Faith In the Flesh

Psalm 15

O Lord, who may abide in your tent?
   Who may dwell on your holy hill?

Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right,

and speak the truth from their heart;
who do not slander with their tongue,

and do no evil to their friends,

nor take up a reproach against their neighbors;

in whose eyes the wicked are despised,

but who honor those who fear the Lord;
who stand by their oath even to their hurt;
who do not lend money at interest,

 and do not take a bribe against the innocent.

Those who do these things shall never be moved.

James 1:17-27

Every good gift, every perfect gift, comes from above, coming down from the creator of the heavenly lights, who never changes like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth by his true word, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of everything he created.

My dear brothers and sisters, you must understand this; everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to become angry, for your anger doesn’t produce God’s righteousness. So with humility, rid yourselves of all moral sordidness and the growth of wickedness, and welcome the word planted deep inside you, for it has the power to save your souls.

But you must do what the word says, not just be listeners who are only fooling themselves.  For if you are hearers of the word and not doers, you’re like those who look at themselves in a mirror; they look at themselves, walk away and immediately forget what they look like. But there are those who look carefully into the perfect law, the law that sets them free, and continue doing it. They don’t just listen and then forget, but they put it into practice in their lives. They will be blessed in what they do.

Those who consider themselves religious and yet don’t control what they say, they’re fooling themselves, and their religion is worthless. Genuine religion, true devotion before God the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their difficulties, and keeping the world from contaminating us.

* * * * * 

This letter of James is an interesting little bit of scripture.  Since we’re going to be spending a few weeks here, I want to say a couple of words about it before we dive into the section we’re looking at today. The overarching theme is clear from the start: apparently some of the early Christians were behaving rather badly, and he’s sending them a message. (That never happens in our day, right?) James wants to get the point across that acting like hypocrites isn’t doing anybody any favors. In fact, they’re only fooling themselves.  

Now, he’s not even addressing anything we might consider egregious – like, say, clergy abuse scandals – but whatever those Christians were doing, it wasn’t exactly Christ-like. They may as well of had no faith at all. Which is the point James is trying to make. Unless your faith makes a difference in how you live, what’s the point?

Which is a good message, I think, for all of us to hear, even if we think we’re behaving rather well. The question is at the heart of it all: Unless your faith makes a difference in how you live, what’s the point? So how do you live out your faith?

I should probably mention that not everybody loves the Book of James. The great Reformation leader Martin Luther didn’t think it merited being in the New Testament at all; it was way too works-oriented, and there was way too little about grace. As if we can earn God’s approval. As if we can earn our way into God’s good graces. He knew that wasn’t possible; works-righteousness is bad theology. But even Luther believed the book had merit. There’s a lot of wisdom in this little book.

So let’s dive in.

Our passage begins not with us, but with God. It doesn’t begin with what we do; it begins with what God does. This mysterious, wonderful God, showers good gifts down on us like light shines from the heavens, like a meteor shower, like fireworks, where you just want to ooh and ah and soak up all that light. This God is trustworthy and true, not like the changing shape-shifters you can’t pin down. This God made each one of us, gives us life, and is delighted in us, as if we were the best thing ever. God is generous, and those gifts are completely unconditional, and completely unmerited by us.

That’s how James begins. It doesn’t start with our worthiness or unworthiness. It starts with God, and how special we are in God’s eyes.

But that ‘specialness’ doesn’t mean we can get away with murder. For our lives to have any authenticity, any coherence, any consistency, what we believe and what we say and what we do need to be in harmony. And the way to do that, James believed, is to welcome the word of God into our lives and let it change us from the inside out.

My dear brothers and sisters, welcome the word planted deep inside you, for it has the power to save your souls. But you must do what the word says, not just be listeners who are only fooling themselves. 

So what does that look like? How does the word grow in us, so it actually changes our lives?

The great teacher and preacher Eugene Peterson thought that the way to begin is by believing that God is actually talking to us. When we read scripture, when we hear the word – that God is “personally addressing us,” is how he put it,

in whatever circumstances we find ourselves, at whatever age we are, in whatever state we are… receiving the words in such a way that they become interior to our lives, the rhythms and images become practices of prayer, acts of obedience, ways of love. [i]

We let the word become part and parcel of who we are. We don’t just “listen and forget,” as the Book of James puts it, but we “put it into practice in our lives.”

So what does that look like?

“Genuine religion,” the Book of James says, “true devotion before God the Father, is this: caring for orphans and widows in their difficulties, and keeping the world from contaminating us.”

And what does that look like?

Let me tell you a story.

This last week I was visiting my sister at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. I went to do some work on my Doctor of Ministry thesis, so I spent quite a bit of time in their library. It’s gorgeous – it was just reopened after a major renovation. My favorite room?  The Fred Rogers Children’s Library. It’s a sweet, cozy room, with children’s books and toy trolleys to play with and even a puppet theatre, just like Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. It’s pretty adorable. So of course, that’s where I went to work on this sermon.

The reason there’s a children’s library named after him is that Fred Rogers got his Master’s of Divinity from Pittsburgh Theological Seminar. He never served a congregation; he was ordained to the ministry of children’s television. He saw the power of television, and he hated what he saw being fed to children. And he had a vision of how he could give children messages that would help them thrive - not by simply entertaining them, or even educating them, but by equipping them for the real world outside – and inside – their doors. And by doing it with honesty, and gentleness, and love.

Everything he did was grounded in his faith. He never preached to children or quoted scripture, but scripture and faith informed everything. His prayer before each show was this: “Dear God, let some word that is heard be yours.”

Let some word that is heard be yours.

An example is how he talked about anger. Fred Rogers gave children permission to feel angry – that it was natural and normal. But then he taught them how to deal with the anger they were feeling. He thought anger was an inevitable part of love, and was part of being human and shouldn’t be hidden or repressed. But it also shouldn’t be given free reign to be abusive and cruel.

So he talked about feeling angry when he was a child, and how his parents didn’t like it when he would bang around when he was mad. But he could play the piano, and bang on the keys, and express his anger that way, until the music changed to something different, softer and gentler and happier. And he showed them just what that looked like, and sounded like.

Fred paid so much attention to what he said, to every word, and every image.

“Let some word that is heard be yours.”

One of his professors at Pittsburgh Seminary was a man named William Orr. Bill Orr used to say that “faith is always embodied,” and Fred Rogers took that to heart.

And he embodied his faith on his show.

He wasn’t afraid to talk about hard things, even with children. He just knew he had to do it with utmost care. Working in the political heat of the 60s and 70s, he knew that because of television, children were exposed to what was going on around them – the Vietnam War, assassinations, the threat of the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement, the Feminist Movement, the Sexual Revolution, the demonstrations – all of it, with all its intensity - and that it could be frightening, and hard. Television was bringing it all into their living rooms, and he felt like he couldn’t ignore it.

But he was so careful, so careful…  he never wanted to alienate people, who were already so divided. He didn’t want to shut people out, shut people off.

I think of one image in particular: the role of Officer Clemmons, played by Francois Clemmons. Clemmons was a touring opera singer originally from Pittsburgh, and Fred Rogers met at his church, where he heard Clemmons sing. And Fred invited him to be part of his show – to play a police officer. It was the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and Francois Clemmons was African-American. It was not an easy thing to say yes to, as Clemmons recalls.

 “I grew up in a ghetto. I did not have a positive opinion of police officers. Policeman were siccing police dogs and water hoses on people. And I really had a hard time putting myself in that role.” [ii]

But he did it. And that he played a police officer made all the difference in the world.

And then, a few months later, there was Episode 1065. It opens in the way every show does – with the little song, and Mr. Rogers inviting, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” But this time, instead of putting on his cardigan sweater as he always did, he talks about what a hot day it is, and how nice it would feel to put his feet in a pool of cool water.

Here’s how one person tells it:

He moves to his front yard where he fills a small plastic pool with water and begins to soak his feet. Soon Officer Clemmons drops by for a visit and Mr. Rogers invites him to share the pool with him. Clemmons quickly accepts, rolls up his pant legs of his uniform, and places his very brown feet in the same water as Rogers’ very white feet.

So innocent. And yet so powerful. Especially in an era of segregated public pools. Where black people were sometimes attacked if they tried to swim in the “wrong” place. And protests were held with “wade-ins” – with blacks and whites standing together in wading pools outside segregated swimming pools and beaches. [iii]

“Won’t you be my neighbor?” included everyone.  

Because, Fred Rogers believed, that’s what Jesus meant.

Faith is always embodied.

The Book of James has some hard things to say to us about our faith, and what it means to be followers of Jesus. About how important our words are, and our actions, the things we do and say. How important it is to live with integrity, in a way that the light of Christ shines in us and through us. So that our own faith isn’t just a now-and-then thing, or a Sunday morning ritual, but soaks into every pore of our lives.

So that whatever we do, our faith is embodied. And our own prayer might be, of our own lives, “Dear God, let some word that is heard be yours.”  

[i][i] Eugene Peterson, Eat This Book: The Art of Spiritual Reading, 28.

[ii] Hannah Anderson, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Reconciliation and Foot-Washing in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” Christ and Pop Culture, March 24, 2016, https://christandpopculture.com/wont-you-be-my-neighbor-mister-rogers/

[iii] Anderson.