August 30, 2015
Tradition tells us that the author of the book of James was the brother of Jesus. James was not one of the original twelve disciples, but he quickly became a leader among the believers in Jerusalem after Christ’s resurrection. In the greeting of this letter, James addresses “the twelve tribes scattered among the nations” (1:1) so we can imagine that his intended audience includes Jewish followers of The Way who have fled from Jerusalem after the stoning of Stephen.
Christianity was in its early stages; it was still considered a Jewish sect. Followers of Jesus weren’t even called Christians yet, but they were already experiencing persecution. James wrote to these believers, who had scattered into the world beyond Jerusalem, to encourage them in their suffering, and to give them guidance.
We have just spent five weeks listening to Jesus describe himself as the “Bread of Life.” Jesus has used very graphic language to insist that, if we are truly going to be his followers, we must take him into ourselves and become like him. Lip service won’t do: we must go all in if we are to become true disciples.
We don’t know if James was present when Jesus gave his “Bread of Life” sermon, but it seems to me that he must have understood what Jesus meant. In today’s passage from James, listen for the connection he makes between simply hearing the word and doing the word. For James, and the people to whom he wrote, going all in for Jesus was guaranteed to be a risky business, but failing to commit carried an even greater risk.
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 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.
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 1:17-27
James seems to have just two questions in mind here. First he asks, “Who is God to you?” Then James wants to know, “Who are you to God?”
It only takes a couple of verses for James to explain who God is to us. He is Father, Creator, the giver of life and light. God is unchangeable, and therefore dependable. God is truth and righteousness, fulfilling his own purpose in us. And that brings us to the second question, “Who are you to God?”
This question is a little more complicated, because in order to answer it, James has to remind us of who we are not to be. We are not to be people who give in to anger. We are not to be the kind of people who cannot control their own tongues, who say things without thinking. Most of all, we are not to be people who deceive ourselves into thinking we are okay with God when our lives give no evidence that this is true.
We are first fruits. In Jewish tradition, the first fruits were the offering brought to the temple at the beginning of harvest. These offerings were perfect examples of the produce that had been grown. They were given to God in thanksgiving for a good crop, and they served as a kind of down payment on offerings that would be brought when the harvest was complete. We are the down payment of God’s promises to the world, James says. We are God’s gift to show what righteousness is supposed to look like. And the way we behave is important. We must conduct ourselves as children of God, “for that is what we are!” (1 John 3:1)
How do ‘first fruits’ behave? “Know this, beloved,” James says, and we perk up, ready to learn the key to acting like God’s children ought to act. What comes next might not be what we were expecting to hear. It seems that everywhere else in the New Testament, we are urged to speak boldly, to proclaim the gospel at every opportunity. But James suddenly sounds a lot like his big brother Jesus, turning what we expect on its head. “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.”
Had you ever thought of listening as a form of evangelism? James tells us that it is the first thing we should do as representatives of God’s righteousness. As God’s gift to a hurting world, we are to listen to the pain, the need, and the despair around us. Even more than this, we must be quick to listen to God’s word. Just as Jesus told us to take his flesh and blood into ourselves, so James tells us to welcome the implanted word into our lives. It isn’t enough to sit back and let the word of God run in one ear and out the other. We are to let it be implanted in us.
I love a good paradox. Recognizing two opposite truths that depend on one another, and holding them in tension, always makes me think I might be getting a little closer to God’s ultimate truth. Jesus often used paradox – the first shall be last, bless those who curse you, whoever would be greatest must be like a little child… And here, James offers us another paradox. If the word of God is planted deep within you, it’s going to show up on the outside. Whatever is at your very core is the thing that dictates your outward behavior. The mark of an authentically Christian life is this paradox between inward spiritual health and outward acts of compassion, mercy, and justice. So if you say you follow Jesus on Sunday, the way you live your life on Monday through Saturday needs to be congruent with that statement. “Be doers of the word, and not hearers only,” James tells us.
How do you do that? James writes,
“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.” (1:26-27)
Orphans and widows, in first century Jerusalem, were the most vulnerable people in society. They had no resources and no social standing at all. They were completely dependent on the mercy and generosity of others. They were in distress. Who can you think of in that position today? Who do we see every day that is vulnerable, completely dependent on the mercy of others, in distress? Those are the people James says we should be caring for if we have God’s word planted inside us.
Let the way you live your life reveal your true identity as a child of God. James invites us to look into a mirror and see who we really are. He isn’t asking us to catalogue our physical imperfections. He’s asking us to see that we have been blessed by God’s gifts, we have been set aside as first fruit, precious and belonging to God.
Be who you really are. Because when you forget your identity, when you forget how much you’ve been given, it’s easy to become self-focused instead of outwardly focused. Life becomes a campaign to grab whatever you can, and the widow or the orphan, or the person who has no home, or the man who just got out of jail with no job and no place to go – those people don’t even register as a blip on your radar.
But that is not who you are! Look at yourself again and realize you are loved! This is who God created you to be. “Is there some reason you don’t want people to know who you are?” (Craig Koester)
Churches can be just as guilty as individuals, when it comes to forgetting who we are and becoming inwardly focused instead of outwardly engaged. Somewhere along the line, we forgot the passion for sharing Jesus that marked our church’s beginning, and we became more concerned with keeping the institution alive. We cared more about our own comfort, doing things the way we like them done, than we cared about doing things in ways that would bring Jesus to the hurting world around us.
[NOTE TO THE READER: What follows is a paraphrase of material provided by the Minnesota Conference of the United Methodist Church. Learn more about Healthy Church Initiative here.]
The world is changing. Today’s culture is becoming more “spiritual but not religious” and those choosing “none” as their religious identification are now at an all time high of 20%. We see our congregation growing older and smaller and we wonder how to connect to this changing culture. One thing is certain: we can’t keep doing things the way we’ve always done them if we want to make disciples for the transformation of this corner of the world.
The Healthy Church Initiative (HCI) is designed to help mid-size congregations make the necessary shifts to become vital and able to connect to the culture around us. HCI is for congregations who want to grow in vitality and effectiveness, who desire to see spiritual, numerical, and missional growth, and who are willing to work with an outside consultant and coach to achieve these goals. HCI is for churches that do not have significant dysfunctional conflict, but have demonstrated a capacity to do the hard work of real change.
Our church has been invited by Bishop Bruce Ough to participate in the Healthy Church Initiative process. The Church Council voted to accept the Bishop’s invitation, and we have begun to take the steps that will lead us through that process.
Here’s what we can expect: This Fall, members of our newly formed HCI team will commit to join me at three Saturday training sessions in preparation for the Healthy Church Initiative. I will participate in a peer mentoring group through the implementation phase of the process.
As a congregation, we will complete a self-study and Natural Church Development inventory. We will receive reviews from Mystery Guests and become familiar with our unique mission field. We will form key leadership teams who will participate in workshops led by an outside facilitator.
Sometime after January 1, a three-person team will come spend the weekend with us to conduct individual interviews with church leaders, as well as two focus group sessions. They will lead a congregational workshop on Saturday, in which I urge you all to participate. They will join us for Sunday worship and identify five strengths and five concerns for our congregation to consider. Within two weeks of that visit, they will provide us with a written report that gives us five strategic recommendations to move First United Methodist Church toward vitality and missional effectiveness.
The congregation will hold two meetings within 30 days after the consultation to discuss the report with recommendations. Following this, we will convene a special Church Conference led by our District Superintendent, to vote on the action plan. To move forward, the congregation must agree to adopt the entire action plan as developed by the leaders with the consultation team. If we decide to adopt the action plan, a coach will continue to meet monthly with church leaders and the pastor, to help us implement the plan. The coach may also conduct workshops as needed.
After 15 months of implementation, the congregation will evaluate our progress on spiritual, numerical and missional growth goals, and define the next steps we must take for continued health and vitality. We will evaluate if we need coaching for an additional 3-6 months.
Our evaluation will be based on five critical success factors:
HCI will help us become a church with a clear understanding of why we exist and what God wants us to accomplish. Through this process, we can develop a genuine outward focus, concern for our community, and a sense of excitement about our future. We can become people who really live what we say we believe. As the word of God becomes firmly planted within us, we will be equipped to live out our faith and grow deeper in love of God and our neighbor.
We will examine the structures that govern the way we operate as a congregation, and learn how to prepare for the next God-sized vision that will shape our ministry here. We will develop ways to connect with newcomers and engage them in the life and outwardly focused ministry of the church. We will take a close look at the way we do worship, the way we use technology, and the ways we participate in the life of our community.
We will develop a genuine excitement about the church, and a strong desire to invite others to join us in serving our community as God leads us into a hopeful future.
As a participating congregation in the Healthy Church Initiative, we promise to:
- Pray for the HCI process in our church, for each other, for God’s direction and guidance, and for those God is calling us to reach and serve.
- Complete all of the required homework and the tasks for the weekend consultation, making our best effort and not taking shortcuts!
- Engage in the whole process fully, making the work a priority and sharing what we learn in as many settings as possible, so everyone stays informed.
- Maintain continuity of leadership: The bishop, pastor, and SPRC, to the best of their ability, agree that there will be no change of appointments during the HCI process (weekend consultation and 15 month implementation time).
- Finally, we promise to budget 1% of our annual budget for new/emerging ministries.
James tells us that those who do not invest in active faith deceive themselves and their faith is worthless. Healthy Church Initiative is one way that we, as a whole church, can invest in active faith. Here’s how we will know that what has been planted in us is bearing good fruit: the most vulnerable people in our community will be cared for by us, and our lives will become more Christ-like, as we live our faith with integrity and purpose.
Let us pray.
(Sunday Prayer adapted from revgalblogpals.org)
O Lord, we pray that you would remind us and move us,
to be quick to listen, and to listen deeply.
Help us to hold our words, so we hear your Word.
Hold our anger, and give us patience.
Remind us to do your word,
to care for those and that are in distress:
the lost, the lonely, the grieving, the sick…
our earth home, and all of her creatures ….
We pray for the least of these, and the most of those
who have no clue that their power hurts the frailest and most vulnerable.
Give us the courage to speak slowly, give us the faith to love deeply.
Make us into the people you want us to be.
Make us into the church you want us to be.
In the strong name of Jesus we pray, Amen.