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|"Hearers and Doers"
There was a book written about thirty-five years ago by Fritz Ridenour
entitled "How to Be a Christian Without Being Religious."
Now, I have some trouble with separating Christianity from religion, but it shouldn’t take more than few seconds of reflection for us to figure out what he's driving at.
For too often we carry around some strange notions of what it means to be religious that may not have a whole lot to do with what it means to be Christian.
In fact, sometimes I think that what some folks do in the name of religion may not have a whole lot to do with loving their neighbors.
But while Ridenour is concerned with the message of Paul's letter to the Romans, this morning I would like to focus on the letter of James, especially the latter half of the first chapter.
In the seventeenth verse, James tells us, "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."
And in that passage, James tells us that in God there is an eternal center of perfection. But James continues, "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."
And it is significant that we are considered "first fruits," for traditionally, the first fruits of harvest were considered holy and frequently offered to God.
In the twenty-first verse of the fifteenth chapter of Numbers, we read, "Throughout your generations you shall give to the Lord a donation from the first of your batch of dough." And again, in the fourth verse of the eighteenth chapter of Deuteronomy, "The first fruits of your grain, your wine, and your oil, as well as the first of the fleece of your sheep, you shall give him."
We ARE something special; of all the goodness and perfection in the creation of God, we ARE the first fruits of the harvest. But being the best of the harvest does not mean that we can sit around and gloat over being number one.
For we must make ourselves WORTHY of that position, and behave as if we deserved it. And James tells us what is expected of us.
"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."
And there is an echo here of the twenty-sixth verse of the fourth chapter of Paul's letter to the Ephesians: "Be angry, but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger."
And again, the fourth verse of the fourth Psalm: "When you are disturbed, do not sin; ponder it on your beds, and be silent." But we are not asked to IGNORE what we hear or see: indeed, we should be QUICK to hear. But having heard, we are instructed to be patient. And in that patience lies the work of God.
There is a cliche of the old west that has become a modern-day joke. But there is so much truth in it that we may indeed be laughing at ourselves when we laugh at it. It was said that the law of survival was to "shoot first and ask questions afterward."
And how often are we quick to anger and slow to hear rather than the other way around? How often are we quick to judge another person or what another person has done without giving truly careful consideration to that person and that person's actions?
How often are we gullible in believing what goes through the rumor mill?
I began to realize in my youth that my first impressions were usually wrong, based on a narrow, selfish view of the world. I still have to work hard to avoid falling victim to those first impressions.
In my first year in seminary I was so totally unimpressed with a particular faculty member during that professor's few visits to the courses I was then taking, that I scheduled my second year's courses to either completely avoid or at least delay as long as possible a further encounter with that person. And then I discovered I was wrong. Very wrong. So wrong that in my third year I actually intentionally scheduled a course with that professor.
"Quick to listen,...slow to anger." Jesus had something to say about this. When he encountered an angry mob preparing to stone a prostitute, the words were simple: "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her."
For if God can forgive us our sins, should we not also be forgiving of others?
"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." And in this context James is not talking about the sordidness of other people. He is not talking about the rank growth of wickedness of other people. He is talking about us. You and me. But we first need to admit that these weaknesses are within us; and even if we rid them today, they are prepared to come back tomorrow. But there is a remedy.
The implanted word is the gospel of Jesus Christ. And if we can receive that message in meekness and humility, it will grow within us. And it will save our souls.
Throughout the letter of James, he is assuming that the reader already knows the gospel; and he is less concerned with telling us what the gospel is than he is with telling us how we should go about using it in living our lives.
But in doing this, he can be pretty hard on us. Because after leading us to believe that we should be patient and forgiving, fearful that he may have lulled us into a false sense of complacency and lying down on the job, he suddenly shifts gears.
"But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves." That's a marvelous verse. And it's too bad that it has been so bent out of shape by folks outside the church.
For how many times have you heard it said by those who can't afford an hour a week, or even an hour a month, for that matter, for community worship, "I can be as good a Christian without going to church as those folks who do." And they may be at least partly right!
But look more closely at what James has said and what he has NOT said. He has NOT said to NOT be hearers of the word. In fact, he assumes that doers HAVE heard the word. In fact, how can we DO the word if we have not HEARD it? And I don't mean merely listening to a pastor preach; and I don't mean merely listening to scripture being read. The implanted word of God is more than that. We must also experience the word as it has become part of the lives of our neighbors.
And if we cannot regularly participate in worship in the community of our neighbors, how can we have any sense of what Jesus meant when he told us to LOVE our neighbors?
"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."
And here again I hear an echo of those outside the church. "Why should I go to church? I know folks who go to church on Sunday morning, and as soon as they leave, they go back to leading the same lives as they always did, unchanged by the experience." Well, true and false. It's true that we may leave church appearing unchanged during the following week.
But SOMEtimes, in spite of our best efforts, we may have difficulty hearing the word. And MANY times, those changes taking place in our lives may simply not be readily apparent to others.
But ALL of the time, for those of us who are physically able, by making the effort to physically present ourselves in community with others, we are making a statement to God that down deep within us is a concern for that community.
And we must NEVER sell short that effort and the message it sends.
There was a popular song some years ago with the following words: "Tonight you're mine completely. You give your love so sweetly. Tonight the light of love is in your eyes. But will you love me tomorrow?" Now this obviously does not apply to the love of God.
Because we know that God will love us tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that. But can WE say the same of our love? If we are hearers of the word on Sunday, will we be doers of the word on Monday, and Tuesday, and Wednesday?
Once upon a time, the rock duet called the Righteous Brothers had a song with this line in it: "If you believe in forever, then life is just a one-night stand." Yet, if we are to be true doers of the word, we must understand that Christian love is not a one-night stand. It is forever, eternal. And at each moment of our lives, it should consume us totally.
"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."
Some years back there began to appear on television, and in magazines, a series of commercials and advertisements produced by the Nike corporation, a company which makes athletic shoes.
The theme of the commercials was an incredibly simple three words: "Just do it." And what it addresses is the indecision folks have about exercise. I'm one of those folks. I'll contemplate a long run and I'll ask, "Do I really want to take the time to get all hot and sweaty and ache-y, or should I be doing something else?" I've HEARD the word that the exercise is good for me, but I hesitate to DO the word. And Nike's answer is "Just do it." And whether Nike knows it or not, they're talking about belief and faith.
If we Christians believe the word we have heard, and if our faith is deep, we should brush indecision aside in our love and JUST DO IT! We shouldn't ask WHEN we should love, or WHO we should love or HOW we should love we should just DO IT!
And then James begins to pull together his instruction: "If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless."
Slow to speak, slow to anger. Full of patience and forgiveness. Indeed, we would probably be a whole lot better off if we spent less time thinking about being religious and more time doing it. For our actions will show to the world, and to God, how religious we really are. God does not want us parading our religion around; God wants us demonstrating our love.
Isn't it interesting that Jesus had so little to say about Jews going through the motions of being religious, attending the synagogue, etc., but so MUCH to say about how they should be living their lives? Where should OUR concerns lie in the light of his teaching?
And James concludes: "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."
And we can hear Jesus in the thirty-fifth and thirty-sixth verses of the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew: "For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me."
And concluding in the fortieth verse: "Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me."
Christianity continues to amaze me in that it is both so simple and so difficult. The rules are so few and so hard to follow. The word is so easy to hear, yet so demanding to do.
But that should not stop us; for the example has been set by Jesus, and there are no greater rewards than those promised through the love of God.
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