“Living Justly” a Sermon
by the Rev. Jay Lawlor
15th Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 17, Year B – Sep 2, 2018
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church – Richmond, IN
James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
I am very excited today because I have the opportunity to preach on the Letter of James, one of my favorite books of the Bible. James, the brother of Jesus, as historical evidence attests, was the undisputed leader of the Jesus Movement following the Resurrection. Jesus’ followers affirm James as the head of the Christian community in the early days of the Church. While not an original disciple of Jesus, James became a follower after an appearance to him by the Risen Christ. It is written that Christ imparted special knowledge to James. He quickly rose in prominence to become the first Bishop of Jerusalem – universally considered the “Mother Church” in the early centuries.
James was know as “James the Just” for, like his brother Jesus, he had a passionate concern with the plight of the poor, and was a tireless champion of the destitute and dispossessed. The Letter of James was either written by James himself or is a collection of writings and sayings of James later crafted into a letter by an admirer. Scholars are not entirely certain, but the Letter of James is confidently traced to what James himself believed, preached, and wrote about. Therefore, it makes the Letter of James one of the most important books in the Bible.
We have in the Letter of James the beliefs of the early Church’s leader. A Church leader, the first Bishop of Jerusalem, who also was the brother of Jesus. James knew how his brother lived, and what his brother believed and taught. Who better to carry on Jesus’ message? Who better for Christians to look to – other than the life and teachings of Jesus himself – to understand the heart and mind of Jesus?
From the Letter of James emerges a clear message of concern for the poor and oppressed. From the Letter of James emerges a clear message of Christians needing to live lives committed to love of God and love of neighbor in seeking justice for the poor, oppressed, and dispossessed. And this, as James, indicates, requires a Church community living and working in unity with one another.
The context for the Letter of James is a Church under pressure. A church facing both discrimination and economic persecution from the Roman oppressors, and concerns of the Church adopting the mores of those oppressors – chiefly valuing money, power, and prestige over community. And, from the pursuit of money, power, and prestige the evils of attacking other members of the community with gossip and criticism. James writes:
You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 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.
But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 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.
If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. (James 1:3-26)
James understood that when Christian community loses sight of its mission: to love God and love neighbor – by including love for each other – it can be utterly destructive to community and derails Christian mission. It no longer becomes about following Jesus by living as the heart and hands of Jesus in the world. It may have the outward appearance of Christian community, and some things may even get done that looks like Christian mission and ministry, but it is deception. And the deception is in the hearts of the members of the community.
James reminded the Christian community in Jerusalem – and throughout the Church, that: “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.” (James 1:27)
James knew it is Christian mission in serving those most in need, those most oppressed by society, and doing it with the genuine love of Christ in one’s heart – a heart directed by love of God and love of neighbor – not seeking riches, power, or tearing down others – was the purest expression of living one’s faith.
James knew well what his brother Jesus said in addressing this very issue with a group of Scribes and Pharisees, as recorded in Mark’s Gospel, “It is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.” (Mark 7: )
Human history has always been littered with the defilement which can come from the human heart. This seems particularly acute in what we are living through in this current moment in our history as a nation. What comes from within, from the human heart, is revealing some disturbing truths about our society. Truths which, perhaps, we thought we had moved past.
It turns out fear, even hatred, of the other – in the many ways groups define those different from themselves: racism, sexism, homophobia, gender identity, culture, and the list goes on . . . and the violence and oppression which grows out of fear and hate. And it is not just individuals or even groups. We have systemic issues of oppression protected by powerful interests who, as Jesus and James warned against, value money, power, and prestige over community.
Nonetheless, my friends, we are not to despair. While we cannot, must not, ignore what is going on around us – the injustices we are living through, we know there is another way. The Letter of James was written to help instruct us in what our role as followers of Jesus should be. Jesus came to offer us that other way. The way is a love of God and love of neighbor so deep, so profound, that it is written on our hearts. For what comes from within, from the human heart, either expresses the love God has for all humanity – indeed for all of creation, or it is absent of that love. In the absence of love is where evil intentions grow. In the absence of love is hate. In the absence of love is fear. In the absence of love is oppression and violence.
Let us not be hearers who forget about the love of God, but doers who act in the love of God. Amen.