Doers of the Word
Sermon Preached By: Rev. Kristin Willett
Scripture: James 1:17–27
The letter of James is not very long. In our pew bibles, it is comprised of barely four pages between Hebrews and 1st Peter. The letter of James almost didn’t make it into Bible, and once it was in some wanted it out.
Martin Luther, one of Protestant Reformers, wanted to eliminate the book of James from the canon. When he wrote the German New Testament he laid out the contents page with each book numbered. At the very end of the list, set apart from the rest of the scripture, was a small group that Luther didn’t even see fit to number – those books were James, Jude, Hebrews, and Revelations. In his view, these books were secondary.
He suggested that the contents of James promote justification by works, meaning that individuals are saved through the merit of their deeds. This was in direct contrast to the writing of Paul who professed that salvation was a gift from God, that individuals were justified through Jesus the Christ.
Luther’s strong distaste for James led him to write on the subject, and Luther’s writings dominated the the reflection on this letter until recently.
Recent scholarship suggests that James was writing to an intentional community similar to our own gathering – he was writing to a group of believers. Though much of the letter does focus on action, one prominent Bible scholar, Luke Timothy Johnson suggests that that focus is founded first on a shared identity within the community – an identity founded on inheritance according to promise, belonging to a kingdom proclaimed by Jesus, and life normed by faith and love. For Johnson, James and Paul do not contradict each other because they are not addressing the same point. Paul is speaking to the foundational grace and faith introduced by Jesus, James is calling believers to respond when faced with that grace.
The passage we read this morning alludes to that foundation of grace. When James makes reference to the Word he is speaking of the Gospel, the Good News. The Word is God’s Word given to us. James calls it the word of truth and imparts the importance of hearing that Word and listening carefully to it.
In worship, the corporate gathering of believers, we hear the word proclaimed through the reading of scripture and the sermon. We are hearing the good news of who God is and what God has done and is doing. We receive the Word enacted by the waters of baptism and partaking of the Lord’s Supper, reinforcing the message of grace and love and making it more tangible for each of us.
As we hear the Word proclaimed and receive the Word through the sacraments, the Holy Spirit quickens people to an awareness of God’s grace and claim upon their lives. The Spirit helps us to know God’s will in contrast to society and moves us to respond. It is through the Holy Spirit that what we hear proclaimed is then understood. As we come to know God’s grace our faith is strengthened.
As our faith deepens we can see God’s Word at work in the world. We can see God’s involvement in the struggles of the oppressed, in the comforting of the grieving, in the healing of the sick. As we notice God at work in the world we respond to God’s grace by wanting to be a part of God’s work. We are moved to action.
Worship renews us and transforms us. We then offer ourselves to God and are equipped for God’s service in the world. This is exactly what James is referring to when he calls us to be Doers of the Word. He is calling us to live into our response to God.
Hearing and understanding the word illuminates its meaning, making it real for us, allowing it to become a part of who we are. It shows us how we can change our actions to reflect God’s will. As James suggests it is like looking in a mirror and noticing that you have something on your face. Do you do something about it or do you continue as if you didn’t know it was there. As the word is revealed we see how it differs from the ways of the world – proclaiming acceptance in place of judgment, love in place of indifference, grace in place of retribution.
We may see a problem or issue in our neighborhoods or community that needs to be addressed and think that it is too big for us. And we are right – it is too big for us alone, but it isn’t too big for God. If we allow God to work through us, God will do amazing things, bigger things than we ever imagined possible.
In the late 1930s, a midwestern farmer named Dan West was serving as a Church of the Brethren relief worker during the Spanish Civil War. His job was ladling out rations of milk to hungry children, he was forced to decide who would receive the limited rations and who wouldn’t – quite literally, who would live and who would die. He realized that this form of aid was insufficient. West returned home and formed a new relief organization, dedicated to ending hunger permanently by providing families with livestock and training so that they would no longer need to rely on others to feed their children. In 1944 – the first shipment of 17 heifers left York, Penn., for Puerto Rico, going to families whose malnourished children had never even tasted milk. Since that first shipment Heifers International has continued for over 60 years, by helping 8.5 million people in more than 125 countries. They have expanded to more than heifers but their aim is still to provide families and communities with lasting nourishment. Each family that receives an animal agrees to “pass on the gift” and donate the female offspring to another family, so that the gift of food is never ending.
West saw a need and did not allow him self to be limited by his own ability. God worked through him to start something that has lasted beyond West’ own life and has bettered the lives of millions.
Even more recently a simple prayer: “Lord, even as we enjoy the Super Bowl game, help us to be mindful of those who are without a bowl of soup to eat” has inspired a youth–led movement to help hungry and hurting people around the world. This prayer, delivered by a seminary intern serving a church is South Carolina gave birth to an idea. Why not use the Super Bowl weekend, a time when people come together for football and fun, to also unify a nation for a higher good: collecting money and canned food for the needy? The plan was for youth to collect donations at their schools and churches in soup pots and then send every dollar directly to a local charity of their choice. The Senior High youth at the church liked the idea so much they decided to invite other area churches to join the team. Twenty-two Columbia churches participated the first year, reporting their results so a total could be determined and then sending all the $5,700 they had raised to aid area non–profits. That was 1990. Since then, ordinary teenagers have generated an amazing $50 million for soup kitchens, food banks and other charities in communities across the country. Our own congregation has become a part of this movement. In the last five years we have raised $8,100 on Super Bowl Sundays and donated all of it to Andre House.
When we own this, this reality that worship, that gathering here together is as much about being equipped to leave as it is about soaking up the Word, our notion of church changes. As one of my professors from Princeton, Darrel Guder put it, we need to get away from thinking about church in the “place where” mentality. “Church” is conceived in this way as the place where a Christian civilization gathers for worship, and the place where the Christian character of society is cultivated. This mentality was not so much articulated as presumed, not formally stated in creeds but so engrained in churches’ practice it became dominant in churches self understanding. When we become doers of the word this mentality changes. Church is understood as a body of people sent on a mission. Unlike the previous notion of a church as an entity located in a facility or an institutional organization and its activities. The church is being re–conceived as a community, a gathered people, brought together by a common call and vocation to be a sent people. The Church’s essence is missional, for the calling and sending action of God forms its identity.
Our own church is the starting point for some amazing God driven action. Pinnacle Presbyterian Preschool started small, but over the years it has become a leader in early childhood education, attracting teachers from around the state and even the country to come and learn our teaching techniques. The love and desire to help young children develop has inspired others to follow our lead. The school provides training for other teachers and educates 180 young children in our community.
Our music ministries are too a national attraction, with renowned concerts being presented to the community, and established musicians desiring to come observe what is happening within our community. Thousands of people who do not come to worship on Sunday mornings have been blessed by the ministry of this church through its concerts and music education.
This year, the Pinnacle Theological Center is breaking new ground. It is working with the General Assembly to record and distribute the lectures and forums that are presented this year. So that the talent, resources, and knowledge that is coming together here is accessible to a larger audience.
This is just the beginning. God is priming us to do amazing things within this community and around the world. We as a church, as a sent people, are able to achieve much with God’s involvement. We can be doers of the word and make a lasting impact of the lives of people. It all starts with an idea. Listening and hearing the word of God, allowing it to be implanted within us and to grow into an idea. But we must hear James’ call and to be doers of the word not simply hearers. Inspiration and imagining how God can use us is just the beginning, we must be willing to act in big and small ways. Recognizing that our faith is not something that we do on Sundays, but that it shows us how to really live and calls us to action.
Don’t allow the word of God to go in one ear and out the other. Allow it to become implanted in your very being, to take root, and then hold on as God shows you what next extraordinary, world impacting idea that we are being called to do, sent out to do.
God has brought us together not by chance and not simply to share this space, but to equip us, to build us up as a community, a community sent into the world.
In the words of St Francis of Assisi, “Preach the gospel at all times, when necessary use words.”
Be Doers of the Word. Amen.