Arise and Do the Word
Growing up, I don’t think I ever heard a sermon preached from the book of James. To be honest, I may have forgotten. I don’t really remember many sermons from when I was a kid, so maybe this is me being forgetful. But, really, I don’t remember hearing something specific from this book until I was in college. That’s when I learned about another part of James. It’s over in chapter 2. In a book that is very concerned with exhorting Christians to fully living out their faith, chapter 2, verse 17 makes it plain: Faith, by itself, if it has no works, is dead. I heard this sermon in the context of the small, Christian work-study college that I attended. Not only was work celebrated as a way to learn and contribute to the community, but service was part of the equation, too. We were taught not to live only for ourselves, but in service to our communities. The scripture I told you about from chapter 2 was one of the scriptures my teachers pointed to. Today’s reading from chapter 1, where the auther encourages us to be doers of the word, and not merely hearers, was another one. This author, who says his name is James but it’s not clear which James, feels that true faith, a living faith, is reflected in our actions. This reading describes some of actions of a living faith.
According to scholar Dr. Margaret Aymer, today’s reading is best understood as three chunks of advice for living a Christian life. After acknowledging that all good things come from God, James tells us how to live like we know we should be thankful. Be slow to anger and slow to speak, but quick to listen. Short-fuses are signs that one is shaped by the world and not God. Second, be doers, not just hearers. Live like your faith has changed you. And three, exhibit how you are shaped by God by caring for the ones who need it most, and making sure your speech reflects your faith. If we follow this advice, we will be living what scholar Sharyn Dowd called “a life of single-minded devotion to God,” one that James understood to be shaped by the Gospel.
Since college, I’ve learned one thing that might explain why I don’t remember hearing much about James growing up. The Protestant reformer Martin Luther didn’t like James at all and I grew up in a Lutheran denomination. His opinions on the text have long influeced Christians. Luther called James “an epistle of straw.” He even went on to say that there was “nothing of the nature of the gospel about it.” Now, what on earth could he have found so problematic about this book on Christian lifestyle that he would say that it contains nothing of the Gospel? Martin Luther, who emphasized the grace part of Christian faith, was deeply suspicious of anyone, even someone who wrote part of the Bible, who might be read to say that one can earn salvation though good works. Luther said grace was freely given and our life of faith had little to do with the stuff we do to deserve grace.
The conflict over the relationship among faith, grace, and actions has continued well past the life of Martin Luther. Christians still have arguments about the tension between our faith and our actions. Many thoughtful people ask, what does it mean for me to live out my faith? Is it just about believing and going to church? Is it about shifting my own personal actions, choosing not to smoke or swear? What about our responsibilities to shape public policy in a way reflects these commitments to community, to hearing others, and to caring for neighbors? What does it mean to be a doer of the word? What does it mean to have a Christian faith that affects your whole life? I’m inclined to think James had a point. If Jesus’ message of love and justice is transformational. That means we will live differently after hearing it. Sure, we can’t buy our way into forgiveness. But, we don’t get to sit around feeling superior because we simply believe the right thing, either.
Funnily enough, our other reading for the day, this one from Song of Songs, a book also known as Song of Solomon, has also not been without controversy. I don’t know if you noticed when you heard it today, but this book is a love poem (well, a bunch of love poems). The voice shifts around. Sometimes it’s one partner talking about their beloved, strong in body, bounding over hills like a young stag. In other parts, the other partner says, “You are altogether beautiful, my love; there is no flaw in you.” Sometimes there are groups of people who speak, but they are basically a chorus that props up the narrators. Most of the time, the poems are just talking about one thing: How these two people are in love, and they love each other a whole lot. When Tasha and I first bought rings to wear as a symbol of our commitment to each other, words from the Song of Songs were inscribed on them. Last year, when Bishop Michael Curry of the US Episcopal church preached the sermon at the royal wedding, it was a part of the Song of Songs that was his central preaching text. This book is a book of love poems, an unabashed celebration of romantic love, and some people are not comfortable with that.
I mean, it’s controversial in a couple different ways. Dr. Renita Weems, in her commentary on the book, notes that it’s one of only two books in the Bible that does not mention God. The other one is Esther, but Esther still talks about prayer and fasting, and religious rituals. Song of Songs doesn’t talk about any of that. It just talks about how great this couple is and narrates their search for each other in the city, and their encounters in a garden. Dr. Weems points out another unique feature of this book. The couple is probably a man and woman. What is interesting is that the woman in this couple is the primary narrator of their relationship. Another scholar, Alphonetta Wines, points out that she narrates 75% of these poems! According to Dr. Weems, “Nowhere else is scripture do the thoughts, imaginations, yearnings, and word of a woman predominate in a book as in the Song of Songs.” Dr. Wil Gafney also notes that the relationship between these two is pretty equitable. They have similar amounts of power and investment in the relationship. There is no evidence of either one of them exerting power over the other. This is a rare relationship in scripture, and, too often, the world.
Because people haven’t really known what to do with this biblical book that doesn’t mention God but does describe an intoxicating courtship, there have been a myriad of ways that people have suggested interpreting it. Dr. Weems said that the most common interpretation is to disregard them as love poems between two people and only treat them as an allegory, demonstrating how either God and Israel, in the Jewish tradition, or Christ and the church, in Christian tradition, are connected in a passionate, idealized relationship. Christianity, in particular, was shaped by ancient Greek traditions that were deeply suspicious of anything connected to the body and to feelings like romantic love. They would have had trouble reading this book as a simple celebration of loving relationship. It was safer to be passionate only about God. Everything else was unseemly.
The thing is, though, I think it’s important to read this scripture as a scripture about human love. It is a kind of love that we hope for. It is joyous and celebratory and respectful of one another. It is a love that is persistent, even when others don’t approve. The couple has to sneak around, and the narrator is even attacked once while searching for her beloved. And yet, they still love one another and seek each other out. In a time when political leaders, like our own governor, are asking the Supreme Court to keep it legal for LGBTQ people to be fired from their jobs because of who they love or because other people think they should present their gender differently, we need a bunch of love poems right in the middle of the Bible. We need to be reminded that love is part of our tradition and worthy of celebration, not punishment. We need the poems set in a garden to remind us of the garden of creation, where God made us and called us good. And, in a world where unequal, non-mutual, relationships are all too common, we need the example of this relationship as a model to follow because our relationships are best when they are joyous, equitable, and shared between two people with mutual interest. That is not something we just made up. That is a standard set forth right here in our Holy Scripture. We may not know exactly how these poems ended up in the Bible, but they are here. And we can learn from them.
Christian faith, if it’s anything like Christ, was never going to be without scandal. It was always going to push and rub and strain against the constraints of the oppressive world in which it develops. So, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by the places of conflict, like James and the Song of Songs, in our own tradition. The conflict is a sign of growth, a sign that we are taking these letters and poems seriously enough to be willing to be changed by them. That sounds like what James wanted. That we not just listen, but we figure out how to do the word, in all aspects of our lives: in our church, in our town, in our romantic relationships. May we hear the Spirit’s call and may we do the word with joy.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing this sermon:
David Frenchak, "Proper 17 ," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, And Dale P. Andrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
Sharyn Dowd, "James," Women's Bible Commentary, Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, eds (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998).
Margaret Aymer: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3759
Wil Gafney: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1402
Alphonetta Wines: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1402
Michael Curry: https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/05/20/612798691/bishop-michael-currys-royal-wedding-sermon-full-text-of-the-power-of-love
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.