Doers of God’s Word
This sermon on James 1:22-27, 2:16 explores how we can be hearers of God’s word. We are called to be doers of the word.
Early on in my ministry, a retired physician who went by Duke and spoke in a drawl, walked into my office unannounced. He was someone used to barking out orders. “Preacher,” he said, “stop with all this namby-pamby do-gooder crap and stick the Bible. Souls need savin’.”
But, “Duke,” I said, “Doing good is in the Bible. Faith and good works are two halves of the same walnut. It’s right there in the book of James.
On this Labor Day weekend, we hear in our lesson from James that “faith without works is dead.” James was trying to convince people like Duke that faith by itself is not enough; it should be accompanied by loving actions toward others. Christianity is not a matter of just believing a set of theological positions and engaging in spiritual practices such as prayer and worship. James says that our beliefs should make a difference in how we treat other people.
Faith without works is dead
In context, it seems that some Christians were assuming that as long as you believed the right stuff about God, you could ignore the suffering of someone right next to you. Their attitude was, “Don’t get involved. Faith is what gets you into heaven.” So, James challenges this saying in effect, “Wait! Your beliefs ought to make a difference. You connect with God spiritually so that you can make a positive difference in the world.” The positive difference is what he calls works.
I like how James says don’t just be hearers of the word, be doers of the word. That is, following the teaching and example of Jesus transforms our hearts so that we look out not just for our own interests, but also the needs of others–especially those less fortunate than ourselves. Faith without works is dead. Good works are the manifestation, the evidence of a true faith.
So as we celebrate Labor Day, we do well to think about how we can do good works for others. Maybe you feel your faith has died. Today is a day for a resurrection. Doing something for someone else just may be the deliberator paddles to get you going again.
Hold yourself accountable for doing good works
I always appreciated how John and Charles Wesley, the founders of Methodism, established covenant groups. The idea was to get small groups of people together to support each other in living out the faith. Groups began their sessions by asking one another, “How is it with your soul?” They wanted to know how they could support you in your walk with God. Then they’d say, “Okay, Jesus says that we are supposed to care for the less fortunate, visit the sick, clothe people, and care for prisoners. What did you do this week to do anything about that and what are your plans for the week ahead?”
I was a member of a group like that. It reminded me that it’s one thing to have good intentions and another to perform the good works we intend. It’s easy to let this part of the faith slip, or to do things sporadically. Before the group, my attitude was to do a project here and there when it doesn’t demand too much of me, and when I believed it would leave me with a good feeling about myself for having done something so noble. Also, the project had to be convenient to my busy schedule. Showing up every week and having people ask you what you did this week revealed that you can’t rest on your laurels and talk about a few things you’ve done here and there in the past. When we are intentional and accountable to helping those in need, we spend less energy patting ourselves on the back for stuff we already did and we bake these works into our lives until it becomes second nature.
The questions asked influence future actions
So today, ask yourself the questions. How is it with my soul, my spiritual walk? What did I do this week to help someone, what plan can I make this week to make a positive difference in someone’s life?
These are important questions to ask because we tend to focus on what someone asks us about. If you know that your supervisor is going to ask you questions about certain areas, you focus on those areas. When I was a Methodist pastor, it seemed like the district superintendent was primarily interested in numbers. How many in church? How’s the budget? How have you cared for the facility? We referred to these as bricks, bodies and bucks. We were asked about them, so pastors tended to focus on them. The problem is that those were such limited questions and if you focused on those things too much, you could lose the whole thing because people are what matter, quality engagement, spiritual things that can’t be quantified.
It is why our church has this balance of worship, spiritual practices, programs, and outreach. Someone recently told me about how refreshing they found our church because as they said, “You don’t just talk about it, you do things for the community.”
So let me ask you. Are you holding yourself accountable for the right questions? When you regularly ask yourself or have others asking you about certain areas, you will rise to it. How can you hold yourself accountable for doing good works, for helping people, for living out your faith in a way that benefits others?
What is Your Work?
Another good question is to ask yourself, what is my primary work at this stage of my life? Again, I’m not talking about your occupation, your job. Even if you are retired, there is still something you can do for others, some service you can give–even if it is praying for the rest of us. If you’re conscious and breathing you have something you can contribute.
Maybe you are called to take care of your family, or to give back to the community through volunteering. Maybe you are called to be a listener for some, a source of laughter and playfulness for the too serious. Maybe your work is to be learning something that might be useful for someone else down the line. It doesn’t have to be some serious, cure cancer idea to count and be powerful. You can learn to make a meal that you share with someone else.
So what is your work or your purpose at this stage of life? What do you want your life to be about right now? How can you make a plan to get there? How can your church support you?
The Selfishness Gripping our Age
Our passage echoes so many other parts of scripture that remind us that we have been blessed by God to be a blessing to others. Faith has an orientation of looking out for others–especially those who are vulnerable or in need.
The serving others aspect of faith prevents too much navel-gazing. Often one of the best ways to lift your spirit or have a sense of vitality and joy is to do something for someone else. We are not all inclined toward those kinds of activities, so our faith gives us a reminder and motivation to look out for others.
Living out this passage challenges us to consistently ask how we can help others. That is a counter-cultural notion. A malignant sense of selfishness is gripping this age. I think it’s tied to a loss of religious connections. Surveys indicate that people are disassociating themselves from any religious tradition in record numbers. It’s not just mainline Christianity. It’s evangelical, and Jewish and Buddhist–everything. They call it the “none” generation. Because on surveys, when people indicate their religious preference they check the box marked, “none.”
And now that so few people are connected to any faith tradition, most people don’t have reminders to look out for others. Nearly every religion emphasizes a value on rising above selfishness to help others. As religious participation decreases, a sense of entitlement and selfishness increases. It’s becoming more normalized. Many don’t even think that they should think about others. “It’s not my job, not my problem. I’m busy enough just looking out for my self-interests.”
Applying James to the big issues of today
I think our passage from James can help frame our thinking on how we want to respond to the big issues of our time. How can we be helpful? What is our work?
When it comes to the pandemic, what is our work? What can we do to help stop the spread that leaves so many–especially children now–so vulnerable? So many people frame it by saying things like, “I’m not high risk, I’ll be okay even if I do get it. I don’t trust that what they are saying and put myself at risk.” What would happen if you began your thinking not by thinking about yourself, but of others? How might I be a link in the chain of the virus’ spread that is killing people right and left, including children who can’t be vaccinated.
The gospel makes clear that we are often called to make sacrifices for the benefit of others.
What happens when we frame homelessness, global warming, racism, and all the rest around asking what can I do to be part of the solution? Maybe it is learning or working on our own spirits and attitudes. Maybe it’s volunteering or speaking up when you hear someone being dehumanized with language. Or maybe it’s making a few decisions about how you go about your life that make a small difference. Instead of being defensive, assuming that these are too big for us to do anything about as individuals, we remember that our works combine with the works of others.
We can be more than hearers of God’s word. Let us be doers of God’s word.