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Neither Straw nor Cardboard

August 31, 2015

“Neither Straw nor Cardboard” James 1:1-27 © 8.30.15 Ordinary 22B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

The sixteenth century reformer Martin Luther famously observed that the book of James was a “right strawy epistle.” To understand what he meant, imagine that upon opening a gift box, you’re hoping for a treasure underneath the packing, in this case straw, but after you pull it all out, there’s nothing. Luther found no gold nugget of the gospel in James, only worthless foam peanuts, as we would say. He felt that way because James doesn’t mention the cross or the resurrection, baptism or justification by faith. Another way to hear Luther is to think of how unpleasant, if not impossible, it would be to eat straw or cardboard. James was a document not fit for human consumption, without appeal and of no value for spiritual nourishment.

Reviews from others ancient and modern have been mixed. The early church father named Origen quoted James about two dozen times in his works, so he liked it. Jerome, on the other hand, rather grudgingly included it in his Latin translation of the Bible known as the Vulgate. The assessment of James’s value across the Church East and West was so iffy that it took about 300 years after it was written for the book to finally be included in the Bible (in the late fourth century).

A good many contemporary scholars have often followed Luther in dismissing James. John Shelby Spong, for example, devotes barely a page to it in his book Reclaiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World. “I find the epistle of James to be of value,” he says, “but not of great value.” He does credit it with inspiring charitable work with the poor, and thus deems it worthy to be included in the New Testament (174).

Luther’s problem with the book came from his fierce devotion to justification by faith and his misunderstanding of what James has to say about the subject. The reformer thought the author was claiming we are made right with God by our works, in direct contradiction to Paul’s celebration of the gift of salvation by grace.

In fact, whatever the conflicts between the historical James and Paul, there is no disagreement between this book and Paul’s position. Paul was talking about something different than James. It’s apples and oranges. Both see salvation as a gift. What James is interested in is not the concepts of law and grace or how people are saved. He’s talking to Christians about living authentically, proving their profession by their way of life.

So who was this James, among the several men with that name in the New Testament, and why should we pay attention to him? The answer to the first part is that he was Jesus’ brother, presumably next born after our Lord. We’re told in 1 Corinthians that Jesus appeared to James after his resurrection, but of course, we don’t know what they talked about. James would eventually become a believer and then a prominent leader in the Jerusalem branch of the Church, a man to whom even Paul was accountable. The historian Josephus reports that James was stoned to death by the religious authorities for sins against the Jewish law in the early 60s of the first century. If our Lord’s brother actually wrote the book, then it would predate the gospels and be contemporary with Paul’s undisputed letters. If the book was penned in James’s name, which was a common practice back in the day, it was written about 90 AD, around the same time as the Gospel of John and Revelation. Given the style and vocabulary of the book, it’s likely that Jesus’ sibling didn’t write it.

Now about the second question. We should pay attention to James first of all because he speaks with the same voice as Jesus. This collection of essays isn’t concerned with doctrines and rituals and principles. It’s about the same kinds of things our Lord found important. Relationships. Caring for the vulnerable. Speaking and acting. Being real. Endurance and integrity. In fact, the closeness in content between James and the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew is striking. The order is different than in Matthew, so James may be taking us back to the source for both his collection and the gospel. Indeed, James takes us closer to Jesus than Matthew, since if Jesus’ brother did write it, the letter was written decades before the gospel. This book gets at the heart of Jesus’ ethical teaching at its most uncomplicated, before it was shaped by the Church into doctrine, before it was overshadowed by ecclesiastical politics and bureaucracy.

Which brings us to the second reason we should pay attention to James. It’s a book for our age of many faiths and our awareness of wisdom from sources beyond our own tradition. This collection of teachings draws not only from Jesus, but from Jewish wisdom writings and from Greek philosophers. Actually, all those simply inhabited a common universe of thought and practice and respected each other. James also uses methods of teaching that were popular and considered effective in his day. In good wisdom fashion and like Jesus, he draws his examples from everyday life, teaching us that if we simply look around we will find spiritual lessons. Finally, he talks about God more than specifically about Christ. That makes him a resource for anyone who affirms the reality of One beyond us and to whom we are grateful and accountable, no matter what we may call that Being.

The takeaway for us in our divided day of disrespectful, “I’ve got the only truth” speech is that we don’t have to be afraid to acknowledge that somebody is right and honorable and worthy who doesn’t share our perspective on politics or religion. We don’t need to close our ears to good teaching and to helpful ideas just because they come from somewhere outside our circle, our ideological camp, our community of faith. Christians don’t need to be afraid of or reject the insights of science or Muslims or Buddhists or Jews in order somehow to preserve the integrity of our confession. Republicans and Democrats and independents and Libertarians can cooperate and collaborate and celebrate instead of being mired in the partisan bickering and outright hatred that characterizes so much of today’s discourse and dysfunction. Everyone can and should be careful about matters of speech and hospitality and justice.

But even though James reminds us of the simple teachings of Jesus and urges us to listen to each other, there’s a more important reason to pay attention to him. Here it is: James invites us to view the world, our lives, our neighbors as gifts. That’s at the root of everything he says. God is the faithful, constant, trustworthy giver of gifts, the Source of light and good and help. When you and I believe that, our outlook on everything is transformed. When we see all we have and are and will become as gifts, our role is to steward those gifts. We begin to understand that there is enough for me and you and everyone because God doesn’t know how to stop giving. He is gracious and loving and desires for us the liberty of people who don’t need to grasp at life, don’t need to shut out our neighbors, don’t need to compete and hurt and defraud in order to have what we need to live. God’s purpose for us is that of a loving parent who has granted us all we need not just now but forever.

The alternative is what we see so often in the churches, in business, the family, in politics. That view says that if you get yours, then I won’t have mine, because there’s not enough to go around. The world, the universe, is ultimately out to get us and shortchange us, so I have to grab everything I can for me and mine or I won’t survive. It’s an arrogant, hateful attitude that assumes conflict and war and scarcity as the norm. It scoffs at the idea of grace and refuses to be gracious and hospitable. Such is the fruit of the rank growth of wickedness James talks about.

For such people, “God” is merely a concept, a slogan, a word that we say, a faint memory of something we once believed in, but now have emptied of any real content. God doesn’t define and shape our reality; we do, so this thinking goes. We are the measure of everything: our wants, our needs, our agendas. So we ignore our neighbors even as we use the name of God to justify and bless our viewpoints.

But no matter how much we say the words “God” and “Jesus,” our religion is a sham and worthless if it doesn’t issue in concrete action on behalf of the vulnerable, the voiceless, the left-out, the hurting, and the helpless. James says we’re deluded if we think that kind of faith is authentic. Faith for him is not assenting to ideas or mouthing the so-called right doctrine. Nor may we keep our faith to ourselves or say our beliefs are private. We need to act, or as he put it, be “doers of the word.” Sitting in a pew and praying a prayer or listening to a sermon is insufficient. Studying the Bible for personal enrichment falls short. Those are good things, but the word we hear and study will not take hold in our lives until we act on it. Faith has to be hands-on, involved, James says, or it’s no good.

Over forty years ago, I took French at what was then called Albany Junior College. A whole year of it. I still remember the eccentric professor who had fought with the resistance in WWII. He fit some sort of stereotype with his beret, his scruffy clothes, his European way of holding his cigarette, his shuffling walk, his cheerful greeting of “Bonjour! Comment ça va?” But guess what? I recall very little French. I was reminded of that forcefully at breakfast at a B&B in Natchitoches, LA. There was a couple from France sitting at the table, the wife at my left and the husband across from me. I decided to try to strike up a conversation. I made a total fool of myself. Susan wisely did not try to use her college German to speak with the folks next to her. You know why I don’t remember a thing. After I got out of that class, I rarely spoke or read French again; Natchitoches was the first time in a long while. Fluency in a language requires immersion in a culture; your very survival and success must depend on your ability to communicate.

Or consider how many of us have gone to a lecture or a workshop or taken a class on some subject we felt was important to our personal or professional development. It proves to be excellent in every way, and we leave resolved to put all the wonderful stuff into practice. And maybe we do. But what happens more often? The notes go in a file drawer or an obscure folder in our laptop, the excitement wears off, and we looking at brochures for another workshop or online for another class! Unless we start using what we heard right away, let it become part of us, it won’t do us much good. Practicing the skill. Thinking a new way. That’s what makes the difference.

The same with the life of faith. If we don’t act on the word every day, it really hasn’t made a difference. Living as a Christian is not like swimming or riding a bike, things you or I don’t forget. We can forget how to be the people of God. The seed is always there—dormant, but there—but we can forget. That’s why we need rituals like Communion and renewal of Baptism. That’s why we tell the stories of the faith over and over. And that’s why it’s important to do the Word.

The writer has some very specific ideas about how we need to behave once the Word of God takes hold of us. And we’ll be looking at some over the coming weeks. But for now, we can say that being doers of the Word means treating others as you want to be treated, loving your neighbor as yourself. It’s visiting the sick and taking care of the needy. It’s taming your tongue and listening while someone pours out their heart. It’s putting a rein on your rage and instead seeking to promote the righteousness of God. Not talk, talk, talk but act, act, act. Results, not resolutions. Ministry, not motions. Compassion, not callous disregard. Humble authenticity, not arrogant self-promotion.

Thomas Troeger is a contemporary hymn writer. A number of his efforts, with music by Carol Doran, are in the blue hymnal. Unfortunately, Ms. Doran’s music is usually nearly impossible to sing by anyone but a trained vocalist. The texts, however, are quite often creative. Here is one which I recommend to you this morning as the prayer of those who will celebrate Holy Communion next week and those who seek to do the Word every day: “As a chalice cast of gold/burnished, bright, and brimmed with wine,/make me, Lord, as fit to hold,/grace and truth and love divine./Let my praise and worship start/with the cleansing of my heart. Save me from the soothing sin/of the empty cultic deed/and the pious, babbling din/of the claimed, but unlived creed. Let my actions, Lord, express/what my tongue and lips profess.”

James is neither straw nor cardboard. Instead, it’s tasty fare for mature believers, nourishment for the serious journey of faith, with lots of crunchy, healthy granola-like nuggets of wisdom.

Dig into it.

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