One day a man wandered in the forest and came across an injured fox. The fox, too weak to forage for food had taken shelter in the underbrush.
The man’s heart was moved by the plight of the fox but as he watched, a bear lumbered by dragging the carcass of an animal. The bear appeared to ignore the fox and went about eating his meal. When the bear had eaten all he wanted he left the remains of the carcass close to where the fox was hiding.
The next day the man walked through the forest and again witnessed the bear leaving a tasty morsel of food for the fox. The same thing happened on the third day.
The man pondered the meaning of this for his own life and decided that if God cared that much for a wounded fox then God must certainly care for him. He decided that his faith was too feeble and that he must learn to trust God, as the fox trusts. He went to a quiet corner of the forest and prayed, “Loving God, this injured fox has shown me what it means to trust you. Now I commit myself entirely to your care. I trust that you will care for me just as you care for the fox.” As he finished his prayer he lay down and waited for God to act.
A day passed, and nothing happened. The man was getting hungry. A second and third day passed and still nothing happened. The man was puzzled and then angry that God loved a little fox more than him.
At last, getting weak with hunger, the man set off for the nearest town. When he arrived the first thing he saw was a starving child begging on the streets. The man was so angry at this injustice that he shouted at God, “Why don’t you do something?”
“I have done something”, came the reply, “I created you. But, you choose to behave like the fox when you could model yourself on the bear.” (Wisdom Stories by Margaret Silf, pgs. 128-9 adapted)
My mother used to say to me, “God helps those who help themselves.” I think she probably said this when I was waiting for her to do something for me that I could do for myself. But, viewing this through the perspective of the folktale I just told you, and the Epistle of James, of which we just heard an excerpt, I think the saying would be better stated “God helps those who help others.”
The whole letter of James is concerned with one simple truth: It is not enough to ‘be’ Christian if this fact is not manifest in one’s conduct. In other words, being a Christian means acting like a Christian. As a guideline for behaviour, James lays as foundational Jesus’ commandment that, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” (Mark 12:31) James points to this commandment in our reading today when he refers to “the perfect law, the law of liberty” (James 1:25) and specifically later in his letter when he uses Jesus’ quote directly (James 2:8). James also affirms that “every generous act of giving” is generated by God (James 1:17). James commends his listeners to be “doers of the word and not merely hearers” (James 1:22) and says that for a Christian not to enact what they believe would be like a person looking in the mirror and then walking away forgetting who they are (James 1:23-24). This is a powerful reminder that as Christians, our actions need to be a reflection of our words and beliefs.
These thoughts from James have been alive in my own personal experience this week. At the Kimbrook Neighbourhood Gathering this past Thursday, someone was remembering a Roman Catholic priest from Ireland who embodied Christ’s teachings very well. It was noted that “he was a real Christian” and that was defined as someone who treated everyone with love and respect no matter what denomination or faith tradition they came from. I gathered from the conversation that he “walked the talk” as the saying goes or as James would say he was a “doer of the word and not merely a hearer”.
There is a saying, “We are what we do and not what we say”. We can believe in wonderful values and ideals but unless we practice those values in our daily lives they are just empty words and vain promises.
One commentary, speaking about today’s passage from James says that, “Actions add value to our words and give them life.” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 4, p. 18) This has been my experience of my own journey of faith and my journey with all of you during this past year. As individuals and as a community of faith we are in a constant state of discernment; listening carefully to God’s call and seeing in our own context how we can best respond to God’s call in our own time and place. As a church community we gather to learn together from our Christian tradition and from our own faith experiences. We grow in faith, expressing our gratitude to God, as we discover, nurture and share our spiritual gifts with others. In telling and sharing our Christian story we find meaning and value in life. And, as a community of faith, God calls us to live the story of Christ’s love and compassionate action in the world. In doing so we discover a meaning and purpose that is much wider and richer than our own individual lives. We become the body of Christ not only when we gather and break bread together but also when we go forth and live as the body of Christ in the world.
When I was browsing on the internet this week to see if I could find any interesting comments about today’s excerpt from James I found this quote from a blog called, Join the Feast, by Jenny McDevitt. Jenny says,“One of the sermons I remember best is a sermon I didn’t actually hear. During the expected sermon time, the preacher offered only a few introductory comments – and then sent the congregation out of the sanctuary and into the community, to be ‘doers’ of all that we proclaim in church each Sunday. One church member said afterwards, ‘Every week, we hear the sermon. This week, we lived it.’ ” (Join the Feast, August 30, 2009)
One last story to illustrate James’ mandate to be doers of the word and not merely hearers: Some years ago I discovered the book Faith Works: How Faith-based Organizations are Changing Lives, Neighborhoods and America. Faith Works was written by Christian minister and social justice advocate, Jim Wallis. Although Wallis’ context is the United States he gives examples of the connection between faith and action as seen in the lives of various people in the world, currently, and in times past. Wallis, who is an admirer of the work of William Wilberforce once visited England and recounts this experience:
“I walked through the historic Holy Trinity church on Clapham Common, in South London. This Anglican parish was the home church to William Wilberforce, the abolitionist English Parliamentarian who wrote Britain’s antislave trade legislation. Wilberforce, and a group of Christian laymen called the Clapham Sect, were behind much of the social reform that swept England in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The current vicar was very proud to show me around. …
The vicar specifically pointed to an old, well-worn table. ‘This is the table upon which William Wilberforce wrote the anti-slavery act’, he said proudly. ‘We now use this table every Sunday for communion.’ I was struck-here, in dramatic liturgical symbol, the secular and the sacred are brought together with powerful historical force. How did we ever separate them? What became of religion that believed its duty was to change its society on behalf of justice?” (Faith Works, p. 203-204, PageMill Press, 2000)
I’ll leave you with Jim Wallis’ question and the encouragement to think of the ways that we as individuals, and as a church, put our faith into action for the good our community and the wider world. How are we, “doers of the word and not merely hearers”? As we reflect on these things we know that God’s inspiring and encouraging presence is with us always and so we pray:
God of the Way,
you are the road we travel,
and the sign we follow;
you are bread for the journey,
and the wine of arrival.
Guide us as we follow in your way,
holding on to each other,
reaching out to your beloved world.
And when we stray,
seek us out and find us,
set our feet on the path again,
and lead us safely home.
In the name of Jesus,
our Companion, we pray.
(Janet Cawley, 1996, Voices United 648)