Poets, not hearers who deceive themselves

A sermon at Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

14th Sunday after Pentecost, August 30, 2015

Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.

We live in a world where people attribute everything to God, or nothing to God. As if every random thing that happens has been planned out and dictated by God, or, on the other hand that God isn’t there at all, or God is relevant to nothing. Our epistle lesson this morning, from the letter of James, says something quite different.

child and gift“Every generous act of giving and every perfect gift” is from God. It doesn’t say, “all the stuff we get or want” is from God, it says, “Every generous act of giving…” We detect God, we perceive God, and we understand God in the generosity of people. There is a famous passage in the First letter of John, describing God: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God in them.” We see God in others when we see that un-self conscious generosity that puts the needs of others first. I know the presence of God in my life, when I have the gift of being able to give for others without looking to my own gain.

People like to turn it around and make someone else responsible for their troubles and if no one else is convenient then it’s all God’s fault. God is the giver of perfect gifts, the God of love, but it so easy to quickly defend ourselves and to blame.

The letter of James continues: “My beloved, let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” How often do people get this backwards and become quick to speak and slow to listen? That’s particularly the case when we’re defending ourselves and trying to tag somebody else with being ungenerous or unkind, quick to win the argument. That quickness to speak goes along with a slowness in listening, and in that slowness, we miss the generosity of God.

Attend! Be quick to focus and listen to the living, the most generous, the most perfect God. But that is just the beginning of this passage. It is not enough to just hear good things, and listen to the right answers. It is not enough even to memorize the right answers. Copying out answers from the Bible, or from Dr. Phil, or Oprah or anyplace else will do you no good. Here is how the passage from James continues: “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” It is not enough to just know the right rhetoric. It is when the Word of Life becomes the fabric of your life and governs your way of doing things that it makes a difference.

When I was looking at the Greek of this lesson, I noticed a little detail. That word, “doers” is not a very common or graceful word in English. It’s a good enough translation. In Greek, the word is  ποιητης [poietes] which means a person who does something, but it is also the same word that is used in Greek for a poet–ποιητης [poietes] is the origin of our word poet. A poet takes language and a story and does something with them and does something new that makes more sense and conveys more truth than was there before—at least, that’s what a good poet does. Living the Christian life is much like being a poet: in our lives, we receive the gifts of God, we hear, we listen—any artist spends much time absorbing the world around her. But that is crafted by the artist into something new, something is done so that a new and true gift is made for the world.

I noticed the next sentence in this lesson for the very first time when I was preparing this sermon. It says, “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.” That image in the mirror, that image that comes from looking at ourselves, doesn’t really reveal the truth about ourselves. Self-absorption does not make the poet. It is the integration of the whole of reality, of getting beyond ourselves, that we become doers of the word, poets with our lives. The text continues, “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.” That doing is the poetry of our lives, and that perfect law is the generosity of God that manifests in the generous lovingness of people. That blessing in our lives is the doing of God’s generosity in lives of thanksgiving.

Please listen once again to our psalm for today:

Lord, who may dwell in your tabernacle?

            who may abide upon your holy hill?

Whoever leads a blameless life and does what is right.

            who speaks the truth from his heart.

There is no guile upon his tongue; he does no evil to his friend;

            he does not heap contempt upon his neighbor.

In his sight the wicked is rejected,

            but he honors those who fear the Lord.

He has sworn to do no wrong

            and he does not take back his word.

He does not give his money in hope of gain,

            nor does he take a bribe against the innocent.

Whoever does these things

            shall never be overthrown.

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2 comments

  1. Luther called this the “straw gospel” because it links doing right with salvation instead of “justification by faith.” If James: Jesus’ brother and leader to the church had this view (I realize this was written much, much later) then it is possible that this was Jesus’ view too. A righteous Jew: not a bad role model.

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  2. Luther was wrapped up in a lot of intense controversy. I think his slogan, “justification by faith, apart from works of the law” overwhelmed his objectivity. This passage from James is really quite parallel with Luther’s struggle and insight: An awful lot of late medieval catholic ecclesiastical practice and teaching had become more or less a manual of things to do –very much like “hearers of the word” who simply spit back the right answers, Luther’s response and solution was “faith” –honestly, my read of being doers or “poets” of the word is similar–it is not the formulaic holding to regulations but faith in the living God that justifies. So I find that Luther and James are pushing the same insight, even though Luther attacked James.

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