The following was first delivered as a sermon at the Congregational Church in Exeter on August 30, 2015.
1:17 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.
1:18 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.
1:19 You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger;
1:20 for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.
1:21 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.
1:22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.
1:23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror;
1:24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.
1:25 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.
1:26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.
1:27 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.
Last week I read an article in the New York Times about a long journey. A woman and her husband were on vacation in Germany, and they went out to an island in the North Sea. And one day as she was walking the beach, she found a bottle that had washed ashore. That’s not so unusual. But when she picked it up, she saw a note inside that told her to break the bottle.
So she did. And she read a message from a man named, George Parker Bidder asking the person who found the bottle to write to him in England and let him know where they found the bottle.
There was just one problem. She couldn’t tell George Parker Bidder because he had died in 1954. And the bottle had been cast into the sea as an experiment around 1906. Bidder had been trying to study the tidal patterns of the ocean. And it had taken far longer than his lifetime, 109 years, for the message to reach its destination.
That article reminded me of another letter, one sent not in a bottle, but one that has been passed on for even longer than George Parker Bidder’s. The author wrote this letter not really to anyone in particular, but as a letter to followers of Christ in general. And he cast it out into the waters of the early church, the way George Parker Bidder cast his bottles, hoping for it to find its readers and inspire a response.
The only thing is, the waters weren’t always friendly ones for James’ letter. At first it was in doubt whether it would become a part of the Bible. And Martin Luther, at the start of the Protestant Reformation, even argued that it should be taken out. He even called it an “epistle of straw”.
A lot of the resistance to the letter is that James concentrates on the way Christians act, and not so much on the grace of God. And for people like Luther in particular, early Protestants who wanted people to concentrate on the grace of God, they worried about how parts of James, verses like “faith without works is dead”, would be read. They didn’t want people believing that God’s love or grace was in any way dependent on our actions.
That’s a good caution to hold, of course, but there is so much in this letter that we Christians can’t stand to leave just floating out on the tides anymore. So much that modern Christians in particular need to hear. Like today’s passage.
James writes, “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights…” and he ends, “…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.”
In other words, to be a Christian is to be generous. It is to give freely of ourselves. And it is to care for the least among us, even when the world itself has turned its back.
We are not asked to do these things in order to be saved, or loved by God. We are asked to do these things because God already loves us, and because we are living our lives in gratitude for that grace.
But James says that sometimes we forget that. He says sometimes we are like people who look into the mirror, and see ourselves, but then forget who we are the second we turn away. We lose our sense of identity that quickly.
For Christians, that means we lose our sense of what we are meant to do and to be in this world. We hear the words while we are reading them, or thinking about them, but we forget them as soon as we turn away.
James tells his readers to care for the widows and the orphans. In his time, when women and children had so few rights or resources, he was telling Christians to care for the least of these. He was saying look out for the people who have nothing to give you, and who are falling through the cracks. Look out for the ones whom the world has thrown away.
Two thousand years after James cast those words upon the waters, the message still hasn’t quite made it to shore. At least, not everywhere. We get it right sometimes, when we think about it, but far too often Christians get it wrong.
Who are the widows and orphans of today? Who are the ones who are so disenfranchised, so forgotten, so written off that they are at best ignored and at worst used as a debating point? Sometimes they are literal widows and orphans, but often they are not. They’re the people who people say “brought it on themselves”. They’re the ones we argue should just “try harder”. They’re the ones whose choices we are fortunate enough to be able to Monday morning quarterback from our places of comfort.
That’s not what we are called to do. And that’s not who we are called to be.
Christians, far too often, are not seen as the ones who step in to care for the widows and orphans of our time. Too often we are seen as the ones who judge. The ones who turn a blind eye. Or the ones who only add to the suffering of others.
And our actions are more than just what we do. Because our choices become who we are. They become signals to the world of what we really believe. Because the reality is that when people look at Christians, and wonder why we come to this place every week, they don’t want to know about the finer points of our theology. They want to know what we stand for, and they’ll figure that out by watching how we act.
That true for all of us. That’s true for us as we walk into our offices Monday through Friday. That’s true of us in our own homes. And that’s even true of our youth as they navigate the halls of their schools. The way we act, all of us, directly communicates to others who we really are, and what we really believe.
And that’s especially true when it is hard, or unpopular.
I occasionally go into our archives downstairs and read a little of our church’s history. I did that earlier this summer, and I found myself drawn especially to the church annual reports from the 1960’s. That hardly sounds like riveting reading, I know, but whatever particular file I choose, I always seem to find something interesting, and this trip was no exception.
This time I found the annual report written early in 1966. In it was the report of the then pastor, the Rev. George Booth. He was recounting all that he had done in 1965, and there towards the end, just after a paragraph about some routine committee work he had done, was this sentence: “In March I went to Montgomery, Alabama to join the Selma-Montgomery march. I went as representative of the New Hampshire Conference, but also – in my heart and with approval of the Board of Deacons of this church – representing you.”
The end of the Civil Rights story had not been written when Rev. Booth went from Exeter, New Hampshire to Montgomery, Alabama to march with Dr. King. It was 50 years ago, and no one knew how it would end. In many ways, we still don’t. But Rev. Booth, with the blessing of this church, decided to go to Alabama and stand as a witness to the love of Christ for all.
It wasn’t enough to stay here in the safety of New Hampshire and say what he believed. He had to act. And his church agreed with that, and sent him with a blessing.
The days for action are not over. There are still those who need our voices. They need our support. And they need our action. How we respond, will define who we are. And it will tell the world what we believe.
And so here is my challenge to you this week. You have found the bottle on the beach that James cast onto the waves so many years ago. You have opened it, and read the message. And now, just like the woman who found that bottle on her vacation, you have a choice. You can let the world know you got the message. Or you can just throw it back into the waves.
The choice is yours. The choice is all of ours. And there is a world out there that needs not just our thoughts and prayers, but also our prayerful action. It’s time to open the bottle, and to respond to the word.