Summary: To fail to do what is right is not only sin, but is unproductive. What of our knowledge resources and our financial resources? Are they making a difference? If not, no gain.

Calverton Baptist Church, Silver Spring, MD, August 15, 1982; Takoma Park Baptist Church, Washington, DC, Sept. 30, 1984)

Preachers find sermons in all sorts of strange places, and I found this one in a bottle!

Now you can just stop thinking what you are thinking and listen to what I mean!

You see, as nearly as I can remember, the first money I ever earned outside of being generously rewarded by my grandmother for little jobs I performed for her, the first money I ever earned outside the family, I earned underneath the bleachers at the baseball stadium not far from our home.

Now once again you can just stop thinking what you are thinking about what may go on underneath baseball bleachers. Hear me out on this!

The job was to pick up all the soft drink bottles dropped by thirsty fans and to return them to the concession stand. All night long, while others watched the doubleheader and cheered their favorite teams, I snatched bottles from under those stands, stacked them in cases, and triumphantly marched them back to the stand where I collected something like 25¢ for each case of 24 bottles. The point was that each bottle in those days cost 3¢, and so the owner would rather give up one cent and have them picked up than to give up three cents or have to pick them up himself. Thus a night’s work for a twelve-year-old boy.

But eventually the job disappeared. It disappeared with a new kind of bottle, one marked with ominous words, words that sound like a warning, words that marked my demise as a bottle boy. No deposit, no return. No deposit, no return: meaning, of course, that the bottle was free. One paid nothing for it, one need not return it. No deposit, no return. I was rif’ed by a bottle imprint.

But, I say you can find a sermon in that, and so perhaps the old bottle boy job will serve me one more time before I let it go completely. You can find a sermon in the label, No deposit, No return, if you twist the meaning of the words just a bit. I'll read them like this: No deposit, no return; if you do not deposit, you will receive no return. If you do not invest, you will not gain; if you will not perform, if you will not give, then there will be no profit to you or to anyone else. No deposit? Then no return.

And in our text for today the apostle James says much the same thing, in his own way. He is trying to make the point that if we do not do something we ought, if we fail to do something which obviously ought to happen, then we have lost, we have struck out morally. And he puts it this way: “Whoever knows what is right to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” “Whoever knows what is right to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” In other words, no deposit; therefore no return.


At heart, I suspect that James would want us to understand that essentially he is identifying the sin of self-satisfaction. The sin of self-satisfaction, the sin of supposing that we are getting by, we are keeping ourselves guiltless by refraining from this and than. We may define ourselves, you see, by all the things we do not do; there are folks out there who, when you tell them you are a Baptist, begin to grin and shake their heads and pity you just a little. After all, as one person said to me, “If you don’t drink and you don’t smoke and you don’t play the horses, what DO Baptists do?” We may define ourselves by all the things we do not do; but how easily this leads us to the sin of self-satisfaction. How readily we can wrap our cloaks of righteousness around ourselves and imagine that we are better than the great unwashed out there.

Let me ask you to allow your imagination to roam with me for a moment. Let me ask you to imagine a situation in which the parents of a new-born infant, in order to protect their child, decide that they would place him in some kind of isolation chamber from his earliest childhood. They would try to keep him from being exposed to anything which would harm him or infect him. They would send food in by way of sterile openings, they would wear sterile gloves when handling him. Everything would be done to protect this child from the normal but dangerous environment. And, by the way, this is not really so fanciful, because occasionally a child is born whose natural immunity systems fail and thus it is necessary to protect the child from any possibility of infection.

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