church staff was left behind, like those apostles in Jerusalem? And what if—from down in the boiler room somewhere, gathered around a single candle—we wrote a letter to all of you who had been dispersed, made some copies, and then sent them out by messengers who would try to find you wherever you were. Imagine getting a copy of that letter as you and a few other members of the church were holed up in a root cellar somewhere, unfolding it carefully, and reading it in a shaft of sunlight coming through a crack in the door. What do you think it would say?
Well, maybe something like this: “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance.” In fact these are the opening lines of the letter of James (vss. 2-3). It goes on to say, essentially, “but don’t imagine for a moment that this time of testing comes from God (vs. 13). What comes from God is good and perfect, it comes down from ‘the Father of lights,’ with whom there is no shadow of turning” (vs. 17). God is not like a cloudy day, where it’s bright one minute and gloomy the next. God is all light and no darkness. And so we should never say, “The Lord is testing us.” Testing will come, but it won’t come from God (vs. 13). In this case it came from people who were trying to stamp out the church and put an end to all that talk about Jesus. And so James encourages these people who have been persecuted and scattered not to fear but to turn their faces toward the Father of lights, to trust his unchanging goodness, to listen carefully to his word, and to do what he tells them.
And that’s where I want to spend a little time this morning.
There is at least one commentator on this passage who believes that James is addressing some of the behavior that had been going on in the Jerusalem church before the persecution.[i] It was a big church, remember? It started with 3,000 members and grew from there. Surely, in a church that size there were some examples of how not to behave. And James may be thinking about those things as he considers the scattered seed of his congregation, now taking root in every part of the region. You can think of it this way: that those were the first church “plants.” And because he wants them to grow up straight and tall he stakes them to the truest and best teaching he can offer, and aggressively pulls up the weeds that can choke out a young church’s life. Listen to what he says: “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger” (vs. 19). You have to wonder: would James have said such a thing if he hadn’t had some experience with it? If he hadn’t had to deal with people in his own church who were slow to listen, quick to speak, and quick to anger?
This is where you almost expect him to say, “Remember that God gave you two ears and one mouth,” as if God wanted you to listen twice as much as you talk. Because we’ve all known people who do it exactly the other way. James is sending out a warning, and maybe he feels more free to do it now that the church is scattered than he ever did when they were all in the same room looking at him and listening to him (it’s kind of like being the interim pastor, who can say whatever he wants because he doesn’t have to live with those people). “Use your ears!” James says. “Listen first, and only when you are sure that you have heard and understood open your mouth. If you do it that way chances are good that you will be slow to anger because you won’t be mouthing off before the other person has even finished his sentence. If you don’t do it that way you run the risk of getting angry over the most trivial little things, getting angry for the wrong reasons, and that kind of anger does not produce God’s kind of righteousness.
“Therefore,” he says, “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.” I’m reading from the New Revised Standard Version and I confess to you that I didn’t know what the word sordidness meant; I had to look it up. Sordidness is anything “marked by baseness or grossness,” and its synonyms are “dirty, filthy, wretched, and squalid.” So, get rid of every filthy, dirty, disgusting thing in your life,” James says, “and along with them every putrid and festering outgrowth of wickedness, and then welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.” It makes me think of somebody working up a garden plot in a place where the garbage has been dumped for years and years, clearing away the tin cans and the old bones and the broken glass, spading up the ground and raking it smooth until seeds can be planted in it, and something good can begin to grow. “Clear all the garbage out of your life,” James might say, “and prepare the soil of your heart to receive the seed of God’s word.”
You can almost see that seed taking root, can’t you, and the Word of God growing up straight and tall in the life of those young churches? But James is looking for more than a bare stalk; he wants God’s word to bear some fruit. “So do this,” James says: “Be doers of the word and not hearers only.” Once again, I believe he is drawing on his experience of the church in Jerusalem, because his experience is the experience of every preacher. We stand in the pulpit Sunday after Sunday and say things like, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength.” We say things like, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” And yet we don’t often see much evidence that anyone is doing those things. And we know it must be true because we’re not doing those things either. It’s not that we don’t want to do them. We hear those words and nod our heads and make up our minds that this time we’re really going to follow through. But we’re like the man James talks about who looks at himself in the mirror and then walks away and forgets what he looks like. We walk away from church on Sunday morning and all those things that seemed so urgent and important to us only moments before vanish into thin air. We wake up on Monday morning with other things on our mind.
We are hearers of the word, not doers.
But doing, apparently, is not only important to James, but also to Jesus. Do you remember the parable he once told, about the two sons? (Matthew 21:28-32). The father asks them both to go work in his vineyard. One says he won’t, but then he does. The other says he will, but then he doesn’t. “Which of these two,” Jesus asks, “did the will of his father?” And it’s obvious: the one who went to work in the vineyard. It’s not what you say but what you do that matters. And James would say it’s not what you hear but what you do that matters. You can hear a thousand sermons, read the Bible through once a year, but if you never put it into practice what’s the point? Do you remember that time someone came to Jesus and said, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you”? (Luke 8:20). He said, “My mother and brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” Did you catch that? You become part of Jesus’ family not by hearing the word, but by hearing it and doing it. And in this letter, written by a member of his family, James reminds the church:
“Be doers of the word, and not hearers only.”
Phil Mitchell was telling me about this new movie called “Hope Springs.” It’s about a middle-aged couple that goes off for a week of intensive marriage counseling. “For them,” Phil said, “the word love had become a noun.” What an interesting way to describe it! “The word love had become a noun,” he said, which suggested immediately that at one time it had been something more than that, it had been a verb that expressed itself in a thousand different actions. I don’t know what they were, but I can imagine. The husband may have brought his wife coffee in the morning because he loved her. She may have fluffed his pillow at night because she loved him. They may have taken long walks together, had picnics in the park, dreamed about their future because they loved each other. But then life crowded in, and bit by bit, little by little, their living, breathing love began to calcify, turn to stone. It became a noun instead of a verb. They still had love for each other, but they didn’t love each other, not in the way they used to.
How many of us are in that same place where our love for God is concerned? For how many of us has that fierce, bright, burning flame we once felt for God become a smoldering heap of ashes? How many of us go through the motions of love, perform our regular religious duties, without feeling much of anything anymore? In my devotional reading last week there was a passage from The Imitation of Christ in which Thomas a Kempis said, “We ought every day to renew our purpose in God, and to stir our hearts to fervor and devotion, as though it were the first day of our conversion.” I thought when I read it: “Is that possible? Can we live any day, much less every day, as if it were the first day of our conversion?” But it did make me think about that day, made me remember how it was to read the Bible as if it were bread and I were dying of starvation, to talk about Jesus to anyone who would listen, and to try day after day to do the things he would want me to do. When did that change for me? When did the verb become a noun? And is there any way to get it back again?
I think James would say yes. I think he would say there is a way to turn a noun into a verb. And I think he would say that the way to do it is to do it. In the movie Phil was telling me about the marriage counselor told the couple to begin by just holding each other for a little while, and the husband, especially, hated it. It felt so forced and awkward. But at least when they did it they were doing something. They were trying to turn that noun back into a verb. What if we could begin at the beginning, look for one thing Jesus told us to do—the simplest, easiest thing we can find—and then do it, just because he told us to, just because this is how you turn a noun into a verb:
You do something.
[i] Rick Morley: “From my perspective, the first century community that James addresses in this epistle was dealing with infighting and anger over the very nature of ministry and the divisions between those who have the resources to serve others, and those poor enough that they needed to be served” (from his blog: http://www.rickmorley.com/archives/1889).
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.