Generous Hands

James 1:17-27

All this month in worship, and especially in sermons, we are focusing on generosity. That’s the new-fangled word for stewardship, which has gone out of fashion for some reason that I don’t fully understand. I think the idea here is that “stewardship”—especially the phrase “stewardship season”—connotes a function, an activity, something that we do sometimes, but not necessarily all the time. But “generosity” is a character trait Christians need to cultivate, and once cultivated can abide in us all the time. I get that, and it’s a good impulse and a good goal to cultivate generosity. But generosity seems to me to imply open-handedness with the things that are ours. For we can only be generous with the things that are ours; we cannot be generous with things that belong to someone else. “Stewardship,” on the other hand, connotes taking good care of something that is not ours, but God’s. If all that we are and all that we have come from God and ultimately go back to God, then we are not “owners” but “stewards.” And we can and should be good stewards of the things that belong to God!

So I proposed, and Session agreed, that this September is stewardship season. Or maybe that should be a season of generosity! Whatever we call it and however we like to think of it, we’ll be thinking about generosity throughout the month, and at the end of it we’ll be asking you to make a pledge to the church so that we can begin to develop a budget for next year. It’s a little earlier than most churches do stewardship season, but it fits in well now with the lectionary texts, especially with the book of James, which will be our guide through this stewardship season.

The book of James sometimes gets short shrift in the Reformed tradition, and we can thank Martin Luther for that. Martin Luther didn’t like the book of James much. Among the things he said about it are:

St James’ epistle is really an epistle of straw, compared to these others, for it has nothing of the nature of the Gospel about it. (Luther’s Works 35, 362)

We should throw the epistle of James out of this school [i.e. the university at Wittenburg, where Luther taught], for it doesn’t amount to much. It contains not a syllable about Christ. Not once does it mention Christ, except at the beginning. I maintain that some Jew wrote it who probably heard about Christian people but never encountered any. Since he heard that Christians place great weight on faith in Christ, he thought, ‘Wait a moment! I’ll oppose them and urge works alone.’ This he did. (Luther’s Works 54, 424)

And my favorite:

The epistle of James gives us much trouble, for the Papists embrace it alone and leave out all the rest…Accordingly, if they will not admit my interpretations, then I shall make rubble also of it. I almost feel like throwing Jimmy into the stove, as the priest in Kalenberg did. (Luther’s Works 34, 317)[1]

I wish I could have found the Latin or German version of the name “James” that was translated as “Jimmy,” but I couldn’t!

But why all these “heated” words about the book of James? It’s because in 2:17-18, James writes:

So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. 18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.

And in these words he seems to flat-out contradict Paul, who says in Romans 3:28:

For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.

What are we to make of this apparent contradiction? I like the words of Frances Taylor Gench, who explains the apparent contradiction by explaining that the words of James and the words of Paul serve two different purposes at two very different points along the faith journey of a Christian:

When Paul speaks of “justification,” his eyes are focused . . . on the starting point of the Christian life. However, when the author of James speaks of “justification,” his eyes are focused on the final judgement. [James] speaks of “justification” in connection with the last day, when it will be determined whether believers have embodied in their lives the possibilities the gospel offers.

The distinguished preacher Ernest Campbell captures the difference between Paul and James with a helpful analogy: Paul is dealing with obstetrics, with how new life begins; James, however, is dealing with pediatrics and geriatrics, with how Christian life grows and matures and ages. . . . In fact, most interpreters agree that James is not responding to Paul at all but rather to an area of the church in which Paul’s slogan of “justification by faith” was being used and distorted to argue that “faith alone” was all that counted, without any accompanying moral fruit or transformation of life.[2]

So while Paul is writing about engendering faith, James writes about the evidence of faith in the lives of Christians and about the integrity and wholeness in our lives through which our faith shines forth. Among the marks of faith is generosity, because God, in whose image we are created, is generous:

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. 18In 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.

If you have been following along in the pew Bibles, you read this as “every good endowment.” The Greek word that is sometimes translated “good” and sometimes translated “generous” is agathos. The noun form, translated goodness or generosity, is agathosune. It’s the word that we get the name Agatha from. If I had known that when my daughter Rachel was born, I might have named her Agatha, much to her distress, I think!

What does it mean to be agathos or to have agathosune, goodness or generosity? In Luke, a rich young man approaches Jesus and asks him “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” To which Jesus answers, “Why do you call me good? No one is good, but God.” And he then goes on to describe the one thing the rich young man needs: the radical goodness or generosity to sell everything he has and follow Jesus. It is the agathos God who creates the world and endows it with all that we need to sustain ourselves in it. Psalm 135 invites us to “Praise the Lord, for the Lord is agathos; sing to his name, for he is gracious.” The agathosune of God is the character of abundant provision, openhandedness, and generosity with which God creates, sustains, and blesses the world. And it is this quality of agathosune that God calls us to exhibit in the world. In the parable of the sower, it is the agathos ground that nourishes the scattered seeds to produce a hundredfold harvest. And in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he exhorts us to labor, doing agathos work with our hands, so that we may be able to give to those in need.

We are created to be fruitful and to be a blessing in and to the world. God’s purpose in the world is to be creative and generative, to give life, to renew life, to heal what is broken, to redeem what is enslaved, to release what is captive, and to restore what is destroyed. All of those lovely “re-“ words that show that we are called back to God—again and again—as often as we stray too far from home like lost sheep. It is our works that show the extent to which we are living in concert with God’s purpose in the world. Even Paul affirmed this when he wrote to the Galatians, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). Our works are the fruit that our faith bears in the world.

James makes a distinction between being “in the world” and being “of the world.” For James, the purpose of faith is not only eternal life, but to bring God’s creative, generative purpose to bear in the places that cry out for renewal and restoration here and now. James calls us to bring that purpose to bear in how we face temptation and suffering, in our speech, in how we use our wealth, in how we treat our neighbors—both rich and poor—and in how we treat our brothers and sisters in Christ. As a people brought to right relationship with God by the grace of Christ which is ours through faith, we are to take our cues not from the world but from the word of God. This is what James is talking about when he says:

22Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25But 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.

Where do we look for cues about who we are to be and what we are to do? Do we look as if we are looking in a mirror? A mirror shows us only the surfaces of things. Its reflection of us is flat, superficial, and one-dimensional. Our surface selves—our bodies, our possessions, our worldly attachments—are variable and subject to decay, destruction, and death. On the outside we change daily and slip a little closer each day toward death. Our possessions, which we collect and guard as if our very lives depend on them, seem painfully shallow to us when something—illness, disaster, or a brush with death—threatens the ones whom we love most. And our worldly attachments, the things that we cling to for security, esteem, or reassurance, grow weak when we those same kinds of challenges wakes us up to what’s really important in life.

James reminds us that we can look more deeply into ourselves be looking deeply into the word of God, the “law” as he describes it. God’s word reflects the perfect light of God, “the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” For James, being “of the world” means being subject to decay, destruction, and death; but being “of the word” means being imbued with God’s light and God’s word, which is the light and word of freedom, perseverance, and maturity. In other words, looking deeply into God’s word is how we see what it means to live with wholeness and integrity: “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.”

I love the imagery for generosity in the book of Deuteronomy, which says:

If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand . . . . Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.” (Deuteronomy 15:7-11)

One spiritual exercise for cultivating open-handedness comes from the Jesuit priest, Peter van Breemen. He writes:

Prayer is to be in God’s presence with open hands and an open heart. There are many things in my life to which I cling as with a clinched fist – my possessions for sure but the immaterial things as well­­–the work I do, the position I hold, the friends I have, my ideas, my principles, my image. If I should open my fist, they still remain. Nothing drops out. But my hands are open. And that is what prayer is. After a while, if I am willing to remain long enough with open hands, the Lord will come. He will have a look and roam through my hands to see what I have. He may be surprised—so many things! Then he will look at me and ask: ‘Would you mind if I take out this little bit?’

And I answer: ‘Of course you may take it out. That’s why am here with open hands.’

And perhaps the Lord will look another time at me and ask: ‘Would you mind if I put something else in your hands?’

And I answer: ‘Of course you may.’

That is the heart of prayer. The Lord may take something out, and he may put something in.  No one else can do this, but he may. He is the Lord. I have only to open my heart and my hands and just stay there long enough for the Lord to come.[3]

As we begin to think about the place of generosity in our own lives, I encourage us all to spend a few moments each day in silent meditation with open hands listening for what God is asking of you and for what God wants to give you.

Let’s pray:

Eternal Word, only begotten Son of God, Teach me true generosity. Teach me to serve you as you deserve. To give without counting the cost, To fight heedless of wounds, To labor without seeking rest, To sacrifice myself without thought of any reward Save the knowledge that I have done your will. Amen.

[1] Cited at https://taylormarshall.com/2006/02/chasing-down-luther-quotes-about-james.html.

[2] Frances Taylor Gench, Hebrews and James, Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), p. 106.

[3] https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/9949/prayer-with-open-hands