James 1:17–27 (NRSV)
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. 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.
Hearing and Doing the Word
19 You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 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.
22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 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.
26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 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.
There are many thing going on in the world around us. Things that make us question the very fabric of our being. Many of us feel as if everything we have ever stood for is being ripped out from under us and we stand alone, we stand with no support, and no direction. We feel as if we must grasp ahold of what every is left of the life se have known and hold on tightly, we grasp because we are afraid. Why do we fear? Why are we afraid of our future? Why do we look at the world around us and not see the hand of God but only chaos?
Perspective. A few weeks ago I mentioned that perspective is a very important. The ability to look at things from a different point of view can bring a different understanding and maybe even deepen our faith. The past month of so I presented a different perspective on the interpretation of the letter to the Ephesians that many of us had not considered before. I did this because it is necessary at times to be challenged so that we can grow, some might consider that perspective a novelty or an action to raise the eyebrows. That is not the intention. It was necessary to show this perspective so that we might see more, understand more, and be able to take steps of faith beyond where we have been. Last week I wanted us to consider the emotions of a church divided and the base emotional reaction that we have when we think, perceive, or assume actions of other. What base reaction occurs? We prepare for a fight, we begin to choose sides and garner support against the perceived enemy, and we misunderstand or are blinded to the reality of what God is doing all around us.
This week we begin to look at the letter of James. Although scholars debate who wrote this letter, because I guess scholars just like to debate, the general consensus is that this letter was written by James the brother of Jesus. I want us to consider this just for a brief amount of time because James was not always the largest supporter of the activities of Jesus. In many cases he opposed the ministry of Jesus and deemed His actions as a threat to the family. James had a perspective about things, he had an assumption as to what reality was, and his conclusion was to oppose his brother. But something happened to this once hostel sibling, his perspective was changed. At one time James was known as James the judge, but we now know him as James the just. He was once geared up to battle his own brother but that changed and he became a servant of the very one he once opposed. Everything changed when he encountered the reality of what God was doing around him. He encountered the living Christ.
James experienced something that he could not really explain, he experienced something that caused him to reconsider everything he once knew, and because of this he started down a different path. James was always a devout individual, even when scripture depicts him in the worst light his devotion to God was never questioned. Yet after James saw the broken body of Jesus that was buried in a tomb restored to life, the course of his life was altered. He became an outspoken supporter of the ministry of the apostles to the point that he became the leader of what we now call the church of Jerusalem.
He speaks of generosity as being a perfect gift from God, coming down from the Father of Lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. I want us to consider this for a moment because many people will argue that there is a distinct difference between God revealed in the Old Testament and the New, yet James is saying that there is no variation or change. Remember this is a devout man of faith that at one time opposed his very own brother believing that Jesus was expressing something contrary to the truth, and he is now speaking in support. There is no variation or change in the Father of Light, God has not changed but what humanity sees does. Perspective is important, not because it changes God, but because it might allow us to see God more fully.
James then encourages the readers and listeners of this letter to understand something very important. “[Let] everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” Let us allow that to just percolate in our hearts and minds for a moment. Let everyone be quick to listen. The first thing about this statement is that to be quick to listen there is a requirement for another personality to be present, a person that is speaking. James is encouraging us to place a high value on relationships. That a true servant of God listens. To listen to the stories of another we affirm that of Christ in them, we are telling them that they are worthy of our attention and are valued as a human being.
The desire to be heard is powerful. It is a base desire of all humanity, it is one that is deeply rooted in our very genes, we are a species that thrives in community. Science is proving that our brains can not function to their highest potential unless there are other brains around us to communicate with. When people feel as if they are not being heard it devastates the individual and the community as a whole because it devalues their and our humanity. Those that are unheard are pushed off to the fringe of society, and when this continues it breeds anger and revolt. The media right now is filled with the protests of a segment of our population that feels that they have not been heard, that is the root of the Black lives matter campaign.
This idea of listening, of building a relationship with those around us goes beyond humanity. It also applies to listening to God, and recognizing His place in the community. The most recognizable aspect of our Friends tradition of faith is our practice of listening worship. From the very origin of our movement leaders and worshipers would meet together to simply listen in silence. James and our spiritual ancestors of the Friends tradition recognized the importance of allowing space to listen to God by observing the lifestyle that Jesus lived. He made it His custom to worship, and he would withdraw often to pray in isolated places, and then he would minister to the community. Listening is not a passive task but the most important aspect of a relationship with humanity and with the divine.
“Slow to speak,” is the second part of James’ advices to the followers of Jesus. When we look more deeply into the usage of the words that James penned this has deep meaning. On the surface we might say that we should allow some time to pass between listening and responding vocally, but that is not the full depth of what James is saying. To be slow to speak is to mind what we say and not mock, judge, speak falsely, or accuse. So when we speak we should make every effort to encourage a deepening relationship, our words should be considerate and uplifting, building up the community with love and grace which flows from the father of light.
Next is slow to anger. This anger is not the initial emotional response of being upset but refers to wrath or inciting deeds of anger. To be slow to anger means we should actively seek the opposite of wrath which is forgiveness and reconciliation if a relationship is strained.
So when James says, “Let us be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger,” he is encouraging us to build relationships between humanity and God, encourage a deepening and more meaningful conversation that is focused on grace, forgiveness and reconciliation instead of condemnation. And if we are willing to listen and strive to encourage and reconcile relationships we should be moved to participate in that relationship through action.
James says be doers not just hearers. Again this is a reflection of the life of Jesus, he would move out of the isolated places of prayer and would enter into the community ministering to all of those in need. He would heal the sick of diverse illnesses, and he would listen to the words spoken to him. He would not just stand and preach but often he would allow the conversation to flow. Consider the woman at the well, he asked her for a drink of water, which immediately entered into a political debate over the validity of the heritage and faith of the people of Samaria. Jesus did not condemn the woman but was slow of speech, moving the conversation away from who is right to something deeper as he explained that a time will come that true worship will not be done on the mountain or in the temple. He then moved the conversation to grace.
James is telling us that God has not changed but our perception has, it has become cloudy and we need to step out of the clouds to see the truth. He is saying that we can be completely right and completely wrong at the same time if we are not actively participating in honoring and restoring the humanity of our community to a right relationship with God. James was a devout man of faith yet he realized that all his religious devotion was not helping anyone. Jesus does not call us to participate in ritual but in live. He is calling us to reflect the light of the Father to the world that is trapped in darkness. And to reflect that light we must listen to those around us, we must speak words of encouragement and restore their relationships with the community. This is true worship, the true religion. It is not about what we are getting out of the church services, or sermons, but listening to the voice of God and the voices of those around us. It is about being moved into action and living the love of Christ with others.
As we enter this most sacred time of our meeting for worship, the time where we listen to the voice of God, I pray that we will be quick to listen, and respond accordingly to what he has to say. Let us also consider how well we follow the advice of Jesus’ brother and be willing to help those that could use the encouraging word or deed.