At his second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there was less occasion for Abraham Lincoln to give an extended address than there was at his first inaugural. Lincoln thought it “fitting and proper to lay out a course for the nation in his First Inaugural Address, when our young Union was in upheaval; Jefferson Davis had been inaugurated as the President of the Confederacy two weeks earlier. Then the war came. Three years into Lincoln’s first term there seemed little hope that the Union he was elected to save would survive, and there was even less hope that Lincoln would win a second term. But General William Tecumseh Sherman was brutally successful in his campaign to take Atlanta, and his march through Georgia and the Carolinas crippled the Confederate forces, the singing of the thousands of freed slaves that followed Sherman along his route added insult to the injured Confederacy. Lincoln was effectively winning the war and again won the presidency, and on March 4th, 1865, Lincoln stood before the Capital to be sworn in once again. He gave a four-minute address that has been called the best public sermon of all time, and it ended like this:
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to bind up wounds with charity, to have confidence in what God shows us to be right. St. James was proud of Abraham Lincoln that day.
Eighteen-hundred years before Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, St. James wrote this to the twelve tribes of Jewish Christians scattered among the nations: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Given that James probably wrote his epistle in the late forties or early fifties, his epistle may have been the first of the New Testament books to be written down, so this is the first written definition of true religion an early Christian would have had, and it came from no less an authority than James. James was one of the “brothers” of Jesus, probably a cousin seeing that Mary had no other children and James makes no attempt to explain who his father was, as opposed to who Jesus’ Father was. James was big-time: Jesus chose to appear to him after the Resurrection, the blessed Apostle Paul referred to James as a “pillar” of the Church and sought him out after his conversion. James was one of the few people who could rein in St. Peter, and so James was one who presided over the council of Jerusalem, and when Peter was miraculously rescued from prison, he told his friends to tell James. St. Jude, from whose epistle we hardly ever read, referred to himself as just a “brother of James,” so well known and respected was James. James thought it important to write about true religion, and so it’s important we talk about it now.
“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Seems simple enough, and for once, it actually is. There is little mystery here, James is not shrouding his words in parables, he is not dancing around the injunction. What we call religion, what we call worship, what we call faith is dead without works. Religion is useless, James said, if we do not bridle our tongues but instead deceive our own hearts; James echoes what we heard last week from his cousin when Jesus told us that it is not what goes into a man’s body that defiles but what comes out. Out of our hearts comes all manner of wickedness, but James reminds us that true religion bridles that wickedness, true religion chokes the flow of wickedness before it reaches our tongues and defiles us. James reminds us that even though we are all sinners and all capable of more sin, that Jesus gave us the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth, He gave us the Church to rein us in, Jesus gave us a place, He gave us a Way, He gave us Himself, so that true religion might take root in us and bear the fruits of good works.
Here at Christ Church we live out this command of James; the widow and the orphan are visited and cared for, after a manner of speaking. Our faith is evident here, we see it in the care we take of our church, we smell it every third Sunday when we cook for HomeFront, it is felt every time the sick and the bereaved wrap themselves in one of our prayer shawls; our faith is used in our schools when the children of this city use the supplies our Outreach folks brought to them, our faith helped bring comfort and communication to him and her who has borne the battle when they use the supplies and phone cards this parish helped the Legion to buy, our faith is seen in the faces of our Church School children when our dedicated teachers show them the good news of God in Christ.
I believe that religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is here at Christ Church, I can see it, smell it, and touch it, I can feel it in my bones and in my heart. So let us strive on to finish the work we have been given to do, to strengthen the many ways our faith is already evident to the world and make new ways to care for the orphan and the widow in their distress. We can do this work, but we can’t do it without you, every one of you. So ask yourself, are you ready for true religion?