If writing Holy Scripture were a competition, where authors duked it out to see who could get the most writings into the Bible and whose writings would be the most popular, James, brother of Jesus, would most certainly be among the losers at the bottom.
Seriously, when was the last time someone quoted James to you. And if they did, wouldn’t your first thought be, “James who?” People are more fond of the Bible’s most valuable players like Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. We love Paul and his promise that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God. We quote Psalm 23 at the bedside of a loved one because it soothes us like a soft song. But James? No. James is one of the unknowns.
James’ short little letter is tucked in the back of the New Testament among other no-name letters that rarely see the light of day, like 1 and 2 Peter or Jude. Every year, I hear about people committed to reading the Bible cover to cover, and never once have any of them actually done it. They barely make it into the New Testament, let alone all the way to the back where James hangs out. Go home and open your bible to the Letter of James and I guarantee that it will crackle a bit, having never been opened there. I know mine did.
And did you notice that it is the letter of James. It is not the gospel of James or the book of James. It is the letter of James. Which means it is personal. It was written to a specific person or group of people at a specific time and place. Does anyone write letters anymore? Do you sit down at a desk for 30 minutes or so with the patience to reflect on what you want to tell this person and the confidence to put it down in ink? Lauren and I have an old neighbor who is in her 70s and she writes us letters. Every time we receive one of those envelopes stuffed to the gills with five or six pages of stories and news from the neighborhood, I always feel like I am encountering a lost art that is dying out. Her letters are always personal and steeped in love. And it is a shame that it usually takes two or three of them to arrive before we find the time to respond. If only she had Facebook…
So that’s what James is. A personal letter, written from one beating heart to another that more often than not goes unread. Which is too bad, because I don’t know about you, but as we have listened to the passages of James pass us by these last couple of weeks, there have been brief moments where I thought to myself, “That sounds like it was written yesterday.” So timely, so applicable to life. We’ve heard phrases like, “Every generous act comes from God,” “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.” James has told us not to favor one type of person over another and to not judge people. James warns us in chapter three that our tongue is the body part that most often gets us into trouble. That it is the words we speak to one another, or type, or tweet, or text, that can be a small spark that starts a whole forest on fire. And isn’t that true about our world today. The way we use our tongues to speak can be like cancer. It can squeeze the life right out of the person who is on the receiving end. The trouble is we know it is true. Many of us know the feeling of speaking and then wishing you could reach out and grab those words back again before they reach the other person’s ears.
A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine was caught in an argument with his partner and on a whim, he said to her, “Fine. Just go be like your mother then.” He knew it the moment he said it. He knew how those words would slam her right in the heart but he couldn’t reach out quick enough to take them back.
What we are learning is that the letter of James is not a bunch of old words. While it was personal and timely back then, it is personal and timely today. It is present day wisdom from which we all could benefit. Let’s be honest, it’s hard to find a way to use Jesus’ “The Son of Man must suffer and die…” as guidance for your life when out on a lunch break with your co-workers. But James’ “Be quick to listen and slow to speak…” echoes of wisdom for today when most of us are slow to listen and quick to speak.
Or take today’s portion of James: For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. Isn’t that still true today? Don’t envy and selfish ambition still lead us into disorder and wickedness?
So why don’t we read the letter of James any more? I think much of it is because of a little quote from Martin Luther hundreds of years ago that, like a bad rumor passed around school, just has not faded away yet. Luther says that letter of James is a letter of straw. It is flimsy and hollow. Makes for good kindling for a fire and good bedding for the cattle. Which Luther would rather we tore the letter of James out of our Bibles than actually read it. You see, Martin Luther was so convinced by the Apostle Paul that the grace of God is not something you earn but something that is given to you freely that James simply sounded too much like earning God’s love. There are over 100 commands in the 5 short chapters of James. Do this. Don’t do that.
Now Martin Luther is right – we are not saved and awarded grace because of the things we do or don’t do. Grac is a free gift given. But I don’t think that James disagrees with that. Instead, I think James is the one who encourages us, or more truthfully, outright demands that we not just think about this gift but actually do something with it. There is a story about the young boy who wanted nothing else but a new pair of rollerblades for his birthday. When the day finally arrived, there in the middle of a pile of presents was a big square and heavy box (he knows, because he lifted it up the day before to try to guess what was in it). Inside was exactly what he asked for. But terrified to ruin this new gift, he placed them in his closet to keep them safe and clean and 8 months later, unused and unopened, his rollerblades were too small. A gift is meant to be used, not hidden.
At the heart of the letter of James is the desire we actually use our faith to impact the world. The first chapter of James says that the very word of God has been planted inside you. Think about that. Buried inside each of you is a seed. Just a little bead of the word of God, planted there by God the farmer. Many of you are farmers and gardeners and so you know that one never plants something and hopes that it will just stay there buried. One plants so that something will grow. Grow out of it and bring forth fruit. The word of God has been planted in you, James says. Now go and do something with it.
Which means this wisdom from James is not wisdom for Sunday morning. Notice this letter isn’t about how to pray better or how to receive communion with a more intentional and faithful heart. It isn’t about confessing your sin more truthfully or honestly. All of these things are great, but the letter of James carries within it Monday-through-Saturday kind of wisdom. He says that we are called to use our faith in the ordinary parts of our life. For James, how you speak with co-workers is an act of faith. For James, the amount of care and effort you put into your work is an act of faith. For James, how you treat your opponents on the soccer or baseball field is an act of faith. That is God is at work with and through you in this world.
A professor of mine was once working with a group of congregation members, trying to help them see God not as a distant judge watching everything they do, but as a co-pilot in this life. One who comes alongside us and uses us to bring about a better world. So this professor asked the group what they and God are doing on Monday morning at 9am. One man raised his hand and said, “Well I am balancing the books for the business I work at. But I have not a clue what God is doing.” My professor asked him, “What type of business do you work for?” The man said, “A grain mill.” “And where does your grain go?” “To bread companies.” “And where does their bread go?” “Mostly Southern Chicago.” My professor paused and thought for a moment. “So if you don’t balance the books correctly, you might end up selling grain at too high of a price. Which means the bread makers would need to raise the cost of their bread. Which means the stores on the South side of Chicago would have to increase the price of the bread. Which means the bread might become too expensive for the single mother with two children who needs it. But if you do your job well, the cost of bread will be accurate and more affordable. It sounds like to me, on Monday morning at 9am, you and God are feeding families on the South side of Chicago.”
All of this is to say that wherever you are tomorrow morning at 9am is a sacred space where you and God are working side by side for the health of the world. So wherever you are at 9am, stop and think – this is sacred space. The life of God is being played out right here. And when you do that, you may look around your cubicle or your office or your cluttered barn or your classroom and wonder, ”This ordinary and boring place is sacred?” To which James would say, “Yep.” And that is the best news, that God would actually choose to be known and discovered in those ordinary, routine, sometimes boring parts of our life.
We are saved not by our own works, but simply by the grace of God, but the gift that James gives us is the push, or the kick, out the door to go and do something with it. It is harvest time, people of God, not just for the fields but for your faith… So let your faith bear fruit. Go and do something with it. And may you find the presence of God in your midst. AMEN.