James 1:17-27

We’re spending the next five weeks with James. This is a word, as in the insert, to people who were already Christian, calling them to live the faith they say they believe. At the heart of it – and this is crucial to understanding James and the Christian life:  “Above all, the letter challenges us to be persons of integrity, that is, people who are consistent in all we see, say, believe, and do.”[1]

Which has made me think even more about John McCain. The way a society grieves someone tells you at least as much about that society as the person who has died, about what we believe, what we think we need. I was pointed a stunning profile of McCain by David Foster Wallace, written in the heart of the 2000 Presidential campaign – I’ll link to it with this sermon and you should read it. By all accounts McCain was not a model citizen as a young man, near the bottom of his class at the Naval Academy. But it was this astounding crucible in Hanoi when he was shot down and captures and all of the sudden offered a chance to leave and he didn’t. It would break the code to leave before someone who was captured earlier. A POW for five and a half years, much in solitary confinement. I heard a story of him being dragged outside for a nighttime interrogation and realizing he hadn’t seen the moon for three years.  But that suffering made him see something about his country, about the life of service, that was powerful.

Foster Wallace begins his profile – remember, it’s 2000 – talking about the cynicism prevalent in society. How we watch and listen to politicians saying so many things, and none of its true. And the sad thing is, he writes, we don’t expect it to be true anymore. What politicians do, he writes, in the platitudes, is trying to sell themselves as someone you should vote for. That’s all they are, he says. Used car salesmen. He writes:

But there’s something underneath politics in the way you have to hear McCain, something riveting and unSpinnable and true. It has to do with McCain’s military background and Vietnam combat and the five-plus years he spent in a North Vietnamese prison, mostly in solitary, in a box, getting tortured and starved. And the unbelievable honor…he showed there. It’s very easy to gloss over the POW thing, partly because we’ve all heard so much about it and partly because it’s so off-the-charts dramatic, like something in a movie instead of a man’s life. But it’s worth considering for a minute, because it’s what makes McCain’s “causes greater than self-interest” line easier to hear.[2]

What Wallace is saying about McCain was that it was his life, his actions, particularly in circumstances nearby impossible for us to comprehend, that made his words, all the political phrases he said, mean something. That reality just might make him different, Wallace says.

That is the point that the book of James is trying to impress upon us, over and over again. James has been hearing and reading all sorts of stuff about what you are to believe. And he writes to a group of Christians, folks who gather each week, and say over and over they believe some things. He wants them to make sure, though, that they realize that the stuff they say they believe ONLY has meaning when those beliefs are drawn across one’s life.

If we believe, as James begins, that every generous act, that it ALL COMES FROM GOD, then you must understand, he says. My beloved, be quick, work to listen, slow to anger.  Be careful, James says. Your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. My goodness, our world – in person and online, is so very quick to leap to self-righteous, know-it-all, that’s-the-worst-thing-that’s-ever-happened kind of outrage.  Folks all over tv get paid to be outraged. Our present society doesn’t reward meekness, but bombast.

So, James says, do things. Don’t just listen. Don’t just speak. DO. And even more– and we’ll be talking about this more each week this month – DO in a way that is consistent, that acts with integrity, that understands that the way you do things matters. Both ends and means must cohere – that’s something I love and I think is unique about Jesus – what he said, what he stood for, and how we engaged people that he agreed with and disagreed with, it matched up.

We’ll come to the table in a minute. As you are fed for the journey today, I want you to think about ways in your life you need to be careful about how it all lines up. How faith permeates how we work around here, how our faith is lived and our integrity shows at work.  At home.  At school – most of you have started school now. How your faith and how your life lines up is at the very heart of the matter. And, in case we forget, James says, it’s not all about us: “27Religion 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.”

What YOU do for others. And what you don’t do, matters. It is at the very heart of the Christian faith. Look deeply, deeply, inside, James says to the early church, to this group of people that gather week after week to praise God, and to us. Look in your hearts, he says. How does it all line up? What you DO, how you live, is the way others will decide if they believe anything you say. My goodness, our world needs Christians like this. What message does your life proclaim?

All praise be to God.  Amen.

[1] The Discipleship Study Bible, James introduction by Frances Taylor Gench, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2008), p 2060.

[2] https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-features/david-foster-wallace-on-john-mccain-the-weasel-twelve-monkeys-and-the-shrub-194272/    Please take the time to read this.