August 30, 2015
The Word today comes from the Letter of James, brother of Jesus and later the leader of the church in Jerusalem. Some scholars refer to it as New Testament Wisdom Literature. In his introduction to this letter in “The Message”, Eugene Peterson says, “When Christian believers gather in churches, everything that can go wrong sooner or later does.” (What a relief to know that we are not alone!)
“The letter of James shows one of the church’s early pastors skillfully going about his work of confronting, diagnosing, and dealing with areas of misbelief and misbehavior that had turned up in congregations committed to his care. Deep and living wisdom is on display here, wisdom both rare and essential. Wisdom is not primarily knowing the truth … it is skill in living. For, what good is a truth if we don’t know how to live it? What good is an intention if we can’t sustain it?”
So I’m going to read today from The Message. It’s a contemporary paraphrase by Eugene Peterson. Listen for the wisdom, wisdom that carries over from generation to generation. Do you hear him talking to us today? Listen for a phrase that jumps out at you.
Every desirable and beneficial gift comes out of heaven. The gifts are rivers of light cascading down from the Father of Light. There is nothing deceitful in God, nothing two-faced, nothing fickle. He brought us to life using the true Word, showing us off as the crown of all his creatures.
Post this at all the intersections, dear friends,: Lead with your ears, follow up with your tongue, and let anger straggle along in the rear. God’s righteousness doesn’t grow from human anger. So throw all spoiled virtue and cancerous evil in the garbage. In simple humility, let our gardener, God, landscape you with the Word, making a salvation-garden of your life.
Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you are a listener when you are anything but, letting the Word go in one ear and out the other. Act on what you hear! Those who hear and don’t act are like those who glance in the mirror, walk away, and two minutes later have no idea who they are, what they look like.
But whoever catches a glimpse of the revealed counsel of God — the free life!— even out of the corner of his eye, and sticks with it, is no distracted scatterbrain but a man or woman of action. That person will find delight and affirmation in the action.
Anyone who sets himself up as “religious” by talking a good game is self-deceived. This kind of religion is hot air and only hot air. Real religion, the kind that passes muster before God the Father, is this: Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight, and guard against corruption from the godless world.
Let’s take a moment to think about what we just heard. What did you hear? What was that bit of wisdom that spoke to you?
“Act on what you hear” jumped out at me.
Researchers say on average:
We retain 20% of what we hear.
30% of what we see.
50% of what we hear and see.
75% of what we hear, see and talk about.
90% of what we hear, see, talk about and DO.
So we’re going to try a little experiment today. We just heard the Word. Let’s add seeing to hearing. Wisdom is handed down from generation to generation, often in different words, but the message is there none the less. When I was doing my homework on this passage, I found lots of quotes - little proverbs written over the centuries. Let’s read some of them together:
“Preach at all times; if necessary, use words.” St. Francis of Assisi
“Faith without works is like a bird without wings; though she may hop with her companions on earth, yet she will never fly with them to heaven.”
Frances Beaumont, 17th Century
“Go put your creed into your deed.” Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th Century
“What you do speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say.”
Henry Adams, 19th Century
“Say little and do much.” Rabbi Shammai
“I’d rather see a sermon than hear one any day. I’d rather one should walk with me than merely tell the way.” Edgar Guest
And then my favorite: a Japanese fable about a man who went to heaven and to his surprise he saw a shelf covered with human tongues. The heavenly guide told him, "These are the tongues of people who spoke sweet words of virtues, who said what was right, but never did anything to follow their words. So their tongues have come to rest in heaven and the rest of them are somewhere else.”
There’s a Chinese proverb that goes like this:
“I hear and I forget,
I see and I remember,
I do and I understand.”
It’s by doing that we embody the word of God. It’s how we come to fully understand what these ancient scriptures are telling us about living our lives in right relationship with God.
James is talking about how we let God’s Word, which is implanted in our hearts, have its full effect in our lives and in our world. It’s not just a source of intellectual stimulation and academic debate. It’s not about right dogma, or knowing eloquent theological terms. It’s about doing.
Yvette Flunder, an eloquent preacher, and doer of the word, fired us up two weeks ago at Andover Newton when she spoke at the National Church Leadership Institute that Reebee and I attended. She accused mainline Christians of the sin of passivity. “We need to admit that one of the reasons the world is in trouble is that we are not in proper Covenant with God. It’s a two sided thing. When are we going to do our part and stop waiting for God to fix it? Peace loving people are woefully silent. When are we going to be as loud as the haters and drown out their voices to lift up the voice of God?” Yvette doesn’t mince words. She’s uses them to call us to action.
She echoes the words of President Obama in his eulogy for Clementa Pinckney, the slain pastor at Emanuel AME Church, when he said that “every time something like this happens somebody says we have to have a conversation about race. But “we don’t need more talk. To settle for symbolic gestures without following up with the hard work of more lasting change — that’s how we lose our way again.”
How long has this country been talking about race? I was reading an article about the “Black Lives Matter” movement this week. “Activists have spent the year since Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Mo. working to make the rest of the country confront racial issues that many would rather ignore.
That has meant shutting down highways in St. Louis, holding die-ins in NYC and Washington, blocking bridges in Charleston, S.C., and protesting at police-commission meetings in LA. Lately it has meant disrupting presidential campaign events in Phoenix and Seattle. Black Lives Matter has staged more than 1,000 demonstrations… to keep the spotlight trained on the effects of structural racism.” (Time vol. 186 #8 2015)
They’ve already won some notable victories and they say they’re just getting started. As one of the speakers at the NCLI conference said: Secular groups are doing a far better job of addressing these pressing justice issues than most of our churches.
James tells his congregations: “Those who hear and don’t act are like those who glance in the mirror, walk away, and two minutes later have no idea who they are, what they look like.”
How often does a tragedy make the 24 hour news cycle, only to be quickly replaced and forgotten by the next one? How many hours do we spend listening to talking heads and talking politicians with nothing to show for it?
Let’s now add talking to our listening and hearing. What are those big issues that get plenty of talking time, and little action, or no measurable results? What stories are grabbing our headlines that we need to pay attention to?
Gun control - Sandy Hook - working to end gun violence and regulate gun ownership
Reforming the criminal justice system - disproportionate number of minorities incarcerated with poor legal representation
Climate change - global warming
expanding medicaid in all states so everyone has adequate health care
increasing the minimum wage
fair voting rights - voter ID laws, elimination of early voting days, closing minority poling places - influence of billionaires on elections - Citizen’s United
homelessness - affordable housing
child protection - DCF - foster care
opiod overdose crisis
Racial profiling and police brutality
closing women’s health centers
This list could go on for pages. What do all these issues have in common? They are all political. What does it take to fix them?
new laws - will and action of our legislators - constituents to speak up, and if not heard, to take action - change of heart and priorities - change in attitude - grass roots movements
No longer can we afford the sin of passivity.
So often we’ve heard “You can’t talk politics in church. You might offend someone. Then you can’t talk about Jesus. He was political and so was his message. So much of what needs to be fixed in this country cannot be fixed by writing a check (although those are needed too). But in many cases that is only a bandaid. It doesn’t get to the systemic issues underlying the root causes of the problem.
This brings us to the next step: We retain 90% of what we hear, see, talk about and DO. It makes me think of that bumper sticker “What would Jesus do?” or better yet, “What would Jesus have us do?” We can’t do it all. So many issues. You have to pick and choose.
What are we here at Eliot presently doing to address some of these issues?
What are we doing beyond writing checks?
cookouts this summer
solar panels, divestment, green church
MLK Day of service
In the coming weeks I want you to think about this, and talk to each other: As we look at this coming program year at Eliot, what are the issues we as individuals are passionate about? What will define us as the Body of Christ to our wider community out there? What will we choose ‘to do’ next?
If we want a 21st Century model of what James is talking about here, we need look no further than Jimmy Carter: how his faith, his understanding of “The Word” has shaped his life’s work - from teaching Sunday School at his church in Plains for decades to his work at the Carter Center and Habitat for Humanity - working to make this world a better place for all of humanity.