Preached by Michael Cheuk, August 30, 2015
Taken from James 1:17-27
Today, I begin a sermon series taken from the book of James, a brief letter found toward the end of the New Testament. As I studied this book in preparing to preach it, I’ve found that many people either love or hate the book. People love the book because it is so straightforward and practical. Its main focus is on what it means to live an authentic Christian life, and James, in a very simple, rapid-fire, shot-gun way, makes pronouncements on a lot of topics. Other people hate it—well, maybe “hate” is too strong a word—other people are not that fond of it because they think this book teaches a salvation by works, instead of by faith. For some, it is too simplistic, too scattered, and too preachy. Let’s face it, you’re reading James, and you get to verses like: “be quick to listen, slow to speak” (v. 19), “get rid of all moral filth and evil” (v. 21), and “look after orphans and widows” (v.27), it all begins to sound like your mother nagging you to “pick up your socks,” “brush your teeth before going to bed,” and “eat your vegetables before you can have dessert.” And you just want to say, “Yeah, yeah, I know, I know. Momma don’t preach!” Granted, who would disagree with the wisdom that James is teaching? But do we have to hear it again?
I heard a story about an old preacher who preached a wonderful sermon one Sunday, and everyone in the congregation really loved it. The next Sunday, he preached the very same sermon again, and while the congregation thought that was a little strange, they didn’t think too much about it. But the following Sunday, that preacher preached the exact same sermon for the third time. This time, as one of the ladies of the church was making her way out of the church and shaking the minister’s hand, she just had to ask the minister: “Why have you preached the same sermon three weeks in a row?” To which the minister replied: “Well, ma’am, when you all start doing what I’m preaching, then I’ll move on to the next topic!”
Ahh, now there’s the rub. We hear and know what James is teaching us. We probably agree with the wisdom dispensed. But hearing and knowing and agreeing with what James is saying is not the problem. The problem is actually doing what James is telling us. The challenge is found in verse 22: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.”
So how do we become “Doers of the Word?”
According to James, we become doers of the Word when we first embrace the generosity of God. We are reminded that “Every good and perfect gift comes from above, from God.” God generously gave us the universe when God, as the “Father of lights,” spoke at the beginning of time: “Let there be light.” God is also generously faithful to us. Like the hymn says: “Great is thy faithfulness O God my Father. There is no shadow of turning with thee.” God’s generous gift of divine faithfulness is not variable; it doesn’t turn or change. Furthermore, God created us and gave us a new birth, the generous gift of salvation, through God’s word. This salvation we have experienced is the “first-fruits” or the foretaste of the salvation of all of God’s creatures. Let’s name our blessings: our universe, our lives, our salvation, our family and friends, our church family, our material possessions, our physical and intellectual capabilities, etc. Truly, we are the recipients of every good and perfect gift from God! We become doers of the Word when we first embrace the generosity of God, because God is the source of who we are and the resource of what we do.
Second, we become doers of the Word when we embody a generosity of Spirit. One way to embody a generosity of Spirit is by listening. We can’t be doers of God’s word when we haven’t listened to what it says we ought to do. As a Type A personality, I often find myself just jumping into doing without first praying and listening for an answer to this question: “God, what is it that you’re calling me to do?” I find that I’m much more like Martha busy and frantic at doing many things, when the only thing that is needed is to be like Mary and sit at Jesus’ feet to listen to him.
It takes a generosity of spirit not just to listen to God, but to listen to others. James tells us to be quick to listen and to be slow to speak and slow to become angry. How many times have we let our emotions to get ahead of us, and we stop listening to others? How many times have we not listened but instead assumed we knew what the problem was, and therefore, we applied the wrong solution?
A Baptist evangelist arrived in town for a healing revival service. During the healing service, a man comes forward and says, “Preacher, I’m concerned about my hearing.”
The evangelist says, “You say you’re worried about your hearing, brother?”
“Yes,” says the man, “I’m very concerned about my hearing.”
The evangelist suddenly slaps the man on the forehead and yells, “Be healed, brother!”
The man is stunned and falls backward.
The evangelist says, “Rise, brother! Tell me, how is your hearing?”
The man, still a bit stunned, answers, “I don’t know, Preacher. My hearing in court is next week.”
Many times, in our haste to do something and “help” in a situation, we don’t take the time to actually hear and listen in order to understand what the problem from another person’s point of view. It takes a generosity of spirit to take the posture of a learner and to listen before we speak.
In order to become a doer of the Word, we are called to embrace the generosity of God and to embody a generosity of spirit. Listening is crucial, but just listening is not enough. It must be followed by action. Therefore, we become doers of the Word when we exhibit a generosity of service. In verse 27, James writes: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” Here, James challenges us to put our faith into action.
The word “religion” in verse 27 is actually the word for “religious worship.” James is saying that the pure and faultless worship of God manifests itself when we care for the powerless and dispossessed in our midst, and when we live an upright life. Many churches today fight about what is acceptable worship to God. Methodist Bishop Will Willimon once said: “Sometimes I have heard people say of church on Sunday morning, ‘I think of church as a filling station. I come here empty, and during the service I get filled so I can make it through the week.’ See? Passive, receptive, not active.” Willimon continues: “It makes church into a place where we come, sit back and say, ‘OK preacher, choir, organist, what have you got for me today? Fill me up.’ No. The test for good worship, the mark of a good church is not what we do here, during this hour of worship; it’s what we do outside those doors for the rest of the week. Yet here, as elsewhere,” concludes Willimon, “after all is said and done, more is said than done.”
On Sunday mornings, we receive God’s generous gifts of beautiful music, lovely singing, warm fellowship, scripture reading and preaching. It would be a shame to then walk out those doors and act like nothing had happened, and go back to our old lives unchallenged and unchanged. To do that would be like a man who looks at his face in a mirror, and, after looking at himself and noticing that his hair is all messed up, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like—without pulling out a comb to fix his hair. But James is exhorting us to be like the person who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and instead of looking and forgetting, the law is put into action. It’s not just what you know, it’s also about doing what you know. This generosity of service on our part reflects our belief that every perfect gift comes from God.
As children, we sang a song about the wise man who built his house upon the rock, while the foolish man built his house upon the sand, based on Jesus’ parable in Matthew 7:24-27. What’s the difference between the two? Jesus says that the wise builder “hears these words of mine and puts them into practice,” while the foolish builder hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice. Both hear the words of Jesus. The only difference is that one puts them into practice and the other doesn’t.
During the past several weeks, the staff and I have had conversations with our church leaders to discover and discern ways that University Baptist can better put our faith into action. This coming week, a letter will be mailed or emailed to our members and regular attenders, and it will contain five questions for us to answer prayerfully. Some questions will ask us to embrace the generosity of God’s good and perfect gifts in celebrating the positive things that are going on at UBC. Other questions will require us to embody a generosity of spirit as we listen carefully to things we identify as challenges, problems, and priorities. Your frank and honest answers will be strictly confidential, and they will be printed out verbatim in time for our UBC Leadership Retreat on October 3. At the retreat, members of church council, deacons, and ministerial staff will listen both to the Word of God and to the words of our respondents to identity, prioritize, and implement action plans to put our faith into action so that we as a church may exhibit a generosity of service in the name of Christ to our neighborhood, our community and our world. Please be in prayer as we seek God’s direction for University Baptist Church.
Finally, I want to share a story of faith in action that happened just this morning. How many of you drove to church last Sunday, and saw the sea of red and blue plastic cups all along 14th and Wertland Streets? Every fall, right after move-in, parties take place all along those streets, and the cups and litter are a constant presence. Just as the first robin signals spring, the first red solo cup signals, “The students are back!” The trash is certainly ugly and I must confess that I shake my head in disbelief and disgust every time I see the rivers of trash left over from a long night of partying by students.
Two Fridays ago, I visited the manager of the apartments behind our parking lot and asked her when the “Wertland parties” were taking place. She replied “tomorrow night,” and the tense look on her face betrayed her anxiety as she prepared to get an earful from me. Was I there to complain in advance about students trashing our parking lot? Before I could respond, she quickly added, “but we’ve got our staff ready to clean up, and we’ve told our tenants not to throw stuff off their balconies onto your parking lot.” I thanked her for her concern about our property, but said that wasn’t the reason why I was there. “I just wanted to tell you that a group from our church is planning to help pick up trash along the street next Sunday morning.” Her face softened visibly and she replied, “Oh, that’s so nice of you! Thank you!” I replied, “We just want to be good neighbors.” And that’s just what happened this morning – our youth and some of their parents went out earlier today along Wertland and 14th—and they were good neighbors.
Be doers of the Word. God’s Word calls us to love our neighbor as ourselves. In the past several months, Will Brown and I listened to the concerns of UVA’s administration about the parties on Wertland St. Instead of speaking out in anger against drunken students trashing our neighborhood, I’ve been praying, “God, how can we address this problem in a way that showcases your grace?” God has generously blessed us with a wonderful youth group, and this morning, we tried one idea by empowering our youth group to love our neighbors. It’s a small thing. It’s not meant as an act of judgment. It’s not going to stop the problem. It’s just one small way, on this particular Sunday, to put faith in action, here in our neighborhood.
How will you put your faith in action this week? How might you embrace the generosity of God and offer the resources you have back to God? How might you embody a generosity of spirit to actively and carefully listen to God and to others? How might you then exhibit a generosity of service as a witness to the grace of God? May God bless and empower us to be doers of the Word.
 William Willimon, “Doers of the Word.” http://www.chapel.duke.edu/worship/sunday/viewsermon.aspx?id=46