It Takes Hard Work
A sermon based on James 1:17-27
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on September 2, 2018
by Rev. Scott Elliott
Once upon a time there was a man who had weed pulling on his “to do” list. On a sweltering summer day he went outside and began that work. There were a lot of weeds and in a very short while the man was hot and sweaty and he began to daydream about being in the house with air conditioning and a tall glass of lemonade. Pretty soon the man stopped weeding, went inside poured a glass of lemonade and settled into a big easy chair in the cool air of his livingroom. As he sipped his iced drink he grabbed a tablet and looked up the word “weed” online and found it defined as “any plant growing where it is not wanted.” He put the tablet down and stared out a picture window to survey his yard and said to himself, “ You know I think every plant in the yard stands exactly where I want it!” So he checked “weed pulling” off his to-do list and went back to his easy chair and another glass of lemonade. 1
For those of you wondering, THAT is not an autobiographic story. But I am pretty sure that there’s a part of all of us that thinks about opting for comfort over hard work. The story is meant to make us smile but there is a sort of unstated moral to the humor in our smiling at how easy it is to give into comfort. And probably the better part of the moral is found in the converse truth that it takes discipline to not give in so the hard work gets done. A huge part of it, of course, is disciplining ourselves to not rationalize skipping work that is required, even if it means discomfort.
I guess we could say that a moral in the story is that NOTHING WORTHWHILE COMES EASY. As complicated as our Lectionary Text may seem, that simple moral – NOTHING WORTHWHILE COMES EASY– can be heard as a primary driving idea behind that Text.
James is dealing with “we don’t need to do work” attitudes. Presumably he is dealing with Christians wanted to be comfortable and opt for a “this is about me as an individual” approach to the religion.
Today self-centered theologies still exist. There are some where personal prosperity is the focus. The pitch appears to be faith, positive words and offerings to the right churches will cause God to increase our material wealth and security. That is a theology about being comfortable taking care of the one you see in the mirror that James references. It’s about hearing and believing claims that God wants us to have an easy life and created a comfortable easy way to get it. If you buy in and believe and go to certain churches and bring them offerings then “Voilà!” you are religious, and the religion you have is worthwhile–and will get you get rich. It’s a theology that allows the comfort of personal well being without feeling much need to work on the weeds of injustices and suffering of others. It is a way quite divergent from the Jesus’s Way and stains believers with worldly ways that quite ironically Jesus taught his followers to avoid– in fact the only person Jesus ever turned away from his following was a rich man who refused to share wealth with the poor.
In theologies where there’s no need to be doers of the word – as James calls it– we end up with things like faith focused on personal prosperity and little need to do the uncomfortable work prophets tell us to do. You know things like seeking justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with God. When personal wealth is the goal of faith there is also no need to be doers of Jesus’ commands. There’s no need to tend to the poor, to the sick, to the imprisoned or to the stranger. There’s no need to put the command to love your neighbor and to love enemies into action. Theologies that primarily tend to self and to love of self are off the mark.
Our Lectionary reading calls into question forms of Christianity that deny that Jesus followers need to be doers of the word. And Jesus is the Word of God– as are the words from Micah on the quilts up here on the walls of this church. The verses from James directly challenge ideas of salvation by self-centered-ness and faith alone as THE Christian obligation. James challenges theologies that don’t do the work of caring for the oppressed which he names as orphans and widows in distress James challenges theologies that stain Christians with worldly ways like greed and lack love and my-comfort-comes first approaches to life. Being non-doers of God’s work of caring and ending injustices is off the mark. Being stained by worldly greed and lack love for others is off the mark. In Bible language that’s sinful stuff. Sin means to miss the mark.
When individuals and churches get comfort with take-care-of-me theologies, the weeds of oppression do not get taken down because the work of loving others does not get done. Justice is not sought. Kindness is not loved. God is not humbly walked with. Jesus’ Way– like much of the Bible– is about caring enough to work to pull oppression out of society. That is not comfortable work, but it needs to be done. It takes hard work that faith, positive words and mailing in checks will not accomplish.
As the reading puts it, we must be doers of the word, not merely hearers who deceive themselves And its not just prosperity oriented theologies that our lesson from James, when read and followed, challenges. There have long been other types of me-first religious theologies that skip over Jesus’ love everyone commandments and foster or let anger against others abide. It’s much easier to skip the love work that Jesus and the Bible command that we do. So we hear about theologies that are comfortable living with the weeds of hate, or even nurturing them to grow where they stand.
Hate can be found in many theologies and against all manner of people. Religious people can be heard touting hate for those of other faiths, those of other countries, those of other sexuality, those of other gender choices, those of other skin color, those of other economic status. Those deemed others are quickly, and thoughtlessly, and sordidly lashed out at in unmistakably unloving ways.
But as we heard in our lesson, James tells Christians not only to be slow to anger, but points out in no uncertain terms that “anger does not produce God’s righteousness!” All that anger of those who hate– despite what they might tell us and even truly believe– all that hate is not producing God’s righteousness. (It says that right there in the Bible, in today’s reading!) Instead the messy weeds of hate exist staining Jesus followers.
Many of the oppressed in James’ day – represented by the orphans and widows in our lesson– were hated and/or not cared for. James challenges these types of “lets take the easy route and not do the work of loving everyone ” theologies. In James’ Self-centered, look in the mirror and love me Christians were apparently around, as were the angry and hating types.
See, in God’s garden people have long tried to say the weeds of self centeredness and the weeds of hate are not weeds . . . but they are. Sitting back and being comfortable and pretending to be doers of the word by primarily tending to our own present life or afterlife considerations, will not cut it. Nor does lashing out in anger and in hate. Hate has never, ever been Jesus’ Way. Instead Jesus’ Way, as he lived and taught it, requires a lot of hard work. Jesus’ Way as we hear virtually every week in here is all about love.
And Love is an action word. Love is action meant to be aimed not just at the people we see in the mirror or at our family dinner table. Love is an action meant to be aimed at ALL others. And Jesus makes it clear that all those others we want to not care for, want to not like, want to hate– those people, we must care for and love. That makes us uncomfortable. It takes hard work to pull the weeds of uncaring. It takes hard work to pull the weeds of hate. But those nasty feelings against others that grow in the yard of life? Christians are called to get up out of our comfort zones and weed them out.
Me-oriented theologies declare in one way or another that those weeds of hate are not weeds at all, but something we can ignore or rename . . .Or worse of all to nourish and have in the garden of life. So instead of getting rid of hate, the claim is we do not need to. Sometimes the claim even becomes that hateful acts against others well being are actually acts of love. So missions and ministries include lashing with tongues of hate-full abuse– misnamed as love.
Evil often claims its acts are not evil, but as James puts it in the lesson:
If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.
Religion done right acts lovingly, tending to the oppressed and staying unstained by unholy worldly ways. As James writes:
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.
Jesus asks us to love neighbors and enemies. Jesus tells us we are judged by how we take care of the poor and the sick and imprisoned and stranger.
It is not just other religious people. We miss the mark plenty of times ourselves. It takes a lot of work to love our own families, it is easy enough to get comfortable with just doing that. There’s a part of all of us who would like to opt for the metaphoric easy chair and lemonade in a controlled climate over doing the hard work of loving and caring. As Micah put it, seeking justice and loving kindness. Or as Jesus puts it, love neighbors and enemies.
Or as James puts it, be “doers of the word.” The word being the Word of God, which is not the Bible per se but the breath God uses to speak creation into being and guide us toward well being of all– which Christians experience swirling through our existence in the Creator, in Christ and in the Holy Spirit.
In our TAG class last week – kind of like James does in our reading today– we ended our session trying to put into modern understanding how we could tell when our theology, our religion, was on track with respect to others. We came up with a formula which I am wrapping up this sermon with. I think the formula dovetails nicely with our lesson. Here is my summary of where I understood we ended up:
Our religion done right is focusing on taking action to work toward a world where sufficient food, water, shelter, healthcare and respect are one day provided to every person so that we all have well being.
Food, water, shelter, healthcare, all those are needed, but the formula is not complete, without respect. At the end of the day our religion done right is about valuing each human being.
It takes a lot of work to focus on doing religion that way. It is so much easier to not worry about the provision of necessities to others. And it is particularly easy to not respect others. Indeed it actually often feels hardest to provide respect to others – which is somewhat ironic because respect has very little, if any material cost. It does though require a lot of uncomfortable and hard work! Being doers of the word is difficult.
May we all strive to be such doers so that one day all humans are valued and have well being.
1. Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol 3 had a joke along these lines that I modified.
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