Here’s the video link to this morning’s sermon, “The Good Listener,” based on James 1:17-27. Just click here to watch the video: September 16, 2018
Meditation on James 1:17-27
Sept. 16, 2018
Merritt Island Presbyterian Church
17 Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18 In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures. 19 You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 21 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. 22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25 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. 26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27 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.
While Jim and I were away in Montreat in August, our denomination announced the passing of a very special person who served the Church all her life. Katie Geneva Cannon was the first black woman ordained in the United Presbyterian Church, a predecessor to the PC (USA). She was the first African American woman to receive a Ph.D. from Union Theological Seminary in New York. She was the Annie Scales Rogers Professor of Christian Ethics at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond when she went home to be with the Lord August 8 after battling leukemia. She was 68.
She had recently said, “Teaching is my ministry. I love to teach. To empower. To equip. To set people free… to live into the graces and gifts they have been given.” Speaking at Princeton Seminary last fall, she said, “The call to teach is like fire shut up in my bones.”
For many students, she was their first encounter with a seminary professor who was an African American woman. She sought to “instill an embodied, mediated knowledge,” (Aug. 12, Christian Century), “opening the students’ eyes and hearts to the world as it truly is. She lifted the veil of racism, sexism, and classism while affirming who her students were and making them feel valued.”
Katie was the pioneer of womanist theology, a branch of inquiry that didn’t exist before Katie’s writings. For the term “womanist,” Katie credits her friend Alice Walker, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Color Purple. Womanist theology is an “interpretive approach that seeks to empower the neglected voices of African American women and the entire African Diaspora.” (Aug. 12, Christian Century). The approach “seeks to inspire, equip, connect and support black women to be change-makers in their communities…. She saw that in the academy and the church… the voices of African American women had been too often mocked or seen as insignificant.”
Born in 1950, she grew up in the highly segregated town of Kannapolis, North Carolina. “It was against the law for Katie to go the library, play in public parks or swim in the local pool. She could not even enter the Kannapolis spelling bee.” But she had a genuine faith, accepting Jesus Christ at an early age and attending Covenant United Presbyterian Church in Kannapolis with her family. Her parents were both ruling elders. Her view of the Church was shaped, however, in the context of the segregated Catawba Synod. The only school open to black children in her community was part of a local Lutheran church—and that’s where Katie went. By 5, she could recite the Lord’s Prayer, the Beatitudes, Psalm 23, the Ten Commandments and answers to catechetical questions, such as “Who is God?” and “Why did God make us?”
Even as a child, she recognized that there was a “profound disconnect between the egalitarian spirit of the gospel and her oppressive, racist context.” She asked herself, “What did we do as black people that was so bad? A good God would not do this.” Her struggle with these questions would stir her as a student and professor to focus on “Christian ethics and the culpability of human beings in perpetuating systemic injustice.”
Katie’s was not always a voice that the Church, her community and world wanted to hear.
The NT epistle of James has also not always been a welcome voice to everyone in the Church, though it is one of the “catholic” or universal letters and not addressed to one particular worshiping community. Luther hated it, calling it a “letter of straw” in the preface to James in his 1522 NT translation
Zwingli had a more favorable view, arguing, “the letter is misunderstood when read in the papist fashion” (Zwingli, Defense of the Faith) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Huldrych_Zwingli
Calvin, not naming any names but you know he’s talking about Luther says, “There are also some at this day who do not think it entitled to authority. I, on the other hand, am inclined to receive it without controversy.” (Luke Timothy Johnson, James, 142)
Luther thought it contradicted Paul’s teaching on grace, works and faith. Calvin held that Paul and James are “not in disagreement” (Johnson, 143). Other theologians have complained that there’s not enough about Jesus, for his name only comes up twice—at the greeting and in 2:1, where I imagine he speaks from a place of emotion, “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Jesus Christ?!!!!!” (Exclamation points added.) In modern lingo, “How can call yourself Christians and behave this way??????”
James would be dismayed to learn that certain passages of his letter have been used to argue over hot button issues and sometimes divide the Church. For example, in the 17th and 18th centuries, James 5:14-16 was cited during heated debates about the anointing of the sick.
But the Spirit stirs us to open our hearts to hear something new from James that will strengthen our witness and help us serve as the Body of Christ for the world today. If we were using a womanist approach of interpretation that Katie Cannon pioneered, we would listen for the voices that were not being heard in the text—the voices of women, children, poor and oppressed–and then listen and speak for the voices that are not being heard now. But the truth is, we aren’t really good listeners as a society. We all want to speak and have our voices heard, and we get upset when we think others aren’t listening to us! I think that’s why blogs and FB posts have become so popular. They don’t require having an actual conversation– listening and responding to someone else. For listening is an act of love and obedience in Scripture.
The Lord always listens to us, ready to respond in love. First Peter 5:7 says, “Cast all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.” Hebrews 4:16 says, “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Matthew 7:7 says, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” So, with the Spirit’s help, we study the epistle of James with open hearts, ready to listen for the voices of the poor and oppressed and for God’s voice speaking to us today.
James tells us everything we have has come from a gracious, good and generous God, who longs to give us every perfect gift from above. Every generous act of giving, he says in 1:17, comes from God! When we are stirred to give, it’s because God’s love compels us. James reminds us of our purpose and identity as the Beloved of a God who will never change. And we are, James says in 1:18, becoming a kind of “first fruits” of his creatures. What does this mean? Here’s a mini-stewardship sermon. In the OT, the acceptable offering to God is the “first fruits.” We don’t give what’s left over to God. We give to Him from our increase FIRST, and we give our best. But James is saying we are the first fruits. Our lives are an offering to the Lord!
After he talks about God’s gifts to us and reminds us who we are—the Beloved of God, first fruits of God’s creatures, James tells the Church how they have lost their way. They have stopped listening to each other. Good listeners aren’t always talking. Actually, if you are talking, you aren’t listening, you’re talking! Good listeners are “slow to speak.” Good listeners don’t get angry, for once we are angry, it is even painful to be with that person, let alone speak to them. Once we are angry, the conversation is over and the relationship has suffered. Good listeners are “slow to anger, for anger doesn’t produce God’s righteousness.” The Church in James time–which was all the churches since this is a letter not just to one congregation–has ceased to bear the fruits of righteousness; they have become people who consider themselves “religious,” and are judgmental of others. They are caught up in political battles over what to believe, how to do church, and even who to accept into the fold. They have become people who hear scripture read in Church, but it doesn’t penetrate their hearts! The evidence is that they have neglected the poorest members of their community. They have forgotten how to love God and neighbor!
And then we have come to the voices that we have been listening for—the ones who were not heard during James’ lifetime and the ones for which we must speak today. James says, “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.”
In honor of Katie Cannon and to continue her legacy of encouraging and building up women so they may use their gifts for the Church and be change-makers in their communities, the PC (USA) has founded a scholarship called, “The Women’s Ministry Fund.” https://www.presbyterianmission.org/story/presbyterian-mission-agency-announces-scholarship-fund-in-memory-of-katie-geneva-cannon/
I hope her story inspires you to want to be a good listener, listening for voices in Scripture and in our society that others might not want to hear, voices of women, children and the poor and oppressed and seek to correct systemic injustice. May we all learn to be good listeners, for the Lord always listens to us, and responds with love and mercy.
These last few lines from Katie’s obituary seem to sum up a life faithfully lived, despite the pain of her childhood, growing up with segregation.
“With all her works and accolades, Katie Cannon was an approachable and kindhearted person. She was generous in sharing her time, talents, and resources. She lived the words of the song, “If I Can Help Somebody As I Travel On Then My Living Shall Not Be In Vain.”
Let us pray. Lord God, we thank you for all the faithful saints of the Church, people like Katie Cannon. Thank you for her service for so many years, for sharing her gifts of teaching and her prophetic voice, urging us to hear the voices that the Church had long ignored, believing they were not significant, and speak for those whose voices have been silenced. Thank you that for Katie pain has ended and she has entered into your loving embrace. May we all live as doers of your Word, Lord, bearing the fruits of righteousness by the power of your Spirit. Teach us to listen, really listen, to one another with open hearts and minds. May we never allow anger or pride hurt the Body of Christ. Help us to hear your voice every day as we seek to walk with you and live for you. In Jesus name. Amen.