September lectionary preview: the Book of James

July 25, 2018 by Presbyterian Foundation

By Rev. Greg Allen-Pickett, Pastor
First Presbyterian Church, Hastings, Nebraska

The book of James is full of great material to reflect on stewardship, and it is conveniently placed in the lectionary this year during the month of September. While stewardship should be something that is discussed throughout the year, the placement of James at this point in the lectionary calendar provides lectionary-based churches an opportunity to “prime the pump” and get their congregations thinking about stewardship, particularly for churches that do a fall stewardship campaign.

Rev. Greg Allen-Pickett

The author of James strives to encourage believers to create consistency between what they have learned about following Jesus and what they do on a daily basis. There needs to be an alignment between the faith they proclaim and the way they live their lives, including how they spend their time, talent and treasure. The author encourages his readers to mature in their faith in Christ by living lives that demonstrate constancy between what they say and what they believe.

The epistle/second lectionary reading for Sunday, September 2, Proper 17, is James 1:17-27. Below are three sections of the lectionary reading that are useful to reflect on related to stewardship:

17 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. 18 In 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.

This passage provides the most obvious connection to stewardship. It reminds the listeners that stewardship begins with God. God models generosity in God’s very being, starting with creation. God generously created the earth and all that is in it. The pastor or stewardship committee could reflect on Genesis 1:26-31 and Psalm 24, recognizing that all of the created order is God’s, but that out of love, God chooses to share creation with humanity.

Humanity holds a special place in the created order. We are invited by God to share in creation, to: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over it.” The James passage above echoes Genesis 1, calling humanity the “first fruits of his creatures.” Therefore when we give generously, we are reflecting the very generosity that God has shared with us from the beginning of time. Our generosity, our “perfect gifts,” are a reflection of God’s generosity and perfect gifts to us. Each day as we grow in discipleship and strive to be more like God, one way we can do that is by embracing and reflecting God’s generosity toward us.

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

This passage is a clear call to action, to be doers of the word. One faithful action is giving generously of our time, our energy, our talents, and our resources. If we simply pay lip service to our faith, but don’t actually live it out through generously giving of ourselves, the author of James says we will forget our own image, losing our identity as followers of Jesus Christ.

This passage reflects on the imago dei, the image of God in each one of us. If our words and actions don’t align into a life of faithful discipleship, then we forget what we look like, we lose sight of the image of God in each of us.

For a modern day illustration, you could talk about “slactivism,” which is generally defined as such actions as reposting a meme on social media, liking and disliking posts, sharing an article with the hopes that it will get someone else to act, but not following any of these effortless actions up with something meaningful. It doesn’t take any investment to hit the share button. These are merely “hearers” of the word and not “doers.” This is a popular form of “activism” that really doesn’t get anything accomplished, just like the author of James is talking about.

Instead we are called to action through this passage, and some of that action could include supporting the ministry and mission of the church with time, talent and treasure. The good news is that if we are able to authentically align our hearing, speaking and doing, if we can remember to act, then the author of this passage reminds us that we will be blessed. Aligning our thoughts, words and actions can help us on our discipleship journey, making us more authentic followers of Jesus Christ.

26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27 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.

This passage provides an opportunity for the pastor and stewardship committee to point to the mission and ministry of the church and to remind the congregation that their gifts facilitate the gospel call of helping the vulnerable. References in the scripture to “orphans and widows” point us to mission that helps those living on the margins. This would be a good opportunity to feature mission projects that the church is engaged in.

These days, many people are more willing to give to a cause than to an institution. While I believe that tithing is a spiritual discipline, and should be seen differently than other forms of charitable giving, at the end of the day, churches are competing with other charities that do a great job of articulating their cause. I think we can still keep tithing as a spiritual discipline, but also adopt some of these “cause based” stewardship strategies for our campaigns. This part of the James passage opens the door for that, pointing out that authentic religion calls us to care for the “orphans and widows in their distress” which provides an opportunity to articulate how the church is doing that in a compelling way.

I hope that these reflections spark some ideas for pastors and stewardship committees on how they can use the Lectionary reading from James to prepare a church for a stewardship campaign. The rest of the James readings for Year B in the Lectionary cycle that fall in the month of September provide many more meaningful stewardship ideas and quotes like this gem from chapter 2: “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

Blessings on your stewardship efforts!

Rev. Greg Allen-Pickett is Pastor and Head of Staff of First Presbyterian Church in Hastings, Nebraska. He is a native of Flagstaff, Arizona, where he was an active member of Federated Community Church. Greg is a graduate of Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington, and he also holds an Master of Divinity degree from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Greg has worked in small, medium, and large churches and also worked at the PC(USA) denominational offices in Louisville as the general manager of Presbyterian World Mission.