Be Doers

September 2, 2018

Series: September 2018

Category: Communion Sunday

Speaker: Bethany Nelson

James 1:19-27

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. 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.

 Be Doers

Whenever I read one of the letters included in the Bible, I like to imagine about the community being addressed. What prompted this letter, I wonder?  Why was it written?  Likely this letter from James was not written to one specific church community, but instead it was a general letter written to numerous churches struggling with similar issues.  When I read this particular section of James’ letter, I envision a community who considers themselves quite pious – I am guessing they study scripture frequently, worship together, are careful to follow all the religious laws. They probably think pretty highly of themselves and their religiosity.  However, it seems as if they are struggling to put all of that religious wisdom into practice. It sounds as if they are often angry with each other, not speaking kindly to one another, and not caring for the least of these.  It sounds like they are hearers of the word, but not doers.

When I read this letter, I am reminded of a children’s story called “Webster the Preaching Duck.” It begins with ducks slowly waddling from the lake to the church.  “Waddle through the reeds, waddle up the bank, waddle down the hill, and into the church.  And there he stands, the world’s greatest preacher, Webster D. Duck!”  Pastor Webster then begins to preach, “The sermon I bring is praise the Lord who created the wing!  The Lord wants ducks high in the sky, so he gave us wings so we can fly!  We’re not bound by gravitation, we are made for aviation!”  The ducks start getting excited, “Flying’s in and waddling’s out!”  They begin to sing, “Hallelujah!  Above the mountains we will glide, V formation side by side.  Over deserts, over seas, through the clouds, upon the breeze.”  When service ends and the ducks leave to go home, they tell preacher Webster, “Thank you for your sermon today!  Inspiration, food for thought, powerful message.  You touched our hearts. Thank you.”  Then, all the ducks, wings tucked in, stretch out their legs, and they begin … to waddle along, waddle up the hill, away from church, how their feet ache – waddle waddle waddle, back to the lake.[i]

It is no good, says James, for us to get inspired in worship or renewed by our personal spiritual practices, if we then make no change in our daily lives. We are called to do the word. When we sing our closing hymn, I invite you to pay close attention to the lyrics.  “Speak to me that I may speak … Lead me, Lord, that I may lead … Teach me, Lord, that I may teach.”  Be doers, says James, not merely hearers.  Now before I go any further, let me be clear – this is not a faith vs. works debate.  The message is not, “God will only love you if you are a doer.”  God loves all God’s beloved children unconditionally.  Instead, James is sharing with us what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.  He is sharing with us how we are called to be in relationship with God and with one another.  As followers of Jesus, we are called to care for one another – specifically, he says, we are called to care for orphans and widows.  Why does he choose these two groups of people?  Because they were about the lowest of the low in that society.  James chooses orphans and widows to make the point that we are called to care for everyone, including and especially the least of these.

James doesn’t just talk about doing acts of service, however, He begins this part of his letter by discussing how we speak to one another. Be quick to listen, he says, slow to speak and slow to anger.  The Psalmist also suggests that we speak truth from our hearts and do not slander with our tongues.  Part of being a doer is speaking to each other with love and with kindness. 

I read both of these scripture passages with interest because I am continually shocked and surprised by how we as a society speak to each other. It is often hard for me to believe what we think is acceptable to say to one another.  I read with great grief a news story just this past week about a 9-year old boy who died by suicide after being bullied with taunts and insults at his school.  Nine years old!  He had just started 4th grade.  When children that young are using such hateful language, I can only wonder where they have learned that from.

Social media has only compounded the ways in which we speak negatively to and about each other. Back in July, over the course of just a few days, 3 different Major League Baseball players were called out for offensive tweets they had posted on Twitter several years earlier.  These tweets were filled with racist, sexist, and homophobic language.  Each of them has since expressed regret, saying that those teenage tweets do not reflect their values or who they are now.  At some point in their lives, though, they thought it was OK to write such things.  To use their words for harm.  What might it mean to be doers of the word and to speak with kindness and love in all our communications, including electronic?  

Tweets from the President of the United States are another example. At different times, he has referred to various people as dummy, clown, dog, flunkie, loser in life, wacko, total dud, nut job, stupid, slimeball.[ii]  And those are just a few examples.  Do not slander with your tongue, says the Psalmist.  Be doers of the word, says James.

When I was first thinking about this sermon, I was going to focus on the importance of doing acts of service in the world. Of caring for the orphans and the widows. That is extremely important.  But I think that we as a congregation do a pretty good job of that. We can always do better, but we do well. In fact, we are going to highlight our acts of service as part of our stewardship campaign in the coming weeks.  Next week, take a look at the board in Findlay Hall that begin to display all the many ways you are active in our wider community.

Based on these news articles and the social media feeds I have been reading lately, perhaps the more timely and urgent message from James is how we are to be doers of the word in our day to day lives. Not just in the bigger acts of service, but in our daily interactions.  How are we doers of the word in how we treat one another, how we speak to one another, how we talk about one another?

In this past week following John McCain’s death, I have been incredibly moved by how people have talked about his influence on their lives. People of every political party and of no political party have praised they ways that he served this country.  One quote that I took note of was from writer and columnist Connie Schultz. She said of McCain, “I didn’t always agree with him, but I liked him — a lot. He was always kind and respectful in our interactions, and I learned from him.”

I should note that Connie Schultz is the wife of Senator Sherrod Brown, an outspoken Democratic Senator. I am sure that Sherrod Brown voted opposite of John McCain - an outspoken Republican Senator - many, many times.  I’m sure they frequently had different views of what legislation was best for this country.  And yet, Connie Schultz is able to say of McCain that he was “always kind and respectful in our interactions, and I learned from him.”

That doesn’t sound like much, does it? To be kind and respectful in our interactions, and to learn from each other?  But it is everything.

Leia Pierce, the mother of the 9-year old boy who died last week, was recently interviewed on CNN. In the midst of her deep grief, her message was not one of hate or revenge.  Instead, she issued a call for love and kindness.  “We have to stop hating each other. We have to show more love and compassion in this world. Nothing is going to change, things are going to get worse if someone doesn’t just smile and be kind and show respect.  Simple things.  My kids and I would tell people they are beautiful or give them a compliment.  My son loved opening doors for people.  Sometimes people are angry because no one has shown them kindness or love.  Usually the ones who are the meanest are hurt the most.  You help them when you show kindness.  I had a son who was nothing but pure love.  I appreciate this world for letting me have my son for nine years.  But I wish I could have had him longer.  And I’m pretty sure I could have if we could have just learned to love.”[iii]

That is what we practice when we come to this table together.  We practice being doers of love.  Because at this table, all are welcome.  Remember that Jesus invited even the one who was about to betray him to join him at the table.  Here at this table, we dare to show what our world can be – a place where everyone is treated with kindness and love.  So let us come and share together in God’s feast of love at this table.  And when our meal is done and we leave this place, may we go out to be doers of God’s love in the world. Amen.