SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV’D JEFFREY A. HANSON AT THE CHURCH OF THE ADVENT,
SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 6, 2015, THE FIFTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
I want you to join me in a science experiment. Raise one index finger if you will at arm’s length like so. Close your right eye and observe where your finger appears against a fixed point in the distance, perhaps the pulpit here where I am standing. Now open the right eye and close the left. Notice how your finger appears to have moved relative to the position of the pulpit. Your perspective on it has shifted. You can put your finger down now.
Scientists have a name for this phenomenon; it’s called the parallax effect. I bring this up because parallax is a word that comes from Greek, and in today’s reading from the epistle of James, we get the one and only time that the New Testament uses a Greek word related to our term “parallax.” In today’s reading our translation uses the word “variation” as the English equivalent of the Greek parallax. James says “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.” So James is saying that with God there is no parallax effect. What I want to try to explain today is why James says this, that with God there is no variation, no parallax.
It will help to begin with some context. Immediately prior to today’s epistle reading, James has been exhorting his audience to remain firm in the faith; it seems that he addressed groups of believers who were subjected to hardship—probably not persecution of the most violent kind but difficulties nonetheless.
Amidst such trials James claims boldly that those who endure difficulty are blessed, for it is those who persevere and withstand testing that will receive eternal life from God. The reward of eternal life is given to those who love God and whose consistency in loving God even amid trials is what produces their endurance.
We have probably heard some version of this thought ourselves, that trials make for maturity, that if we can withstand opposition then we will be all the stronger for it and rewarded with improved character. Maybe at some point in your childhood your father said something like, “deprivation is good for you. It builds character.”
Yet James recognizes that our perspective on being tested can easily shift; trials and tribulations are subject to the parallax effect. Right before today’s verses he cautions his audience not to blame God when faced with difficulty and advises us instead that each person is tempted by his own desire. Why does he say this? What’s the connection between being exhorted to endure trials and not to blame God?
I think he says this because he realizes that our failure to love God in such a way as to make us endure difficulty can easily be turned into blame against God: If God did not want me to fail, why did he put me to the test in the first place? Isn’t it God’s fault after all that I was subjected to trials? With one slight shift in perspective, one parallax shift, what looked like an opportunity for blessing and strengthening through opposition becomes an obstacle, a reason to complain.
And this is the thought that I think motivates James’s powerful proclamation at the beginning of today’s reading: “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.”
What could this possibly mean? I think this is the beginning of James’s solution to our problem of endurance: We are meant to love God no matter what opposition we face, and yet that very opposition is a potential stumbling block; trial can be an excuse to reject God and fall by the wayside. How can we keep to the right path when we are beset on all sides?
By staying focused on the fact that God is the giver of every perfect gift. For James, God’s goodness is utterly complete, and because God is so entirely good God has no ulterior motives in putting difficulties in our way. Our difficulties in life, which are very real, are from God’s perspective only opportunities for our improvement, for our becoming more holy, more like God. With God there is no parallax shift: There is no dark side to testing, only the means of our becoming more mature in our faith. If we do not take these opportunities for what they are, that is our own fault and not God’s.
It is no accident that James’s preferred metaphor here is of light: God is the Father of lights in that God created light; indeed the creation of light is God’s first creative act. The sun and moon are God’s creation and further specification of light into greater and lesser.
Interestingly even the ancients observed that the sun and moon are subject to the parallax effect; even these great lights in the sky appear different to us depending on our perspective. Similarly the moon is cast in shadow for most of its cycle. But James says with God there is no parallax; there is no shadow. While everything in our earthly experience, even the mighty heavenly bodies, rise and fall, are eclipsed at one time and shine more brightly at another, God’s nature is never to change.
God is the dispenser of unqualifiedly good gifts, and to give good gifts is God’s constant nature. This again is by implied contrast to human gifts. Like difficulties in life that can be either opportunities for maturity or occasions for failure, so too the gifts that humans give can differ according to our perspective. For every humanly bestowed gift also carries its shadow-side. That promotion at work makes for more responsibility and anxiety; the increase of wealth brings complications and further costs; the solution to one dilemma presents yet more problems. Even here, a seemingly good gift is subject to the parallax effect: Looked at another way, a gift is just a new burden.
With one little parallax shift, the good gifts that we enjoy can appear different; they can occasion doubt and questioning. I never should have moved here, the winter is terrible. Why did I take that job anyway? It’s totally unfulfilling and tedious. Why did the boss give me that promotion? I am a failure at it, and now everyone at work can see how inadequate I am.
It is not so with God. We can expect that everything we genuinely need—not the things we want, but the things we genuinely need—is provided by our father in heaven, who never changes depending on our perspective and never ceases to give gifts that are wholly good.
Chief among these is the gift of nothing less than new birth. And this is why James calls God a father, for by God’s power are we born anew. The pre-eminently good gift that comes from above is the gift of new and unending life; as Jesus told Nicodemus, this is the birth that comes “from above.”
There are three things to notice about the all-important gift of new life: Who it comes from, how it comes about, and what’s the point of it. First, this gift of new birth comes from God; it comes at God’s decision, not ours, just as our natural birth came about with no contribution from us. Our parents act to bring us to birth; we have no power to bring ourselves into existence, nor do we have any power to give ourselves the gift of birth from above.
Second, this new birth comes about by means of the word of truth, the word that was incarnated as Jesus of Nazareth, the word of truth that we read in Scripture, the word that we hear echoed in faithful preaching.
Finally, this new birth is in fulfillment of a purpose, it has a point, and the point is that we who receive new birth may become the first fruits of God’s creation. Now it will help to know that in the Hebrew Scriptures God commanded the people of Israel to present an offering of the new crops as what was called the “first fruits.” The first fruits were to be dedicated especially to God, while the rest of the crop was to be used for ordinary consumption; the first fruits had to be the very best of the crop; and the first fruits were offered as an annual reminder that God continues to provide for all the needs of the people.
This is the character of the new birth as well: We are given the gift of life in expectation that we will not be given over to profane pursuits but will be holy; we will be transformed by the word of God into exemplary people; and our own sanctified lives will be witness to the faithfulness of God to supply every good and perfect gift that we need.
This is what connects the first few verses of our reading today with the final admonitions to be quick to listen, slow to speak, to bridle our tongues, and to be rid of wickedness in favor of meekly receiving the implanted word. Every good gift that we need is provided by God, but we must receive this gift and then act upon it.
If it is the word of truth that brings about new birth, no wonder James proceeds to offer so many counsels about hearing and speaking. We must be quick to listen because it is by listening that we are receptive to this word of truth. How can the word of truth be implanted in me, implanted like a seed that blossoms into new life, if I refuse to hear it?
By the same token we must be slow to speak ourselves, for the noise of our own chatter drowns out the still, small word that God is speaking. Again James uses a sort of agricultural metaphor here, calling us to be rid of the “rank growth of wickedness,” the foul weeds that would choke the tender shoot of the word of God just as it is struggling to grow to maturity in the soil of my own being.
James warns us that if we fail to bridle our tongues, to get our speaking under control, then we deceive our own hearts. I suspect this is because the tongue, our power of speech, is itself also subject to the parallax effect. For what better way is there for me to deceive myself than to claim in words one thing while doing another? The tongue is the organ of duplicity, for it is by my words that I can most effectively dissemble who I am. With the lies of my tongue I can appear one way from one perspective, while appearing differently from another.
James insists that we must not be quick to speak and must instead be always ready to listen, but he also insists that we cannot stop there. Real religion is not about what I say I believe - which is always open to doubt - real religion is about what I do.
This is the part where we act upon our reception of the perfect gift of God. For one thing, we control our speech. As we have just seen, James thinks that the word of truth is available for us to hear and act upon, but to hear it we must silence our own vain talking. Second, we have to care for those who have no one to protect or comfort them in their distress. We all face adversity, but we must not just hear the outcries of our neighbors, we must tangibly assist one another to overcome difficulty. Finally, we must keep ourselves free from worldly corruption. As we have seen, worldly goods always carry a shadow side; they are always susceptible to doubt, always capable of seeming different from what they are when our perspective shifts.
There can be no compromise here between the shadowy goods of the world and the perfect goodness of God. To receive and act upon the word of truth, to receive and act upon the ultimate gift of new life is to part ways with the world and its goods.
The reason we experience the parallax effect is because we have two eyes. With one eye closed things look one way; they appear differently with the other eye closed. God alone is without variation or shadow due to change, and so God alone and God’s perfect gift of new birth must be pursued with single-minded devotion. We must, so to speak, see as if we had only one vision, one task, one un-shifting perspective.
The one gift that is not open to doubt is the gift of life that comes from above, from God. That gift that is nothing other than God’s own life, God’s own self, the divine life that never changes and never ends.
Yet we cannot have one eye on God and the other eye on some other gift that we would very much like to have. We can only love God as the one gift that must be loved without hesitation and without qualification. We cannot say, Yes, Lord, give me the gift of new life, but I will also need to be free of hardship. We cannot say, Yes, Lord, but I also want to be rich. We cannot say, Yes, Lord, give me yourself but don’t make me care about others in distress. We can only say, Yes, Lord, yes, Father. Give me yourself.