James 1:17-27 by Doug Gunkelman

In verse 16, James says, “do not be deceived” by the bad things in your life, but instead in verse 17, know that “every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.”

The idea that God is a Father of lights originates from the Genesis accounts where he is the Creator of light. James wants us to know that just as God brought light into the darkness of creation, so will he bring light into the darkness of our lives. Light is one powerful example of the gifts that God sends into our life. And what is an even greater blessing than receiving that gift of light is being that gift of light sent into a person’s life. We all have plenty of opportunities to bring God’s light into people’s lives. Whether we bring that light through a formal ministry like refugee resettlement or informally in our everyday relationships.

James then gets very specific in verses 19 and 20 about how to bring God’s light into another person’s life.

Whether Danette and I were training to be foster parents of teenage girls or Stephen Ministers we focused primarily on improving our listening skills. The skill to be quick to listen and slow to speak is one every one of us could benefit from in not only our church relationships but especially in our family and workplace relationships. Too often we are slow to listen and quick to speak with words of judgment.

Let me share with you a tiny bit of my story of how I learned to listen and to learn from refugees I’ve interacted with over the years.

The first refugees I remember conversing with were from Viet Nam in the early 1970’s when I was a young teenager. My home church, Zion Lutheran in Valley City sponsored a family who escaped as the war was coming to an end. My Grandma Gunkelman took the lead on the refugee committee to help find them housing, jobs, and get the children enrolled in school. She taught them how to grocery shop and other practicalities in a completely different culture.

In my first call to two small congregations in North Dakota in 1985, we sponsored two young women from Czechoslovakia who were escaping war, persecution, and poverty. After a year of acclimating, they moved to a Czech community in California.

When I received my second call to a large congregation in Fargo, we were heavily involved in the sister parish movement. We were joined with a small Lutheran congregation in Reynosa, Mexico, just across the border from McAllen, Texas.

We took groups of parishioners to Mexico to listen to what was happening on the Tex-Mex border. We encountered thousands of Mexicans who had migrated north from rural farming communities who now lived in concrete boxes like this one, clustered together around huge American manufacturing plants that were built all along the border to take advantage of very cheap labor.

We visited some of the plants with well groomed lawns and palm trees on the outside and mass production on the inside. They’re call “maquiladoras”.

This plant produced electronics like thermostats. The workers, primarily women, were clean and content. They were being paid in the 1980’s on average, $1 an hour, $8 a day.

We visited a Kimball piano plant and a converse shoe plant. Others were being built. Today there are more just-over-the-border plants than ever. The new tariffs will hurt them. If those plants close down, guess where many of the workers are going to go.

My last story before getting back to our text is about our foster son, Vilan. Vilan left Honduras at age 16 because of the wars going on in most of the Central American countries after their dictators were deposed in the 1970’s. Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador continue to suffer from war and poverty.

Vilan’s family was being threatened, so he made his way north, all the way through Mexico. He got odd jobs along the way, was beat up and robbed twice, and after 6 months finally crossed into Texas, cold, hungry, and illegal. Vilan was immediately arrested as an “unaccompanied minor”. In those days as today there were volunteer lawyers who would spend a few weeks taking the cases of unaccompanied minors. Vilan’s lawyer determined that to deport him to Honduras would endanger his life. Vilan was reclassified as a refugee and became eligible for foster care. When we picked him up at the airport in Fargo in early fall, he had no coat and didn’t speak English.

We got Vilan enrolled in high school, began teaching him English, got him a part-time job at the Ground Round bussing tables, and for a year in 1993 and 94, he became a big brother to Rachel and Nathan.

Vilan loved to cook various versions of beans, rice, and tortillas. He eventually became a citizen, went back to Honduras to bring his girlfriend to Atlanta where the last we heard, he was managing a roofing company with Latino roofers.

Obviously, this is very personal for us. What angers me is that at least half of those crossing into Texas illegally are from Central America – not Mexico. They are escaping war, poverty, and persecution to find freedom in the great U.S.A. Why is it so difficult for us to accept them as refugees rather than prosecuting them as illegal aliens? If they’re criminals, deport them. But typically they’re hard-working families or minors looking for a safe place to live and work.

The packed steamship arrived in New York’s Castle Garden, the country’s first immigration center, on October 17, 1885. Hundreds of would be Americans from Germany had traveled for 10 days across the North Atlantic to their new home. Among them was a skinny, light-haired 16 year old who had left his hometown where his family was barely getting by. Under today’s zero tolerance policy, Friedrich Trump would have been considered an unaccompanied minor and deported back to Germany.

How is Christ’s church different than governments? How do we differentiate between an illegal alien and a refugee?

“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. 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 are 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”.

I appreciate James’ analogy of us Christians looking at ourselves in a mirror, which we do every time we worship and begin by confessing our sin, which we do every time we hear God’s word proclaimed, which we do every time we receive our Lord’s body and blood; we look at ourselves in the mirror of our faith and then go out the rest of the week either forgetting about what we saw and heard here in this place or we go out and are “doers of the word” who act and who are blessed in our doing. When we hear God’s word, it gives us liberty, it gives us the freedom, it gives us the will to persevere so that we are “not hearers who forget, but doers who act and are blessed in our doing”.

Our Sunday School teachers hear God’s Word and act in sharing his Word with our Divinity children. Our communion carriers hear God’s Word and act in taking the sacrament of Christ’s presence out to our homebound and nursing home residents. Those who come to Sunday or Monday night or Wednesday morning or Women’s Bible studies hear God’s Word and act to learn more in sharing His Word with others.

Some of you this week will go into your workplace and compliment a co-worker or employee bringing light into their darkness and nurturing your relationship with them.

Some of you will compliment your spouse or child or grandchild this week, bringing you closer together in loving one another with a more Christ-like love.

But according to James in the last two verses of Chapter 1, all of that isn’t even enough. Being religious isn’t enough. Serving others in our church, in our workplace, and in our families isn’t enough.

Verses 26-27 – “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.”

Our world is full of orphans and widows. We are doers of the word when we reach out to them, when we listen, when we serve. But it’s never enough. We always fall short. So as doers of the word we give thanks to God that all of our doing is only a small response to the ultimate doing, to the ultimate serving, to the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, giving us salvation by God’s grace through our faith. May each of us this week be a means by which God shares his grace with even the orphan and the widow in their distress.