Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church

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Just the other morning, as I was preparing for this sermon, I came across, yet another social media post meant to boost your interest and inspire your life to change with one single quote…no less found on a mini-blue magnet shaped as a typewriter. The quote said, “Books are mirrors of the soul,” written by Virginia Woolf. I’m sure Woolf never imagined her quote being on anything smaller than one of those heavy-duty typewriters, let alone on a teeny blue typewriter found on an iPhone exposed to the entire world through this thing called social media. Nonetheless, my interpretation of that quote raises the question, “What book mirrors your soul?” What written words express your inner-most self? Sometimes a writer’s words easily reflect who we are as people rather than our words. Yet, written words are not the only reflection of our souls in our society. Other things reflect who we are. Let me quote another inspirational one-liner by Pablo Picasso. He said, “Who sees the human face correctly: the photographers, the mirror, or the painter?” [1]The make-up company Estee Lauder would say a mirror, of course,…because “a good mirror is the most important accessory in a woman’s (and I would also say, a man’s) life.”[2]

The unknown author of the book of James would surprisingly agree with the make-up designer and say that the mirror correctly reflects the human face, soul, character and even our faith. And, even more so, the author of James would agree with the second one-liner and surprisingly theological statement by, yet again, Estee Lauder, who said, “My idea of luxury is two mirrors, a hand mirror to see what you’re doing and a magnifying mirror to see the flaws and cover them up.”[3] Now, you’re probably wondering why we are talking about mirrors and, especially, why compact make-up mirrors.

James, not unlike Estee Lauder, writes something similar in our Epistle reading today. James says that when we look in the mirror, we see our own reflection of how we are living our life. We then walk away from our reflection and forget our appearance. James concludes, it is the same as people who hear the word of God, but then fail to act. In other words, one may hear the laws of the Bible and give little attention to how one lives out those laws. So, how are we living out or reflecting the Gospel in our lives?

James is a bit different from all the other Epistles in the New Testament. The letter is often identified as an ethical exhortation or a how-to lesson so that we are called as readers to live a Christian life.[4] James leans heavily on God and God’s action in the world, in that every generous act of giving and every perfect gift comes from an unchanging God. As we read on in James 1, God births or gives the Word to us. And by Word, James means the Gospel and the laws. Now, this Word, which James explains is an implanted word, James says we are to welcome it. So, what strange words, “…welcome the implanted word”? Now, I don’t know about you, but that makes me a little uncomfortable. First, am I worthy to have such words implanted in me? I mean, come on God, I am only human. So, what does it mean?

The Greek word emphuton or “implanted” means “inborn” or given to us at birth. It can also mean “innate”, as if it comes naturally to us.[5] Isn’t it strange that we are to welcome something that is already naturally in us? We can’t help what comes naturally. Yet, some scholars believe the passive voice expresses God’s giving of good gifts, including the planting of the Word within us. It is in God’s planting that we are to welcome the Word and take on the responsibility to respond with action. A theologian writes, “This word would most naturally be understood as the preached word of the gospel, with both its promise of salvation and its ethical demand.”[6] James calls its readers to act consciously and ethically. To physically live out the Gospel day by day. Yet, James warns that far too often we are quick to listen to the Word in worship and slow to act.

Worship is key as reformed Christians, which might be why many reformers of the Christian faith tended to ignore and dislike James. Each day, we, as Christians, carry with us rituals of our religion. We worship, we pray, we study, we preach, we do sacraments, we hear the implanted Word. Yet, I’m wondering, after worship, can we respond with another ritual? Can we respond as “doers of the word” to God’s divine initiative of the implanted word in our lives? I’m not saying to get rid of the words we speak or the daily Christian rituals that require listening, but I’m wondering if we can add a ritual to our faithful Christian life? After we hear the gospel, and worship our Lord, can we welcome and embrace the implanted Word and become, as James says, “doers of the Word”? Unfortunately, as I’ve learned, it’s difficult to create new rituals in our busy lives.

I quickly learned this hard lesson while serving as a PCUSA Young Adult Volunteer in Lusaka, Zambia. During my time as a Young Adult Volunteer, I also found myself in the midst of discernment. I felt a call to ministry and joined an online discussion group from Union Presbyterian Seminary to give me a taste of what seminary would be like. Each week, the group would be given a sort of spiritual practice. One week, we were asked to say a prayer each morning. Another week was to write down where you saw God that day. Let me tell you, each week, I failed miserably. I tried to pray each morning, but I was distracted by the little early-bird students who arrived to wake me up by yelling into my window or playing tag outside my house. The next week, I sought to find God each day, but found it difficult when I saw the overwhelming poverty that engulfed a Zambian’s life. Another week, we were asked to remember our baptism each time we touched water—like when we washed our hands, cleaned the dishes, or even watered the plants. Once again, I worked up the motivation to try and live out another spiritual practice. However, I remembered the same water I was washing my hands, cleaning the dishes, hand washing my clothes, and bucket bathing in was unsafe and unclean water that gave many of my students belly aches. Not only that, but we lost water for about 3-4 days that week! And, so, once again, I carried guilt into the discussion group for not completing the weekly spiritual practice and not having the same reactions as my colleagues. I had tried and failed another spiritual practice that week, mostly because of the social and economic injustice of, not just lacking in clean water, but lacking the presence of water in general.

But here’s some good news, if we add the ritual of being “doers of the Word,” we have a chance to change some of the social injustices in our world, such as unsafe and unclean water not only in developing nations, but even here in the US. We have a chance to live out a Christian life to end hunger, homelessness, and provide basic needs to people around us.

James is also often criticized for asking readers to seek perfection. But, once again, here’s the good news! When James says--"…become…,” key word--“Become doers of the word, and not merely hearers,” we learn that the word become implies an action of improvement. It is both present and imperative, therefore, a continuous action. A process that might take time and must be lived out continuously in our lives. It is a word that suggests that we grow and mature into our Christian faith.[7] It should not happen overnight, but it should be established into a ritual as we grow into our faith. No doubt, hearing comes first. It requires the discipline of studying, hearing the word of God, and knowing how to live out our faith, but also the discipline of acting after we hear. One theologian writes, “once we have received the implanted word and have been renewed, directed and empowered by it, we are expected to bloom” and to respond as doers of the Word.[8]

As an example of such doing, James pulls from the Hebrew text. Listen again to the final verse of James chapter 1, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress…” Biblically and traditionally speaking, the orphan and the widow are uplifted in the Old Testament as those who are mostly oppressed, but as God’s direct concern. James follows tradition and mentions the orphans and the widows as representative of all who are suffering from symbols of poverty, oppression, and abuse. Essentially, James is saying a genuine religion is caring for those who are on the margins. And, we have a chance to care for those who are deeply hurting the most in our society by welcoming the implanted Word and then becoming doers of that word.

And, I have more good news for you! I’ve only been at this church for about two weeks…Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church are doers of the Word. I have seen the shelter. I’ve heard about Thursday Night Open Table. I’ve heard about the ESL classes, the relationships with Zambia and Zimbabwe. I’ve heard about the donations to food pantries and clothing closets. I’ve seen the different recovery groups housed in this church. And so, I have no doubt that this church is open to welcoming the implanted word, in order to respond even more as doers of the Word. No doubt, you have a rich history of being doers and reaching out to the community around you. While doing some reading from a previous pastor of this church, I found yet another inspirational quote from a session meeting while Henry Sloane Coffin was pastor. The session note said, “The ideal which we have sought to keep steadily in view of a Church whose message is in accord with the mind of Christ, whose fellowship is congenial to anyone who shares His faith and purpose…in whose house of prayer rich and poor meet together in Christian brother (and sister)hood.”[9] There is a history in this church of reaching out to the neighborhood and sharing this space for all those in need, because it is in accordance to your Christian faith. And so, let us remember the key Greek grammar “to become” is a continuous action that goes on and on. But, it is also an improving action, so that we may create a new ritual of doing after we hear the Word. Our faith should reflect our actions and our actions should reflect our faith. As God was generous in God’s giving, let us be generous in our doing by welcoming the implanted Word.

 

[1] Pablo Picasso, https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/pablo_picasso_384976?src=t_mirror.

[2] Francis Taylor Gench, Communion Meditation: James 1:22-25, 1.

[3] Linda Wells, “Beauty; Mirror Image,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/1990/04/29/magazine/beauty-mirror-image.html, April 29, 1990.

[4] Francis Taylor Gench, “Reader’s Resource Paper: James 1:19-27”, 2.

[5] Pheme Perkins, Interpretation: First and Second Peter, James, and Jude (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1995), 104.

[6] Sophie Laws, A Commentary on the Epistle of James, Harper’s New Testament Commentaries (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1980), 82.

[7] Francis Taylor Gench, “Reader’s Resource Paper: James 1:19-27”, 8.

[8] Francis Taylor Gench, “Reader’s Resource Paper: James 1:19-27), 7.

[9] James Merriam Howard and Gertrude Hunter Howard, And Thy Neighbor: The Story of How a City Church Learned to Discover and Serve it’s Neighborhood 1905-1926, 1953, 28.