Religion gets a pretty bum rap these days. It seems like everyone considers themselves “spiritual,” but they reject religion. There’s even a term for this: “SBNR,” (“Spiritual but Not Religious”). It’s quite trendy these days to describe yourself that way.
People make fun of religion. A recent study found that many people think it’s OK to make fun of someone’s religion at work, even though we’ve learned that it is inappropriate to joke about someone’s race, ethnicity, or gender. And it’s not just non-believers who make fun of religion. Have you seen the web site called “Ship of Fools”? Its owners describe themselves as “committed Christians,” but they say their website is for “people who prefer their religion disorganized.” They once ran a religious joke contest and got almost a thousand entries.
Well, as the saying goes, “many a truth is told in jest.” It’s true that organized religion has in many ways set itself up for rejection. Self-righteousness among Christians is rampant. We see blatant hypocrisy in politicians with their cross pins on their lapels, making speeches about how much they care about the poor, and then voting against any measure that would help the poor secure a living wage, get affordable decent housing, and provide their children nutritious food and regular health care. So-called “prosperity gospel” preachers push a message of material success that bears no resemblance to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
White supremacist groups slap the word Christian onto their names. There are shameful cases of abuse at the hands of clergy—both Catholic and Protestant. There are all the times when the Church has been on the wrong side of history and morality—on slavery, on the treatment of Native Americans, on the persecution of Jews and Muslims, to name a few. It’s not hard to understand why so many people would reject religion.
But, even among those who are truly searching for God, religion has become a dirty word. It’s become associated with irrelevant rules and unquestioned dogma. It’s seen as an oppressive institutional system that stifles thoughtful debate and sincere questioning, and prevents the growth of the human spirit. It’s viewed as narrowminded and prejudiced against those who think differently. “Religion” has just become a bad word for many people.
But James offers a different view of what true religion is. He offers, not an institution, but a lifestyle. He offers, not an inward focus on getting what’s yours, but an outward focus on God and neighbor. He offers what so many people are seeking—whether they are lifelong church members or SBNRs. He offers a way for us to live in respectful and loving communion with God and with each other.
Before we get to what James has to say, let me give you a little background about him and his letter, since we’ll be spending the next few weeks with him. It’s lucky that we have his letter at all, because when the early church councils met to decide what would be in our Bible, there was some debate about whether or not to include it. Partly that was because of questions about who actually wrote it. Most scholars now think it is likely that Jesus’ brother James was the author, but it’s possible that someone else wrote it in James’ name. Even after it was included, the debate wasn’t over. Martin Luther wanted to get rid of it altogether, partly because he questioned its authorship, and partly because of some other reasons we’ll talk about next week.
James wasn’t always a follower of his big brother. Mark tells us that in the early days of Jesus’ ministry, his family (perhaps including James) was disturbed by reports that Jesus was insane—or possibly possessed by the devil (which basically amounted to the same thing)—so disturbed that they went out to restrain him. James is noticeably absent at the cross; it was the disciple John whom Jesus asked to care for his mother Mary, not his brother.
But James came around after the risen Jesus appeared to him. James became a leader of the church in Jerusalem. It was James who proposed a solution when Paul and Barnabas needed some clarity about their ministry to the Gentiles. Where Paul was responsible for missionary work among the Gentiles, and Peter became a missionary to the Jews, it was James holding down the fort in Jerusalem. He was responsible for the Jewish Christians there and those scattered outside Palestine. He was especially concerned about those Jewish Christians who were living away from Jerusalem, in places that didn’t live by Jewish-Christian values. It’s his concern and advice for them that we find in this letter.
Other books of the New Testament teach us how to become Christians, but James teaches us how to live as Christians. James thinks of the Christian life as friendship with God, and his letter is full of advice about how to live as a friend of God. Not only that, he tells us how to live out our true religion in a world whose values do not necessarily match our own. That is advice we need as much today as the original readers needed it in their own time.
Living a life of friendship with God is simple, according to James. It’s made up of two things: caring for widows and orphans, and keeping ourselves unstained by the world. It’s really just a different way of saying what Jesus had already said: that we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength (basically not giving ourselves to the worldly things that can make our spirits feel grimy and worn), and to love our neighbor as ourselves (neighbors who often have a lot in common with the widows and orphans of James’ time). If you go through the entire letter, you’ll find that every piece of advice James gives helps us to do one or the other of these two things. James gives us practical steps for doing what Jesus told us to do.
When Jesus spoke of loving our neighbor, he was often speaking about those who were poor, weak, powerless, or ostracized. He demonstrated that love by associating with those who definitely weren’t part of the in-crowd. Those are the same people James has in mind when he says that true religion is caring for the widow and the orphan. His words would have meant more to his ancient readers than they mean to us today. Of course, they knew that they were to care for the poor and the marginalized, which widows and orphans often were. But they would also have understood those words’ broader meaning.
The Hebrew word for “widow” comes from a word meaning “silence” or “unable to speak.” The Greek word for widow literally means “to be empty.” The Hebrew word for orphan refers to someone who is helpless and in danger of being injured; the Greek word suggests that orphans are not only without parents, but they’re also without the aid and comfort of friends—that they are totally without connections of any kind.
So, when James tells us that true religion means caring for the widow and the orphan, he is telling us that we have to care for all those who are voiceless and disenfranchised—those who don’t have a say in how rules are made and how society’s wealth and opportunities are distributed. He would have us care for those who are empty of material necessities, but also of social necessities like respect and inclusion and dignity.
We read about widows and orphans a lot in scripture. In the Old Testament, the neglect of widows and orphans was often a sign that the people had broken their covenant with God. James’ words remind us that God has shown, time and time again, to be their special helper, protector, and refuge. Because then, as in James’ time and in ours, our care for those who are lonely and empty and vulnerable in any way is a reflection of our religious practice and faith.
Caring for the vulnerable is half of what constitutes “true religion,” according to James. The other half is “keeping ourselves unstained by the world.” On the surface, that sounds like James wants us to cut ourselves off from the society we live in, so the grimy world won’t get our haloes dirty. And the easiest way to keep from getting sucked into the seamier parts of life would be to do just that—separate ourselves from it.
It would be so much easier to lead a virtuous life if we weren’t surrounded by those people with their mean-spirited Facebook posts that invite us to laugh at or demean others, or ranting news programs that keep us in a constant state of irritation and fear, or ads that make us feel dissatisfied with what we have because everything they show is bigger, newer, fancier, or more expensive, and everyone in them is more attractive.
It would be so much easier to keep our souls spotless if we didn’t have to associate with those who encourage us to look out for Number One in our private lives and public policies. Life would be so much simpler if we could spend our time where we didn’t have to be slow to speak and slow to anger in response to aggravations big and small. It would be an easy task to welcome the words of God’s wisdom if they were never challenged by all those sinful people out there.
But that is not what James has in mind. James is not suggesting that Christians are free of sin or that the world as a whole is a bad place that we need to from. In fact, he writes for the very reason that Christians are in the world—a world that does tempt us to be dissatisfied and angry and snarky and selfish. We live in a world whose values are not consistent with God’s values. So, we need to know how we can order our lives in the world so that we can be the holy and living sacrifice we are called to be.
That’s what James’ letter tells us. But it isn’t enough just to read his good advice and nod our heads in agreement. We have to do something with it. We need to put it into action. We need to be more than hearers of Christ’s gospel; we need to do it, too. In James’ words we hear echoes of Jesus when he said that everyone who hear his words and does them is like a wise person who builds a house on rock. Our words and actions—at home, at school, at work and at play, online and in person—are mirrors of our faith, reflecting what we believe back into the world. We need to live in such a way that others can see what a life of friendship with God looks like. And they can’t see it if we’re not out there in the world, living it.
James tells us that we show the world what true religion looks like when we display not only endurance but joy when we face the trials of life. We demonstrate it when we are confused and confidently go to God for guidance. We reveal it when we act from a place of solid understanding that neither material wealth nor poverty determine our status before God, and we treat everyone else with that in mind. The world sees what true religion looks like when we resist the temptation of unholy desires, because we know they are the first step onto the slippery path of sin and death.
James is very clear about the steps that help keep us from falling into the ways of the world around us. Think how different our nation would be, and how much more peaceful our hearts would feel, if we were all quicker to listen to others than we are to have our own say, and if we took even more time before reacting in anger. Think how much differently the world would think about religion if all who claim the name of Christ would remember that what we say and do reveals what we really believe, and that our words and action can easily betray us as Christians in name only.
It is easy to simply fall into lock-step with the world around us, so James tells us to be intentional about examining our souls and getting rid of the default responses and habits that don’t reflect kingdom values. As we do this, we may find that we feel a new and intense conviction of our own sinfulness. But, James advises us to humbly welcome that word of conviction that comes from God through the Holy Spirit, because that word has the power to save us by bringing us back to the cross.
Why should we strive to live this way? Honestly, I think that it would make all of our lives richer, more peaceful, and more satisfying. That alone would be reason enough. But that’s not the main reason we should live out this true religion. James spells it out: In the fulfillment of God’s own purposes, God gave us birth by the word of truth—by the Word made flesh. We have been reborn by God’s grace so that we might be the first fruits of God’s kingdom. We are to be the first evidence that shows the world through our lives what it means to follow the true religion of God, revealed in Jesus Christ.
When you walk out of this building today, if you were to ask each person you meet what true religion is, I doubt if many would give you James’ answer or anything close to it. The world has taught them a different definition. But, that means we have a wonderful opportunity before us. Through our lives, we can redefine religion. We can live so that others see in us a genuine care for others, no matter who they are. And we can show that, through the power of God, it’s possible to live in this world without giving in to the pulls that make us smaller, meaner, angrier, and more selfish. Instead, we can live in ways that make us kinder, more respectful, more peaceful, and more loving. As we live each day with James’ advice in our minds and Jesus’ love in our hearts, the world will see in us what true religion is all about. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young