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.
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.