As a pastor raised in the Lutheran tradition, I long ago learned to be cautious of the letter of James. Perhaps too much so, it seems to me know. Especially as the urging in his letter so perfectly brings home what seems to be the intent of the episode and teaching shared in Mark’s Gospel now…
“Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves…” James 1:22
“If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless…” James 1:26
“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress…” James 1:27
Indeed, I am grateful for James today, particularly as I consider the end of Jesus’ teaching now with his litany of evil things which ‘come from within’ for James offers a sort of antidote, a way of being other than the one we are left with in Mark’s Gospel.
For this is so. The wrong doing enumerated here remind us that sin is almost always rooted in our own self-centeredness: Fornication. Theft. Murder. Adultery. Avarice. Wickedness. Deceit. Licentiousness. Envy. Slander. Pride. Folly.
And the words of James call us out of ourselves — away from the temptation to care for ourselves to the point of excess as we hear about in Mark — to see those we might not otherwise see at all. Those invisible ones who are entirely without voice. The orphans and the widows. And oh, it seems to me that the only way we do not do what we should not do, is by instead doing what we should. And don’t you suppose this is as true of groups of us in gatherings we call congregations as well as individuals? Don’t you suppose all of us together also fail to see and care for the ‘orphans and widows’ in our neighborhoods and our communities? And wouldn’t you think that if we were able to do this: ‘…to care for the orphans and widows in their distress…’ that we might just come closer to God’s intent for us in our faith journeys and that we might just be set free as well from all those ‘evil intentions’ which too much hold us captive?
It came to my attention in the midst of facilitating a Bible Study Thursday morning when our office manager interrupted to hand me a note. Someone had called asking for prayer for one who had been killed while riding his bicycle not far from their home that morning.
The next day the news story found on the second page of our local paper read:
A man riding his bicycle Thursday morning never made it to work. Police said Carlos Melendez, 49, of DeKalb was riding his bike at 4:45 a.m. Thursday when a car hit him in the 800 block of East Fairview Drive, near the Nestle Distribution Center… police still are investigating the crash…Melendez had a sister who also lives in DeKalb… Melendez was not married and had no children. (DeKalb Daily Chronicle, August 24, 2018)
They are among us and around us all the time, of course, making their way to work before dawn the only way they can often afford — by bicycle. They do so in summer and in winter, often working at low paying jobs which never do give them enough to set aside a down payment for something better, safer, quicker. And yes, these who often speak with an accent which sets them apart and whose skin colors are of a richer hue than my own, are too often invisible to the rest of us who speed on by. Or who have the luxury of heading to work long after they have made their way across town because our means of transportation gives us time to tend to other things at home before our work days begin. And that invisibility has consequences. Indeed, while I live and serve in a community whose economy surely depends on these hard working folks who are traveling by bicycle, we do not even have adequate public transportation to support them and all of us in our life together. Oh, I would suggest that Carlos and all the others who get up before dawn to ride their bicycles to work are among the ‘orphans and widows in their distress’ who James would have us train our eyes, our minds, our hearts on today. These are the ones who have little voice, or means, or power to fend for themselves.
And oh, it is not just them, of course. We don’t have to open our eyes very wide to see the voiceless, the powerless, among us. Step into any nursing home, any school cafeteria, any homeless shelter or domestic violence shelter and they are spread out all around and before us. In Mark’s Gospel Jesus tells us what an authentic, meaningful faith journey does not result in. And James gives us something powerful and life-changing with which to replace it.
And it all starts with seeing who we did not see before. For their sake, yes. But also for our own. And certainly for all of us together.
Indeed, at 4:45 a.m. on Thursday morning two worlds collided which had, perhaps, never knowingly even crossed paths before. I do not speak in judgment now for we do not yet know if the driver of the car was at fault. We can be certain, though, that the one behind the wheel did not see the one whose life was taken when he was simply trying to get to work until it was too late. We can also be certain that the one who drove the car that day will also never, ever be the same. Oh, I expect that the one who was driving that early morning would give anything to have been able to ‘see‘ Carlos Melendez on his bicycle before it all ended so tragically.
Jesus calls us away from the self-centered, life destroying behaviors which have terrible consequences for ourselves, for those close to us, and for the world we share. He speaks to us of what authentic, life-giving faith journeys are not. And with a few words, James points us in another way. I am grateful for both today. How about you?
- Indeed, how might the world look different if people of faith started seeing, starting intentionally caring for ‘orphans and widows in their distress?’
- How might we all be changed if we simply started seeing the ‘invisible’ among us? How might the world be changed if we started to live as those who ‘see?’
- I am wondering if in my community a place to start might mean working together for more adequate public transportation for those whose only means of getting to work is by bicycle. Or maybe it means building better bike paths. Or perhaps it all comes down to paying people a living wage so that they can afford their own transportation. Or maybe seeing, ‘caring for orphans and widows in their distress’ means actually building bridges between us so we can ask them what they need and then seeking to amplify their voices in a world where they too often simply unheard. And so it is I wonder: who are the ‘invisible ones’ in your community? What would it mean to actually ‘see them‘ in the place where you live and serve?