“Nones and Dones” James 1:17-27
Delivered to Church for the Highlands
Sunday, August 29, 2021
Have you heard about the rise of the “nones”? If you are like me, you may be wondering who these nuns are and how do they rise. The nones are actually the people in surveys and polls who check the box “none” when asked about their religious affiliation. Pollsters, scholars (Ryan Burge’s The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going), and others (see James Emery White’s The Rise of the Nones) tell us that more and more people are checking that box, hence the rise in their number. When nones are asked why they no longer are a part of a religion, their answer usually has something to do with them no longer seeing that religions and religious people do anything to make the world better; that they are not seeing religion that is true for them. That’s pretty telling, isn’t it? As religious people, we must look at ourselves, our churches, and our institutions and consider how that can change; how we can have true religion.
So what is true religion and how do we put it into practice? As we have heard in the Epistle of James this morning, “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.” James says that we are to be doers of that religion and not just hearers of it. That’s it. Simple as that. So how do we do our religion?
First, by being stain-free. James writes that true religion involves keeping “oneself unstained by the world.” James was aware that there were people in the church whose lives had been shaped more by the world around them than by God. They were living according to a worldly agenda rather than God’s agenda for the world, so much so that their religion had become worthless. Instead of making a difference in their world, they were spending their time slandering one another, being selfish with what God had given them, and living hypocritical lives. Their religion was thus worthless. James here isn’t indicating that Judaism or Christianity or any other religion was worthless; just that their religion of hearing what God wanted them to be and do and then not being and doing was worthless. Instead of exhibiting the purity of God in their lives, they were a church marked with a giant stain.
No one likes a stain, do they? Most of us will take whatever measures necessary to remove one, especially if one is on our clothing or on a brand new couch or carpet. A stain ruins the view or the image, becoming the focal point to the detriment of what else is there we want people to see. As people look at the church of today, I think this is part of the problem. They see the stain of the world upon it as the church, especially in its various expressions throughout our nation, has been shaped more by the world’s agenda than the words and will of God. Christian Nationalism in our nation is but one example of this. The enticements of political power, money, and influence have led many churches to go astray and forego their mission and put a big old stain on them that’s hard to rub out. As a church surrounded by those worldly enticements, we must pay attention to James’ warning and keep ourselves stain-free.
The second way we “do” our religion is by helping people in need. James was quite clear about that, writing that true religion is “to care for orphans and widows in their distress, . . .” They were the ones in their context who were the most in need of help. To be one was to be completely vulnerable and dependent on the charity of other people. And the church James writes to was to put their faith into practice to take care of them. If James were to write his epistle to the church of today–specifically our church–who would he list as the neediest in our midst? Since our church focuses its mission on the Highland neighborhood, we should be familiar with the people in need within it. What we have learned in these last eleven years is that there is a lot of poverty here, that of a group of people termed as ALICE (Asset Limited, Income- Constrained, Employed). Or also referred to sometimes as “Working Poor.” They make up 39% of our parish. Many of them have children who make up the 38% of children under 18 living in poverty in our city. There is also a high number of elderly people, many of whom are also widows or widowers. And there are formerly incarcerated people who are unable to find housing or jobs because of their designation as felons. We also have immigrants living in Highland, even some who pass through here for a short time. Many veterans live around us here too, in housing provided by Volunteers of America and other agencies. In addition to these, there are now many homeless residents in Highland due to the pandemic and the evictions it has caused.
How do we become “doers” of our religion to help them? As I look out at you today, I already see doers. What I would like to say to you is thank you for all you do! And how can we keep on doing? Or, how can we do better what we are already doing? What are we doing now that could be done in a better way or may not need to do any longer? What new “orphans and widows in distress” are there that we are not helping? What are the ways that each of us can commit to being better doers and not just hearers in our personal lives? I don’t expect answers here this morning, but they are good questions for us to ask as we get ready to mark our anniversary and look ahead together at what more God has for us to be and do.
I’m hopeful that as we focus on the doing of our religion, our neighborhood and world will be the better for it. And maybe those nones will quit rising.