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Doers

James 1:19-25
A Sermon by Robert E. Dunham
University Presbyterian Church
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Confirmation Sunday             May 7, 2017

            There is an old, abandoned Presbyterian mission station in the village of Lubondai in the heart of Africa’s Democratic Republic of the Congo. It was once the thriving center of a missionary medical enterprise and home to a school for missionary children, but the mission station at Lubondai was abandoned decades ago when Good Shepherd Hospital was opened in Tshikaji, a hundred miles away. I visited Lubondai and the remnants of that mission station some years ago and thought the village resembled something out of an old David Lean film – lush and overgrown, a mysterious ruin, a remnant of a once vibrant village.  Rows of tall royal palm trees still lined the old village common, but the old homes, hospital and school were in disarray.

In its prime, it surely was the quintessential Calvinist village: the school at one end, the hospital at the other and, right in the center of it all, the church. To some degree the church still functions, though it has lost much of its former vitality. When the missionaries left Lubondai all those years ago, they seemed to take with them much of the community’s heart.

But the church still stands; it is open on three sides. The pews are still there… and the pulpit… and the chancel chairs, carved from African ebony, etched with crosses.  A brick arch on the chancel wall frames the pulpit, and within the arch there is an inscription, written in the language of the land, Tshiluba. I asked the village pastor, through our interpreter, what the inscription said. His smile seemed almost embarrassed. “What it says is not difficult to say,” he responded. “What is difficult, especially now, is to do what it says.” Then he sighed and said, “The words are from the letter of James in the Bible: ‘Be doers of the word, and not hearers only.’ I am afraid,” he said, “that we are mostly only hearers.”

In those words Pastor Kabuika offered more than a translation of the inscription, and more than a comment on life in Lubondai after the missionaries had gone. I found in his words a challenge that still rings true for me today all these years later.  It is a challenge I pass along to my friends in this year’s confirmation class, and to us all. It is not hard to hear what our morning text from James says; what is challenging is to do what it asks.

“Be doers of the word, and not hearers only.” Practice what you preach.  Live the faith you claim.  What your mind hears, communicate to your heart… and let your heart notify your hands and feet.  For most of us, it is a challenge we encounter in some form almost every day… in the choices we are asked to make, the way we choose to live, the company we choose to keep. The issue for James was the difference between integrity and pretense, between faith that spends itself in love and an empty belief that is merely self-focused and self-serving. To be doers of the word is to hear God’s good news and to live it out day-by-day.

James calls for a synthesis of faith and practice. He confronts those who would come to worship in order to be challenged and inspired, yet never do anything with the inspiration… those who make a formal expression of faith, yet seem unprepared to assume responsibility for that faith’s wider responsibilities. What James asks is that we engage a faith that affects our being (who we are) in order to change our doing (that is, how we live and act within the communities of which we are a part).  Or to say it differently, James asks Christians to be Sunday morning people even in a Monday morning world.

“Be doers of the word, and not hearers only.” Before we get to Monday morning, of course, we need to acknowledge that the call to be doers exists even within the church itself. Sometimes folks have difficulty being Sunday morning people even on Sunday morning… or afternoon.  To the young people who will shortly make their professions of faith…to all of us… I remind you that there is no faith without responsibility.  They go hand in hand. Every time a child is baptized in this church, this congregation promises to “love, encourage and support [the child], to share the good news of the Gospel with [the child], and to help [the child] know and follow Christ.” They are more than empty words. We all share in those responsibilities. All of us.

“Be doers of the word, and not hearers only,” says James. How does that instruction characterize your own life of faith? Not just on a DC mission trip or during ASP or here at church, but tomorrow morning at middle school…or high school… or in the dorms… or on the job? How does your faith inform the way you interact with classmates…or roommates… or employees… or strangers on Franklin Street?  I can’t begin to count the number of conversations I have had across the years with people who were struggling to come to terms with the compromises of faith they had been asked (or felt obliged) to make as they moved from the sanctuary into the world beyond these walls – compromises they felt they had to make simply to get along, simply to keep their employment, simply to be part of some group they deemed important to their well-being.

Well, here is the truth: all of us… all of us…have felt such stress at varying times of our lives. That is why it is important to stay close to the church, for the church community helps remind us of who and whose we are.  What does the baptismal banner say? “I have called you by name, and you are mine.”  We belong to God; that is the mark of our baptism. The church is always reminding us to remember our baptisms. It is always equipping and empowering us to put faith into action.  And it is always ready to mediate God’s forgiveness and grace to us when we fail. And we will fail, for failure is a mark of our humanity.

There will be failures, because the Christian faith does not offer anyone an easy path.  Any church that proposes a gospel that is easy is not preaching the gospel that led Jesus to the cross.  The faith we claim asks for commitments… for willingness on our part to engage the principalities and powers of this world, to sacrifice our wants and desires for something much larger than our own happiness or our own security. Membership in Christ’s church is an active endeavor. The Christian creed is more than a motto; it is a call to action… our marching orders, if you will.  Jesus didn’t leave the church a set of principles for living or even a philosophy of life. He gave the church primarily a set of active verbs: come, follow, go, preach, heal, feed, visit, hear, be, do!

A week or so ago, Pope Francis made a surprise appearance at the TED2017 conference in Vancouver. By video feed he offered an inspiring message of hope and encouragement and challenge, reminding the audience of the tasks that lay ahead if we hope to secure the future for generations to come. He recalled Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan and said:

The story of the Good Samaritan is the story of today’s humanity. People’s paths are riddled with suffering, as everything is centered around money and things, instead of people. And often there is this habit, by people who call themselves “respectable,” of not taking care of the others, thus leaving behind thousands of human beings, or entire populations, on the side of the road. Fortunately, there are also those who are creating a new world by taking care of the other, even out of their own pockets. Mother Teresa … said: “One cannot love, unless it is at their own expense.”

Then he spoke of being “doers” in this world:

We have so much to do, and we must do it together. But how can we do that with all the evil [that surrounds us]? Thank God, no system can nullify our desire to open up to the good, to compassion and to our capacity to react against evil, all of which stem from deep within our hearts. Now you might tell me, “Sure, these are beautiful words, but I am not the Good Samaritan, nor Mother Teresa of Calcutta.” On the contrary: we are precious, each and every one of us. Each and every one of us is irreplaceable in the eyes of God. Through the darkness of today’s conflicts, each and every one of us can become a bright candle, a reminder that light will overcome darkness, and never the other way around.

To Christians, the future does have a name, and its name is Hope. Feeling hopeful does not mean to be optimistically naïve and ignore the tragedy humanity is facing. Hope is the virtue of a heart that doesn’t lock itself into darkness, that doesn’t dwell on the past, does not simply get by in the present, but is able to see a tomorrow. Hope is the door that opens onto the future…. And it can do so much, because a tiny flicker of light that feeds on hope is enough to shatter the shield of darkness. A single individual is enough for hope to exist, and that individual can be you. And then there will be another “you,” and another “you,” and it turns into an “us.” And so, does hope begin when we have an “us?” No. Hope began with one “you.” When there is an “us,” there begins a revolution.[1]

The revolution that will secure the future, he said, will be a revolution of tenderness …toward everyone.  Such tenderness is at the heart of all the verbs Jesus gave to his disciples – come, follow, go, preach, heal, feed, be, do!  They sound exhausting! But the remarkable thing is that in doing them, they become, in fact, energizing, generative…filled as they are with the promise of sustaining grace and the empowerment of the Spirit. I’m not saying that they are at all easy.  “What it says is not difficult to say,” my translator in Lubondai said, looking at the inscription in the brick arch; “What is difficult, especially now, is to do what it says.”  Jesus’ verbs ask us to make choices… choices of tenderness that often go against the grain, that will likely seem counter-cultural…even counter-intuitive. And such choices don’t ever come easily.

You’ve heard me tell before of that moment in Sue Monk Kidd’s novel, The Secret Life of Bees, when an adolescent girl named Lily, on the run from an abusive father, comes to stay for a season in the home of three eccentric African-American sisters who are beekeepers.  At one point in the story, two of the sisters, August Boatwright and her handicapped sister May, are talking with Lily about their house, which is painted pink – bright pink, like a bottle of Pepto Bismal. Lily asks, “How come if your favorite color is blue, you painted your house so pink?”

[August] laughed.  “That was May’s doing.  She was with me the day I went to the paint store to pick out the color.  I had a nice tan color in mind, but May latched on to this sample called Caribbean Pink.  She said it made her feel like dancing a Spanish flamenco.  I thought, ‘Well, this is the tackiest color I’ve ever seen, and we’ll have half the town talking about us, but if it can lift May’s heart like that, I guess she ought to live inside it.’”

“All this time I just figured you like pink,” [Lily] said.

[August] laughed again.  “You know, some things don’t matter that much, Lily.  Like the color of a house.  How big is that in the overall scheme of life?  But lifting a person’s heart – now, that matters.  The whole problem with people is…”

“They don’t know what matters and what doesn’t” [Lily] said, filling in the sentence and feeling proud of herself for doing so.’

“I was gonna say, the problem is they know what matters, but they don’t choose it.  You know how hard that is, Lily?  I love May, but it was still so hard to choose Caribbean Pink.  The hardest thing on earth is choosing what matters.”[2]

“Be doers of the word, and not hearers only,” said James.  Be doers of the word.  Christian discipleship means being, and it means doing. In essence, such doing is choosing what matters, when it matters most. In a nutshell, I believe, that pretty much sums up the Christian life.

 

[1] His Holiness Pope Francis, TED2017, April 25, 2017, Vancouver, British Columbia,  https://www.ted.com/talks/pope_francis_why_the_only_future_worth_building_includes_everyone/transcript?language=en, accessed April 27, 2017.

[2] Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees, New York, Penguin Books, 2002, 146. I am grateful to Tom Are and his paper, presented to the January 2004 meeting of the Moveable Feast for tying this moment in the novel to this passage.

Bob Dunham , Pastor

Email: dunham@upcch.org

Phone: (919) 929.2102 ext. 111

Bio:

Bob is grateful for the privilege of serving as pastor and head of staff of University Church since 1991. He is particularly thankful for the colleagues, officers and members who have served the church with great love and care during the last quarter century. Bob is a Florida native and a graduate of Davidson College, Union Theological Seminary in Virginia and Yale University Divinity School. He began his ministry as associate pastor and campus minister at the First Presbyterian Church of Auburn, Alabama; he also served as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Covington, Georgia, and the Westminster Presbyterian Church of Charleston, South Carolina, before coming to Chapel Hill. His wife, Marla, is a retired English professor, and they have two grown children and a wonderful granddaughter: son Aaron, his wife Natalie, and their daughter Catherine live in Greenville, SC, and daughter Leah and her husband Prentice live in the Asheville area. Bob is the author of Expecting God’s Surprises: Devotions for the Advent Journey, published in 2001 by Geneva Press. His sermons have also been featured on the Day 1 national radio broadcast. Bob enjoys reading and music of all kinds, and he finds relaxation on long walks in the woods (whether on hiking trails or near fairways, while chasing golf balls).