(James 1:22-25; 2:1-7; 2:14-26)
My home state California is a paradise for bumper sticker watchers. Nothing is off limits in the point-counterpoint battle of bumper stickers, even religion. Years ago, there was a popular bumper sticker that exclaimed, “Honk, if you love Jesus.” Not to be outdone, a counter bumper sticker emerged with an equally ardent message, “if you love Jesus, seek justice…any fool can honk!”
That bumper sticker – if you love Jesus, seek justice – captures the heart of the epistle of James; James is an activist. He sees faith as a matter of behavior, action, and commitments, more than mere belief. He is faithful, but faith without works is dead. To be truly faithful, you must not only accept God’s grace; you must let your light shine, sharing the grace you’ve received with others through acts of kindness and support.
Recently, a Facebook friend sent me a photo of hundreds of Christians, gathered in a tightly knit group – none of them with masks – on a California beach, accepting Jesus as their personal savior and then getting baptized in the Pacific. He expected me to be elated, but was taken aback when I responded, “It looks like all of them want to go to heaven as soon as possible and take their parents and grandparents with them.”
While I can’t criticize their motives – there are no atheists in foxholes and the fear of pandemic can drive you to religion – faith is more than a one-to-one transaction between God and you. Faith is a whole person experience that requires us to be responsible and caring for others.
For a lot of people, faith is simply believing doctrines that appear to have no impact on your behavior: you can say the right things, trust that God loves you, hold your bible up in public, get saved, and turn your back on your fellow humans and the planet.
Such faith is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” His target was the German church of the 1930’s and 1940’s. People can claim to be good Christians and support the Fuhrer and the imprisonment of Jews and persons with Downs Syndrome. People can claim to be good Christians and turn their back on racism in our economic and legal system or the separation of toddlers from their parents or blame the poor for their poverty or justify acts of violence against peaceful protesters or unarmed citizens.
Faith is whole person, for James, and shapes every aspect of our lives. If you accept Jesus as your savior, then walk the talk – welcome the stranger, reach out to the poor, embrace the outsider, comfort the mourning, and minister to the sick. James is critical of religion that puts the poor in the back seats and invites the wealthy to the front row, that gives breaks to those that have and neglect those who have not. James would assert in upper Midwest slang, that too many believers are all foam and no beer, or as they said in the Salinas Valley where I grew – up all saddle and no horse.
The question is how do we become “doers of the word?” I have always liked the point counterpoint of Frederick Buechner and Parker Palmer –“listen to your life” and “let your life speak.”
To become a doer of the word, especially in this time of sheltering in place when our external options are limited, first “listen.” Listen to God’s voice speaking in the events of your life and in the situations in which you find yourself, in the news and in conversations. Listen to God’s voice in your thoughts and feelings. A good practice is simply to keep asking God, “show me how I can be faithful to you.” Pray for guidance, read the gospels and literature that feeds your mind and spirit – and challenges your assumptions about our society and the world – and then let the Spirit guide your steps. “Let your life speak.” In other words, act on the guidance you are receiving.
There are lots of things we may not be able to do in this time of pandemic. But let us do what we can. We are the hands and feet of God, so says the Spanish mystic Teresa of Avila. God can’t or won’t do certain things unless we act. Even at home or in the five mile circle in which many of us live, we can do a lot, we can share of our financial largesse – perhaps the money we used to spend on entertainment and eating out. We can identify, listening for God’s voice, persons in need in our neighborhood and the planet – we can make a contribution, we can pick up the phone, we can make a safe front yard visit, we can advocate for political change related to poverty, homelessness, and the environment.
The pandemic is not the only problem we face. In fact, the pandemic has revealed where we need to change as a nation in terms of care for the poor and food insecurity, reforming the justice system, providing fair compensation for essential workers, and protecting the environment. If you love Jesus, you can wear a mask, anyone can hold up a bible!
James wants our spiritual commitments to change the world. He sees the far horizon of God’s dream for the earth and he challenges us to get on board, to see everyone as Christ and then treat everyone as Christ, to be heavenly minded and earthly good, and to make each day an offering of love, doing what we can to save the world one act, one prayer, one word, at a time.