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Talking with James
[Reading: James 1:22-27]
Be doers of the word,
Not hearers only
who deceive themselves.
For if any are hearers of the word
and not doers,
they are like those
who glance at themselves in a mirror;
and immediately forget
what they look like.
But those who gaze into the perfect law,
the law of liberty,
Become not hearers who forget
but doers who act—
they will be blessed in the doing.
If anyone thinks he or she religious,
and does not bridle the tongue
that heart is deceived
that religion is worthless.
pure and undefiled
before God, the Father,
to care for orphans in their troubles
to take the side of widows’ in their distress
thus keeping yourself
unstained from the world.
… … … … … … … … … … … … … …
How ironic ~
to have someone like me ~
a rhetorician ~
assigned a text like this.
A rhetorician ~
who specializes in words ~
handling a pericope that claims:
. . . faith that works”
How ironic to have someone like me ~
a Church of Christ preacher ~
assigned a text like this.
A Church of Christ preacher
who cut his teeth on
with Ladies Bible Class
Sunday AM sermon to deliver.”
James seems to have little taste
for all that talking.
~ for one not endowed with the “gift of gab”
~ Bothered by the odors
of hospitals and nursing homes
~ and taught from his youth up
How ironic to hand this text
to someone like me.
And, how ironic for a group like us
to be considering a text like this:
We who were part of the 1980s television studio audience
on the gospel program:
when Paul and James
were the last two left on the island ~
and we voted James and his “faith + works”
off the island
to preach from that book ~
Church of Christ preacher has kept.
There’s great irony
for us today
to take up this pericope.
Though I must say ~
I am not opposed to this text.
Quite the opposite ~
As a rhetorician ~ I am attracted
to this passage’s particular form ~
its arrangement ~
its mini chiasm ~
its useful inclusio ~
what undergrads like to call
I’m referring, of course,
to this passage’s
A B A′ pattern:
A: “Be doers of the word, and not hearers only”
B: Metaphor of mirror and forgetting
A′: “Be not hearers who forget
but doers who act”
“Doers and not hearers only” (A and A′)
are the bread in this sandwich,
the inclusio’s frame
And the mirror metaphor
in the middle
is the mesquite smoked BBQ meat
Compress the sandwich ~
and out oozes true religion:
Assisting orphans and widows
in their distress ~
thus keeping oneself
unstained from the world.
Much like the sandwich
near the end of Mark’s gospel ~
where the cursed and withering fig tree
are the framing pumpernickel
in that sandwich
while the temple’s overturned
money changers’ tables ~
the corned beef in the middle.
Compress that sandwich
and out oozes true religion for Jesus
~ prayer, faith, and forgiveness.
find this intriguing ~
attracted to the pericope’s form . . .
because . . . this form
with such ease,
carries it’s content
and emphasizes its meaning.
You can’t miss it.
How could anybody miss it?
And the powerful little metaphor ~
~ the mirror ~
~ what’s not to like?
It stirs every homiletic mind
although James’ mirror ~
is not the Carnival mirror
anything to provide relief from reality.
Nor will you find James’ mirror
at Rochester Hills Mirror and Glass,
which features designs
to make the room look deeper,
or accent the finest furnishings,
or allow you to keep
an eye on the children
from any room in the home.
The mirror in James has a different purpose ~
This polished bronze
is used for personal inspection
and adornment ~
and checking ~
You glance ~
it’s momentary and fleeting.
You glance ~
it’s casual and hasty.
You glance ~
and you walk away
already forgetting what you saw ~
forgetting who you are.
James’ mirror is a useful mirror ~
meant for adjusting and applying
helpful and necessary ~
but with one fundamental problem ~
The problem of the metaphor . . .
is with us ~
we, who “catch a glimpse”
and then forget our essential identity.
Objective rhetoricians approve of this
hard working metaphor ~
How it teaches,
how it instructs.
But for those of us who have
a subjective connection
to the world James envisions
A lingering worry begins to throb ~
what have we forgotten?
(should I say, the sophists among us)
Immediately want to distract us . . . .
find another appealing element
in the metaphor ~
its potential for humor.
You look in the mirror
immediately forget what you see
Oh! Forgetting has lots
of funny possibilities.
Especially if you have a
this passage has comic potential.
Captured in Billy Collins’ poem “Forgetfulness”1
“The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title,
the heartbreaking conclusion,
the entire novel
becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,
one by one,
the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire
to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village
where there are no phones. . .
with those who have forgotten how to swim,
even forgotten how to ride a bicycle.”
Which is enough to cause James
to step out of the pages
and look the sophist in the eye and say ~
“Stop dancing with this verse
Don’t use this text
as part of your stand up routine.”
James says to all of us,
“‘Forgetting’ isn’t a humorous topic.
Your light heartedness
only prevents you
from taking me seriously.
“There was nothing funny
When I asked, ‘who are you?’
and you replied,
That’s not funny!”
James is right.
Forgetting is a chronic problem in the Bible
and addressed with stern warnings
when we forget
the paradigmatic message of Scripture.
“Don’t forget that when
we were slaves to Pharaoh,
the Lord brought us out from Egypt
with a mighty hand”
“Beware, lest you forget,
and when you have eaten and are satisfied,
and move into the best neighborhoods
and build large cathedrals
and assemble attractive people
that you think,
“by Our power
and by the strength of Our hands
We have made this wealth”
Is not the funny kind of forgetting
elbow one another.
So, James leads us back to the mirror
“Quit talking about how I said it,
Take a good hard look at what I said”
So we lean over and look in . . . .
Now not glancing but gazing.
that once reflected
our ears and brows and nose ~
This mirror has changed
and now it’s become the perfect law ~
the law of liberty.
And James says, “Take a good hard look”
and we peer into the law
and the prophets
and the writings ~
James says, “Do you see your crop of Barley?”
“When you reap your harvest and leave a sheath
Don’t go back and get it ~
It shall be for the alien, orphan and widow.”
(We scrutinize and examine this picture)
James says, “Look at your orchard”
(we look at our olive grove)
“when you beat your olive tree
don’t go over the boughs again
It shall be for the alien, orphan and widow”
(We inspect this image)
James says, “Consider your vineyards”
“when you gather your grapes
don’t harvest a second time
It shall be for the alien, orphan and widow”
(We contemplate, deliberate and remember)
“We were once slaves in the land of Egypt”
We mull this over. We meditate.
“This is how God treated us
this should be how
we treat the poor
and the marginalized.”
We think about it,
think it over,
think it through.
“This is our single defining characteristic ~
to be like God
who cares for
the endemically impoverished”
Now, weigh it
start to train in it
“Until you’ve learned it by heart,
transformed in the process,
remembering and becoming, again,
Who you are:
Caring for the marginalized in their distress,
thus keeping yourselves
unstained by the world.”
This is what we’d forgotten.
And, I don’t know why.
Was it our affluence?
What created our amnesia?
With Peter Wagner, we had dreamed a church
is the lead elder
to support important church projects,
there is a way to “win Herod” for Christ.
In this church of our dreams
at the century club
Is having a good influence
on Richard Nixon.
But James de-constructs
this dangerous make-believe world.
those who favor the rich over the poor
“into your assembly struts a man
with gold rings and fine clothing
at the same time in shuffles a poor man
in shabby dress” ~
and you say to the rich man:
“have the seat of honor”
and to the poor man,
“make yourself scarce”?
“that’s not how God judges!”
James insists on helping the needy
“don’t say to the marginalized ~
Persons without clothing and food ~
‘go in peace, be warm and filled.’ ~
Then James takes the microphone
and addresses Nicodemas and Pilate
and looks us in the eye,
taking his cue from Jesus, he says
“Are you paying a living wage
God listens to them!
God hears their cries for justice!”
When we voted James
off the island
We were voting
Jesus off, too.
Five years ago
The Sermon on the Mount
was the theme for the 2006
held in this building
with plenary addresses
from the provocative
Stanley Hauerwas, Warren Carter and others.
It was a disturbing conference
because of the way we read the Sermon on the Mount
envisioned a real world
that invited us to enter ~
and we were threatened.
At the close one preacher confessed,
“I need to throw away all the sermons
I’ve ever preached on the Sermon on the Mount” ~
so unsettling was our new understanding.
But the strongest comment
came during the evaluation meeting
one of a dozen who met
to critique logistics of the event ~
opened that meeting
with this engaging question:
“Friends, what are we to do
with the Sermon on the Mount?
What are we to do?
I mean, are we supposed to sell
our church buildings
and give the proceeds to the poor?”
which triggered one person
amongst the 12
to make a sound ~
interpreting Larry’s remark
as a joke.
But Larry struck again,
How does God want us to live?”
Five years ago we took Larry seriously ~
but pushed his question
into the theoretical realm.
Five years later ~
his question is only
the first in a series of sound alternatives
~ and live options
for a people
who are ready
to take seriously
narratives of Scripture
and proclaim ~
that true religion is simply this ~
care as God cares for the marginalized.
Because this is how we’ve been treated.
Because this is how God acts.
This is who we are.
But, the greatest irony of our day ~
is that everyone ~
except, it seems,
for some Christian conservatives ~
Everyone seems to know
that true religion
means to help those on the margins
and organizations that “know” ~
if not the exact words ~
at least the spirit
of Jesus’ damning message to the hypocrites:
All the world seems to know
that the essential factor
in God’s judgment of humankind
will be our answer to 1 question:
did you clothe the naked,
feed the hungry,
visit the imprisoned . . .
in a word . . .
did you care for the
You are your congregation’s rhetorician
You are the one with persuasive skills.
You have words, like James,
with focus and function
to describe our essential humanity
our basic identity
Or, as James phrases it: “their true religion”
You are your community’s resident theologian
Connecting identity with opportunity
To lead your people
into the world Scripture envisions
where true religion is simply this ~
Not just to say,
Not just to know,
But to care as God cares
for the marginalized.
Because this is who you are,
ready for any situation that arises:
“The courtroom walls are bare and the prisoner wears
a plastic bracelet, like in a hospital.
Jesus stands beside him.
The bailiff hands the prisoner a clipboard and he puts his thumbprint on the sheet of white paper.
The judge asks,
What is your monthly income? Hundred dollars.
How do you support yourself? Carpenter, odd jobs.
Where are you living? Friend’s garage.
What sort of vehicle do you drive? I take the bus.
How do you plead? Not guilty. The judge sets bail
and a date for the prisoner’s trial, calls for the interpreter
so he may speak to the next prisoners.
In a good month I eat, the third one tells him.
In a bad month I break the law.
The judge sighs. The prisoners
are led back to jail with a clink of chains.
Jesus goes with them. More prisoners
are brought before the judge.
Jesus returns and leans against the wall near us,
gazing around the courtroom. The interpreter reads a book.
The bailiff, weighed down by his gun, stands
with arms folded, alert and watchful.
We are only spectators, careful to speak
in low voices. We are so many. If we—make a sound,
the bailiff turns toward us, looking stern.
The judge sets bail and dates for other trials,
bringing his gavel down like a little axe.
Jesus turns to us. If you won’t help them, he says
then do this for me. Dress in silks and jewels,
and then go naked. Be stoic, and then be prodigal.
Lead exemplary lives, then go down into prison
and be bound in chains. Which of us has never broken a law?
I died for you-a desperate extravagance, even for me.
If you can’t be merciful, at least be bold.
The judge gets up to leave.
The stern bailiff cries, "All rise."3
How will we respond?
Will we have the courage
to speak like James:
to act like God?
Is there hope?
For . . .
“Every good thing bestowed
and every perfect gift is from above,
Coming down from the father of lights
With whom there is no variation
and no shifting shadow.”
[Benediction: James 1:17]4
David Fleer is Professor of Bible and Communication and Special Assistant to the President at Lipscomb University and adjunct Professor for the DMin program at Abilene Christian University (annual summer cycle courses). For the last six years he has served as advisory board chair for the Christian Scholars’ Conference. His teaching focus is homiletics, and for twelve years he directed the Sermon Seminar in Rochester and Nashville and now oversees Lipscomb’s Preaching Workshop. From 1995 to 2007, Fleer was Professor of Religion and Communication at Rochester College. He has published articles in peer reviewed scholarly and popular journals and initiated extensive collaborative editing projects resulting in fifteen books and four journal issues in the last decade. He has been active on the editorial boards of Leaven (since its inception in 1990) and Restoration Quarterly. Most recently, he edited and contributed to Corageous Compassion: A Prophetic Homiletic in Service to the Church (ACU Press, 2011).
1 Billy Collins, “Forgetfulness,” Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems (New York: Random House, 2002), 29.
2 The Rochester Sermon Seminar (1998-2007) was the predecessor to the Streaming conference.
3 Debra Spencer, “At the Arraignment,” in Pomegranate (Santa Cruz, CA: Hummingbird Press, 2004).
4 Luke Johnson notes that this verse “was such a favored text through the entire Eastern tradition that one is not surprised that in the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom as it is celebrated to this day, James 1:17 is the last citation from Scripture heard by the worshippers before leaving the liturgical assembly” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Letter of James, Anchor Bible Commentary [New Haven: Yale University Press], 204-205). That was enough reason to allow this verse to have the final word in this sermon. Johnson proved an invaluable conversation partner in initiating exegetical trajectories in the sermon’s development.