What was the greatest gift you ever received? For me, it’s hard to pin down one specific thing. When I had hair, someone gave me a long, black comb. It was the kind preferred by barbers, the ones which usually rested in a jar of antiseptic. I took this gift for granted. I was unable to fully appreciate the ability to style, move, and adjust the hair on top of my head. Now that I am bald, I see it as one of the greatest treasures ever to be placed in my hands.
Maybe the greatest gift I received wasn’t the comb. Perhaps it was the Batmobile. I remember the Christmas when mama and daddy got me a decent size replica of the Adam West-era Batmobile. I’m telling you this car was identical to the one Batman drove on the hit 1960’s television show, only considerably smaller. Batteries from Radio Shack and the Batcave were not included. With those small exceptions, it had everything else. There were seats for Batman and Robin, a phone to call Commissioner Gordon, and a big jet engine to blast out of my yet to be built Batcave.
I loved that car. I loved the idea of having that car. Batman and the Batmobile belonged to me. On good days, we were in partnership together. On other days, I was in charge of the whole operation. We would be, at my discretion, fighting crime in the place where I lived. Before I received the Batmobile, we could only fight crime at certain times of day, usually in the late afternoon at my grandmother’s house, when the show came on television. Between homework and snack, I would fight crime with Batman for about half an hour. With the Batmobile, I wasn’t bound by the limits of a television show. Batman lived with me in my homemade Wayne Manor. We were friends.
Every facet of Batman’s life, work, and car were mine to look at, recreate, and enjoy. If I wanted to make the car drive up the side of a tree, we drove vertically over bark and limbs. If the car, which had never flown in a single episode, wanted to fly; we would launch ourselves through the air. What I had watched the car do on television didn’t matter. The untapped crime fighting potential sitting in my hand, that’s what mattered most. I didn’t need to see under the plastic hood or kick the tiny tires to know the car would fly. I could simply tell. These unrealized and unseen powers were the most obvious and self-evident qualities of the Batmobile I received as a gift. There were connections, waiting to be made, once I received the gift. I didn’t see the many connections until they were staring right back at me.
Eventually the best gifts we receive, no matter how much we love them wear out, die, fade, and lose their luster. The impact they once had on our lives is no longer there. They no longer matter as they once did. James, in today’s scripture, advances an idea that gifts change our lives on multiple levels. He says, we become emotionally and physically different after receiving gifts we enjoy. Our lives change. We do things differently than before we possessed the gift. The gift impacts what we do and how we live. If you give a middle aged man a convertible Corvette, he will put the top down and reignite his passion for Guns and Roses. It will change his outlook on life and how he sees himself and those around him. Gifts come with certain inherent and implied responsibilities; especially when the gift comes from God. What are you going to do with your gift from God? Are you going to play with it until you are bored, until it breaks, or your attention wanes and you want to move on to something shiner and offers more thrills? What are you going to do with your gift from God?
The problem is, when you’re talking about gifts from God, you’ve got nowhere to run. James says everything is a gift from God. When he says everything, he means everything; starting with the air we breathe and the bodies we inhabit. Life itself is a gift. If life is a gift from God and gifts change the life of the person who receives a gift, then we need to ask: how does being gifted by God change how we encounter the world with our gift. How is our life different because we received this gift?
James says we see the evidence on multiple levels. Firstly, it’s witnessed in extremely practical ways. You interact with the world in a way that’s not unique to Christians but without this gift it seems much harder for so many people. James writes, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow in anger.” If that’s not the best advice you’ve ever received, raise your hands? That’s wonderful advice. It’s sage wisdom if I’ve ever heard any. As I said, it’s not unique to Christianity by any stretch of the imagination. However, if you believe God has gifted you with life and everyone else around has received the same gift, you’re going to want to treat them in a manner befitting the gift and the giver.
James is writing his letter to 1st century Christians; people who are in the process of forming the early church. At this point in human history, people aren’t sure if church is a good idea. Many of James’ audience already had a default religious practice. Their status quo (Judaism) was protected by Roman law. No one is being executed for being Jewish. The social pressure to go along and get along with the Roman religious system is enormous. Much like today, people are asking the question, “Who needs church?” The people James is writing to are probably accustomed to hearing, “Why are you going to church?” I’m sure there were more compelling options for their time and resources. James wanted to address this question directly.
Once you’re here, James states, “you must be doers of the word and not only hearers of the word who mislead themselves.” The way to counteract the “Who needs church?” question is to fuse listening and doing. “Who needs church, because all they do is to go there and sit on Sunday morning?” The way to answer this question is to do something as individuals and as the body of Christ. It’s like the front of the bulletin says, Don’t Come to Church-Be the Church. Hear, connect, and apply the Gospel. Make the connections. Hear the word then do the word. Do the word, what does it mean?
“Doer of the word,” notes James. That’s a loaded expression. The “word” is a big book and what James knew as the “word” and we call the “word” are a little different. At the end of today’s reading, James gives us a hint. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is to care for orphans and widow in their distress.” For me, that’s always been a good place to start when talking about “doing the word.”
The last thing James tells us is this: don’t let the gift fool you into thinking you’re someone you’re not. “Those who hear but don’t do the word are like those who look at their faces in a mirror. They look at themselves, walk away and immediately forget what they were like.”
I wasn’t Batman. The man in the convertible Corvette, he’s not the most interesting or sexiest man in the world. Sometimes gifts (especially gifts we give ourselves) can cloud our understanding of who we think we are. Hearing the word and doing nothing is like taking a selfie in front of a mirror and immediately forgetting what you look like so you have to do it again and again. You have no identity other than the identity this illusory gift creates for you.
And yet, on the other side of the coin, we have no identity other than the one God’s good and perfect gift gives us. What is the greatest gift you have received? What are you going to do with that gift? Hear about it, talk about it, or do something with it?