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  • Writer's pictureFather Benjamin von Bredow

A doer, not a hearer only.

A Sermon for Rogation Sunday

May 5, 2024 at Holy Communion

James 1:22–27

“Be doers of the word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22). In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. ☩ Amen.

As a particularly religious person, a great danger in my spiritual life is that I can develop fantasies about acts of faithfulness I would love to perform. I go about my morning routine and I find myself thinking, “When I get to my office and say my morning prayers I will say such and such, and that will be just the right way to tell God about what I’m thinking and won’t I be so spiritually healthy for having prayed so!” Of course when I get to my office I read the news, realize that I’ve spent too much time already and then get down to work without ever saying that perfectly-composed prayer. If I wasn’t willing to offer it up while I was combing my hair, perhaps I never intended that my prayer actually be prayed. I just liked the thought of praying.

I’m sure you’ve heard the accusation—or even thought it yourself—that religious people can be hypocrites. We church folks usually defend ourselves by saying something like this: “Look, I’m not perfect, but I haven’t embezzled money or cheated on my spouse. My language is mostly clean. So I’m living within the bounds that I profess. How is that hypocrisy?” But that answer misses the point. Most critics charge religious people with hypocrisy not only because they do things they claim to be wrong, but because they do not do the things they claim to be committed to doing. We become hypocrites more often because we fail to follow through on the good thing we intend than because we do the bad thing we criticize.

Sunday by Sunday we read and preach the Bible so that we can see a vision of what it would mean for us to live in God. The words and deeds of Jesus paint a portrait of a life in communion with our heavenly Father which we ask for grace to see fulfilled in our own lives.

So in our Epistle St James says that the word of God is a mirror (James 1:23). It shows us ourselves. But what self does it show? It shows me as I could be in this life if only I had the desire for it. When I read the parable of the prodigal son, I am shown myself resolving to arise and go to my father. When I read the parable of the Good Samaritan I see myself walking by the wounded man and cry out for grace that I might stop and become the Samaritan. It shows me a truer version of myself, a self which lives in communion with the Giver of Life.

The revelation of each person’s true self is one of the mysteries of the Word. We call Jesus “the Word of God” (John 1:1). We also confess that “in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). Each of us, in our true and inmost being is a little word held within the Great Word which comes forth from the heart of the Father. In the Revelation, St John hears Jesus say, “To the one who conquers I will give a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it” (Revelation 2:17). Your true self, the self represented by the name only you have which only God knows, is the person God creates in eternity. The call of the God’s written word, the call of the Bible, is to become you secret name, to grow into the person which its words reveal to you.

So St James says that “if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror,“ but then “goes away and at once forgets what he was like” (James 1:23–24). In the pages of scripture we hear our secret name, but then we go away and forget it. We see our ideal self, but, having no desire to become that person, we pick up where we left off Sunday afternoon, and carry on as a half-formed self, a self not yet become what God has shown that it must become.

But if there is a difference between our lofty aspirations on Sunday and our mundane habits on Monday, that problem won’t be solved by making you feel bad about it. No one actually claims to be only a “Sunday Christian.” If we are distressed by the difference between the good intentions we form at moments of clarity and our much more limited ability to follow through, it will do no good to treat ourselves just as stubborn rebels in need of a little self-abuse. We are sick men and women. We have a weakening disease in our will so that we cannot do what we would.

We may have the illness called fantasy. To fantasize, to imagine better more satisfying worlds in of our own creation, is an addiction. We can get hooked on images full of light and beauty and fulfillment, which we use to soothe our dissatisfaction with the world that we actually live in. When we are dissatisfied with ourselves, the temptation is only stronger to create a imagined self in which we do everything we ought and feel very happy about it.

But like any opiate, the more we live in fantasy the less satisfying reality becomes, and the more we fantasize. We find that we are not people of prayer, but instead of seeking the remedy by getting down on our knees we soothe ourselves for a moment by imagining all the prayers we would say, and so never get around to praying. We fantasize about how charitable it would be for us to go and visit someone who is shut in, but really all we want is to distract ourselves from the guilty feeling that we haven’t already done it.

The word of God isn’t there to tease us with a fantasy of our better selves. It shows us a pattern to be embraced by wordless, joyful obedience. We pervert the intention of the Bible when we are comforted by the beauty of its vision for life, when we aspire to live up to it, but never take it a step further. St James, the practical apostle, tells us straight: the word of God isn’t for smiling at, like your own pretty face in a mirror. The word of God is for doing.

But, more positively, he says that the person who hears the word and does it, that person only “will be blessed in his doing” (James 1:25). St James is not all stick: there’s also a carrot. There is inward fulfillment for the person who bridles his wagging tongue with all of its opinions about what is right and best, and gets down to business. This is the same thing Jesus says: “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them” (John 13:17).

There is no blessedness in fantasy; fantasy brings only hypocrisy. When you find yourself fondly smiling about all the magnificent good you want to do, stop! That is not the way to fulfillment. The way to bliss is to stand up and undertake the little bit of good which is within your grasp now. The one who obeys, not the one who approves, will grow into the person whose name is written on the white stone in the Father’s hand.


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