Prayer for Humans like Us: Sermon by Laura, 7.5.15 Pentecost 6+ June with James

Scripture: James 5:7-20

“Where are we going?” I was following my Guatemalan host father, Daniel, and other elders from the Trinidad Glorioso Presbyterian Church, walking the dirt paths of their Mayan-Quiche village. “We are going to anoint our brother with oil,” Daniel replied. I was puzzled, not just by the language barrier, but also by the practice itself, which Daniel seemed to assume was self-evident, standard Christian practice. But though a lifelong Presbyterian, this was my first experience witnessing healing prayer done just as James counsels in the scripture today.

I found the scene both moving and concerning. The elders surrounded the sick man, reading scriptures, singing hymns, and offering prayers of deep passion and sincerity, closing by rubbing olive oil into his hands. I joined in as I could, but part of me stood aside in skepticism, thinking these humble Guatemalans seemed a bit naïve. I worried about how disappointed they would feel if and when their fervent prayers failed to accomplish the healing they so desired.

Looking back, I see now that my worry was less about them and more about me. I was uncomfortable with healing prayer, laying on of hands, and anointing, taught to be skeptical in my North American mainline Protestant worldview. I worried about their disappointment, because I’d heard tales of people in my own context; those that had left the faith, angry with God, even doubting God’s very existence; or those who heaped guilt on themselves for lack of faith, when it seemed prayers for physical healing had lacked results. Wouldn’t they all be better served by getting him to a doctor?

But then again, that question revealed that I was the naïve one, not yet grasping the realities my Guatemalan community faced. They had minimal access to medical care, and while they were very hardworking and resourceful people, in almost everything they did, they faced limitations imposed by systems of power and privilege from which they were at best excluded and at worst, actively oppressed.

Furthermore, the healing prayer they offered for their brother-in-Christ was only on the most basic level about alleviating his physical suffering. While they hoped and expected God to work through their prayer to heal his body, these Christians also trusted God to initiate other layers of healing. They recognized that this man might also need repentance from sin and reconciliation in estranged relationships, because sickness and sin are just different kinds of disruption to a whole person’s body-mind-and-spirit. They knew that there is healing for the whole community when a sick person is able to admit his vulnerability and speak the truth of his illness with others, trusting the community to join with him against whatever is causing his suffering. [i]

There are commonalities between the context of my Guatemalan community and the people to whom James originally addressed his wisdom. Early Jewish and Christian communities under Roman imperial rule faced persecution and systemic oppression, with their lives at stake daily. Suffering and emotional discouragement were just part of daily life in this context, and people struggled to maintain integrity of body, mind, and spirit. One scholar notes that while some illnesses were believed to result from personal sin, others were seen as the result of “uncontrollable external forces which sinfully pressed against the oppressed body of the poor and the persecuted.” [ii]

James, like my Guatemalan hosts, understands the Christian church as the place where a different kind of life could be learned and practiced, giving sustenance “in the midst of social disorder and oppression;”[iii]and in prayer, God could restore each person, inside and out, with sickness healed and sin forgiven.

This is the kind of community that James envisions throughout his epistle. Studying his wisdom over the past month, we’ve seen James address issues of divisiveness, warning against attitudes of partiality toward rich members; the slanderous use of words; and the dangers of boasting about ourselves or judging others. James counsels an attitude of humility, which Keith described last week as “living into the reality that God is everything.” James exhorts us that our outer actions reveal the truth of our inner faith, and that a central facet of true religion is caring for the most vulnerable people among us.

Today, we hear James call the community to a practice of prayer. “Let your ‘Yes’ be yes and your ‘No’ be no,” he writes, advocating a basic practice of speaking the unvarnished truth of one’s life and actions. Prayer is only possible if we can tell the truth about ourselves to God and others. The other actions of prayer James names are other forms of telling the truth: Can we allow others to know we are suffering or cheerful, sick or stuck in sinful patterns?

Such truth-telling is not easy in our culture. We expect adults to be independent, autonomous individuals who are self-directed and self-sufficient. We think we are supposed to have it all together, to stay in control of our bodies and emotions, and we’re continually convinced by consumer advertising that we should be able to fix every problem that might possibly cause suffering. When we get sick or a relationship goes wrong, we often experience a burden of shame, wondering what we—or someone we can blame—did wrong.

It takes courage to ask for others’ prayers. Many people resist it, even—maybe especially—in church communities. Mary Hinkle Shore asks, Is there any congregation in the whole Christian church on earth that you don’t have to leave when you are having a problem that you can’t hide? …Hardly anyone leaves church because things are going well for them.”[iv]

Our congregation has a strong practice of intercessory prayer for family and neighbors suffering loss or going through illness, our Prayers of the Community. To me, that time is often a highlight of our worship service, especially when we receive thanksgiving for our care and testimonies of healing.

However, even here we are understandably reluctant to ask for prayers when the cause of suffering is not sickness but sin. Yet according to James, confessing and praying for one another in our sins is equally as important as anointing the sick: “Anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.”

It is a basic truth of the human condition that we are sinners. All of us, each and every one of us, sometimes sin against God and our neighbor in what we say, think, or do. Ultimately we cannot ignore, deny, or cover up these ways we miss the mark in living out of God’s love; we can only move through and beyond sin in the practice of confession. Confession is naming the sin in the presence of a trusted companion, and then accepting and claiming forgiveness as our new reality.[v]

For James, we are able to tell the truth of our lives because we know and trust in a merciful and compassionate God who is ever-ready to heal and forgive. Our community with one another is established on the level ground before the cross of Jesus Christ.  That’s why there can be no boasting or judging, no partiality or diminishing of one another; that’s why James calls us to move towards—not away from—those who have wandered away to bring them back into the community. There is justice and mercy for all in the presence of the gracious, self-giving “Judge who is judged in our place.”[vi]

Our awareness of our equal standing as sinners who are also God’s precious children makes those who live in Christ able to trust and act in ways vastly different from our surrounding culture, able to stand with one another in suffering which is not unusual but to be expected, able to stand together against the distortions of abusive systems or relationships; and able to speak the truth of our need for God’s compassion and mercy, thereby finding healing and forgiveness.

In closing, I offer you another story from my year in Guatemala. It was the middle of the night, and this time, I was the sick one, suffering from the usual traveler’s ailments. My host parents, sleeping in an adjoining room, heard me get up to the latrine multiple times. Back in bed, nauseous in the dark, there was a knock at the door. “Come in,” I said, wanting to tell them to go away, but also not wanting to offend my hosts. Daniel and Toribia and Fredy, my host parents and brother, along with two visiting church youth leaders, came in and gathered around my bed. They offered to pray. I agreed, though I was completely mortified by how public my, uh, internal issues had become.

I don’t remember their specific words, but I remember feeling awed by the sincerity and passion of their prayer for me, that I would find healing in their community. And I don’t remember being immediately and miraculously cured —it took a trip to the doctor and some Cipro—but I do remember a strange sense of relief and peace, that I didn’t have to hide my illness, that I wasn’t alone in it, that even as a stranger in a strange land, I was part of a community of people who believed in a God of healing and forgiveness, people who knew how to talk to God with trust and conviction.

And here’s my testimony 15 years after that healing prayer: that moment, when, uncomfortable and humiliated, I agreed to receive the care of people I’d just met, people I’d previously understood to be “poor” Guatemalan farmers somehow in need of my volunteer service, that moment began a journey of healing in Christ continuing to this day, in which I have learned and am still learning to lean into my vulnerability and accept my limitations, to recognize God’s presence with me in suffering, and to trust God’s acceptance and forgiveness, revealed in and through the people Christ has called together, a journey of healing that has been teaching me the depth and breadth of God’s love for me and every creature of this earth.

So on this day after “Independence Day,” I invite you to embrace and lean into our mutual dependence on the God of grace and mercy; I invite you to risk vulnerability and tell the truth of your weakness and limitations, to let others in to stand with you in times of sickness or sinfulness. May you be found when you wander and be brought back, again and again, to the true community of love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, One in Three, Three in One. Amen.

[i] Mary Hinkle Shore,

[ii] Christopher Michael Jones,

[iii] Christopher Michael Jones, as above.

[iv] Mary Hinkle Shore,

[v] Kenneth Carter,

[vi] Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics, Vol. IX: The Doctrine of Reconciliation. Edited byG. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance. Edinburgh T. & T.Clark, 1936–1977.


Blessing and Cursing: Sermon by Laura, 6.21.15 Pentecost 4

Scriptures: James 3:1-12, Psalm 19

Here’s how John Hockenberry of National Public Radio’s “The Takeaway” opened his show on Friday: “What happened this week? What happened this week? …[O]nly in America do you have in the same week a network anchor who lied and tells America he wants to be trusted, a woman who’s white who tells America she wants to be considered black, and a white man with a gun who kills nine black people in a church in Charleston and says to police he wants to start a race war. One week. But is it one America? Trust, race, and violence, all three, that’s the big construct, right there, in one crazy, only-in-America, kind of Biblical parable. What does it mean?”

Hockenberry’s show goes on to consider the connections between our difficulties in trusting one another and our government to speak truth and to follow words with actions; the ongoing history of discrimination and violence against African Americans, and the continuing rise of gun violence, constantly asking, what lessons can be learned? What wisdom can be gleaned from the ruination of lives and the murders of innocent people in a house of worship?

The pain is deep and the issues are complex.Everyone has a theory on the roots of our problems. But this morning, the book of James cuts through the layers. Each of the stories Hockenberry named exemplify the dangers of an untamed tongue. Each person made choices to use his or her speech, sparking “forest fires” of distrust and violence, not merely “staining” their own lives but also setting ablaze what James calls “the cycle of nature,” creating with their words—and the actions flowing out of them—an environment of distrust, a climate for violence, a world of hurt.

They may seem so small, but our tongues do have a power disproportionate to their size. With them we exercise the creative capacity for speech, given to us by the God in whose image we are created, who spoke a Word into the chaotic void and created a universe.

Adam named the animals, and we continue to name the world and each other, which, “in some sense…creates a genuine reality,” notes author Dan Clendinnen.  Barbara Brown Taylor notes, “Whether we mean to or not, we construct worlds with speech. Describing the world we see, we mistake it for the whole world. Making meaning of what we see, we conflate this with God’s meaning. Then we behave according the world we have constructed with our speech, even when that causes us to dismiss or harm those who construe the world differently.” We are all connected to one another in a web of relationships in which our words have world-formational power.

We know from our own experience that the childhood rhyme is a thin defiance against the truly hurtful power of words: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
Hateful remarks, shaming criticisms, and glib gossip can leave more enduring wounds than broken bones.

I can’t help but think of the collision of worlds between the African-American Bible study group in Charleston and the young white stranger they graciously welcomed and hosted, living out the Word of God they were studying. But even after receiving their hospitality, face to face, he continued to live according to the ways of a world constructed by hate speech, as he turned on them with words of hate and a gun.

That is why it is vital that we Christians are people who know and live out of the power of the Word to heal and to bless. We believe in God’s creative Word made flesh, and we proclaim Jesus Christ, in whose life of teaching and healing, in whose unjust death and unexpected resurrection,
our universe is created anew.  We receive the power of speech as part of God’s gracious invitation to participate in the ongoing recreation and restoration of the world.

Our speech is a Christian practice, by which we live out our love of God and neighbor. But James does not underestimate the challenge,  saying wild animals are tamed more easily than our tongues, and seeming gloomy on our prospects in controlling our speech.

Indeed, even in our churches, where we intend the best use of our speech, without realizing it, we sometimes find ourselves speculating about others in ways that are subtly harmful. Especially here, we must take seriously James’ wisdom from ch.1, “Everyone should be quick to listen and slow to speak.” We are being restored to God’s image, but sin is pervasive and tenacious, and we do make many mistakes.

But James also tells us that the capacity to control our speech is a sign of maturity in the faith, which suggests that there is hope for us yet! We can choose to pray and practice to learn to use our speech for healing and not harm.

Of course, like any spiritual practice—loving speech takes practice! It is a process in which we notice and learn about God and ourselves. We can observe our speech and notice how it reveals our inner life, what we truly value and depend upon. Comparing our words to our actions, noticing the degree to which they have integrity, we will know how we have been growing in Christlikeness.

The Renovare workbook we are using in this summer’s Spiritual Formation Group suggests ways to engage in practicing loving speech:
–Be a gossip-buster. Whenever someone you are with begins to gossip, quickly end it. Guide the conversation to a different subject.
–Practice the art of speaking positively. Resolve to make two positive remarks about someone or something for every negative remark you make.
–Cultivate integrity in your speech by focusing on simplicity and honesty in all that you say.

These practices sound so simple and obvious, but trying them for a week is revealing! The point of them is not to get it perfect, but to see what we see. Sometimes we won’t like what we notice.
The awareness of what we don’t like in our words and actions is an invitation to ask for God to change us.

The good news is that we can learn to use our speech to bless others and share the truly good news of Jesus Christ; we can learn to discern when to speak and when to stay silent, and we can learn to speak in the Spirit to create worlds of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and faithfulness.

Do you see my stole? It’s my ordination stole from Alaska, and it features a raven and eagle with little crosses in their bellies, wings, and especially in their beaks. It reminds me of James’ metaphor of the bit and bridle guiding and directing the horse. There is a prayer inside which says, “May the Word of Christ be always in your heart, in your words, and in your actions.”

Those three aspects of our lives are brought into integrity as Christ speaks his transforming Word into our lives. Christ is already present with and within us,and by the power of the Spirit, we can  ask and receive God’s help: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach,” James says in ch.1. As we ask, receive and accept, lean into and depend upon the Holy Spirit that God has given us, Christ becomes the one who controls our speech and our whole bodies.

Friends, our speech has creative power. God gives us the freedom to use it for harm or for healing. Jan L. Richardson writes, “Offering a blessing is an act of profound hope. In blessing one another, we recognize and ally ourselves with the presence of God who ever works to bring about the healing of the world.” Let us invite God to shape us anew, that we may offer blessing.

Alleluia! Amen.



Barbara Brown Taylor, Feasting on the Word, Year B Vol. 4, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009, 67.

James Brian Smith and Linda Graybeal, A Spiritual Formation Workbook, San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993.

Jan L. Richardson, In the Sanctuary of Women, Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2010: 18.

Can Faith Save You? Sermon by Keith, 6.14.15, Pentecost 3

Scripture Reading: James 2:1-17

Is being partial a sin? That’s the question that came to my mind when I read this text from James. We all have to be partial at some point, don’t we? How many of you vote? That’s being partial to one candidate over another. In fact, we are expected to show partiality in an election. Is that bad? How many of you have a favorite sports team in college football or basketball? Is that wrong? Many times in our everyday world we show partiality, and showing favoritism is inevitable in human affairs. So is it a sin?

I think the answer is maybe and sometimes. Some types of partiality are expressions of participating and keeping the social order that I for sure wouldn’t put in the category of sin. We vote for the candidate that we feel will do the best job in living into our political viewpoint. Sometimes that candidate wins, sometimes he or she loses. Now, what that candidate does in office may be a sin, but that’s a different sermon. How about sports teams? Is God on the side of the Ducks or the Beavers? I guess it depends on which side you are rooting for, but my guess is God has an equal love for all animals, whether they quack, slap their tails, or throw the pigskin.

But I think James would want us to know that partiality becomes a sin when it breaks God’s intention for right relationships between people. When favoritism and partiality separate people in ways that elevate one group or make another group into second class citizens, a sin has taken place. And specifically James brings up the example of class distinctions within the Christian community. This scenario is a little more complex than just the initial reading might suggest. You might even go so far as to say James uses a parable to get his point across.

Here are two visitors that have entered the congregation. One has gold rings and is dressed in fine cloths, the other person looks like he has just got done digging ditches. The man with rings is treated with extreme courtesy while the bedraggled visitor is shuffled aside.

James is making his point by using an extreme example: This situation would probably never happen when James wrote this letter. In Roman culture, there was a very small, very wealthy elite, then a small middle class, then everyone else: the poor, those working to get by, those who didn’t have much more than their families and their faith. In our current economic world, you could say these are the 99%. And that’s who made up the communities James was writing to. There might be a few middle class people who are part of the community, but they wouldn’t be dressed the way James describes the first visitor. The poor man in dirty cloth fit the profile of the average member of the community.

But not so the rich man. One commentator even said that since James specifically said this man was wearing gold rings, the hearer would know immediately that this person was part of the Roman elite, the 1%. Christianity was still illegal and persecution was a real possibility. If this guy showed up in the congregation, he wasn’t there to worship: someone was in trouble.   Despite the special treatment, the guy with golden rings could still take them to court, get them locked up in prison, or worse have them thrown into the arena. That visitor would be the one dishonoring the name of Christ by using his power to make members of the community into criminals.

James not only uses this parable as an example of the follies of favoritism. First it can get you in trouble, and second it shows disrespect and harm for those who already part of the community. But James then teaches how it goes against what God wants as understood in the biblical principle of love. He explains the significance of the divine law in contrast to the Roman law. First, the writer reminds Christians of the “royal law” of Christ, which sums up the entire Law of Moses by saying, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Moreover, “acts of favoritism” are not to be dismissed as minor infractions of God’s command—little sins versus big sins. In order to underline the seriousness of showing partiality, James draws on the ancient Jewish doctrine of the complete unity of the law and contends that to violate the law at this one point is to break the whole law. To illustrate this point, James links partiality with the heinous sins of adultery and murder—sins readers would not fail to consider serious. Adulterers will not suppose that they should be excused of adultery because they have not committed murder.

James’ point is that the adulterer stands guilty before the law, as does the murderer—and as the one who discriminates and shows favoritism that causes harm. God who forbids adultery and murder also forbids discrimination. God stands behind every commandment. Thus, all three—the adulterer, the murderer, and the one who commits “acts of favoritism”—are transgressors of the law and are subject to God’s judgment.

So, where does that leave us? Well, James reminds us all that we are accountable to God for our words and our deeds. At the last day, every individual will stand before the judgment seat of God.

What will be determined at that point is not whether we are “saved”; we have already been saved by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ. When James asks, “Can faith save you?” I think, I hope, he would answer yes, but for him it depends on what you do with that free gift of faith. What the judgment we will face will reveal is whether or not we have misused the grace that is ours—whether or not we have embodied in our lives the possibilities the gospel offers.

The faith we receive in Christ is not only a freeing and saving faith for us, but also a freeing and saving faith for others. One commentator said that what James is calling for is “a practice of indiscriminate love toward all people.” And that indiscriminate love toward all people will reveal whether we have allowed the grace and power of God to produce a transformation in our lives. Faith is a free gift of God, and that free gift is transformative in how we live and act and deal with one another. Impartiality in all our doings is in no small part a sign of the integrity of our faith.

It has been said that this section of James speaks the strongest words of rebuke about discrimination and favoritism anywhere in the New Testament, maybe even the entire Bible. The fact that James speaks of “acts of favoritism” in the plural might prompt us to ponder all those experiences in which we have made snap judgments about others on the basis of outward appearance—perhaps on the basis of disability, or dress, or race, or class, or gender, or age. From James’ perspective, discrimination of any kind is simply inconsistent with the Christian faith.

I said last week that the book of James is hard, because he makes us face and think about not only the sin of our actions or lack thereof, but he also forces us to deal with the sin of our attitudes, our attitudes of prejudice and discrimination. Often, we excuse the sins of attitude. We typically judge the sins of actions with a harsh judgment, and let the sins of attitude off easy. But it is our attitudes, those attitudes in our hearts and minds, that give birth to our actions. This is why repentance is not only a change of heart, it is also a change of mind and action.

I leave you with a story. Any Dodgers fans here? Now, I don’t believe being partial to a team is sinful, but this story definitely gives us a small glimpse into the world James would want us to live. Jackie Robinson was the first African-American to play major league baseball, playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. While breaking baseball’s “color barrier,” he faced jeering crowds in every stadium. While playing one day in his home stadium in Brooklyn, he committed an error. His own fans began to ridicule him in ways they never would the white players. He stood at second base, humiliated, while the fans jeered.

Then shortstop “Pee Wee” Reese, a fellow white player, came over and stood next to him. He put his arm around Jackie Robinson and faced the crowd. The fans that had been jeering Robinson grew quiet. Robinson later said that arm around his shoulder saved his career.

Friends, you have the power to make a choice to reject the negative and harmful practice of showing favoritism. You can be someone who puts an arm around someone else’s shoulder, no matter their story, their background, their income, age, or race, and makes a lasting difference in their lives as they come to know the love and mercy of Jesus Christ through what you do for them.

Doers of the Word: Sermon by Keith, 6.7.15, Pentecost +2/Proper 5B

Scripture: James 1:17-27

You just heard a snippet from the beginning of the Letter of James to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion.  We are going to spend the beginning of the summer preaching from James, so you could say we are spending June with James, plus the first Sunday of July.  I’m guessing that most of you at one point or another have read or been exposed to James and I want to know your thoughts and reactions to his words.  How have your interactions with James been, and what do you think of James?(People respond)

For me, the book of James has been a way to live into the faith that I have received from Christ.  Paul is very theological, even heady.   James is very practical, how the heart and hands live into what the head is trying to process!  But, James has had a hard time in the church.  The early church and then the Reformers a few hundred years later really struggled with what to do with James.  And for both, it was because of Paul and Paul’s teachings on salvation by faith alone.  James’ focus on how we should live is sometimes understood as a message of salvation by works that challenges Paul’s teachings.  The early church debated for many years whether James’ letter should be included in what is now the New Testament.  In his love/hate relationship with this letter, Martin Luther called James “an epistle of straw” and that it was dangerous.  Luther didn’t think that the teachings found in James were essential for understanding and accepting the gospel, though he did say that James’ letter contained “many good sayings.”

Now, this first section is loaded with teachings and commands, especially about not being deceived in the world and having a humble stance toward God and fellow believers.  Actually, James is packed with commands to the point of being the bossiest book of the Bible.  In all of scripture there are 6,140 imperative verbs, or commands, telling the listener what to do.  Almost three percent of those commands are found in this relatively short letter.  That’s almost double the competition which is the Old Testament prophet Joel.  James even surpasses the commands given by Moses, unless of course you add up all the commands in all five books’ worth of the law at the beginning of the Bible.  But for a single book, James stands high above the rest in his in his authoritative commands.

But it is something that stands out in the midst of these commands that draws my interest. And that is James’ discussion about being religious.  I’m a ‘professional’ religious guy, and as someone who is sitting here on a Sunday morning, you would be considered part of the religious holdouts of our society.  So our ears perk up when we hear James talk about being religious.  And to help us understand where he is coming from, we have to understand his story.  If this James is the brother of Jesus, and not one of the other James’ listed in the New Testament, we can get a clearer picture of what James is trying to say about being religious and even come to a deeper understanding of all the commands that he lays out for the followers of Jesus.

Depending on which tradition you follow, James grew up as Jesus’ younger brother—a boy under Jewish law raised alongside the only one who ever kept the Jewish law fully.  By the time Jesus is well into his earthly ministry, James doesn’t believe in him.  There was probably some typical sibling rivalry going on because he sure couldn’t believe that his older brother could be the Messiah.  But here he is a good religious Jew who understands that at the heart of the Law is a love of God and love of neighbor, but he doesn’t have faith in God through Jesus.

At some point, James is a changed man.  After the resurrection, scripture tells us that Jesus appeared specifically to James before he ascended.  This experience leads James to understand the Law and the requirements of the Law in an entirely different light.  Someone has come who fulfilled that Law and a deep profound faith in Jesus as Christ and Lord affects how one worships God and serves neighbor.

Now, fast-forward to AD 49:  The church faces its first huge dispute:  How do Jesus’ grace and Moses’ laws go together now that there are Gentile believers?  Should they be circumcised and live into the Law before they could become part of the church?  The argument between Jewish and Gentile Christians gets so heated that the Christians in Antioch send Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem to sort it out with the apostles.  In Acts, we find James explaining his understanding of the issue, and then expanding that understanding in this letter:  Faith and works are not opposed.  They work together in the lives of the believers. Faith in Christ affects how one lives out one’s religious life, Jew or Gentile.

And in his letter, he starts his discussion about the religious life by doing something very Jewish: he looks at several ethical concerns.  James identifies three necessary aspects of religion:  Taming the tongue, caring for the needy and avoiding worldliness.  James expands the concept of religion beyond the ritual action or a private observance.  His point isn’t to loose sight of good things like worship and devotion to God but to supplement them with action that extend into our relationships.  Worship of God the Father is important and faith in Jesus is of utmost concern. But for James, being religious takes on ethical qualities that must be expressed in actions.  One must be a hearer and doer of the Word of God.  If there is no action tied to the faith or religion, then that faith or religion is worthless.

Religion addresses spiritual and ethical realities.  Worship leads to action in the world and a life lived in society.  But that life lived in society is not overcome or influenced by the evils that are found there but addresses the ills.  Devotion to God leads to the glorification of God, but also leads to the invitation of the Holy Spirit to make us more Christ-like and being led out into the world by the Holy Spirit so the Kingdom of God can be experienced.  Worship, ethics, and purity all go hand-in-hand.  Remove one of those and the religion becomes hollow.

So, how does this speak to us?  It’s hard.  Most of us, including myself, are drawn to worship, ethics, or purity.  James has no tolerance for that.  Religion is useless if it doesn’t tame our tongues and change our hearts and our lives and the lives of those around us.  Anyone who thinks otherwise deceives his own heart.  Per James, true religion, true faith, needs to bring us to worship, action, and purity.  We need to gain insight into where our religion is failing us and the key is keeping each in its proper place.

Neither worship, nor action, nor purity will save us, but lack of them exposes us.  We languish without worship, and it shows in our attitudes and words.  But we can’t only have worship on Sunday believing that is all I am required and called to do.  Actions betray what is happening inside of us for good or for evil.  Impurity will usually show in words and thoughts, if we are willing to pay attention to those words and thoughts, even going so far to ask those around us where they may see areas of our lives in need of God’s healing touch.

I think James would say being a doer of the word is to have a desire for true religion.  And true religion—the pursuit of good practices of worship, action, and purity—will shape us.  If we wait until we can worship with total integrity, we would never step foot inside of the church.  If we wait until we can do every action with total devotion, we’d sit at home and never do anything good.  If we wait to live for God until we are totally pure, it will never happen as we are never pure, we all fall short.

But that isn’t the point of James.  James wants us to praise God with all that we can and with our entire being.  James wants us to be upset at a world where people suffer needlessly and where we respond to that suffering.  And James wants us to be dissatisfied with our brokenness and we say, ‘enough, I want to be made whole’.

And James knows none of that will get us to heaven.  They are just signs that God in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit has laid claim to our lives here and now.   They are signs that the word of God isn’t something we just hear, but is something that we do.

Friends, James is a hard book, and I have to agree with Luther that it is dangerous, but I think dangerous in a good way, in a radical way, in a transformative way.  What James is calling us to do is translate our faith in Christ into concrete acts of love and rediscover the power and meaning of our faith.  Then the words of the Gospel will touch our hearts and the hearts of those beyond the walls of the church.  Amen.