Hearing and Doing the WordJames 1:19-27 (NRSV)
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.
I wonder, do you ever overthink things? Do you sometimes see all of the problems around you and get overwhelmed? Do you often worry about every little detail? I know that sometimes I do. But unfortunately, when we do that, when we get worked up about things and worry about the little details, we usually end up losing sight of what really matters.
I have to say, I struggled a little bit this week. Because when I read today’s scripture reading, it was chock full of important things. You see, James, the brother of Jesus, wrote a letter to a group of people who knew all about the Jewish traditions and teachings. In the letter, or “epistle,” he described to them and to us what a life of faith should look like and how, in living a life of faith, we should choose listening over speaking, and patience over anger, always caring for those who are vulnerable, as we do our best to live an ethical life.
So, as I read part of that letter my mind jumped to all of the important things that I had heard, and I wanted to make sure that we didn’t miss any in today’s message. But the more I started to think about it, the more I started to realize that I couldn’t preach or talk about all of it. Because if I tried, if I started down that long list and told you about the importance of each one of them, the majority of your eyes would start to glaze over. And while some of you might start writing your grocery list and think about the things that you need to do later today, others might begin thinking about their fantasy football teams or back-to-school responsibilities, and some of you might even go as far as starting to plan your Thanksgiving dinner!
The truth is, my friends, we only have the ability to listen to and to retain so much, and I think that was my problem this week. There was too much to think about, not only in scripture but also in the world around me. I had too many ideas in my head, too many tidbits that I was trying to organize, and there were too many things fighting for importance. It all felt overwhelming.
But the phrase that kept speaking to me, was, “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” Folks, many of us come to worship–whether in-person or online–and we are inspired by what we hear, be it the scripture, or the sermon, or the words to one of the songs. We are filled with joy and energy, and we get excited to go out and make the world a better place. But somehow, once we walk out of the church building, or turn off our tv or iPad, our worship world closes, and the real world returns. And that joy and excitement we briefly felt quickly fade away. Because rather than being held in a safe place, rather than hearing the good news, and rather than being surrounded by goodness and grace, we find ourselves out in the world, surrounded by brokenness, struggle, pain, and poor behavior.
We turn on the news and we hear about horrific stories around the world. We experience fighting and conflicts in our own communities and neighborhoods, and sometimes even in our own homes. We look to social media and we read rude comments, even among people we have seen in worship. And what that means, to me, is that gathering on Sundays, and even spending devotional time during the week, reading scripture, and spending time in prayer, just aren’t always enough, because there is an important piece missing.
You see, we have to take what we have heard and learned, and not just hold on to it but do something with it. But what? Hey, I’m only one person, and we’re just a small church. How can we make a difference in this crazy world? How can we begin to heal the broken and feed the hungry when we are so overwhelmed by what we see and experience? Well, as Mother Teresa once said, “Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you.”
Friends, I wonder, do any of you like chocolate milk? Well, when I was little, my Nana used to let us have chocolate milk with dinner. She would give each of us a glass of milk, and then she would pour Hershey’s syrup into it. But even though at that moment the chocolate syrup was in the milk, the chocolate milk wasn’t ready yet! Because pouring the chocolate syrup into a glass of milk just gives you a glass of milk with chocolate syrup at the bottom, right? Well, then she would hand each of us a spoon. because in order to make chocolate milk you need to do something more. You need to stir it up! So, then my brother and I would each stir up the chocolate syrup and the milk, and make chocolate milk! And boy, was it delicious!
Friends, I think that’s what happens sometimes when we go to church, or worship online, or spend time in bible study, or prayer, or meditation, or reflection. We are filled with all that goodness and inspiration and energy, just like the chocolate syrup and the milk in the glass. But when we face the struggles and frustration of the real world, we lose sight of that goodness, and inspiration, and energy because we didn’t finish the job. We hear about all that goodness and inspiration and energy, and we may even feel it for a moment, but if we never take the next step and do something more, “stirring it up” as we reach out and share it with the world, then though we may hear about it, it never becomes a part of who we are and how we live. It’s just like the chocolate syrup sitting in the bottom of a glass of milk.
Friends, it’s my hope and my prayer that, as you go out into the world today, you chose to not only worship and listen to the Good News, but you chose to do something more! I hope you go out and do something with it because that is how you stir up that goodness and inspiration and energy and make it a part of who you are.
Folks, the seeds of our faith may be planted here in worship and in our devotional times, and we may need times of reflection to feed our souls because that is how we add sweetness to our faith. But it is the time that we spend out in the world, doing what we have been taught and encouraged to do, that stirs it all up and makes our faith blossom and shine.
Friends, in the week ahead, if you feel frustrated and overwhelmed and you are not sure which way to turn, stop. Take a deep breath. Talk with God, and read some scripture. But don’t stop there. Remember to STIR IT UP! as you go out and do something with it. Smile at someone that isn’t expecting it. Write a note to someone you know is feeling lonely. Share a meal with someone who is having a hard time making ends meet. Pay for the person’s coffee in the line behind you at Dunkin Donuts. Be a listening ear for someone that just needs to be heard. Encourage a child or a teacher as they get ready to go back to school. Friends, the possibilities are endless! And all you need to do is just STIR IT UP as you start to sprinkle seeds of goodness and share a little sweetness, wherever you go.
My friends, may it be so. Thanks be to God. Amen!