The Barrel

by The Rev. John H. Pavelko
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Year A - 2001-2002 | Year B - 2002-2003  | Year C - 2000-2001

True Religion
James 1:17-27

New Carpet

The pastor and his wife decided to sell their home.They had been having water problems in the basement.During the dryer months of winter, they installed new carpeting and put the home up for sale.One day a couple visited the house and appeared very interested.Upon descending the basement stairs, the couple commented that the carpet looked new.Before the pastor and his wife could respond their small daughter replied, “Sure, the old carpet got wet every time it rained.”This came as a shock to the prospective buyers.The pastor and his wife had skillfully avoided any mention of water problems.[1]

While the pastor and his wife probably wished that their daughter had followed James’ advice about being slow to speak, James himself would have commended her for being both a listener and a doer of the law.Throughout his letter, the brother of Jesus displays a concern that believers live out the message of the gospel.He wants to avoid a religion that merely pays lip service to what it believes.

James wanted his readers not only to be hearers but also doers of the law.True religion requires the tangible demonstration in life of what we know to be true.In this particular section of his letter, James is concerned that we devote particular attention to two aspects of the Christian life—our anger and our treatment of widows.The connection between the two reminds us that spirituality involves both personal piety and a concern for others.The spiritual life is more than just praying, reading the Bible, attending worship and being polite.The spiritual life requires caring for people.

Controlled Anger

The first area that James would like his readers to consider relates to topic he presented earlier in his letter.You may recall last week, James telling us to consider all forms of trials as pure joy because they built perseverance.He reminded us that God was using our struggles to build us in faith.This message would have been no less difficult for his readers as it is for us.Remember, this letter is directed to Jews who have been scattered all over the Roman Empire.They or their ancestors were forced into exile.They suffered constant harassment and discrimination in those foreign lands.James wrote this letter, Jerusalem about the time the Romans destroyed Jerusalem.The massacre and pillage of the holy city would have been still fresh in their minds.The militant Zealots would have advocated for “…striking out at the Romans and their aristocratic vassals, supposing that they would be acting as agents of God’s righteous indignation.”[2]James counters this spirit of revolution by associating righteousness with making peace.His advice parallels the wisdom of Proverbs.

16:32Better a patient man than a warrior, 
a man who controls his temper than one who takes a city.

15:18A hot-tempered man stirs up dissension, 

but a patient man calms a quarrel.

Anger is a natural response to any form of suffering, from the most grievous political oppression or a terrorist attack to a minor domestic offensive.We desire to lash out against the cause of our pain.We want to strike a blow against our adversary.We justify are righteous indignation by sighting the other person’s transgression but James tells us that we are without justification.Slow to wrath is the only appropriate response of faith.The lives of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, and Nelson Mandela bear witness to the power of the peaceful witness in overcoming political oppression.We may feel justified unleashing our military prowess against lesser armies but is the world a safer place after our military campaigns?

James’ advice also relates to the everyday situation of our lives.Psychologists say that people tend to have less patience these days, and that can lead to anger, frustration, and sometimes even rage.The statistical evidence is rather frightenting. Reports of domestic violence increase each year.Incidents of road rage have become so common that Hollywood created a movie based on such a situation. These outbursts of anger are even carrying over into the pristine world of golf and going beyond a few superlatives uttered after a bad shot.

A few years ago, Richard and his 12-year old son went to play a quiet round of golf on a course in Wisconsin.Some where on the back nine, Richard died from a blow to the chest.He had exchanged words with the foursome behind him for swearing at his son’s slow play.Charges were not filed after the police investigation determined that the other man acted in self-defense.

During another altercation in California, a player in his 20s became enraged over the slow play of another group.Twice he hit balls into the group ahead of him.He then punched one of the players in the face before running off through a parking lot and jumping a fence.He was later fingered in a police line-up.[3]

Psychologists tell us that anger is the expression of frustration often associated with the loss of control.We believe that the world and all of God’s creatures should behave according to our expectations or standards.Such attitudes are a blatant form of self-centeredness.James reminds us that overcoming this childish behavior should be a high priority for us in our spiritual journey.However, I confess that I admonish you not as one who has mastered this priority but as one who also needs to sit and listen this sermon.

Overcoming anger requires more than just an anger management seminar or listening to a sermon.We must first be willing to admit that we have a problem.That is greatest obstacle of any dysfunctional behavior whether it is alcoholism, addiction to prescription drugs, pornography, or even uncontrollable anger.Admitting our weakness is the first step.Secondly, we must be willing to examine our lives to understand the source of our anger.Why do we need to control others?Why do we believe that situations should flow according to our expectations?Third, we must be willing to meditation on the Word of God and allow it to transform our hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit.Without God’s power at work in us all of our efforts will be for naught. Finally, we must make the diligent effort to follow James’ advice—to be slow to wrath.Unless we are actually change our behavior we are like the person who having looked at themselves in a mirror, forget what they look like after walking away from their reflection.

We should also remember that change requires time.We must learn to be patient with ourselves, lest we become angry for not gaining mastery of anger more quickly.Yet we must also be careful not to procrastinate by excusing our behavior.We cannot claim to be religious until we have learned to bridle our tongues and control our wrath.

Caring for the Widow

A friend once told me that during his childhood his church youth group referred to themselves as the “Fighting Fundamentalist.”They were against everything and they even had a little diddly to remind that what they were against. It went like this.We don’t smoke and we don’t chew and we don’t go out with the girls who do!” 

Such groups take a narrow approach to the Christian faith.They limit the Christian life to personal acts of dos and don’t but devote more time to the don’ts.James tells us that the Christian life is not only about acts of personal piety but also about how you relate to others, especially those people who tend to be ignored.

In the Old Testament, widows and orphans are a special concern of God’s.The Law of Moses prohibited their exploitation. (Exodus 22:22) And the psalms calls God a protector of the widows.(Psalm 68:5)However, despite these prohibitions widows were taken advantage of so often that the prophets constantly had to warn the nation against such abuse. (Zechariah 7:8-14)

During New Testament times, the condition of the widow had not improved.After Pentecost, a problem arose even in the early church over the care of widows.The Hellenist widows once lived in a foreign community.While they had Jewish ancestors, they had a Greek lifestyle.They had come to Jerusalem to retire after their husband’s death.However, the pure blooded Jews of the ancient city tended to ignore them.When they were not adequately cared for by the early church, they voiced their concerns. The apostles decided that the matter was so important that they ordain seven deacons to look after these widows. 

I learned about caring for the elderly from my family.Once a month we would travel from Cleveland to Youngstown and spend the day with one of my dad’s brothers to either golf or watch the Cleveland Browns.Every visit always included a trip to Bubba’s house.By the time I could remember the visits, Bubba and Diddi had difficult seeing and hearing.Diddi could barely understand or speak English.Bubba had a better grasp of the language but even she would sometimes get frustrated because she struggled to put into English her Ukrainian thoughts.Some days we did not have much to talk about and we sat through frequent periods of silence but we never even thought of not visiting.The visits became more important after Diddi died and Bubba lived alone.Those times in her small living room taught me the importance of caring for people.

I believe that the measure of a church is how it cares for the widow and the fatherless.People who do not have anyone to look after them; people who may not be able to contribute financially or participate in the life of the congregation.They can easily be neglected.We can become so caught up in our own personal piety that we forget about them.Visiting our shuts is just as valuable to the life of this church as serving on a committee and offers as much benefit to our spiritual growth as does pray or reading the Bible.

Tragically, the care of the widows is often left to younger widows.The Board of Deacons in most churches often has far more retired women than young men.The male population is reluctant to take on the nurturing role of a deacon.They will create one excuse or another to avoid making those uncomfortable visits.Men, we need to make some changes.Ironically, the first group of deacons ordain were all male.

From Listening To Doing

Listening is a poor substitute for doing.Matthew Henry in his classic commentary wrote, “If we heard a sermon every day of the week, and an angel from heaven were the preacher, yet, if we rested in hearing only, it would never bring us to heaven. Mere hearers are self-deceivers; and self-deceit will be found the worst deceit at last.” [4] James tells us that true religion is expressed by the person who is both slow to anger and cares for the widow and the fatherless.

[1] Larry Burkett, Great Is Thy Faithfulness, quoted in Men of Integrity, Christianity Today International, January/February 2000, February 15, 2000 , Online:, August 28, 2003.
[2] Keener, Craig S., and InterVarsity Press. The IVP Bible Background Commentary : New Testament, Jas 1:20. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1993.
[3] “Golf is all the rage,” Toronto Star, Online: August 29, 2003.
[4] Matthew Henry, The Concise Matthew Henry Commentary, Online:, August 28, 2003.

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