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James 1:16-27

“Pure, unspoiled religion, in the eyes of our Abba God, is this: coming to the aid of widows and orphans when they are in need, and keeping oneself uncontaminated by this world.”

How do we keep ourselves uncontaminated by this world?  What does that even mean?

This letter is believed by scholars to have its foundation in a sermon written by James which was then edited and expanded by his followers, and distributed to other churches in the decades following his death. The original listeners were most likely communities of Jewish Christians; early followers of Jesus who gathered in small groups to worship God and discern God’s Way.  These communities were in the minority, surrounded by a society that worshiped and believed differently than they did and a government that was at best indifferent and at worst hostile to their beliefs.

Their lives were not easy, their worship was not easy. Their dedication to their faith was intentional and hard–fought. They were met with opposition and ridicule. They faced arrest. Others – including James – died for this faith.

They faced a real temptation to abandon the faith.  Wouldn’t it just be easier to go with the flow, to do what everyone else is doing, to just give up and become “contaminated” by the world outside?

James reminded them about what keeps them together.  They are a community because they have chosen to follow the Way of Jesus, the Way that is based on the Word – the Word of God that spoke everything into creation, including us; the Word of God that put on flesh and became one of us; the Word of God that has been planted in us and has the power to save us.

The early churches were surrounded by faiths that were different from their own and James reminded them to embrace God’s Word and not be contaminated by the World.

Christians are not a minority in our society today.  Far from it. Yet, some of us may still feel like we are surrounded by beliefs vastly different from our own.  Most of the time when I hear a “Christian perspective” in the media, I find myself disagreeing with the speaker.  We may label ourselves the same but our understanding of our faith is very different. People who identify as Christians who use their faith as an argument to build walls and ban immigrants, to cut programs that help those in need, to oppress others who don’t look or act or believe as they do.

I confess that there have been times when I was ready to give up on Christianity; to walk away. How could I possibly call myself Christian when the popular belief of what that means was so different from what I believed?   How could I call myself a Christian when, for so many, Christianity is equated with homophobia, misogyny, racism, and a “me first” gospel of prosperity? How could I chose Christianity when it seemed to be a religion full of people “who listen to God’s word but don’t put it into practice?”

It would have been easy to give up on my faith, to abandon my religious beliefs and become contaminated by the world.  Instead, I chose to double-down – to dedicate my life to the faith, to make it my job to have to look at the written Word and to try and discern what it means for us today; to join together with other like-minded followers of Jesus so we can join our voices together to amplify God’s message for our society.  I’ve chosen to serve God by serving God’s people, to stand up for Jesus’s Way instead of letting others distort the name of Christianity.

Because, honestly, there isn’t another choice.  Walking away from a form of Christianity that I don’t ascribe to doesn’t make things better or provide any easy answers.  We’re surrounded by a world that is just as separated from Jesus’ Way as the early church addressed by James; a world that seems inclined to choose war over peace, a society that preaches wealth over service, and fear over trust.

And it’s not only the outside world that threatens to contaminate us.  We have our internal demons as well. We may find ourselves surrounded by despair – worried about the world around us, concerned about our lives and the lives of our families.  We may feel hopeless or angry or scared.

How can we keep ourselves uncontaminated by the world?  The world outside and inside of us that tries to bring us down?

“Humbly welcome the word which has been planted in you,” James writes, “because it has power to save you.”

When the world gets you down, turn to the Word.  The written Word of God in scripture and the lived Word of God that is planted in you.

Our faith is made of stories woven together over thousands of years.  Stories of communities surrounded by a world trying to contaminated them.  Families looking for land, individuals listening for God’s voice, slaves escaping their oppressors, evil rulers brought low, love being chosen over fear.

The Word will save us from the World.  The Word points us to the Way – the Way of Jesus, the road on which we are pilgrims traveling together, our search for God’s call in our lives, the path to nurture God’s kingdom on Earth as in heaven.

The Way of Jesus is the Way of a poor baby born in a barn.  It’s the Way of a carpenter’s child who became a refugee from a tyrant king and grew up to become an itinerant preacher who spoke truth to power and took on an Empire; whose political activism put him in opposition to the religious leaders and led him into the hands of a violent, oppressive government where he chose to death over revenge.

The Word of God that was at Creation and became human lives on in you.  It’s the Word of hope in the face of despair.  It’s the Word of persistence in the face of opposition.  The Word of service in the face of oppression.

When the world threatens to contaminate, welcome the living Word and let it give you strength.

Welcome the Word of hope, as you walk through the dark valleys – know that there is light ahead.

Welcome the Word of strength, as we sing together in harmony as a community of like-minded believers.

Welcome the Word of grace, finding comfort in the ways we support each other through our laughter and tears.

Welcome the Word of love, become a  servant of the servant who taught us how to live out the Word of God by serving our siblings.

“Pure, unspoiled religion, in the eyes of our Abba God, is this: coming to the aid of widows and orphans when they are in need, and keeping oneself uncontaminated by this world.”

May it be so.  Amen.

The World, the Word, and the Way