I’m writing this post from inside my dormitory room at Rochester College where I am attending the Streaming Conference: Biblical Conversations for the Missional Frontier. I’ve been blessed to hear great thinkers such as Miroslav Volf speak on Christians living among Muslims and Scot McKnight speak on the book of James and Jesus. Both men are great thinkers who serve the body of Christ with their teaching and have provoked and stretched my ministry imagination.
The conference attendees have also been blessed with great worship, panel and group discussions, and lastly, but most importantly, speakers who actually minister in a local church, so that we can imagine (and reimagine) how our conversations can play out in actual local churches.
However, the message that keeps ringing in my head was the sermon preached by David Fleer on this text:
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it – not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it – they will be blessed by what they do. Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widow in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world (James 1.22-27, NIV 2011).
Fleer’s sermon was really convicting…haunting. We, myself included, are good listeners of the word. We can cite verse after verse from the Bible. We can explain the theology behind the text, sometimes so much that we snuff the power of the word right out of it. But are we doers of the word?
Before we answer that question, we need let James reframe that question to get at what he’s really asking: Are we caring for the widows and orphans?
Let offer a reality check for us…for me. We can take James as literally so that he is asking if we literally are caring for widow and orphans or we can take that question less than literal so that he is asking about our ministry to the wider population of broken, marginalized, poor, suffering, etc… However we take the question, it ought to feel like James is putting our Christianity right in the cross hairs of his rifle.
Many churches I know of, including the one I serve, seem to be running on fumes. I keep hearing more and more stories about church memberships dwindling, budgets existing in the red, and questions being asked about how to turn the ship (so to speak) around. Yet most of these churches, including the one I serve in, own property – building(s) and acreage – that is worth a lot of money. Phrases like “good stewardship” and “acting wise” are sometimes tossed around so that we don’t become to liberal with our benevolent charity…after all, we have bills that must be paid to keep up the building. At this point, James is firing his rifle right at us…at me.
Don’t get me wrong. A building can serve many good purposes, assuming we are exercising good stewardship with the way we use the building. Of course, this makes me think of Jesus’ parable of the talents (Matt 25.14-39). The person judged in the story is the one who took the one bag of gold and did nothing with…no investment, no charity, no nothing. I can’t help but think that when factoring in what it costs to purchase/build and maintain a building (temple?) only to be used for ourselves to gather in, a best, a few times a week…well, I wonder if we are that person judged in the parable.
That was the thought that came to my mind as I heard Fleer’s sermon and I’ve not been able to get it off my mind. Further more, as I keep thinking about it, I also as why churches are hanging on to their buildings if we can’t afford to make our budget? Is the building the church? No! Do we need a building to be the church? No! Do we really want to be the people who held on to our buildings/property to the last dying breath of the congregation when we could take the gold they’re worth and invest it in caring for the widows and orphans?
Does it mean anything that the parable is followed by Jesus’ story about the sheep and the goats (Matt 25.31-46) in which Jesus is ministered to every time the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the unclothed, the sick, and the prisoner are ministered too?
I don’t think we’d like having James attend our church business meetings.