Written by Pastor Ed
Let Your Thanks be Genuine – James
October 12, 2014 – Thanksgiving
One of the old books I have on my shelves is one called Shams, or Uncle Ben’s Experience with Hypocrites. Written in 1897 it tells the story of a simple country man, Uncle Ben, and his adventures on a train trip to Chicago and California during which he meets all kinds of people who are not what they pretend to be, or as he puts it, shams. He calls their bluffs and bluntly calls them to task. In many ways, the book of James makes the same point. As one commentator said, the book of James “exalts genuineness and condemns sham.”
The book of James, which is our focus for today, has a somewhat ambiguous history. It is unclear when it was written, by whom, or to whom. If you accept that it was written by James the apostle or by James, the brother of Jesus, then it is probably fairly early. If, as many scholars do, you think it was written later by someone who wrote in the name of James, as was often the case, then it is often dated to the middle of the 2nd century; a more likely case since it seems to be a response to misreadings of Paul’s writings.
It covers a variety of issues in the church and someone has characterized it as “a collection of sermon notes.” Indeed you could take any number of sections and develop them as sermons, so it’s not a bad description. Famously, Martin Luther did not think much of the book of James, calling it a “strawy epistle,” and placed it at the end of his German translation along with a few other questionable books. He did admit however that “there are many good sayings in it.”
As I noted, one of the possible motivations for the general letter of James was that people were misreading Paul’s letters, which tend to emphasize faith as the most important ingredient in a Christian’s life. That was certainly Luther’s reading of Paul. But for some that meant all you had to do was believe: it didn’t really matter what you did. Paul himself argued against that interpretation in a variety of places. Yet that reading still persists.
But, James argues, if your faith is real you will show it be the way you live. It’s easy to say, “I believe something.” But unless you live it out, it means nothing. I don’t know if any of you have gone bungee jumping, as portrayed on the bulletin cover. I haven’t. I do believe that the bungee cord will do its job and support me, but unless I actually jump you don’t know if I really believe that or not.
As some of you know, I can’t really swim, yet have done a fair bit of canoeing. I always thought a life-jacket would support me in the water, and so I always wear one. And when I’m canoeing I take a dip in the lake, if it’s not too cold, with my life jacket on and I know for sure it will support me. I’ve acted on it.
In the same way, James argues, faith without works is dead, meaningless. And then he goes on to point out a variety of places where people were failing to show that their faith was more than a sham. How do you treat people who come into your church? Do you give everyone the same treatment, or are there people that you give high regard to because they are wealthy or hold high office?
I’ve heard stories of pastors who disguise themselves as a poor person and sit on the front steps of the church on a Sunday morning to see how people will respond, and then walk to the front and to preach. Haven’t tried that in any of my churches, although it sounds intriguing. James says if you believe that all are created in God’s image, then there should be no partiality. We are all saved by God’s grace.
In the same way, our speech should show that we are a Christian and so James devotes a whole section to the tongue, which can be used for many good things, to inspire and encourage, or it can be used to destroy. You may have heard the news item this week about the girl who was being bullied in Airdrie, and decided to respond, not with similar words, but with messages of encouragement via sticky notes. While the nursery rhyme says that “words will never harm me,” we all know that words can have devastating effects on people, and even us. Bullying has no place, anywhere, much less for Christians. If we can’t control our speech and language, of what value is our faith?
James notes other ways that we need to live out our faith in order for it to be authentic, not boasting about what we might do tomorrow, not quarreling or being greedy. And he gives positive instructions that are good even for us to think about. Be patient. Pray for each other, and he speaks of anointing with oil, a practice still in use today not as a magical cure-all, but as a surrender to God’s will for healing.
So what does the book of James have to do with Thanksgiving? Several people asked me that? Well, perhaps nothing directly, but I do think it should make us pause and think. What does it mean to be genuine in our thanksgiving?
One of the illustrations that James uses reads like this.
If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food,and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. (1:15-16)
It’s great that we come together on a day like today and give thanks to God. And it’s great that we have an offering for the Calgary Food Bank and collect all this food. But doing so doesn’t let us off the hook for the rest of the year to simply enjoy all the bounty that we have. Our faith tells us that the ones to whom much has been given, from them much will be required. The Bible is full of references to feeding the hungry, looking after the orphans and widows, and to the dangers that wealth can bring.
And it’s easy for us to look around and compare ourselves to some others, especially in a city like ours that is full of wealth, and tell ourselves that we aren’t really that wealthy, so the obligation to live out that part of our faith doesn’t fall too hard on us. But the reality is that we have more than enough. We are truly blessed and so for our thanksgiving to be genuine, it must prod us to share, not only today but every day, with those less fortunate.
We, and I include myself in this, need to be reminded of this from time to time and the author of the book of James certainly does that. Our faith must be more than a sham, a good front that we put on on Sundays or when everyone is watching. Bill Hybels has a little book called Who You Are When No One’s Looking. (Intervarsity, 1987) The book of James calls us to consistency between our beliefs and our actions, whether anyone is looking or not.
May our thanksgiving be genuine, full of joy and overflowing in abundance for all.