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The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 2, 2012
The Epistle: James 1:17-27
Sermon: "Get a Habit"
The Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles
Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God's righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.
But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act-they will be blessed in their doing.
If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
Get a Habit
According to II Timothy 3:16, “all Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” The writer could have added here that it is also good for jimmying locks on jail cells. That’s what happened in Dorchester County, Maryland awhile back. Two inmates at the Dorchester County jail discovered that a stiff cover on a Bible left in their cell was just the tool they needed for prying back the defective lock on their cell door. That door led to the fire escape, and the fire escape led to freedom; at least until they were apprehended a few hours later in a local bar. The police found them there drunkenly regaling the patrons with the cleverness of their escape.
That’s certainly one use for the Bible! That’s what we’re looking at this morning: the use of the Bible. Our lesson from James has this at verse 22, “But be doers of the word, not hearers only.” As I reflected on that verse, it occurred to me that it might be reversed for Episcopalians. You see, for many of the churches of this Diocese, as well as the Diocese I came from, the one thing that has impressed me with just about every congregation, including St. Thomas, is just how much we Episcopalians are doing in various forms of ministry. I think it’s because we take seriously that Anglican ideal of being Christ’s physical presence in the world; of embodying his body in our bodies; making him present through our service. The hundred dollar theology word for this is incarnation; being incarnational. It’s a wonderful thing. Our sense of service, of being doers of the word, is powerful. Where we Episcopalians might be faulted though, is with the other part of that admonition; to be hearers of the word. We spend very little time, many of us, with this sacred book.
My purpose this morning, in bringing this up, is to challenge us. If you are not already doing so, set aside a time each day to hear what this book has to say. Spending time each day with this book is as essential to our lives as having good food and proper exercise. Many of us are exercising more and eating healthier diets to strengthen our bodies. Some of us are taking coursework to improve our minds. But we are neglecting a critical part of ourselves, our spirits. So, I want to challenge each of us to begin a regimen of spending a short time, at least 15 minutes a day-a coffee break- delving into the word of life that we may each become hearers of the word as well as doers. In other words, get a habit of Bible reading. There are some excellent reasons why making this a habit is important.
But first, it is helpful to know what the Bible is not. One thing it is not is a book of magic. If you start reading the Bible regularly, all your problems won’t mysteriously disappear. If you start carrying it in your car it won’t protect you from having a wreck. If you carry it close to your heart, it won’t necessarily stop a stray bullet; though there are certainly instances where that has happened. I make this point because there are those who would use the Bible as a fortune teller uses tarot cards, or as a good luck charm, or for some other bizarre purpose.
There was once a great statesman who, when he was sick, would eat pages out of his Bible as a cure. It didn’t seem to harm him, but it’s doubtful that it did him much good either. He had a stroke, and as he recovered from that stroke he tried to eat the entire books of I and II Kings. He died before he finished.
I believe that it was Woody Allen who once quipped that a friend of his always carried a bullet next to his heart. It miraculously stopped a Bible that someone threw at him. The Bible is not a book of magic, nor is it a club. We aren’t to use it to clobber people in arguments. If you’re determined you can prove almost anything from the Bible; that is if you’re willing to violate it through proof-texting.
Once an old fire and brimstone preacher here in North Carolina didn’t think women should wear topknots. The spiraling hairstyle was popular in the early 20th Century. There are always people who cannot separate style and custom from morals or religion. This preacher scoured the Scriptures until he felt he had the text to back up his bias. Then he preached his sermon titled, “Topknot, Come Down.” His proof text? It was Matthew 24:17, “Let he who is on the roof top not come down.” (Sounds about as well-reasoned as some of the current political debate.)
If you are determined to argue a prejudice using the Bible, you can usually find some obscure text to misuse in support of your position. But this is also not God’s intended use for this sacred book. So why should we become hearers of the word? Why should we set up a daily regimen; get a habit?
The First is this: the Bible contains God’s truth for our lives today. Søren Kirkegaard, the great Danish theologian, once said that the proper attitude for reading the Scriptures is to ask, “What is this saying about my life, now?” Does that mean that all parts of the Scripture have equal relevance? No. There are some passages in the Scripture that are primarily historical catalogue, or liturgical notes or ceremonial detail. Still, when we’re reading about Abraham and his faith, or Deborah and her strength, or David and his struggles, or Ruth and her loyalty, or Paul and his zeal, or Jeremiah and his despair, Mary in her hope and sorrow, the disciples in their cowardice and then their courage, ask, “What is this passage saying about my life here and now?” The Bible contains God’s truth for our lives today. Asking that question will help that truth come alive.
Here’s the Second reason: Reading the Bible lifts our gaze from our circumstances to Christ. We all go through difficult times. This is when the Bible becomes our great friend.
A young pastor was really struggling. He was confronted by opposition in his congregation, and the congregation was in conflict within itself. He was questioning his own purpose for being in ministry. In the midst of this turmoil, an elderly member of his church invited him to her home for lunch. He hesitated. It was a busy time and he was reluctant as he wondered if she was just going to preach at him. She could tell that he was hesitant and said, “Son, you need to come.” He finally agreed and met her in her home at the retirement community where she lived. They had lunch in the common room, and then rode the elevator to her apartment. Entering the apartment she said, “Now son, I don’t want you to sit down. I want to show you something.” She took him to where there was a picture hanging on the wall of Daniel in the lion’s den. She said, “I just want you to look at this picture and tell me what you see.” The pastor studied the picture and reported that he saw all the lions, all with their mouths closed, and some lying down. He saw Daniel standing with his hands bound behind him looking up at a red light coming into the prison. He reported everything he thought he could see. She put her arm on his and said, “Son, what I want you to see is, Daniel doesn’t have his eyes on the lions, but on Christ.”
That pastor today, now in his late seventies, author of more than a dozen books, heading up an international ministry, and still going strong, says that was the greatest message he could have received at that time in his life. Daniel wasn’t looking at the lions, he was looking at Christ. God’s word helps us do that. That’s why each of us, if we’re not doing it already, can start a new regimen, get a habit, beginning today or first thing tomorrow, of spending a little time each day with the Bible.
As Episcopalians we actually have a wonderful resource for this in our Prayerbooks. If you follow the Daily Lectionary as the readings are laid out at page 889 and following, you can actually read the Bible through in just two years. And it will only take you about 15 minutes each day. You’ll be amazed at how much this will feed and strengthen your spirit. The Bible contains God’s truth for our lives here and now. It lifts our focus from our circumstances to Christ. James says, “But be doers of the word, not hearers only.” I challenge us all to become better hearers that we might be even more effective doers.