A sermon for the fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 2, 2018
Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey
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.
“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.
When our lectionary shortens lessons for easier listening, sometimes it leaves out interesting or relevant bits. The passage from the Gospel of Mark this morning leaves out these words of Jesus: “Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother’… but you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is an offering to God)—then you no longer permit anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God.” People find ways to do this kind of stuff all the time. They look at their own interests, their obligations and they figure out how to cut corners for their own immediate benefit. They are like those looking in that mirror, here’s how I’ll game this out, and I’ll be the one coming out ahead. At the end they not only forget their parents, but also what is important about themselves, the life of generosity of cae and compassion. Being a doer of the Word is the opposite of finding a rationale to avoid the obligations of the commandments or to stop living generously.
The text from James 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.
Hear the call of the Word to us in this morning’s first lesson:
Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come; and the voice of the turtledove is heard in the land.