Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest. My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
Nearly twenty years ago, in my introduction to the New Testament class, I saw a picture in our text book that stuck with me. It was of these small terracotta sculptures. I dug through my book last night to remind myself exactly what they were. If you were sick, and prayed at the temple of the god Asclepius for healing, you might leave a reproduction of the body part, made of clay, as an offering after experience healing or restoration. In my textbook, there are small and intricate ears and eyes. I looked up some more images on the internet and found hands and arms and abdomens, even entire necks and heads, all left in thanksgiving. I found a picture of one, a realistic leg on marble, that is inscribed with these words: 'Asklepios and Hygieia, (from) Tyche, a thanksgiving offering.” If you entered in the temple, you might find yourself surrounded by these small sculptures, evidence of the ways the ancient faithful looked to their gods for care in times of trial. Some modern Christians have similar practices, with our Greek Orthodox siblings and many Catholics of Latin American and Spanish descent, offering up small metal legs and arms and hearts, alongside their prayers for renewal and restoration. Asking for relief for suffering is an act that crosses time and cultures. And, according to the author of James, relieving suffering through prayer is a core function of the church.
We have spent September hearing the words of the book of James, a letter that was passed around Jewish Christian communities outside of Jerusalem. It was written well after Jesus’ death and resurrection but before Christianity can really be understood as something wholly separate, if inspired by, Judaism. People who were Jewish but lived outside of their traditional homelands in other parts of Rome would have need community to help them continue their faith practices as a minority religion, and a religion of a conquered people, in Rome. Within the broader Jewish diaspora, Jewish Christians were an even smaller group, with an even greater need to be held up and held together in the midst of the everyday violence and cruelty of the Roman empire. In her commentary on this text, Dr. Noelle Damico reminds us that these small church groups were likely made up mostly quite impoverished people. It is hard to be poor. It is hard to access care when you are poor. When wealthy people hoard resources, poor people are more likely to suffer. James believed that Christ compelled his followers to build a community that relieved suffering, not one that compounded it. An active, engaged prayer life was part of that relief of suffering.
According to James, our faith should influence how we live: how we develop relationships, how we treat neighbors and strangers, how respond to the trials and tribulations of life. According to Damico, the church is a place where Christ’s followers can begin the work of reorienting the systems of oppression at work in the world into the reign of love and justice Jesus began cultivating during his life and ministry. Where the wealthy would have places of honor and privilege outside of the church, within the walls of the church, they were to practice living as equals with the poor. Ideally, the practice that began within the confines of their religious community would then shape with wealthy’s behavior outside the community. They would stop taking advantage of the poor everywhere because Christ demanded justice of them. According to Dr. Damico, prayer, with and for one another, became one mechanism by which “the community orders and reorder itself as an assembly of equals, both in fundamental critique of the wider world and in loving support of one another as we seek God’s guidance for how to live.” Listening to and praying for one another helps us see each other as whole people, beloved by God, and worthy of compassion, care, and dignity.
I appreciate the ways that prayer, as an act done on someone else’s behalf, is something that is accessible to so many kinds of people. You don’t have to be rich to pray for someone. You don’t have to educated. A child can do it. A senior adult can do it. Someone sick in bed can do it. You can pray in car or a bus or at home at your desk. A stranger can pray for you. A close friend can pray for you. I know that people can get intimidated or fearful of prayer, worried that how they might pray might not be eloquent or articulate enough, especially if they are praying aloud and in front of people.... they worry that they might mess up the prayer, like it’s a special combination on a lock that might close forever if they don’t say just the right words at the right time with the right rhythm. I don’t think any of that’s true. And, I don’t think James did either. Prayer isn’t exactly easy, but it is an action, an intention, a stance of openness towards God and neighbor that just about anyone can offer to anyone else if they really want to.
Given our current political climate, where some people are using the language of Christian faith, and prayer in particular, to justify a political position of Covid denialism, alongside the fact that I know that plenty of people have prayed for healing that has never come, I want to be very careful about how I talk about prayer and healing. It is a common and terrible bit of theological malpractice to tell someone that if they pray hard enough or in the right way that God will grant that prayer the way that a genie grants a wish, and, if they aren’t healed, then God must have decided they didn’t deserve healing. And, right now, it is an all too common and terrible bit of the theological malpractice to prop up misinformation about public health policy with language that sounds a lot like this scripture in a way that only benefits political operatives, while leaving millions of people suffering in the midst of an on-going and dangerous pandemic. These two cruelties are the opposite of what James is saying about prayer in Christian community.
In her commentary on this portion of scripture, Dr. Gay L. Byron states “Prayer changes things.” I think the thing that prayer changes is us. It takes great vulnerability to share both your songs of praise and your great sufferings. And, it takes real commitment to receive that vulnerability, honor it, and pray alongside someone else. Praying for one another requires that we show up, we listen, and we respond to the needs of the person right in front of our faces. I don’t believe that we can keep hearing one another’s prayer and not be moved and changed by what we hear, not if we are listening with the ears of our faith and really prepared for the Spirit to move us through the prayers we pray and ask for others to pray for us. There is a particular kind of healing that comes from be known and heard and tended to. And, how can we not be moved to work for a more just and loving world when we have heard the prayers of the suffering. The spirit can work in and through us to alleviate so much suffering in this world. And, all of that can start with prayer and confession and amend-making and forgiveness.
I want to offer up one more thing I learned in my studies this week. Verse 14 says that the elders of the church will pray over the sick and anoint them with oil. In his notes on this verse, Dr. Cain Hope Felder notes that this oil isn’t simply a ritual element that brings a nice smell or holy ambiance to the prayer session. The oil was a common medicinal remedy. Isaiah 1:6 talks about tending to bruises and sores with oil as a medical treatment. In the healing scene in Mark 6:13, oil, alongside prayer, is used to heal sick people. During the purification ritual, where a someone has been suffering from leprosy is examined to see if they are healed, oil was put on the right ear, thumb, and toe of the person who was healed in Leviticus 14:10, 12, 15-16. This scripture shows us that you can believe that prayer brings healing and also put your trust in the medicines of the era. And, it is part of the responsibility of the church to make sure that all who are suffering have access to the medicines that can help heal them.
Prayer and healing are both complicated and intrinsic to the life of the church. As Sarah continues with her internship this coming school year, she may be inviting you to participate in prayer and other form of spiritual practice. I hope you will take her up on that invitation. Because, the world needs a lot of healing right now. And, we can do our part in this healing by praying for each other and lifting up our songs of praise. May we be changed through these prayers.
Resources consulted when writing this sermon:
Some images of the votives that people left in the temple of Aesclepius:
Cain Hope Felder, introduction to the book of James, The New Oxford Annotated Bible: The New Revised Standard Version with Apocryphya, ed. Michael Coogan (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)
Noelle Damico, "Proper 21), Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, Ronald J. Allen, Dale P. Andrews, and Dawn Ottoni- Wilhelm, eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011).
The entry on "oil" in The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, primary ed. Paul J. Achtemeier (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996)
Sept 19: James 3:13 - 4:3, 7-8a
Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.
Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.
Who here has heard the word “envy” before? Does anyone know what the word “envy” means? If you are on zoom, write the definition in the chat box if you know what it means. If you are in person, you can raise your hand. Who has a definition of envy you’d like to share? …. Yes. Those are all great definitions. We can all learn better when we help each other that way. When I hear the word “envy,” I think about being jealous. To envy someone is to be jealous of them. Has anyone here ever been jealous before? Yeah. Me, too. What are some things that someone might be jealous about?
· Getting to play on a sports team
· Getting to play a particular instrument
· Someone getting treated better that you
· Getting invited to play or hang out
· Earning good grades
· Wanting to be friends
Yeah, those are definitely things people are sometimes jealous about!! My friend Kristy told me that she used to get jealous when her cousin kept winning a game called Trivial Pursuit. The cousin won every time they played. Trivial Pursuit is a game where you answer questions from different categories and whomever answers questions from all the categories first wins. It turns out that Kristy’s cousin would read and memorize the questions in her spare time, so, when they would play, the cousin would already know the answers! There was no way that Kristy could win! I would have been jealous, too!
What is the face you might make if you are feeling envy or jealousy? I think you might cry, too. I think it’s hard to feel jealous. At least I don’t like it when I feel jealous. I get kind of sad and mad and want things that either I can’t have or don’t have the same as someone else. I know that it’s normal to feel jealous sometimes and that almost everyone feels jealous sometimes, but I want to make sure I don’t let envy make me too sad about the stuff I can do and the friends I do have or make me be mean to the people that I’m jealous of. Being mean to someone because I am envious never fixed anything.
Did you know that people in the Bible got jealous? Can anyone remember some people who were jealous? David, Isaac, God, Sarah, Jesus’ friend, the disciples? The part of the Bible that Rebecca shared with us today is part of a letter that someone wrote to a church to help the people in the church when they felt jealous. The person who wrote the letter was sure that God could help people when they felt envious of someone else. The writer also thought that people who want to follow Jesus shouldn’t be mean to people because they were jealous. God directs us to love our neighbors, not hurt them. When we are following Jesus, and feel jealous, we can pay attention to that feeling but not let our feeling envy make us hurt our neighbor.
So, what are some things we can do if we are feeling envious or jealous? I read some things that I found very helpful to keep jealousy from taking our brains over. I thought I’d share some of them.
· First, we figure out that we are jealous. Maybe we feel our faces scrunch into jealous faces. Or, maybe we can feel our hearts be kind of sad and mad together.
· Second, we tell someone that we feel jealous. Maybe we pray to God “I feel jealous right now.” Maybe we tell a grown-up we trust. Sarah, is it ok if I tell you when I’m feeling jealous?
· If someone tells us that they feel jealous, we can say to them, “It’s OK to feel jealous, angry, or sad. They are all normal emotions.” And, we’ll say thank you for telling us.
· Then, we can talk with the safe person to try to figure out what might help us feel less jealous. Maybe, if we are sad we weren’t invited to a party, we can do something else fun we enjoy instead.
· If we feel know that someone is feeling jealous about not getting special attention, we can remember the times when that person got special attention in the past and also make sure to set up a special time to be together in the future.
· If we are feeling jealous because someone has something we don’t have, we can make a list of 3 things we are really glad we have and say, out loud, I am grateful that I have XYZ.
· If we are feeling jealous because someone got a better grade than us, we can remember how hard we worked and how much we have been learning. Even if we didn’t get the highest grade, learning new things is always important and we can be proud of that.
· If someone feels left out, maybe we can work together to find something that person can do to be a part of the event. Or, help make a special event just with them later.
· Anybody have any other ideas?
I don’t think we can make envy just poof and go away. I don’t think the person who wrote this part of the letter of James did either. He knew that envy is something that just bubbles up sometimes. But, he did think that you can, when you practice love and mercy like Jesus did, learn to not let envy take over your whole heart. You just have to keep practicing finding ways look closely at why you feel jealous, make sure you have the things you need to feel safe, and build relationships with other people who can help you learn to manage envy with it comes. We have to find the wise people who can help us when we can feel jealous. It might be your teachers or your parents or your siblings or maybe someone at church. This week, let’s pray that if we feel envy, we can talk with God and people we love to help us feel better.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Margaret Aymer: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-25-2/commentary-on-james-313-18-41-3-7-8-3
Carolyn Brown: http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2015/08/year-b-proper-20-25th-sunday-in.html
Arnelle at Teaching Thinking Minds: https://teachingthinkingminds.com/2018/08/19/helping-children-overcome-envy/
Meri Wallace: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/how-raise-happy-cooperative-child/201904/handling-your-child-s-jealousy
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.
Throughout the powerpoint and on the bulletins you have if you are in person, you can see some little bubbles. Tasha would you pull up the bubbles again? Does anyone know what these bubbles are? Where have you seen them? That’s right. They are speech bubbles like in comic books and comic strips in the newspaper. I like how the shape of the bubble can tell you something about how you are supposed to read the words in it. When you see a bubble that is kind of fluffy, like a sheep, do you know what that means? Yes. It is words someone is thinking, not saying aloud. If it’s a regular old round bubble, I think it’s regular talking. I looked at one of the comic books I have at home and I saw that whenever someone is supposed to be shouting, the bubble gets kind of spikey and wild looking. Look at that one with the square edges and the lightning bolt leading down to the speaker. What kind of words do you think are in that one? Maybe the speaker is a robot? Or maybe they are mad, so the bubble gets sharp?
When I read today’s scripture, which is all about the ways that words from our mouths affect and reflect our hearts, I thought I about these little bubbles and how they help us remember the feelings within and behind the words we say. I bet you have been told, as I have been told, that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but word will never hurt me.” I bet you have also learned, like the author of James had also learned, that that’s not exactly true. Words hurt. We know that. We feel it when cruel words are spewn at us and we feel it when we use cruel words to hurt others. Words do harm. We know that. God even seems to know that. There is a whole commandment about not using words to harm someone (the one about bearing false witness). While, it’s true that sometimes ignoring hateful words can help convince someone that it’s not worth saying them, that doesn’t mean that words don’t hurt. We know that and James knows that. Scholar Cain Hope Felder reminds us that the author of James, who wants to teach Christians how to live a life where their faith is reflected in their actions, including their speech, also wants them to remember that their words have power in the world. People who claim to follow Jesus should use that power wisely.
In the first verse of today’s reading, the author lays out the stakes clearly by saying most of the people of that community probably aren’t up to the job of teaching because most people can’t live up to the standards of care and truth in speech that a teacher of Christ must uphold. Nevertheless, the members of the community should try to live up to those standards anyway. In a commentary on this passage, the scholar J.B. Blue, notes that teachers, as public figures who teach in public spaces, are given a particularly clear warning on the power of their words. Some positions in a community, like teacher, nurse, firefighter, politician, come with a measure of authority attached to them. Blue reminds us that some of that authority is explicit, well-defined, and clear. These figures can offer access to learning, dole out discipline, assure basic public safety. And, some of the authority is implicit, indirect, and often unstated. The words of these kind of public figures, the teachers, the preachers, the politicians, can change lives, in good and bad ways.
On September 11th of 2001, I have a clear memory of watching Katie Couric, then on NBC’s morning show, trying to talk the country though what was happening. She was on the ground somewhere in New York city. She talked to a woman who was looking, desperately, for a loved one. At that moment, Couric knew that the authority she had been granted as a trusted reporter with a big audience meant that she could try to help. She made sure the woman was heard, reiterated the details of who she was looking for, and gave out a contact so she could share any leads with this woman. On that day, I watched one woman use her authority and her words to help a stranger on what was probably among the worst days of her life. Not everyone made the same choice or would make the same choice in the coming days and weeks. In can be tempting to use the authority of a public persona to harm. In a commentary, J.B. Blue states it plainly: “This authority is a breeding ground for sin.” James tells us that we cultivate a faith that helps us use that authority to work towards justice.
Anybody who has ever tried to train a horse to use a bridle knows it is a complicated, slobbery, and sometimes bitey task. Anyone who has ever had the rudder not work quite right on their boat knows how vital that small piece of wood or plastic is to the safety of those in and around the boat. A bit... a rudder... something as small as the tongues in our mouths can completely reroute us from or towards our ultimate destination. Part of cultivating a Christian faith, according to James, is immersing ourselves in God’s wisdom to make sure that our words are guided by God and not the forces of destruction that can bloom around and inside us.
I know someone who tells heartbreaking and completely believable stories about a childhood surrounded by people who were devout Christians who said they loved the Lord and, yet, would never let her eat at their table because they were white and she was not. That sure sounds like “blessing the Lord” with one side of your mouth and “cursing those who are made in the likeness of God” with the other. I, myself, have said words that harmed my relationships with people I serve because I chose a measure of pettiness over generosity. I bet you have your own memories of times when firey words you have said or have been said to you scorched relationships, scalded communities, and burned bridges that were still sorely needed to connect people to one another and to God. The tongue is a fire. And, that fire must be tended or it will destroy.
If I may return to comic books for a moment, as I read this scripture, I was reminded of a couple panels written by G. Willow Wilson in a book where a new character, Kamala Khan, assumes the role of Ms. Marvel. As Kamala is trying to figure out how to be the best version of a hero she can be and committing to training so she can be of service in her community, she says “Good is not a thing you are. It’s a thing you do.” I think James is saying something similar. Your faith is not just ideas in your head. It needs to come to life in your actions and in your words, or maybe even your lack of words. Margaret Aymer, in her commentary on the text, reminds us that God moves in the silence, too. May we be on guard against speech that burns. And, cultivate speech and silence that connects.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Margaret Aymer: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-24-2/commentary-on-james-31-12-3
J. B. Blue, "Proper 19 ," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, Ronald J. Allen, Dale P. Andrews, and Dawn Ottoni- Wilhelm, eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011).
Cain Hope Felder, introduction to the book of James, The New Oxford Annotated Bible: The New Revised Standard Version with Apocryphya, ed. Michael Coogan (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)
Ms. Marvel Vol. 1: No Normal by G. Willow Wilson, artist Adrian Alphona, color artist Ian Herring, letterer VC's Joe Caramagna. New York, NY: Marvel Worldwide, Inc., a subsidiary of Marvel Entertainment, LLC, 2014.
James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17
My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?
You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
In their book Glorify: Reclaiming the Heart of Progressive Christianity, my colleague, the Rev. Dr. Emily C. Heath, shares a story of two churches that they were acquainted with when they were going to seminary in Atlanta. One church was large, so large that it was the biggest church in terms of membership in the entire denomination to which they belong. We’re talking about thousands of members. Millions of dollars in their endowment. Programs galore. Huge staff. Huge bunch of volunteers. By so many measures, this church, located in one of the wealthier neighborhoods of the city, is an incredible success. And, during the era when Dr. Heath was living in the city, the senior pastor of the real big church occasionally invited the pastor of a really small church in the city to come preach.
This second, smaller church is about the size of ours. Actually, their membership was smaller, about 40 active members. They were a part of the same denomination as the big church and in the same city, though in a neighborhood that was considered, according to Dr. Heath, to have been pretty “down and out” for a long time. Dr. Heath noted that hey managed to keep their doors open, year after year, despite their small numbers. And, with those small numbers, they did incredible ministry. The thing they were most known for was their hospitality. Every night, they opened their door to the people in the community who did not have homes and let men who didn’t have a safe place to stay on sleep on a cot in their sanctuary. They fed these men meals, helped them find housing and navigate the healthcare system. Dr. Heath called tremendous ministry of welcome the church “walk[ing] with them on their journeys.”
When the senior pastor of the big church invited the solo pastor of the little church to come preach, it was often to have them about this particular ministry to people experiencing homelessness. The senior pastor was so moved by the incredible ministry of the small church that he just had to make sure the big church knew what was possible. According to Dr. Heath, the pastor of the big church wanted his church to see what could be done by a dedicated community, no matter how small, that assumed what they had, a good building, some dedicated people, some money, was enough to serve their community. After the pastor of the small church would preach, the pastor of the big church would stand up and say, “this little church manages to do all this ministry every year on a church budget that is less than our own church’s electric bill.” I know that there are lots of measures of successful ministry. It seems clear to me that that small church of about 40 members was pretty successful.
Last week, while Tasha and I took some time off, we stayed a night in a small cabin in Washington County. On our way home, we drove through Cherryfield. I first heard of Cherryfield, Maine five years ago when I learned about the Lamb House. Named for the family that used to live there, this house that was originally built in the 1840's, has been put to a new use by the Cherryfield Congregational church. The church had 33 members when they started the project. But they had their faith, some money, and a calling to serve their community. When one congregant offered to put up the funds to purchase the property, they knew they could use it as a tool for the Gospel. As they observed the needs in their community, it became clear how they could use the house.
In 2011, the year before the church bought the property, 11 homes burned in their county, displacing 30 people. While house fires are always disruptive to the families who lose their homes, such tragedies are particularly difficult in a town as small as Cherryfield and a county as sparsely populated as Washington. I read a testimony of Larry Zimmerman, the pastor of Cherryfield Congregational Church, about how they were inspired to make use of the Lamb House. He said that members of the church regularly saw first-hand how difficult it was to recover from such a major fire and also stay in the community. He said that residents often had to relocate in order to find somewhere to live, sometimes even leaving the state, because there were so few resources to help them re-establish in Washington County after a fire. Rev. Zimmerman said that children often had to change schools, adding the loss of friends and familiar teachers to the loss of their homes. Sometimes families would even have to live separately for a while, with the parent with the better job needing to live near work but unable to find a place suitable for the whole family. The only place that most families could find for temporary shelter were the local hotels and motels or by staying with other family members.
After seeing the need for temporary housing, the church realized that they could provide it. They worked together with people from across their community. Accord to Rev. Zimmerman, one of the church trustees who was a local contractor began the work with start-up money and donations. A retired plumber showed up and donated his time. A local building supply company gave a very generous discount on building materials. Volunteers from all over came to help get the Lamb House ready to host people... neighbors from right here in Maine and folks from Pennsylvania who came up to help at the Lamb House while working at the Maine Seacoast Mission. Even inmates from the correctional facility in Machias came over to help renovate the building. Some volunteers wrote grants, too. And, they got some, including $5,000 from the Maine Conference Resourcing the Local Church fund. They also run fundraisers. I checked out their Facebook page, and they recently made about $3,000 in a yard sale, all of which goes to keeping this ministry going, to doing the work of serving people in need.
They have been hosting folks who have lost their homes as well as service groups since July of 2015. One of their guests, a woman named Tammy, wrote this about her time at the Lamb House: "I give many thanks to the good people of the Cherryfield Congregational Church. The Lamb House was a cozy and quaint home for myself, (my pets) Love Bug and Angus while I waited for my new house to come." That’s pretty strong work from a church of 33 people in a small town in downeast Maine.
We don’t really know who wrote the book of James. As you heard in Becky’s sermon last week, it is usually credited to Jesus’ brother James. What is clearer, however, is the goal of this letter. According to Dr. Cain Hope Felder, we should remember that these churches, largely made up of Jewish followers of Jesus, were small and surrounded by what he called “large populations that were indifferent or hostile to their beliefs.” This letter was written to help people to figure out how to live out their faith in a community that didn’t necessarily believe like they did when there would have been a lot of pressure to follow the norms of the broader culture, a culture that valued the rich over the poor.
For James, the key to maintaining a Christian identity is to live out your daily life in a way that reflects your beliefs. Faith is more than just what you believe. It’s what you do in response to that belief. “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet does not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” To love your neighbor is to be moved to welcome your neighbor, to treat the poor as heirs to the kindom of God, to not show favoritism to the wealthy who already have what they need. Dr. Margaret Aymer says, in her commentary on the text, that this part of James challenges Christians to make the faith that lives in our hearts visible in the world around us. You don’t have to have a church of 3,000 people to do that. The small churches in Atlanta and Cherryfield show us that. All you have to start with is enough faith to see the work the Spirit needs done in the world. Then, you look around and see what tools you have to accomplish the work God is calling you to. James suggested that loving poor neighbors, in particular, is probably a good place to start. May we see the Work God needs done in the world and may we not be afraid to roll up our sleeves and do it.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
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. In fulfilment 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.
Hearing and Doing the Word
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.
James, Jesus’ brother, was a keen observer of human nature. He paid close attention to the details of everyday living. He noticed the generous acts, the small gifts, the gestures, and words that were used. He knew that such small acts were the nuts and bolts of everyday life, holding together the frame on which community and social order were built. In the passage that Cyndi read this morning he names the things he’s most concerned about to Christians in daily life.
I’ll repeat the first sentence that started this morning’s scripture: “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.” James is telling us that God cares for the whole world, he doesn’t pick and choose who he cares for. God nurtures us, gives us gifts, and provides direction for our lives, and good things in people’s lives. God is constant with care and purpose.
One thing James is concerned about is the power of human speech to build up and to destroy. Why was he concerned with the way we used words? Words can make a big difference in the way we communicate and relate with one another. Words say something about our motivation, intention, belief, and emotional life. Rev. Archie Smith, Jr., writes: “Words can explain, express ourselves; convince and convict ourselves and others; describe, name, blame, or label things; to win arguments; to sell an idea or object; to lecture; to expound a point, to explain things into or out of existence, persuade, condole, console, counsel; to announce, denounce, deceive; to ask someone to marry; to declare war and make peace; to sentence someone, diagnose a condition, analyze a problem, deliberate or negotiate a deal. We can’t get along without words. Words can alarm, harm, uplift, inspire, degrade, or silence someone. They can reveal our inner thoughts. Where would we be without words?” Well said!
Have any of you seen the play or movie, The Miracle Worker? It’s the story of Helen Keller who was born blind and deaf. After a long struggle, she comes to understand the power of words. Anne Sullivan, Helen’s teacher, recorded her work with Helen and this journal entry is the climax of Helen discovering words: “This morning, while she was washing, she wanted to know the name for water...I spelled w-a-t-e-r and thought no more about it until after breakfast. Then it occurred to me that with the help of this new word I might succeed...We went into the pump house and I made Helen hold her mug under the pump while I pumped. As the cold water gushed forth filling the mug, I spelled W-A-T-E-R in Helen’s free hand. The word coming so close upon the sensation of cold water rushing over her hand seemed to startle her.
She dropped the mug and stood as one transfixed. A new light came into her face. She spelled ‘water’ several times. Then she dropped to the ground and asked for its name and pointed to the pump and trellis and suddenly she asked for my name. I spelled ‘teacher’. Just then the nurse brought Helen’s little sister into the pump house and Helen spelled ‘baby’ and pointed to the nurse. All the way back to the house she was excited and learned the name of every object she touched, so that in a few hours, she had added thirty new words to her vocabulary.”
That’s quite a story that tells the power of words. We, too, have the opportunity to become excited when we are touched by the Word of God. Understanding the message of God’s love for us in Jesus, how God sent us a Savior to be with us, bearing our burdens, lifting us up, dying for our sins, and promising us a new and everlasting life. That transforms us. Real faith makes us love God and helps us understand the importance of loving others, even those we don’t get along with.
We all have times when it’s hard to get along with someone that gets under our skin or we don’t agree with. James said, “...let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger...” That can be hard work!! Have any of you noticed that you can be quick to judge someone when you have a disagreement, or you’ve already made up your mind about how things should be answered or done because the other person didn’t answer you quick enough? How do you stop that? Discipline! Patience! Step back and follow what James is saying, “let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger...” Native Americans have a proverb, “Listen, or your tongue will keep you deaf.” The tongue can become a source of mischief and hurt, but it also can praise God and tell others the Good News of Jesus. Our words can commend and encourage others in their life’s journey. We all are in a different place on this journey and what we say makes a difference as we travel together. Words touch our emotional life and help us anticipate what is going to happen. But our actions make the real difference.
I’m sure many of you have been around people that can be “all talk and no action”. I can think of fundraising committees and special project groups I have been on at work, where people can “talk a good game”, but when it comes time to put the words into action, they aren’t there! They don’t roll up their sleeves and pitch in when things need to get done. James tells us to be “doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” Actions add value to our words and gives them life. Doers of the Word are different people, changed people. Faith in Jesus makes a difference in our lives. God works in us to use the fruits of faith he teaches us: Peace, Love, Joy. Sharing those fruits with others, giving our time and resources to help others will then become a joy and not a burden.
I’m sure we’ve had times in our lives when we have had the tendency to say one thing and do another. Or, we had good intentions to help someone, and something came up and we didn’t follow through. When that happens, people start to wonder if our words are any good and stop taking us seriously when we offer help or listen when they need someone to talk to. Our hearts are in the right place and we mean well, but we let people down. They begin to wonder if we are reliable and really “practice what we preach”. It’s so important that our words and actions become one and the same so others take notice and know we’re serious about what we believe.
Our words help us express our relationship with God. You don’t have to use theological terms to help people understand your feelings about God. You can express yourself by being a “doer”. Show kindness to someone in need, help “care for the orphans and widows in their distress”, make a meal for a shut in, take the lead at school to help a new person feel welcome, hold the door for someone when their hands are full, comfort someone by listening or give them a hug. These small acts of “doing” speak volumes about what you believe. St. Francis said, “Preach at all times; if necessary, use words.”
Jesus said what he did, and he did what he said. His actions spoke the loudest. For instance, the story in (Mark 10:46-52) about the blind man called out to Jesus and asked him to restore his sight. Jesus said simply, “Go your way. Your faith has made you well.” And immediately, the man’s eyes were opened, and he could see. Or in (John 8:3-11.) when Jesus doodled in the sand before the elders when they were going to kill a woman for adultery. He said, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw the first stone at her.” And when everyone had slithered away, convicted of his own guilt, Jesus turned to the woman and said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way. From now on, sin no more.”
But I think one of my favorite stories is when Jesus met with his disciples in the Upper Room. He poured water into a basin and put a towel around his neck, and without saying a word he knelt before each one of the disciples and washed their feet. To me, that is such a powerful symbol of what it means to be a servant to others in the name of Jesus. The action of a simple foot washing that said so much without words. Jesus’ deeds and words were strong. James said, “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 the 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.”
Take what you know about God, the love and grace of Jesus, and put that knowledge into action. Say what you’ll do and then do what you say. Don’t just be a casual doer, be a 24-hour doer and spread God’s love in acts of kindness. Amen.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Archie Smith, Jr., “Proper 17”, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), pgs. 14-18
James D. Kegel: https://sermonwriter.com/sermons/new-testament-james-117-27-doers-word-kegel/
Philip W. McLarty: https://sermonwriter.com/sermons/new-testament-james-122-25-say-mclarty/
The New Oxford Annotated Bible NRSV, Fourth Edition, (New York: Oxford University Press 2010) pgs. 1887-1888.
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.