God's First Fruits

Scripture can be found here...

Have you ever had to get a message to someone right away? Urgently? I know I have, though my definition of “urgent” might usually sound something like, “I forgot to put laundry detergent on the list!” I’ve recently been enjoying a TV show that has come to its conclusion, and which the rest of the world has been watching for the past six years. (This is typical for me. I’m always pretty far behind everyone else on the TV stuff… maybe I’m just waiting to see whether something will be a classic, or just a fleeting puff of nothingness…) Anyway, this show is the one about Russian spies living among us, undercover, pretending to be Americans.

The show is fascinating for many, many reasons, including: its portrayal of the late days of the Cold War; its exploration of the nature of marriage; its depiction of a family in crisis because secret-keeping has eroded their trust in one another; and more. But the thing I’m focused on today, is how communication takes place on the show. It’s so, so slow. The setting is the early 1980’s, so, of course there are no cell phones. You can’t just call someone from almost anywhere—you have to find a phone booth. There is no internet, though its predecessor makes an appearance, a network used only by the US government and scientists, called the “Arpanet.” The communication hub for a whole team of spies is a guy in a suit in a basement, surrounded by phones and electronic equipment. In one episode the guy is killed by a very angry Navy Seal, which means all communications are down. I spent the whole episode fretting, “Why is it taking so long for everyone to figure out that GEORGE IS DEAD?” That’s because I kept forgetting: the show is set in the early 1980’s, when there was no expectation of instant communication for anyone. Not even if it was urgent. Not even for spies. The absolute snail’s pace of nearly all communication in the show is frustrating, and nerve-wracking, especially given the fact that it is also urgent.

Here’s an imaginary pilot for a prospective TV show I would definitely watch: The time is 2000 years ago, give or take several decades; the place is the middle east, perhaps Eastern Europe. The main character? His name is James, and he may or may not be the younger brother of Jesus, and he is definitely carrying on Jesus’ work. These are the years after Jerusalem has been destroyed, and the temple is no more. And those Jews who weren’t killed by the Romans in the siege of Jerusalem are scattered around the known world, including those who are members of the early church. So, of course, James communicates through letters. This one is addressed to those scattered followers of Jesus, whom he calls “the twelve tribes in the dispersion.”

This is an urgent letter. James knows that Jesus’ followers are struggling. They are haunted by memories of trauma and loss. They are experiencing the hardships of separation and temptation. How to even begin to offer help, through this slow means of communication? How to encourage them?

James begins by trying to help them find their way back, to re-orient them, to remind them who they are. It’s the spiritual equivalent of asking them to stop, and take a deep breath. He starts with gratitude. Everything that is good, he says, every perfect gift, every generous action… they all start with God, and they reveal God’s goodness. Look around, James says. Anything that is good—a beautiful sunrise, a delicious fig, a kind word—all of it comes from God. And just as God is unchanging, always the giver of these gifts, forever the source of all that is good… James urges his readers to be just as constant, just as steady, just as faithful.

Then, and only then, he launches into a series of instructions to his far-flung kin in Christ. And he breaks all his concerns down into pairs of opposite or contrasting actions.[i] And these words of encouragement are just as fresh today as they were in the year 80.

Quick/ slow. Be quick to listen, and slow to speak. In a culture in which we can all send and receive messages instantaneously, and which therefore allows us to imagine that everything we have to say to one another is urgent, the art of listening can suffer. A few years ago, a colleague introduced me to a practice for small groups called “mutual invitation.” In this, one person speaks, and the rules are: No responses. No cross-talk. We simply listen to that one person, and really try to take in what they are saying. To give them the real gift of our attention, our focus. And since we are not trying to formulate a response, all participants are truly free to listen, to hear what others are saying without filtering it through our own impatience, or trying to correct it. When the first person is finished, they invite someone else in the circle to speak—to speak to this group that is fully open, completely listening. Be quick to listen, James urges his readers, and slow to speak.

For some of us, this comes absolutely naturally. For some of us, this is really hard. For all of us, this is an essential part of honoring the image of God in one another.

Get rid of/ welcome. If we are seeing and honoring the truth of God’s presence in everything—including one another’s words—we will almost naturally be doing this next part: ridding ourselves of the bad stuff, and welcoming the good stuff—specifically, God’s word, planted, deep within us.

There is listening, and then there is taking in. There is taking in, and then there is that moment when what you have taken in becomes a part of you, and you can no longer separate yourself from your beloved. Remember that beautiful passage from Jeremiah:

But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. ~ Jeremiah 31:33

This is urgent, James says. Purge yourselves of what can only poison you, and let God place God’s very self, God’s own essence and truth, in you. Open the door, lay the fire, set the table. Make God welcome.

Hearers/ Doers. Fun fact about the Letter of James: Among the great leaders of the Protestant Reformation, John Calvin, our Presbyterian great-great-great granddaddy, loved this letter; but Martin Luther, the Augustinian monk whose protests eventually gave birth to Lutheranism, hated it. He called it “an epistle of straw.” And the reason he did that is this next part of our passage.

First, a little background. Both Luther and Calvin believed that we cannot earn our way into God’s good graces by keeping a long and impressive ledger of all our kindness, helpfulness, and forbearance. That is not what Jesus is all about. That is not what God is all about. God is kind and merciful. God is grace. Jesus is grace, and that grace—mercy, forgiveness, strength for the journey—that is all God’s free gift to us. We can’t earn it. It just is, not because we are good, but because God is so good.

James says, don’t just be hearers of the word; be doers of it as well. Luther thought this was about trying to earn God’s love by doing, but I think he got it wrong. When we welcome the grace of God into our lives—really take it in, receive it with gratitude—of course, we will want to share that grace with others. God’s grace infusing all our being will incite us to good actions, encourage our giving, prompt our care for all God’s people. Not to get grace, but because having it feels so wonderful, we can't wait to give it away, to be doers of God’s beautiful word that is already deeply a part of us. Which brings us to the difference between…

Good religion/ bad religion. Again, it all comes back to Jesus, what he was all about. Jesus, too, was a reformer. He looked around him and saw, pretty much, what we all see when we look around us: a mixture of good and bad. Good intentions mixed with self-absorption. Times when it was clear people wanted to please God, but got things mixed up, with the emphasis on the wrong syllable, so to speak. More concern about codes than about kindness; more fretting over self-righteousness than over the person lying, beaten up, by the side of the road. Here’s how James sums it up:

Religion that is pure and faultless before God, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. ~ James 1:27

One writer explains,

The commands to care for the orphans and widows reach back into Israel’s experience as slaves in Egypt. Liberated by God, they were to treat the marginalized with compassion… This is foundational for Christian ethics.[ii]

Bad religion is worrying only about ourselves. Wondering, “Am I right with God?  Am I saved?” Good religion wonders, who is it that our society leaves by the side of the road today? On whom are we tempted to turn our backs? What, indeed, would Jesus do, right here and right now?

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. In fulfillment of God’s own purpose God gave birth to us by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of all God’s creatures. ~James 1:17-18

There are a few yellow leaves, this morning, on the tree on the Liberty Avenue side of the church. Harvest time is coming, even as we each pick the last of our tomatoes and herbs and summer squash. In ancient times people of faith offered to God the “first fruits” of their harvests. That means, the best, the most beautiful, the most perfect of their crops would be given as an offering to God. In the opening verses of this morning’s reading, James reminds us that God gave birth to us by God’s own word of truth. And so, we are the first fruits of God’s creatures. James gives us this image so that we will begin to comprehend the length and breadth, the height and depths of the love God has for us. This is the heart of James’ urgent message for that original, dispersed band of Jesus-followers. It is still God’s urgent message for us. To know how very much we are loved, how precious we are in God’s sight, is to be empowered to share that love, to give it away, to let it go, to let our own blessings bless the world.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] “Proper 17, James 1:17-27, Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word Year B, Volume 4, eds. David L. Bartlette and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 17.

[ii] Ibid., 19.

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