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Talking with James

Author: David Fleer
Published: August 2011

MD 2.2

Article Type: Text Article

[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;

walk away,

and immediately forget

what they look like.

But those who gaze into the perfect law,

the law of liberty,

and persevere,

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.

Religion ~

pure and undefiled

before God, the Father,

is this:

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:

  • “Words are not enough”
  • That “Genuine faith is . . .

. . . 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

  • 2 Sunday sermons (AM and PM)
  • Sunday School
  • and mid-week classes,
  • not to mention seasonal duties

with Ladies Bible Class

  • and if things go well ~

“here’s another

Sunday AM sermon to deliver.”

  • Which is to say ~
  • I spent all my time
  • talking
  • or preparing to talk.

James seems to have little taste

for all that talking.

How ironic

~ for one not endowed with the “gift of gab”

~ Bothered by the odors

of hospitals and nursing homes

~ and taught from his youth up

  • that city streets ~
  • with their taverns and clubs ~
  • were temptations to be avoided

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:

“Discovering Grace”

when Paul and James

were the last two left on the island ~

and we voted James and his “faith + works”

off the island

  • for his bad theology
  • and vowed never again

to preach from that book ~

  • a vow every grace – oriented

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 dispositio

its mini chiasm ~

its useful inclusio ~

what undergrads like to call

a “sandwich.”

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.

Rhetoricians ~

find this intriguing ~

attracted to the pericope’s form . . .

because . . . this form

so effortlessly

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

that distorts:



or elongates,

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 ~

the mirror.

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?

Some rhetoricians

(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


middle aged

well-healed audience:

this passage has comic potential.

Captured in Billy Collins’ poem “Forgetfulness”1

which begins:

“The name of the author is the first to go

followed obediently by the title,

the plot,

the heartbreaking conclusion,

the entire novel

which suddenly

becomes one you have never read,

never even heard of,

as if,

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,

‘I forget.’

That’s not funny!”

James is right.

Forgetting is a chronic problem in the Bible

and addressed with stern warnings

Especially troublesome

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”

Biblical forgetting

Is not the funny kind of forgetting

about which

wealthy 50-somethings

elbow one another.

So, James leads us back to the mirror

And says,

“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.

The mirror

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?”

(we nod)

“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”

(we look)

“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.

We say,

“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.

We say,

This is our single defining characteristic ~

to be like God

who cares for

the endemically impoverished”

James says,

“You’re right!

Now, weigh it

rehearse 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

  • Where Nicodemas ~ of John 3 vintage ~

is the lead elder

  • and Pilate uses his influence

to support important church projects,

  • where we believe

there is a way to “win Herod” for Christ.

In this church of our dreams

  • we are on a first name basis with

the Governor

  • we’re asked to give the invocation

at the century club

  • And we believe Billy Graham

Is having a good influence

on Richard Nixon.

But James de-constructs

this dangerous make-believe world.

James rebukes

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”?

James says,

“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.’ ~

do something!”


Then James takes the microphone

and addresses Nicodemas and Pilate

and looks us in the eye,

taking his cue from Jesus, he says

  • “your riches will rot,
  • your garments will be eaten by moths,
  • your gold and silver will rust!”

He asks:

“Are you paying a living wage

  • to the ones who launder your clothes
  • who mow your lawns?

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

Sermon Seminar2

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 live

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

weeks later.

Larry Stephens

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,

“I’m serious.

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

the paradigmatic

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

  • It’s the singular message of so much popular non fiction for example the New York Times decade long bestselling Nickel and Dimed
  • It’s the sub plot of so much popular film, for example the gripping drama currently airing on Masterpiece Theatre
  • It’s even in the caustic message of the atheist blogger in last month’s Holy week missive and a million other persons

and organizations that “know” ~

if not the exact words ~

at least the spirit

of Jesus’ damning message to the hypocrites:

  • “You tithe mint, dill, and cumin,
  • but neglect the weightier matters of the law . . . .
  • justice, mercy, and faithfulness.”

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.

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