James the Just, or James of Jerusalem, brother of Jesus, was Jerusalem’s first Bishop until his martyrdom in the year 62. Tradition has it that he wrote this Letter of James, from which we have read this morning. But, bleeding-heart liberal, I have to tell you, is not the normal descriptor for James. More like moralist, or even conservative. But by our standards of doing and not deceiving ourselves, in church, or society today, I think bleeding-heart liberal isn’t far off. James does not let us off the hook just to think and believe the right things about our faith or citizenship, God and country, but insists we must “be doers of the word,” or your faith is a fake.
Is James calling us out? What does our faith do?! “For if any [of you] are hearers of the word and not doers,” he says, “[you] are like those who look at themselves in a mirror… and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.”
What do mirrors do for us? How much mirror time do we need? What is it, that we see in the mirror?
Being the vain person I am, I would never admit to spending as much time in front of the mirror as I actually do! I once heard that men actually spend more time in the bathroom getting ready to go out, than women. What if that’s true!? Anyway, I seem to notice that I’m spending more and more time in front of the mirror, now that this old body is slowly but surely falling apart, falling and drooping down.
Some years ago Kim walked out of the bathroom with a bewildered look on her face, “I’m old,” she said. I knew exactly what she was referring to. Being a year and a half older, I had already had that “aha moment,” but in my vanity had not been near as forth-coming! It seems to happen overnight, and one day it suddenly dawns on you. Holy crap/cripes, I’m old! If you haven’t gotten there yet, don’t worry. I’m sure, it’ll never happen to you!
Shaving, which is not my favorite thing to do, takes way too much mirror time! And yet when I finish, and I look into the glasses’ reflection, there is a hopeful change. Ya, I do clean up pretty good! Maybe it’s not so bad?!
The biggest problem though is this hair – thinner, and greyer, all the time. And it started out pretty thin to begin with! More and more, there’s less and less, you can do with it! All I can do is keep it short, it seems to me. So I keep looking in the mirror, wondering if it’s time to be cut yet. Ah, maybe I should just shave it all off!
But somehow, just as I turn away from the mirror for the last time, from whatever I’d been looking at, I muster up a sense of customer satisfaction. Vain – like I said! And, as I walk away, “immediately I forget,” the true image that was right in front of my face. I suppose it helps me get on with my day, with my life. But the deception is surprisingly easy, and unbelievably convincing.
Most of us don’t remember, if we ever knew, that the Letter of James is in the bible. It’s tucked away behind the influential and prolific St Paul, and his fully, one dozen epistles. Almost didn’t make it into the New Testament for its questionable, contrarian approach. Martin Luther, founder of the Lutheran Church in the 16th C., thought they had made a mistake letting it in. “James does nothing more than drive to the law and its works” Luther said in disgust, who made a career out of teaching the opposite, that God’s grace comes to us by faith alone, apart from our works, or the law.
But James, that bleeding-heart liberal, is making a resurgence in many circles. “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror… and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.”
The test is a good one, not only individually, but for who we are as a society. If we put the current recession we’re in, up to the mirror, for example, what do we see? Looking directly at it we still see an unrepentant, too big to fail banking system, in bed with Wall Street, who, funding the elections of our politicians, pay to set up the very laws which protected them when our economy went into a nose dive. Five years later, after walking away from that mirror, we seem to have forgotten. No one has gone to jail for ruining the economy, anyway, and no one has reformed the laws or regulated the institutions that are responsible for it! We all listen and complain, but where are the doers of justice? Being doers of the word is, of course, hard work, and it requires that we remember and face up to things we’d rather not see in the mirror.
Truth is we haven’t been able to take a good look at ourselves in the mirror very often. If we did, we’d see that the economy, and trickle-down economics, wasn’t working for lots of people, for a whole generation of folks, even before the recession. We’ve walked away from the poor, the orphans and widows, amongst us. Even the laughable number we call the poverty line, $23K for a family of four, is crossed by many more people today than when the war on poverty was first declared some 45 years ago. Now both parties of our political system have tacitly agreed simply not to talk about the poor at all. They both proclaim they are champions of the middle class. But neither will utter the phrase, “the poor.”
The word widow in Hebrew comes from the root word, “one unable to speak.” Widows in Jewish society, having lost a husband by death or divorce, were without legal status – unable to speak for themselves. James, that bleeding-heart liberal, was one of the Jerusalem leaders who supported a Christian social system that refused to let widows and orphans fall through the cracks. They not only talked about the poor, they were doers, and widows and orphans were cared for and given a voice and equal status with everyone else in the church, and thus in society.
If we hold up the mirror to ourselves today, how do we look? Are we merely hearers of the word, or are we doers also? If we hold up a mirror to our neighborhood, what do we see? The deception, of course, can be surprisingly easy, and unbelievably convincing.
I have a friend who is a psychologist and Vietnam Vet who is very good at not only taking an honest look into the mirror of our society, but is able to sustain that vision when he walks away. He is not afraid of what he sees, though he is not happy with what we are becoming. He tells me that he likes to walk through the diverse neighborhoods of Chicago, and noted how the differences between walking up Broadway and Clark Streets are so revealing in the people he meets, their problems and surprising insights, their courageous perseverance and delusional visions, and is able to use that reality in his work.
God is not calling us to be bleeding-heart liberals, of course. But God calls us to be accountable to the real life we see in the visage of that mirror we all spend time in front of – even after we have walked away – that we might not merely be [passive] hearers who deceive themselves, but be doers of [God’s] word. God is calling us to fulfill the law of liberty, as James says, loving our neighbor as ourselves, in all we do.