The Federated Church of Marlborough
Marlborough, New Hampshire



Sermon - September 2, 2018
Scripture: James 1:17-27     
Sermon Title: “First listen”

The Rev. Robert Vodra


     I am pretty sure that I have never preached on James before. I am not even sure if I have read this letter before this week.  Before our Bible was put together, as we know it today, there were lots of books and letters being passed around.  Or course, long before the printing press, so all hand written copies.  This church may have had the book of Mark, and a letter from Paul; another church might have had Luke and a different letter from Paul.  About 400 CE they chose which books were going to be in the Old and New testament, the Bible we know today.  Some books were chosen and some books got thrown out.  There were many different gospels, but the four we have today seemed the best.   Acts is kind of a part two for the book of Luke.  Letters were chosen that would be helpful, and Revelation was put in, which many have argued over years probably should not have been. 

     When I was in Seminary there were a few debates going on.  First was about the actual words of Jesus.  You may have heard, about 25 years ago, about “The Jesus Seminar.”  This was a group of scholars, including my New Testament professor, who were looking at every statement that was said to have been said by Jesus and rating it on authenticity.  They went back to the Greek, saw how it had been translated, and then they all have these marbles they put into a box.  One color marble for “Yes, I am sure Jesus said this,” two “maybe” colors and one “No way Jesus said this.”  The other debate was about the actual letters of Paul. We are pretty sure that there was a Paul, and his story is found in the book of Acts.  He started many churches, and became a person that churches would go to when they had questions.  Paul would respond to their questions in the form of a letter.  There were several problems. The first was that it was common at that time to write in the name of someone else.  So certainly, there were letters floating around which were written by someone else claiming to be Paul.  It was not a bad thing; it was a way to honor the person you are writing as.  Secondly, these letters were probably not translated word for word.  They were hand written over many, many years.  Just as you may hear me, or someone else, say “Well if Jesus were here today, he would do this and say this.”  At that time, those copying the manuscripts probably had the same idea - If Paul were asked about this, I am sure he would have said this, so we will add it.  And Paul lived as gospels were being written, so he may have seen some starts of pieces but did not have the four gospels put together like we have.  He could not quote “In the second chapter of Mark, Jesus said…”   So the second big debate in my seminary was which letters were written by the real Paul, and what in those letters is original and what was added later.  All of these debates are still going on.

     So when we got to the letter of James, I don’t think we spent any time with it during my seminary.  It was not written by Paul; it was written by someone named James.  This could be Jesus’ brother James, or Jesus’ disciple James, or one of the other people named James who are in our New Testament.   Or it could be a guy named James who lived later, or maybe someone who was writing in the name of James.  James the disciple or James Jesus’ brother would certainly be someone you would love to read a letter from.  But we don’t know who wrote it, when it was written, or much of anything about it.  So pretty sure in seminary it got a nod “yep, part of our New Testament” and not much more.

     It is interesting in that it says nothing about Jesus being raised from the dead and only refers to Jesus twice in the whole letter.  Strange if it was written after Jesus.  So you can see why it was not given a lot of weight when I was in school.  But I read it when I started to prepare for this week and thought “Yes, this is right on the money.”  James starts “This is important, you must understand this… Listen.”  That is James’ big first instruction - listen. 

     Very often we are quick to act or react without first listening.  When the shooting happened in Sandy Hook many people sent stuffed animals, letters, and toys to Newtown.  (Sandy Hook is a part of Newtown, kind of like Frost Hill is part of Marlborough.)  Makes sense, children were killed.  Those who survived are going to have it hard, and a stuffed animal is a great thing to give a hurt child.  We carry one on each ambulance, and they are standard equipment in emergency rooms.  Newtown has just over 27,000 residents.   They received over 65,000 stuffed animals, almost 2.5 per resident, and about half a million letters.  Truck loads of mail every day: the community center, the town church’s Sunday school rooms, and then a giant warehouse full of stuffed animals and toys.  People acted with good intentions, but the town did not need stuffed animals, toys and letters. 

     It is natural to want to jump in and do something, and often with great intentions.  I was recently watching a documentary on hunger in some third world countries.  The United States and other countries send food to places that need it.  This is what we should be doing.  Jesus said feed the hungry.  Unfortunately, in many of these countries there are farmers we have not listened to.  If you are able to get a pound of rice for free, or pay a local farmer for his rice, you are going to take the free rice.  The local farmer cannot sell his rice, he has no money for next year’s planting, and no motivation to grow something that is being given away, so the next year, less food is produced locally, and more people are hungry. 

     When I went to Nicaragua, we went to see and listen.  Our Presbytery had a relationship kind of like many of the Churches in New Hampshire have a relationship with churches in Zimbabwe.  As we traveled we saw that many aid agencies had helped these communities in the past.  We stayed for a few days in a small town where there was a hospital.  They had gotten two of those cribs for premature babies, incubators, donated by a foreign aid group.  Unfortunately the heating lamps had burned out, so to keep the babies warm they had to roll these outside into the sun.  Maybe we could buy the lamps in the US and ship them down.  Or maybe, because power was not always reliable there, they needed a different solution.  Maybe we need to listen to what they need, maybe their solution is fine, and they have other needs.  Sometimes it is easy to think of a solution to someone else’s problem, but until you really listen, you may not know what the best solution is. 

     James continues with his instructions, after listening, you have to do.  Did you all just hear Martin Luther roll over in his grave?  Paul is probably rolling also.  You see, there are three points of view.  Marin Luther, and probably Paul would agree, that you are justified just because you believe.  Nothing else is required, justified by faith.  Any acts of goodness that you do are out of the joy of being justified.  Many outside the church feel that in order to be justified all you need are good works.  Notice that I am not defining justified here, that means a lot of different things to different people, but generally using it to mean some kind of reward.  The third group believe that it takes both faith and action.  Maybe this book was included in our Bible because it creates a balance to Paul’s view that it is faith alone. 

     And this not solved today.  Many believe that it is just because we believe in Jesus, we are rewarded in some way.  We are saved, we are justified, we are made whole.  And because we have experienced that, we do the good things, we do out of gratitude.  But the good things don’t really matter they are just a result of what we believe. 

     I like this idea of doing good.  But, I think we have all experienced or heard about people who say that they are Christian, say they believe in Jesus, and then say and do things that are bad.  David Koresh, Pat Robertson, Matthew Hale, Michael Bray, Paul Jennings Hill, Marshall Herff Applewhite, Jr., Jim Jones, Fred Phelps, Sr. Many of these have killed or indirectly caused the death of people.  Others on this list use their position as Christian leaders to say and do horrible things to others.  I believe that being Christian must include more than just saying you are.  Some people can clearly say that they believe in Jesus, that they are Christian, but I don’t believe Jesus would call their words and actions acceptable.   Of course, the argument on the other side of this is that people can lie, they can say they believe, but it is what happens in their heart, in their soul, in their being that matters.

     James tells us what to do.  He says, “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.” [ Orphans and widows, most agree, are not just orphans and widows, but the most vulnerable in our society.  It is those who do not have others to lean on, those who are facing the world without the support of others.  So today this could include the homeless, the refugee, the unemployed or underemployed, the single parent, the elderly, the disabled, those who rely on social security or government benefits.]  But don’t “do” without remembering to first listen. 

     And keep oneself unstained by the world.  I had never seen or heard “unstained” used in that way, but I like it.  It is easy to be stained by the world.  Just a few weeks ago we had vacation Bible camp here at church, and we built and stained bat houses.  If you don’t think it is easy to be stained, you should have visited.  Larry had each kid in an old shirt and rubber gloves, stain was put into a tray and on top of, or next to the bat house, they had brushes, everything was on newspaper, and we had an almost 1 to 1 adult to child ratio.  Even with all those protections, Collin had spots of stain on his arms, his face, and his clothes.  He was not alone. He was careful, but a little bit splattered here; he touched his face, as careful as he could be, he still left stained.  In the world, even with protection and care, you will still be stained by others.

     And there are many who will try to stain you in your opinions, especially in your desire to help others.  There are people who feel that food pantries should not exist.  Usually those also believe that any government assistance to people such as food stamps, Medicaid, and even social security and Medicare should be cut or eliminated.  “There is corruption, people receive aid who don’t need it, if we cut all those programs we could cut taxes, your paycheck would be higher…”.  Don’t be stained.  Jesus said to feed people.  James says to care for the orphans and widows.

     The academic debate about who wrote what books, and who actually said what will continue.  And the debate between being justified by faith alone, or good works, or some combination, will continue.  James presents a different view of what our faith should be, starting with listening and then continuing by doing.  Even if your good works are an outpouring of joy, James can be used to affirm you are doing the right thing.  But if you are not sure how to show your joy, James provides a road map - listen and do.