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Pentecost 15B Sermon
James 1: 17-27
2, 2018


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James 1:17-27

Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfilment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.
But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 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. 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.
If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

May the grace, mercy and peace of God our Father be with us, in the name of his risen son, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; Amen.

One of my favorite authors currently is Richard Rohr, a Roman Catholic Priest and spiritual guide who is the director of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Arizona. I read a couple of his books a few years ago which made a profound impact on my life, and currently read a daily devotion that he sends out to subscribers via email for free. On more than one occasion, Rohr has reminded his readers of the Latin root of the word religion – “re-ligio”, which means to re-connect. Re is a prefix which means to do something again, and ligio means to connect - like another English word based upon it, ligament, connects your muscles to your bones. Religion is the means by which we, creatures of God, are re-connected with the source of our life, salvation and mission.

Now, in many ways the word, “religion” has become a negative by-word for the institutional church filled with rules and regulations and doctrine that we must follow and believe in order to remain members in good standing.
A few years ago Rolf Jacobson, a professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, wrote a book called, “Crazy Talk; A Not So Stuffy Dictionary of Theological Terms.” In it, he uses serious thoughts mixed with humor to help us to think about words and concepts of our faith that we like to throw around but we may not have a grasp about their meanings. Jacobson defines, “religion” thusly – “a system of beliefs and practices that is meant to nourish a life of faith and a relationship with God; it often causes despair and drives people away from God, for the sake of good order.” I agree with his definition, and notice that as a result of this reality, there are a growing number of people in our country today who refer to themselves as, “SBNR” people – Spiritual, but not religious.

I bring this up today because at its best, religion is just what Father Rohr reminds us it is – a way that we sinners can re-connect with the source of our life, salvation and mission. While the book of James has sometimes gotten a bad rap over the years for not mentioning Jesus or the resurrection more than a couple of times, our text from that Epistle of Straw (as Luther once called it) has some wonderful encouragement for us who seek to be faithful disciples today. James shares some very practical advice about keeping one’s mouth shut so that you can listen to those around you. We have the Christian version of the charge to “walk the walk as well as talk the talk.” But the real value in this reading today comes at the very end. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” In the language of my spiritual guide author, we might translate that this way: In order to reconnect with God, one must give up the pursuits of worldly success and idols, and be present with those who are most needy around us. Notice what is missing from that definition of religion: anything about what doctrines must be believed, what rules must be followed, what obligations are required to be a church member. I am sure we all have stories of the ways that the church has caused despair and driven people away from God using the kinds of rules or tactics that once were meant to nourish a life of faith and relationship with God. It can range from someone being told that they cannot be married in a certain church for one reason or another, to someone being told that their loved one has gone to hell because they took their own life; or that certain people are not welcome into the church community because of who they are. The church and its pastors have never been perfect over the years, and if I have been the cause of someone feeling abandoned or driven away then I am truly sorry and hope to do better myself. My hope is to strive to always welcome and encourage all people to connect with God through our worship here and in their daily lives when we go forth from this place into our mission field.
Jesus dealt with all of this as he was confronted by the Pharisees in our Gospel reading today. The people of Yahweh were identified by the law which God had given thousands of years before. This law, spoken of by Moses in our first reading as he instructs the people on the threshold of entering the Promised Land, is what makes them different from anyone else. It is what marks them as chosen by God – that God loved them so much to give them this law as a pathway to rich, full life. As people of the one true God, they guarded their lifestyles as proper responses to God for choosing them to be God’s special people.

The problem is the Pharisees and scribes have lost sight of the connectedness that they all have to their source. They believed that by guarding the laws and traditions, they could make God happy and thus continue to be blessed even as they are occupied by the Romans. Following the law became a superstition or traditionalism. Jesus reminds them that the law is only valuable as a gift from God in as much as it encourages them to be doers of the Word of God. They have become only connected to their traditions and not to God. Jesus points out how their religion has led away from spirituality because it only focuses on the rules themselves and not the relationship that God’s word is vital to strengthen.
The reason I personally am both spiritual AND religious is because the triune God is the way I understand the source of my life to which I want to stay connected, and become reconnected when I stray from faithfulness. Just as easily as it is for institutional religion to forget our call to be doers of the word in order to love the God who has loved us first, it is also easy for those without that connection to craft a spirituality which is centered inward toward their own selves instead of being shaped by both the law and the gospel of God through Jesus Christ.

So what does a lifestyle of being both spiritual and religious look like? It is one which begins with a priority on worship – corporate worship - as the way we connect with our source of life, salvation and mission. It is then lived out through the financial sacrifices that we share through our gifts to the church and other places in our communities, it is expressed by our gifts to the food pantry and our participation in projects like the hunger walk, serving at Faith Mission or sharing our faith with our youth as teachers in Sunday school. It continues in how we live with our loved ones and families as we volunteer to do things like drive seniors to appointments or visit them in their homes or nursing homes? It is expressed in the ways that we treat our parents with honor, get involved in your kids’ schools or keep an eye on your neighbor’s house.

Christians who are both spiritual and religious live this lifestyle not as an obligation according to doctrine or teaching. We don’t do it because it is a tradition of the elders, like the Pharisees told Jesus. It isn’t even because of superstition or earning Karma or keeping away the evil spirits or anything like that. It is because Jesus has loved us richly, and as a response we love Jesus – that is why we are doers of the words and not merely hearers, as James puts it. We want to be reconnected to the love that Jesus showed to us when he sacrificed his all on the cross to claim us as God’s own. We want that “God-shaped hole” to be filled in our souls so that all of the world can witness the connectedness that we have to our source of life, salvation and mission. Amen.