Having grown up in a Christian tradition that did not have written prayers, when I joined the Episcopal Church, I immediately felt connected to the beauty of our prayer book and the prayers held therein. It didn’t take long for me to be drawn to our petition “that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful; and that we show forth thy praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives” of the General Thanksgiving that wraps up Morning Prayer or the reminder that “Now as we come to the setting of the sun, and our eyes behold the vesper light” of the O Gracious Light that begins Evening Prayer. One of the prayers that quickly settled deep into my soul was a prayer offered at Compline, the Daily Office said just before bed (and if you are a visual person, pull out the Prayer Book in front of you, it’s on page 133): “Be present, O merciful God, and protect us through the hours of this night, so that we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this life may rest in your eternal changelessness; through Jesus Christ our Lord.” So that we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this life may rest in your eternal changelessness; as someone who struggles with anxiety, I don’t know that there has ever been a night where I laid my head on my pillow and wasn’t wearied by the changes and chances of this life. This prayer speaks to me, because of this, of course, but it also speaks to me because I am intensely drawn to the changelessness of God.
Perhaps this is why, as I was praying through the texts set for today I was draw by the last part of the opening verse of our epistle passage in which James is speaking of God, “with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change”. The epistle of James not written to a specific congregation of God’s people, but it is a universal letter intended for many of those early faithful Christian communities; the epistle of James is full of wisdom sayings, but also address issues that many churches and people of faith undergo. Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger: I know that’s something that I certainly need to hear. Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers, yes, I certainly need that reminder as well; pure and undefiled religion is to care for the widows and orphans and to keep oneself unstained by the world, put it on repeat. James is writing not to address specific problems as Paul did in so many of his letters to specific congregations, but is offering up a bit of encouragement and advice for anyone who chooses to follow Christ: take your time, get to work, and do not forget who you are, because as we navigate through the changes and chances of this life, we rest in God’s unchangelessness.
As Christians, the center of our whole life is the unchanging God; the God, whose unchanging, abundant grace and love is the very foundation upon which our soul stands. Because while we may rest in God’s changlessness, as Christians, we must always be changing. In our epistle lesson today, James is responding to a present and continuous danger of being one who calls themselves Christian: to be a Christian in name only and not in action. It is a risk that all of us have faced, are facing, or will face soon; it’s a risk to be a Christian in name only, particularly in a society where Christianity is often viewed as the norm, which is why James encourages us to keep our actions in line with our faith. James is interested in a lot of things, but a primary focus is a life that is centered around God and for that life to be transformed by belief in God. If we genuinely believe in God’s goodness and grace, then we must let our actions be shaped by this belief. As Christians, we must be continually changing, we must continually strive to do better than we did the day before. We must continually draw near to God in God’s unchangelessness.
Because the thing is, our salvation is not an event. We did not have that water poured over our heads in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit and then our baptized life is done. No, the baptism is just the beginning. It is the beginning of a life-long salvation process. It is a process by which we must continually present ourselves to God, it is a process in which we must continually choose to be motivated by our faith to act. It is a process in which we continually draw nearer and nearer to God. And as we do, we will begin to see the very fruits that James exhorts us to in our epistle passage; as we lean into our continual salvation that began the day we were baptized we will, even if slowly, become quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. We will become doers of the word, not just hearers and we will take care of those in need. This Christian life must be a life of change; it must be a life in which we are changed continually and constantly more and more into the image of Christ.
For James, the response that we give to God’s creating action in the world is to present ourselves, our souls, and our bodies. When we were welcomed into to this life of Christian faith, we were welcomed into a life of change. Which is one of the many reasons why it is so, so good to be welcoming into this Christian life of faith, Joshua. Josh will be baptized today in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and Josh will be baptized, like so many of us, into a life that must be marked by change. We will welcome Josh into this Christian community and we will pray prayers that help shape our own lives each and every day. And just as St. James warns us, we know that it is a risk to be a Christian in name only, which is why when we welcome a new person into this Christian life of faith, we reaffirm our own baptismal vows with them. We need to be reminded of what we are called to do, of how we are called to change, in our baptism.
We need to be reminded, because it is so easy to forget ourselves; it is easy, with all the changes and chances of this life to forget who we are and to forget those prayers that were prayed over us at our own baptism. It is easy to forget that those of us who are baptized are marked as Christ’s own forever; it is easy to forget that we are called to be doers of the word, not merely hearers. So, as we welcome Josh, and as we re-center ourselves in the prayer and work of this baptized life, we remind ourselves that we, too, are baptized into a life of change built upon the foundation of God’s unending, never-failing, unchanging grace and love.
A sermon preached to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY for Proper 17B on James 1:17-27, September 2, 2018.