September 2, 2018 – Saint Giles Sunday
There are times when the lessons appointed for a Sunday are a perfect fit with an occasion, and today is one of those times. The Letter of James and the day we present the Arrow of St. Giles to a parishioner “in recognition of exemplary service in the spirit of St. Giles. ”What better words could there be for this day than these, “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves” (James 1:22).
As I’m sure you have realized there is a pattern to our Sunday morning readings from scripture. First, from the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible, a reading and a psalm. Then the second lesson, most often from an epistle or letter from the New Testament. And finally, a reading from one of the four Gospels. The letters we hear most often are those written by St. Paul to particular churches – in Rome, Corinth, Galatia, and so on. Paul provides general instruction in the Christian faith, and he also frequently addresses certain behaviors in congregations which he has found troubling. We may infer, for example, that there was quarreling among members of the church when Paul teaches about the need for people to get along peacefully, respecting the fact that people have different gifts that are all valuable in the life of the church.
The letter of James is different. It was addressed to the early church generally, not to a specific church in a particular location. In fact, it was circulated among a number of congregations. Though it begins with an opening greeting similar to the greetings at the beginning of Paul’s letters, it is more like a sermon than a letter. Of all the New Testament writings, the letter of James has the least specific focus on Jesus. Its good advice about living ethically reflects contemporary Jewish religious thought. This letter helps us appreciate the close connection between Judaism and the early Christian church.
Being “doers of the word, and not merely hearers” is a major theme of this writing. Consider these other verses: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress” (1:27) and “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead” (2:26). In scripture the phrase “orphans and widows” represents not only orphans and widows but all persons who are vulnerable and in need of assistance. I have often spoken about Jesus’ commandment that we should love one another, even our enemies, and I have emphasized that this means loving action, not necessarily loving feelings. Do this, not feel this or think this or only speak the words of faith, but do this. Love in action, often through what are called “works of mercy.”
Today we recognize one of many parishioners here at St. Giles’ who puts faith into action. Through service to the church, by contributing to our worship services and otherwise supporting the general functioning and maintenance of the church. By supporting the work done through the church in its many programs of outreach to the community. By serving and building up the members of the parish, especially when they have need of help and support. I believe the purpose of awarding the Arrow of St. Giles once a year to a parishioner is to direct our attention to how Christian love in action has been shown to us through one of our members.
Without in any way taking away from the importance of “doing” acts of mercy and other visible signs of faith, I would like to expand the notion of “doing the word.” First of all, what is “the word”? Essentially, the commandments of Jesus, which he summarized for his followers by quoting the Hebrew Bible: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Some of our “doing the word” is directly visible to others. We see someone serving food at a Community Supper or bringing a donation of back packs and school supplies through the church door on Sunday morning. But much of our “doing the word” is hidden from others, known only to us and to God. Jesus instructed his disciples to give alms and fast and pray, not like the hypocrites who do these things to impress other people, but privately for God who will see “in secret” (Matthew 6:1-18). Others may see the result of the work we do “in secret,” but not recognize the struggles and choices behind what they see.
Let’s take, as an example, patience, one of the fruits of the Spirit listed by St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians. We may certainly see someone act with patience toward someone else, but we don’t know how difficult it might be for that person to act with patience. We may not know if the person acting patiently is doing so in spite of being in physical pain or mental distress or grief or just after a difficult encounter with a family member, or any number of factors which might make the choice to act with patience a significant act of obedience to God’s commandments. Some of the Desert Fathers in the early church have made this point and suggested that this is a strong reason why we should never judge others based only on what we see. It is for God to judge, because only God knows the inner struggles of each of us and only God can truly understand our weaknesses and our strengths.
I want to mention one more example of “soul work” that may be unknown to anyone but ourselves and God, and that is forgiveness. We recall each time we say the Lord’s Prayer that Jesus has taught us to forgive others. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27). It has been said that the first step in forgiving someone who has injured us is to refrain from taking revenge, in effect, to go beyond “an eye for an eye” justice. I’m sure we have all been tempted to speak harshly to someone who has spoken harshly to us or treat someone unfairly who has done us an injury. But we may choose to refrain from retaliation out of obedience to our Lord and his commandments. This is not weakness but moral strength. And our outward behavior may give no clue to our inner struggle against temptation.
Our final hymn this morning is “I sing a song of the saints of God.” A delightful tune and wonderful, down to earth words. A perfect end to today’s celebration of our patron, St. Giles, and a joyful way to profess our commitment to love our Lord and to follow our Lord whoever we are, wherever we are, for all of our “good lives long.” In Jesus’ name. Amen.