The Strength of Sympathy

Scripture: Hebrews 4:12-16

An Intro Completely Unconnected to Current Events

Let us imagine, just for a moment, that we were seeking to fill an important and highly valued role in society. Maybe we could even imagine that this role had a judicial dimension……and maybe even an intercessory role—in the sense of interceding in those moments requiring clarity, standing in the place that determines what is right or wrong, acceptable or unacceptable, justice or a violation….. I know it might be challenging, but try really hard to imagine it.

Because the author of Hebrews also imagines such a place and such a time. And in that imagining, the author presents us with two candidates for this high office. 

There is a dramatic difference between the two candidates, in the author’s perspective. This difference affects whether or not they are fit for the office in question…… It affects their ability to be the person they are called to be in that role by fellow humanity and by God. 

What is this dramatic difference?…… The difference between the two is sympathy.

Door #1

Our translators render in v.15: “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness.” 

That’s example #1…… candidate #1…… official #1…… 

This official is one who is unable to sympathize with weakness…… Weakness…… What is “weakness” in our minds today? What do we think of when we think of those who are “weak”?

Do we think of children?

Of victims of abuse?

Do we imagine women or men?

The elderly?

What about the homeless?

Or refugees?

Or those in extreme poverty?

Do we think of specific places…way over there?

Do we think of ourselves?

Increasingly, when I think about “weakness” I find myself thinking about true disciples of Jesus. Think about it…… Think about what life would be like if we really took Jesus at his word:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34 NRSV)

“Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor.” (Luke 18:22 NRSV)

“Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (Mark 10:15 NRSV)

This first high priest has none of that. [v.15 slide] This first high priest is unable to sympathize with weakness. Instead, this first high priest symphatizes—we are left to presume—not with weakness with but strength. This is a high priest who would speak for power. This is a high priest who would value those with influence, those with wealth, those with respect……

But you know what? 

According to Hebrews, that official is not the kind we need.

Door #2

The official we need is not the one who is unable to sympatize with weakness, but the one who has experienced every weakness, or to use the words of the author of Hebrews in v.15: “we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.”

Now, next week we’re going to build on this point in particular, exploring more about Jesus’s role—how Jesus is able to function for us on account of being sympathetic with our weakness. 

Today, I am hoping to help us see both that Jesus sympathizes with weakness, and the kinds of experiences that Jesus is able to sympathize with. 

Scandal (Matthew 1)

We don’t have to get very far into Jesus’ life before we begin to see hardship. In fact, his problems started before he was even born.

The very pregnancy that bore him also bore the weight of scandal. While scripture thankfully doesn’t record the murmurings of the gossip-mongers, the accusations and suppositions against Jesus’s mother Mary became so great that Joseph thought divorce was the only option for either of them to have any type of life. One can almost imagine the violent and aggressive speech that would force a person to have to move, to get divorced, and to have their life destroyed forever. Almost, we can imagine something like that today. But I’m talking about the story of Jesus’s birth in Matthew 1, of course……

Anybody here ever face some kind of scandal?

Unimportant (Luke 2)

That family (that almost didn’t make it) had some other strikes against it too. They were so insignificant in their own extended family that they—Joseph and the severely pregnant Mary—were forced to sleep in the quarters where the animals would be housed when it was cold. Other family members more significant would have been offered the guest and main rooms upstairs. (Luke 2:7)

And of course the city of Jesus’s birth was so unimportant that the Bible—the bible—calls it one of the “little clans” (in Micah 5:2). If that isn’t a slight I don’t know what is.

Anybody here at odds with family members?

Anybody here from a family with no real fame? (or certainly no good name?)

Persecuted by Government (Matthew 2)

Of course, for an insignificant kid Jesus caused quite a stir. His birth prompts a genocide that he himself narrowly escapes from. King Herod, a megalomaniac and power-hungry king famous for siding with Rome against his fellow countrymen, decided this rumored baby-who-would-become-king was too great a threat. He does not seek to find out who Jesus is so he can neutralize this single threat; he instead decides to have all the male toddlers and infants in the whole city slaughtered. 

Most of us, I would imagine, cannot even really comprehend genocide, despite the fact it has happened and continues to happen in our own lifetime. 

But I do suspect some might know what it feels like to be on the wrong side of the law, or for the government to be a real obstacle to you or your family’s health and wellbeing. I know I do.

Refugee (Matthew 2)

Now of course, Jesus’s parents could not stay where they were. The threat of violence—a very much realized violence in their absence—was simply too great. So they did what families and individuals have done for thousands of years: they left. They abandoned home, family, friends, jobs, doctors, grocery stores, favorite restaurants, and what wealth they could not carry……and they became refugees.

Anyone here ever have to abandon their home and everything they have known in order to flee violence? I know there are some in our community who have. There may be some in our community who still need to, as well.

Prejudice against Place of Origin (John 1)

Of course, Jesus’s family didn’t stay in Egypt. After a time (after Herod died, at least), they returned to the province of Judea. They still seem to have been quite wary of the government, because they found a real hole-in-the wall to live in. I mean: if they had the Witness Protection Program back then, this is where they’d send the folks who testified against the mob. 

But it worked—in the sense that Jesus was able to grow up in complete obscurity. But it backfired too: Jesus was discounted because of where he came from (John 1:46). He faced prejudice because of where he once lived.

Anyone ever face prejudice because of where you were born? Or where you live now or previously? 

Ever disrespected because you live in Kansas, or Atchison (wherever that is)??

They brought the SWAT team to arrest him (Mark 14)

It may be that all this contributed to Jesus’s reputation as something of a hooligan. At least, that’s they way they approached him when his enemies decided to wield the state against him. They brought the whole SWAT team to that grove named Gethsemane in order to arrest him, causing even Jesus himself to marvel at how over-gunned they were (Mark 14:48-49).

Have you ever been arrested?

Have you ever looked into the barrel of a gun?

Have you ever had an enemy amass a ludicrous number of allies against you?

Unjustly Convicted of a Crime—Race Played a Role (Luke 22-23)

Jesus is arrested, of course. And even though he is unarmed and offers no resistance, his arrest is not without bloodshed. Escalated violence results in escalated violence; that is the way things have always been. 

Jesus faces not one but four trials—all of them shams, of course. The scriptures tell of perjured testimony (Mark 14:56), they suggest bribed witnesses (Matthew 26:59), they describe biased and prejudiced judges, and they relate (multiple times!) that everyone involved knew of Jesus’s innocence. There is not even a hint of integrity…… or pretense…… of justice that is offered. Jesus is unjustly convicted of a crime he did not commit, and he faces a sentence far in excess of what the law even prescribed—had he been guilty.

Have you ever been the victim of a false accusation?

Have you ever suffered for something that wasn’t your fault?

Have you ever had to experience the injustice that sometimes comes at the hand of the judicial system?

Have you ever been victimized by “the system” that it might maintain the status quo—which may be working for other people but obviously isn’t for you?

Jesus’s “Weakness”

You see, these are the things Jesus experienced. These are the “weaknesses” that were forced upon him by his culture and society. Some of them—when we speak so frankly about them—probably make you uncomfortable…… I know they do me.

But the fact remains that the people that Jesus is going to identify with are the ones who have similar experiences. That’s just how sympathy works. We sympathize with someone who has been through what we’ve been through. The people in this world that Jesus has sympathy for (and with) are the ones who are in those circumstances as well…… 

the scandalized, 

the unimportant and the discounted, 

the ones run over by the government and the falsely accused and convicted; 

prisoners and refugees; 

victims of prejudice and unnecessary violence; 

those harmed because they are the wrong race, or they won’t play by the right rules, or they threaten someone’s power.

This is what Jesus experienced in this world, so these are people Jesus has a strong sympathy with.

Back to Hebrews (v.16)

All this then drives us to the prayer of v.16:

“Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16 NRSV)

The fact that we have a sympathetic high priest in Jesus opens up important possibilities for us. 

Because Jesus has sympathy with us…… we are able to approach the throne of God.

Because Jesus has sympathy with us……we know that the throne of God is somewhere we will find grace.

Because Jesus has sympathy with us…… all shame is driven out of us (as light drives out darkness) and we are liberated to a boldness in God’s presence.

Because Jesus has sympathy with us…… we know we will receive mercy.

There’s one more thing here too, and this last one is huge but easily missed—often because, as in the NIV we read from each week, it is incorrectly translated. The NIV translators added some words (“us” and “our”) to that last phrase, redirecting the help inwardly instead of outwardly as the author of Hebrews has actually written. It’s not that we “receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” but that we “receive mercy and find grace to help in our time of need.”

Because Jesus has sympathy with us…… we discover in ourselves the grace to help others in a time of need. In other words, because Jesus has sympathy with us…… we are empowered to be sympathetic with others.

The Word of God (Outro)

Come back with me to Hebrews 4:12-13 again: 

“Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow;
it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 

And before him [God] no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.” (Hebrews 4:12–13 NRSV)

This is the discernment piece. This is how we recognize where our sympathies and our allegiances and our actions need to lie. We receive mercy and find grace with a purpose, and that purpose is to help in time of need. 

How is it we are to discern how to help? 

A part of that involves the kind of radical honesty we see in vv.12-13… A radical commitment to exposing those darknesses within ourselves—in our present and in our past. We make this commitment because we truly believe that God already knows those things, and that God is our only and true and one righteous judge. 

And that means it does not matter much what others think of these things and of these circumstances for us.

Because sympathy—as it turns out—is a strength that proves more than sufficient……not only to draw us to God and to each other, but to transform this world: from top to bottom, from inside to out.

To God be the glory. Amen.

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Experiencing God

Scripture: Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12

An Experience

What a remarkable experience of God we have had already.

We have met God:

in welcome

in prayer

in song

in scripture

and in community—in each other.

On this World Communion Sunday, it seems altogether appropriate to find ourselves at this text of Hebrews, where the author—whoever she or he may have been—reflects on the variety of ways that God is made known to us, and how we encounter and experience God variously.

From the “many and various ways [of] the prophets” referred to in 1:1……

To the “testimony by signs, and wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit” mentioned in 2:4……

To the marveling with the psalmist of God’s compassionate care of we human beings in 2:6-8……

And so on.

Truly we encounter God in a variety of ways.

Some of us experience God powerfully through nature:

in the technicolor glory of a sunset

in the heart-stopping power of a thunderstorm

in the unearthly silence of freshly-fallen snow

Some of us encounter God through music:

in the clever turning of a lyric that stabs the heart

in the movement of melody that causes the spirit to soar

in the rhythm that transports you to another place

Still others of us encounter God through learning and study…

Or through silence and solitude……

Or…… well…… the list goes on and on.

Sacred Pathways

Author Gary Thomas argues (in Sacred Pathways) that there are nine basic ways that we interact with God. While he suggests that these are personality driven (and thus one of these is usually more dominant in each of us), he also concedes that it is rare to find someone who only identifies with one of them. Here are his categories (think about which ones fit you best):

Enthusiasts: Worship and celebration are words that appeal to you. You desire inspiration and feel close to God when inspired.

Naturalists: You experience God best out in nature, in God’s world. You feel closest to God on a hike, sitting beside a brook or river, or simply being outside.

Sensates: You appreciate beauty, art and music. You feel closest to God when listening to music, working with your hands, or viewing art or photography.

Activists: You want to be part of a social or evangelistic cause. You feel close to God taking faith-risks and seek growing dependence on God while striving for justice and against evil.

Traditionalists: You are drawn to God through ritual, symbol, and sacrifice. You need something tangible to do to draw close to God.

Caregivers: You love God best by loving people. You feel close to God when serving the poor, hosting people in your home, or helping with a church event.

Intellectuals: You experience God best with your mind. You love to study and have a need to learn new things about God.

It may or may not be clear here, but this diversity of approach and experience can make being the church together really complicated. But it also makes our community experience of God incredibly rich and beautiful.

There is no right answer here. Nor is there a wrong answer. 

As we pay attention to how we individually and collectively experience God, we will continue to discover just how different we are from each other. But we will also learn that the God we experience is in fact the same, known most fully through Jesus the Christ. 

Back to Hebrews

That’s the vital truth with which the whole book of Hebrews begins. Chapter 1 verse 3 proclaims that Christ “is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being” (NRSV). For all the ways we experience God, there is none so complete, full, and reliable as our experience of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God. 

All other ways of knowing and experiencing God are inherently incomplete. That doesn’t mean they aren’t good, or helpful, or worthwhile. It just means that the ultimate measure of who God is is Christ. What we discover in our study, or our contemplation, or our worship, or our caregiving, our our pursuit of justice, or whatever—all of it needs compared to the measuring stick of Christ.

 

We baptists have historically fought and died for the right of each person to navigate their own relationship with God, and to be able to understand and follow the bible without the need of an external interpreter. To use our official American Baptist language, each is free to read the bible responsibly within community. But just because each person can be an interpreter does not mean that each interpretation is accurate. Hebrews reminds us how those interpretations need to be evaluated—they are to be compared with Christ: Is this what Jesus did? Is this how Jesus would respond? Is this what Jesus taught? Is this consistent with what Jesus revealed to us about God?

For all the changes in the world across the ages, these questions never cease to be relevant.

Jesus is the measure of our experience of God. And as long as that is the case, even though our paths and priorities may be different, we will discover we are indeed moving toward the same God who is intent on loving us.

The Power of Prayer

Scripture: James 5:13-20

The Right Reverend Is in the House!

Sisters and brothers, I’m glad you’re here today. Because today…… TODAY!…… God is going to solve all your problems.

Is anybody sick? They should pray and they’ll be well.

Anybody need more money? Pray for it.

Car broke down? Pray for it.

Unsure how to respond in the wake of Hurricane Florence? Pray for it.

Feel bad because nobody liked your Facebook post? Pray for it.

Not sure what kind of chicken to cook for dinner? Pray for it.

[wince and shake head, like headache or cloudy thoughts]

Sorry, for a second there, I thought I was one of those TV preachers.

And forgive this silly illustration, but I think this is kind of the way we usually hear James in these verses. The bulk of our scripture reading appears to simply prescribe prayer in the face of the world’s troubles, and it insists that such prayer “works”: people are “raised up” (v.15) and “healed” (v.16); and prayer itself is lauded as “powerful and effective” (v.16) and appears miraculous (vv.17-18).

James is a book that makes things simple for us, but I think when many of us read these verses, we think James has gone a bit too far—he’s made things sooo little-kid simple that it doesn’t really describe the same grown-up world we live in. It all seems too fairy-tale for us to really believe.

Backlash

I’m not blaming James for this, but I’ve noticed something similar in conversation from time to time. When I recommend prayer to people who are experiencing hardship, there is often a backlash of sorts. 

What does prayer have to do with anything?

How is praying supposed to help?

Why should I talk to God about it? Doesn’t God already know about my suffering? 

I understand this backlash. For some time now, I’ve been convinced that prayer has been approached with far too flippant an attitude among american Christianity. When something goes wrong in someone else’s life (and rarely do we suggest this solution for ourselves) we offer our “thoughts and prayers,” as though casting them generally in the direction of God absolves us of the injustice and evil that brought such painful experiences into being in the first place.

On top of that, we humans like to trust in what our eyes see and our hands touch. Which means that even I—a seminary graduate and an ordained American Baptist pastor—even I struggle to explain how prayer “works.”

I know it’s not like a gum-ball machine, where you put in your quarter and an answer comes out.

I know God isn’t some strict and vindictive authority, waiting for us to say “pretty please” before being willing to save us from utter devastation.

I know the answers we pray for don’t always come; and that when they do, they aren’t always the answers we wanted.

I don’t really know how prayer works. And I don’t believe there is any human being who really does.

Many Prayers

What I do know, however, is the power of prayer—or to put it differently: that prayer does work.

I have prayed many prayers over my lifetime. I have prayed for healing and for hope, for survival and for death, for discernment and for forgiveness. I have prayed for hours straight, and I have prayed for a split second. I have cried and yelled aloud to God; and I have prayed with a silence so deep it echoed. I have prayed in solitude, and I have prayed alongside thousands.

There are many stories that can be told about these prayers, and most of these stories involve a divine response—some sort of God-presence in the midst of the situation. They are stories of the power of prayer—or really, the power of God through prayer—as God responds and embeds God’s-self into the fabric of my and others’ very being.

Genesis 25

Author Herbert Lockyer claims that there are over 650 prayers in the bible, not counting what is found in the psalms (All the Prayers of the Bible, p.5). Of this multitude, he says that “no less than 450 have recorded answers.” That percentage seems about right to me. Around two-thirds of the prayer stories I might share involve “answers” in some way, shape, or form. 

But that percentage is deceptive, because it is not true that two-thirds of my prayers have been answered. In fact, I would dare say that the number of answered prayers across my lifetime are utterly dwarfed by the number of unanswered ones. But I think this too is biblical; we just need to read the bible more closely than we’re used to doing.

An example: Back in Genesis 25, the story of God’s people is in a place of struggling toward transition. Abraham has been getting older, Isaac is moving more to the front of the story, and we (the readers who know the rest of the story) are edging our expectation towards the birth of Jacob—whose own experience of God will give the people of Israel their name. 

But there’s a problem—and one that becomes apparent shortly after Isaac and Rebekah get married: they are unable to have children. This is a big deal today for those wanting to have biological children, but in Isaac’s day procreation was bound up with concepts of sin, divine favor, and even eternal life…… not to mention that promise of God that Abraham’s descendants will be as innumerable as the stars in the sky or the sand of the seashore. What of that?

So Isaac does what faithful people tend to do—he prayed. Here’s what Genesis 25 tells us in v.21:

“Isaac prayed to the LORD for his wife, because she was barren; and the LORD granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived.” (Genesis 25:21 NRSV)

At first glance, it is exactly what we expect of the bible (and perhaps ourselves). Isaac prays, God hears, and God acts. And all within One. Short. Verse.

The truth of Isaac’s prayer is far more earthy and real. Looking back up to v.20, the narrator of Genesis tells us that “Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah” (Genesis 25:20 NRSV). Given the importance of children in that day and the high child-mortality rate, we would expect that Isaac and Rebekah discovered their inability to conceive rather quickly.

But if we jump down to the latter part of v.26—part of the summary statement after the birth of his sons Esau and Jacob—we are told that “Isaac was sixty years old when [Rebekah] bore them” (Genesis 25:26 NRSV). 

Take a moment and do the math: sixty when they are born; forty when they got married.

That’s a Twenty. Year. Gap.

twenty years of uncertainty

twenty years of worry

twenty years of blame

twenty years of dashed hopes

twenty years of theological crisis

twenty years of unanswered prayers.

And yes, I did say prayerSSSS. Because I do not believe that Isaac prayed once for God to act, and then with utter and complete confidence in God’s eventual timing waited this whole thing out. I cannot believe that, because if there is one thing we know about Isaac, it is that he is a human being. 

I think he prayed over and over……with tears, and a heavy heart, and anger, and doubt, and shouts, and silence, and desperation, and so so much more. 

When James offers the proverb of v.16 of our scripture lesson—”The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective”—I do not think he intends us to believe that the prayer of a good person produces a result that is instantaneous and exactly what we want.

I think rather that (as we read James) we should imagine Isaac, praying (as persistently as the widow in Jesus’ parable of the unjust judge) that God will…… in God’s mercy…… act.

Prayer Is Relational

Here’s what I do know about prayer: Prayer is about relationship, and relationships live or die by communication.

Anyone who has gone through premarital counseling with me would tell you that I bang on communication like nothing else. If a couple can talk together and really communicate—their emotions, their hopes, their despairs, and everything in between—then they will be able to get through anything. But it takes being willing to share—and being willing to listen—more vulnerably and intentionally than comes natural for any of us.

Why would we think our relationships within the church of Jesus Christ would be any different?

Why would we think our relationship with God would be any different?

There is a tremendous power within a family when the relationship between spouses is strong. That family will be able to weather storms that would destroy mere mortals. In the act of two-becoming-one, they discover they are far stronger together than they ever could be alone. Each yields strength in a way that is multiplied—exponentially—within the community of family.

And so it is with God. In the relationship that is grown with God—as we two (God and us) become one—a strength is grown and shared…… a power develops…… A power that I would suggest becomes known through prayer. 

Children’s Stories

One of my joys as a parent is coming home to an exuberant child who just can’t wait to tell me about something amazing they learned in school. 

Dad! Did you know it’s summer in the southern hemisphere when it’s winter where we live?

Dad! Did you know a tiger’s skin is striped like its fur?

Dad! Did you know that any number times zero equals zero? Go ahead, give me any math problem times zero and I can tell you the answer!

Less enjoyable but just as meaningful are the times when they are saddened or disturbed by something, and they share it with me with furrowed brow, knowing that this is something I too will be disturbed to learn.

In either situation, many times—though not all—I of course do already know. But how do we, as loving parents, respond?

We don’t say: “Of course I know that; everybody knows that.”

No. We instead respond with love, knowing instinctively that listening and sharing in this important moment builds the love we share and intensifies the relationship we have.

Why would we ever think it is different with God?

Why would we ever think it should be different between members of the body of Christ?

Keep on Keeping on

There’s a great lyric in a Courtney Barnett song (“Sunday Roast”) that has been bouncing around my head as I’ve been reflecting on prayer this week. It goes:

Keep on keeping on
You know you’re not alone
And I know all your stories
But I’ll listen to them again

As a parent, that’s the kind of love and presence I want to be for my kids. And I can’t help but think that this is somehow analogous to my relationship with God as well, albeit the other way around. 

God knows what’s going on in my life.

God knows my pain and my sorrow, as well as my joys and celebrations.

God knows my past and my present.

God knows all my stories better than I know them myself.

Yet God, like a loving parent, never tires of that deepening connection when we open up about the most important—and the most trivial—things in our lives. 

Part of the power of prayer may well be experiencing that kind of love that encourages us to continue, that assures us of presence, and that never tires of listening to us share our story.

Back to James

Whether it is immediately obvious or not, I think this gets us a lot closer to what James actually intends in these verses. His book—as we’ve discussed repeatedly over the past weeks—is deeply rooted in the wisdom tradition of James’ bible—our Old Testament. 

From the proverbs of chapter one, 

to the back-to-basics of faith in chapter two, 

to the ways we undermine ourselves and the cause of Christ in chapter 3, 

to the ways we are called to live out the wisdom of the way of Jesus later in chapter 3 and into chapter 4—

through it all, James is directing us in how to live out our faith in a consistent, holistic, and life-affirming way.

Thus, as we arrive at these injunctions to pray and these assurances of the power of prayer, we should know that James is not being flippant about these difficult life issues. He is dead serious. Because he wants (I believe) to help us see how the relational component of prayer is the cornerstone on which everything else rests. (And when I speak of the relational component of prayer here, I mean both horizontally between Christians, and vertically between the Christian and God)

It is through the deepening of relationship that happens in prayer that we discover how we are called to live the “good life” of Jesus in our own context. 

Relationship gives meaning to the proverbs,

Relationship provides a foundation for the basics of faith,

Relationship engenders the power to resist degrading the image of God in others,

And relationship leads us in the wisdom to walk the path of Jesus.

The Communal Connection

And if we had any doubt that James intended all this, (James 5:19-20) he concludes this passage (and his book) with a reminder of our responsibility to care for each other. This is not a shift from what he has been talking about, but rather the culmination of it. 

None of who God calls us to be is for ourselves. 

None of the transformation God brings about in our lives is for our benefit alone. 

None of the wisdom we experience is only for our own edification. 

We are not redeemed for our own well-being…… We are redeemed that we might be agents of Christ’s kingdom. 

We are not saved so we can go to heaven when we die…… We are saved so God can use us in the redemption of others. 

And it is—to put no fine point on it—it is the power of prayer that makes all this possible. 

Wisdom in the Wild

Scripture: James 3:13-4:3

Wisdom

Wise. 

The very word conjures up wizened figures, towering over us like Gandolf the Grey. Or maybe you imagine monasteries on top of far-flung mountains. Or maybe your first connection is to a grandparent or other elder or mentor you respect and have loved.

Most of us wouldn’t immediately think of ourselves—or at least decorum wouldn’t allow us to admit it.

Wisdom (we often think) is something other people have. It is “out there,” on mountaintops or some other sacred spaces.

But much of the book of James intends to call followers of Jesus to discover and cultivate true wisdom in themselves. To understand this, though, we’ve got to consider wisdom the way that James himself does—through the lens of his scriptures, the Old Testament.

Old Testament Wisdom

While it may not be as popular a topic as sacrifice, or social justice, or kingship, or prophecy, the concept of wisdom is really at the forefront of the biblical story. And that’s not a surprise, when we consider what the biblical authors actually mean when they talk about wisdom. 

When we use the word “wisdom” today, we often refer to some sort of etherial knowledge……a kind of uncanny insight into the truth of things. Wisdom to us is a mysterious and elusive thing; we’re not entirely sure what it is or how to find it.

For the biblical writers, however, wisdom is a very earthy, here-and-now concept. At it’s most rudimentary, the biblical definition of wisdom is “knowledge about how to live a good life.” How to live a good life. That’s something we human beings have struggled to discover since our very beginning……and continue to do so today.

 

The world is full of people who want to tell you right from wrong, what to do, and how to live. Every month there’s a new guru being touted on the talk shows…… a new diet being pushed by the magazines….. a new study about which foods are healthy or harmful….. a new book being sold to churches. “This will revolutionize your life, get you the body you dreamed of, allow you to live 20% longer, and bring you closer to God,” they say. 

But that’s not what usually happens. 

We humans have been searching for “the good life” since the literal beginning—as in Eden. And in the terminology of the biblical writers, knowledge about how to find it has been called “wisdom.” 

While the scriptures are full of this ancient wisdom, it finds particular concentration in the books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job, and Psalms. And because there are all kinds of false wisdom that run rampant throughout our world and culture, we have always needed distinctions and contrasts between true wisdom and false wisdom…… between real wisdom that brings about “the good life” and the fraudulent forms that sound good, but deceive and destroy.

In the book of Proverbs, this contrast is illustrated by the personification of the two life paths: Woman Wisdom and Dame Folly. Wisdom is honorable, faithful, kind, and values both self and others. Folly, in contrast, is unfaithful, untruthful, deceptive, and cares only for herself.

Proverbs, Redux

James—building as he does on the wisdom tradition of his scriptures—offers a similar contrast in today’s reading. Dame Folly—to use the language of Proverbs—is filled with bitter envy and selfish ambition, she is boastful and untruthful, and she lives a disordered and wicked life (James 3:14-16). Woman Wisdom—as James describes her—is “pure, …peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy” (James 3:17 NRSV).

It’s quite the contrast, and one that risks deceiving with its simplicity. 

Because it’s not always easy to discern which path is which, except in hindsight. Deception is called deception because we are tricked. And deception is what the bible says has happened to us when we sin. James himself elaborates on this in the first chapter of his letter. He says:

“No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one.”

“But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death. Do not be deceived, my beloved.” (James 1:13–16 NRSV)

That’s the way sin works. We think we are doing the right thing, but we just aren’t. We think we are on God’s side, but we’ve left the path of Christ. We think we are being faithful to Woman Wisdom, but we have instead slept with Dame Folly.

 

One of the things I appreciate about James is how his writing is down-to-earth and in terms that are easy to comprehend. For all Paul’s strengths, his use of the principles of greco-roman debate and his complicated theological terminology can sometimes distract from what he’s trying to say. Not so with James. 

In today’s passage, James isn’t interested in something so academic as defining good and evil, or explaining the mechanism of redemption, or demonstrating continuity with Abraham. Instead, he wants to help Christians recognize wisdom in the wild—not so that they can find it for themselves, but rather, so that they can express the wisdom they already have within them as redeemed disciples of Christ. Because Christ has showed us the “more excellent way” (to quote Paul), we have seen wisdom perfectly personified in the way Jesus himself lived. As is so often the case, we know the answer—we know what we are called to be—but we struggle to deliver it.

Which is why James breaks it down even further. In v.18, James distills this whole notion of embodying wisdom and living the good life into a single, simple, yet complete reminder:

“A harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.” (James 3:18 NRSV)

Wisdom & Peacemaking

Wisdom and peacemaking are (perhaps) not two terms we would immediately put together. Sure, we might acknowledge that one probably flows from the other, but we certainly wouldn’t put as fine a point on it as does James.

But given the way the following verse [4:1] begins, it cannot be denied that James is drawing a straight line between the two. There he asks some questions that remain vital questions for us to ask even today:

“Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts…” (James 4:1–2 NRSV)

Those conflicts and disputes among us? Where do they come from?

Where do they come from?! They come from following Dame Folly instead of Woman Wisdom. They come about because we have been deceived into following a false light. They enter our lives because we don’t follow in the footsteps of Love incarnate, Jesus the Christ—who calls us brothers and sisters and friends and children together of the true and living God.

 

“A harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.” (James 3:18 NRSV)

For James, peacemaking is what wisdom looks like in the wild. Peacemaking is the distillation of Woman Wisdom. Peacemaking is the path of our master and teacher Jesus. 

Peacemaking, then, serves as a kind of litmus test of faith. No matter who you are, or where you are, or the context you are in, if you are not sowing the seeds of peace, then you are not working for the Eternal Gardener of creation.

Of course, James’s audience didn’t stand up to this scrutiny either. That’s why he offered some ideas for how to get right with God, to get back on Jesus’s path, and to become peacemakers for God’s Kingdom. In 4:7 and following, he offers this:

“Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” (James 4:7–10 NRSV)

Church, I truly believe we have some real saints in our midst. I have witnessed this week and nearly every week how someone (or several someones) in our family of faith follows a radical and self-sacrificing path of caring for another. 

I can testify to receiving this grace myself—and my family—more times than I dare try to count. And I am regularly amazed at the rapid and generous response that we manage to produce in the face of crisis—be it localized in an individual, a family, our community, or even further afield. 

But there is not one of us who is immune from Folly’s deception. There is not one of us who does not need to follow these directions toward repentance and the pursuit of wholeness and God-likeness. There is not one of us walks Christ’s path without deviation.

Let us humble ourselves.
Let us lament and mourn and weep.
Let us submit—entirely—to God, and place ourselves under the lordship of Jesus.

“Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom” (James 3:13 NRSV)

“A harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.” (James 3:18 NRSV)

What Is but “Ought Not”

Scripture: James 3:1-12

One-Upping James

Preachers are a strange breed of people.

Here is a passage of scripture that is packed to the gills with metaphors and analogies:

bits and ships

winds and rudders

sparks and fires

wild beasts and domestication

all kinds of trees

and even salt and freshwater springs.

Yet there is something in the preacher that cannot help but try to come up with a new–and even better–analogy than the biblical writer. Even though I’ve encountered countless insufficient attempts at “reinventing” these metaphors, I’ve yet to hear any that could count as an improvement. And that’s probably because these metaphors still work in the world we live in.

We still use bits to control horses.

Ships still use rudders.

Sparks still cause fire.

There continue to be domesticated animals of all sorts.

Trees keep reproducing “according to their kind” as Genesis described.

And we haven’t become any more adept at drinking salt water.

It all still works. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to attempting brainstorming some “improvements” myself.

“Ought”

There’s also something different about the way we preachers think about things. It may be our training, it may be our observations, it may be the painful stories of others we have heard. But whatever the reason, there are times something that appears mundane takes on extraordinary significance to a preacher. And this text has one of these challenges for me, too.

It’s found in what looks like a passing–and plain–phrase in v.10: the verse that really represents the heart of the whole reading. In the New Revised Standard Version, it reads: 

“From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.” (James 3:30 NRSV)

It’s that “ought”–or in the NIV, “should”–that raises my pastoral hackles a bit. Let me try to explain why.

The Weapon of Fear

There are a number of weapons that the Enemy uses against us with great efficiency. The greatest of these, I believe is fear. There are countless stories in both Old and New Testaments wherein someone reacts with fear, instead of love or trust in God, and clearly deviates from the path of God-likeness. Elsewhere in the New Testament, 1John argues that fear and love are opposites. Looking at the world around us, and reflecting on our human history in both the recent and more distant past, it’s not too hard to find our own illustrations of human actions driven by fear, and the disastrous consequences for humanity (and too-often, for the reputation of Christ and God’s Kingdom).

The Weapon of the Illusion of Self-Sufficiency

Another weapon I see deployed with startling efficiency might be confused with pride, but it’s the actually the illusion of self-sufficiency. It is the deception that we are enough in and of ourselves. While other factors certainly came into it, this is the core of the deception of the first humans in Eden: they don’t need God to determine right from wrong; they can do it themselves. 

Again, the scriptures are littered with stories of our defeat by this weapon. Perhaps most obviously, this weapon was used in bringing about the defeat of both the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 BC, and again that of the Southern Kingdom of Judah around 140 years later. Instead of trusting in God for safety and prosperity, they trusted in their ability to navigate foreign alliances. They thought they could do a better job themselves, but it proved to be precisely their dalliances with these other nations that brought about their defeat. 

And once again, we don’t have to think too hard to be convicted about our own illusions of self-sufficiency, even as we contradictorily profess reliance on Jesus as Lord. There’s something in the very fabric of our makeup as “Americans” that imbues us with a high valuation for this deception–we want the deception to be true; we want to be self-sufficient, and we look down on those who are not.

“Deceived, we are,” Yoda might say.

The Weapon of Guilt

But a third powerful weapon (that I believe is) used by the powers of darkness against humanity with savage effectiveness is guilt. 

This may surprise you, I realize. Guilt has, after all, been part of the stock-and-trade of preachers for at least 250 years. Guilt has driven alter calls for generations. It has undergirded evangelistic endeavors. It has been used to manipulate behaviors to conform to specific religious and moral norms.

And all that shows you just how potent this weapon really is, and that even those regarded as most faithful are not immune from its deception.

Guilt paralyzes us. It does not draw us into a better version of ourself. It does not drive us toward love, but it evokes embarrassment. And that leads us to withdraw from others, to hide our brokenness, and to fall into deeper and deeper isolation. In other words, guilt makes us weaker by moving us away from God.

Back to “Ought”

Which is why I cringe when I hear people say what someone “ought” to do or “should” do. “Ought” and “should”–at least in the way we communicate here and now–is the language of guilt. 

Pastor Michael, you ought to preach more interesting sermons.

Pastor Michael, you really should dress nicer.

Pastor Michael, you ought to spend more time doing what I think is important.

There is (I hope you realize) a way of communicating all this constructively and without using words that induce guilt or shame. But when “ought” and “should” really gain destructive power is when we apply them to the past.

I really ought to have used a different illustration. Why didn’t I think of that?

So-and-so really should have learned by now… why do they keep hooking up with such losers?

Did you hear about such-and-such? They really ought to have expected this would happen!

Perhaps by now you can better see the connection to our scripture lesson.

Dangerous Speech

Despite this lengthy digression (as it might seem), I do not think James is trying to evoke guilt. I think he is instead creatively and passionately trying to illustrate a contradiction between who the community of Christ is called to be, and what they are in fact doing.

The gossiping church member has apparently been a cliche since the very beginning. 

I enjoy watching BBC murder mysteries, and it seems every episode there’s a scene where someone–usually some little old lady–exits a church building and is gossiping about someone before she even gets out of earshot of the pastor. In those mysteries, such things are sometimes redeemed, as the gossip contains hints that lead to catching the killer. In real life, however, I have yet to discover such positive outcomes of this guilt- and shame-ridden enterprise.

In Matthew 5, as Jesus is teaching his followers how to read and interpret their scriptures, he warns of the danger of words. They think that because they never laid a hand on another person that they’ve kept the command “do not murder.” But Jesus (Matt 5:22) is clear that they have murdered people with their words; to call names is to destroy something of the humanity in each other.

This isn’t any different than what James is arguing here, especially when he calls the tongue “a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8). He is not, of course, condemning the physical organ of the body, but rather the ways it is used. If we are (James 3:9-10) going to bless God as we sing and proclaim his praises, how then (James asks us) do we speak harshly and destructively about (and to) people who bear God’s image?

 

I grew up watching a lot of 1980’s sitcoms, especially of the “PI” variety. I remember a number of times when someone would start to use foul language and another character would counter “You kiss your mother with that mouth?”

That’s the sentiment James is bringing out in v.10 of this reading. Hearing the destructive ways they are speaking to and about each other, James asks, “You bless your God with that mouth?…… You speak of Jesus with that mouth?”

That’s not the way it is supposed to be, he says. 

James doesn’t want to guilt them into inaction–or into hiding or being more sneaky about their sin. James wants them to see the inconsistency between who they say they are and how they are living, and he wants that awareness to drive them toward Christ-likeness–a change that will lead them to value others more than they do currently.

You see, the image of repentance in the bible–through all the stories of failing, and there are manyrepentance is never about driving people to experience guilt. It is always about people learning of an inconsistency between what is and what can be. 

brokenness vs. wholeness

doing harm vs. bringing help

hypocrisy vs. consistency

isolating vs. bringing into community

Reconciling Work

The work that Jesus tasks us with is not to invoke guilt in others. It is not to get others to repent of their evil ways. It is not to be the morality police of the world. As “ambassadors for Christ,” the work we are called to is instead the work of reconciliation. And it’s important to note what Paul says that ministry looks like. In 2Corinthians 5, Paul says this:

“All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us.” (2Corinthians 5:18–20 NRSV)

Note the way Paul describes Jesus’s own reconciling work. He points out that it is both the same kind of work that God accomplishes through Jesus, and that this reconciling work involves “not counting their trespasses against them.” If we are doing the reconciling work of Christ too, then that will describe what we Christians are about as well.

But does it? Or do our tongues get in the way of genuinely Christ-like ministry? Christ calls us to something more. That was James’s challenge 2000 years ago, and it is just as much a challenge today.

The Basics

Scripture: James 2:1-17

Intro

I’m not sure if it’s James or the lectionary that schedules these readings and sets the limits, but lately it seems there’s something to the number four. 

Last week, we read and reflected on four proverbs that James groups in his presentation of how to make a difference in the world you live in. 

This week, he discusses four convictions—or perhaps commitments—that sum up a back-to-basics approach to how the Christian life is to be lived out.

Favoritism

This chapter begins with a blast that strikes deep, even 2000 years later:

“My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” (James 2:1 NRSV)

“Why, James!” (we respond, like some southern belle in an old movie) “What-ever do you mean?”

Fear not: James clarifies things. And even though James says “if” to frame his evidence, I can’t help but wonder if he really means: “remember that time……”

Remember that time the community leader showed up in their neatly pressed suit, and how welcoming you were of them?

Now (James asks) remember that time that young lady showed up in that halter top and slashed jeans?

Remember that time that guy arrived late in those filthy clothes and smelled of booze?

Remember that time those kids came with that new family and they kept running around and making noise during the sermon?

Remember that time there was that older person who fell asleep and kept snoring?

Remember when that known drug user was here?

Remember that homeless woman?

Remember? James asks. Do you remember how they were treated? Because they were not treated like that wealthy, important guy. There were whispers—some not as quiet as others. There was gossip the following week. Some people avoided them; others just failed to welcome them. But it was (James tells them—and us) a cataclysmic failure to embody our faith.

 

Listen.

A part of our human nature stereotypes and responds to internal prejudices. Evolutionarily, it has helped us survive as a species. But we are not called to “survive as a species.” We are called to embody Jesus the Christ, the Son of the Living God. That calling supersedes all others, no matter what. Or it should……

When we are being transformed into the image of Jesus, our stereotypes and prejudices will be challenged. As we learn to love as Christ loves the world, we will learn to look on those society discounts with compassion instead of skepticism. Through our practice of being the body of Christ, we will discover ourselves treating those on the margins as though they were themselves Jesus.

James is clear: Favoritism is incompatible with Christ.

Honor the Poor

This conviction dovetails closely with the second: God honors and values the poor and so must we. In verses 5-6, James accuses the church of dishonoring the poor and reminds them of God’s special interest in the poor of the world.

“Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor…” (James 2:5–6 NRSV)

Though James doesn’t use as many direct quotations as Paul typically does in his writings, James is no less knowledgable about their shared faith tradition. It is pretty clear that James is referencing a teaching of Jesus that will eventually be recorded in Luke’s gospel, chapter 6, verse 20: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20 NRSV).

Jesus himself is of course building on a wealth of tradition wherein God commands the faithful to care for the poor. Whether we look to the Law (cf. Deuteronomy 15), the Wisdom literature (cf. Proverbs 19:17), or the Prophets (cf. Ezekiel 16:49), we see God repeatedly telling the faithful to care for the poor, to treat them with dignity and respect, and to work generously for their benefit. God is even pretty insistent that if a person isn’t respecting the poor in these ways, their supposed faith is worthless in God’s eyes. 

As we think of James’s back-to-basics instruction for Christians, the heart of Proverbs 19:17 comes to mind. That proverb proclaims “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and will be repaid in full” (NRSV). The way we treat the poor should be the way we treat God; or—to put it in more Christian terms—the way we would treat Jesus himself is the way we should treat the poor: to do to them is to do to him.

Fulfill the Royal Law

In case all this isn’t clear enough for us, James then directs us back to what the early church considered the most central teaching of Jesus—what he terms the “Royal Law” of Christ: 

“You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (James 2:8 NRSV).

This teaching—particularly considering the way Jesus defines “neighbor” to include even one’s enemies in the parable of the Good Samaritan—this teaching is the core of how one lives a truly Christ-like life. In a section of scripture focused the basics of living a Christian life, this teaching is certainly its heart.

James is careful to connect it to the previous instructions as well.

Showing partiality is a violation of this Royal Law. 

Dishonoring the poor is a violation of this Royal Law. 

While they are busy judging others for not measuring up to their own sense of religiosity, they have themselves fallen into sin against God. Instead of prejudicing certain sins against others to inflate their sense of self-righteousness, James instructs the church to embody Jesus’s Royal Law by showing abundant mercy.

Lived Out Faith

Thus we come to the fourth commitment. Instead of your life being distinctive because of who you associate with, or what you look like, or how much “righteousness” you appear to possess, James insists that what should be distinctive about the Christian life is that our faith is known through our actions.

After insisting that “judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy” (a paraphrase of Matthew 7:1-2), James verbalizes the too-often disjointed relationship between faith and life. Having faith, he says in v.14, is of no value at all if it is not lived out in your life. He even suggests that faith alone isn’t enough to enact salvation, a statement that has proven challenging for interpreters ever since.

Our challenge as more modern readers—at least in part—is reconciling this teaching of James with those of Paul. In one of my study bibles, I found a note that I think may be helpful for us. It says:

“Paul describes the root of salvation: a person is saved by God’s grace through faith. James is explaining the fruit of salvation: saving faith is a faith that works.” (The Voice, p.1499)

I think they’re right here. Perhaps James has in mind here the parable of the soils, recorded in Matthew 13, Mark 4, and Luke 8. In that teaching of Jesus, the seed of the Gospel is received by a variety of soils—these people “have faith,” at least in a rudimentary sense. But for a variety of reasons, those seeds never produce a harvest at all. The soil that Jesus calls “good” is the soil that produces a harvest. So for James “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:17 NRSV).

 

This command by James to let your faith be known through your actions is both the final instruction of this section, as well as an illustration of the previous three principles that were discussed. 

If you are fulfilling the Royal Law of Christ, your faith is being lived out in your actions and commitments.

If you are honoring the poor, your faith is being lived out in your actions and commitments.

If you are not showing bias and prejudice, your faith is being lived out in your actions and commitments.

Politics

Now just to stir the pot one final time today (because I do seem to like pushing my luck), I’m going to make a confession: I do believe most Christians think they are living out their faith through their actions and convictions. But I’m not sure this faith is always rooted in Jesus the Christ.

Especially in our nation, and especially over the last thirty years or so, there has emerged a class of leaders that claim to speak for Christians and seek to wield that power for political gain. They have dictated to millions of Christians which issues are most “Christian” and most worthy of fighting for. Perhaps not coincidentally, these tend to the issues that are the most politically volatile, and therefore malleable for other purposes.

I do not see in them much overlap with what we are reading here in James—in a text that is specifically aimed to reveal to Christians how their faith should be made known in the world.

I do not see in them much overlap with the life of Jesus, whose “excellent name…[is] invoked over [them]” (James 2:7).

I do not see in them much overlap with the God of the Old Testament, who destroyed Sodom because she “had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49 NRSV).

You see: standing out from the world is not that difficult–there are a thousand ways we could stand out. But standing out as a Christian must be rooted in living out God’s mercy–not by voting a certain way, or dressing a certain way, or even holding certain doctrines. 

If we want to follow Jesus, the bible is pretty clear about how we are to live. But we’re going to have to start listening to the bible—and the Holy Spirit—more than we’re listening to the people who are telling us how to vote.

Our Public Image Problem

Ten or fifteen years ago, we Baptists had a major public-image problem. When an average person thought of a Baptist church they thought of the hate-spewing Westboro Baptist Church. Our public image problem was so bad, I knew of a couple churches who dropped “baptist” from their name specifically to differentiate themselves from this toxic cult. Today, most still don’t have a great image of baptists, but at least they tend to know that the Westboro Baptist Church is not representative of baptists specifically or Christians in general.

But today, I do believe american Christianity is facing a similar public-image problem. Political segments have successfully seized control of various facets of Christendom, and are controlling churches and Christians with toxic theology, and wielding them as weapons in political warfare. And many of us keep going along with it, even though these so-called Christian leaders keep changing the rules and talking out of both sides of their mouth in order to keep us supporting their people. 

The way we baptists proved we weren’t like the Westboro Baptist Church was to speak and act out in ways that proved it to the world. I think american Christianity is at a similar crossroads. If we do not begin setting our own agenda—or rather, get back to the basics of what Jesus’s agenda was about—then our reputation, our witness, and our effectiveness will wither as we “blaspheme [Jesus’s] excellent name,” as James puts it in 2:7.

Remember: “You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (James 2:8 NRSV). 

When it comes to the basics of living a Christ-like life, that’s as basic as it comes.

Four Proverbs

Scripture: James 1:17-27

Intro

Today we begin something new.

That seems apropos, because this—even more than New Year’s—is a time of new beginnings for many of us.

Students and teachers are newly back at it

Summer is waning and autumn will be quickly upon us

Vacations are past, and the long haul to Hallow-thanks-istmas is a distant mark on the calendar (regardless of what we are beginning to see in the stores)

It’s a time of settling down to some things, and gearing up for others

And so we—in worship—do the same.

For the next month, we will be reflecting on texts from the book of James in the New Testament. 

In terms of biblical texts, the gospels tend to get top billing—and rightly so, as they contain accounts of the teachings and actions of Jesus, our example and savior. 

After the gospels, we tend to privilege the writings of the apostle Paul, who—for whatever reasons—became seen as the theologian-in-chief of the early church. I’ve always found that peculiar, because Paul generally isn’t writing theology the way some of the post-biblical leaders do; he’s attending to church conflict and trying to encourage Christians to live like Jesus in an increasingly hostile context. 

The point is, books like James are often overlooked when we turn to scriptures. And that’s a shame, because James has a lot to offer the church today. 

Traditionally believed to be written by a brother of Jesus, James writes from a vastly different place than Paul. 

For Paul, conversion to the Jesus Way is a sudden and dramatic thing; this also means that the Christian life is distinguished by the way it is different than life before. 

For James, however, conversion is more evolutionary and the Christian life is distinguished by the way faith is lived out in the world. 

For Paul, a core focus is how to live the Jesus way in the world; for James, the focus is on issues of the heart—how to put your faith into practice.

I realize to some of you, these sound like remarkably similar things. But the distinction is important, I believe, because the faith that many of us possess and express is much more aligned with James’s way of discussing it than that of Paul.

Maybe this will become more clear as we go on—this week, and the weeks to come.

Since James is writing to Christian Jews wherever they may be, and given his emphasis on putting your faith into practice, it shouldn’t surprise us to find so much of this letter grounded in the wisdom tradition of the Old Testament. In books like Proverbs, Psalms, Job, Ecclesiastes, and others, our biblical authors and editors sought to record their community learnings on how to live a good, righteous, and God-pleasing life. 

Drawing off of that tradition—and building upon it—James offers the early church four new proverbs……four new pithy, easy-to-remember teachings that demonstrate “where the rubber of faith meets the road of life.”

James 1:17

The first of these is found in verse 17: “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above” (NRSV). A pastor of mine from years back was fond of paraphrasing this verse in this way: “Every good gift comes from God.” I’ve often found myself repeating this to myself and to others as well. 

Why’s this so powerful? I think it’s because many of us struggle with seeing where God is in our lives. We see the chaos. We see things going wrong. And we’re good at turning to God in those times. When all hell is breaking lose, or when death is immanent, or when it is obvious that there are not enough resources to fulfill obligations—those are times you will find me on my knees…… broken…… pleading—deeply—with God. 

But when things are going along swimmingly on an even keel—glorious sunshine and an easy breeze? In those times I tend to believe I’m more self-sufficient than I really am. And I don’t think it’s just me, either.

Remembering that “every good gift comes from God” has two primary benefits.

First, it takes our focus off the bad and chaotic and onto the good. Anyone who knows me knows I’m not naturally a “look for the silver lining” or a “keep on the sunny side of life” kind of person. But if I can break my fixation on what’s not working and see that God has miraculously brought about any good in my life, it does tend to have positive repercussions.

Secondly, I think it teaches us to actually look for what God is up to. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard folks saying they don’t know how to hear God. Well, a first step can be to simply start tuning yourself to the right frequency—to be actively looking for God’s action in your life. 

And according to James, the way we can know it is God’s action is by identifying “generous acts of giving” and the “perfect/complete/appropriate/timely gifts” that we receive. Like Fred Rogers urged us to “look for the helpers,” James urges us to marvel at the good that comes to us, and know that God had something to do with it.

James 1:19b

With the second proverb, James may well cut to the heart of a great deal of the conflict we experience in our lives and world. In verse 19, he says: “let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19 NRSV).

In terms of the proverb proper, there’s not much to add. 

We know it.
We understand it.
We just don’t do it.

And it seems we’re getting even worse at it. Five years ago this month, I was discussing with some clergy friends the state of ministry in these United States. More than anything else, we lamented how our nation seems to have forgotten how to engage in civil discourse, and how this regression divides our churches and hinders the Cause of Christ. 

At that time, I recall one of us—the oldest of the group, if it matters—remarking that he couldn’t imagine how things could get much worse before society as a whole would collapse. Well, it seems the joke’s on him, because our depravity in this way keeps plumbing deeper and deeper depths. 

And clouding it all—or perhaps fueling it all—seems to be an increasing sense of self-righteousness that somehow justifies this lack of civility and unwillingness to listen to each other. But James stresses in the following verse: “Your anger does not produce God’s righteousness” (James 1:20 NRSV). Despite our desire to cast our anger as “righteous,” James is clear that it is not God’s agenda we advance when we act on our so-called “righteous” indignation.

Now, as an aside, it is important to know that James is not talking about feelings here. Feelings are a natural part of the human existence. James is talking about outward expressions of anger—what we do……and especially how we treat one another. 

Several times in this letter, James differentiates between inward feelings and outward expressions, criticizing outward expressions that are not consistent with the Christian life. His problem in this verse is not with anger-the-feeling—it is with acting out anger, especially when we cast it as righteous.

I have long appreciated the way the Desert Dwellers of the early centuries attended to this proverb and similar teachings. One time, a leader named Joseph confessed to another leader named Nisteros that he was unable to control his tongue. Nisteros asked him: “When you speak, do you find peace?” The answer, of course, was “no.” So Nisteros replied: “If you do not find peace, why do you speak? Be silent, and when a conversation takes place, prefer to listen rather than to talk” (in Daily Readings, p.26).

It’s simple, but in our rush to impress, or to control, or to avoid, we are usually formulating a response before the other person is even done speaking.

“Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.”

James 1:22

The third proverb in our reading is found in v.22: “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves” (James 1:22 NRSV).

A hundred years or so after James was writing, a terrible heresy plagued the early church. It was like a serpent without a head, and proved difficult—if not impossible—to eradicate. It seemed to emerge almost independently in different churches, each local manifestation taking a slightly different flavor. But perhaps the central characteristic of this heresy was the feature that gave it its name: gnosticism. “Gnosis” means knowledge, and gnosticism taught that we are saved, not by the work of Jesus on the cross or in the grave, but by knowing the right things. 

Jesus—gnostics believed—passed on secret knowledge to his disciples, and it is by possessing that secret knowledge—by believing the right things—that they were saved.

I’m sad to say that the heresy of gnosticism has never been fully eradicated from the church of Jesus Christ. In fact, despite this perversion of Christianity being declared antithetical to the way of Jesus countless times over the centuries, it remains a radical thing for me—a western, American, Christian pastor, to insist that “salvation is not about believing the right things; salvation comes from following Jesus.” 

For the gnostic—ancient or modern—that just won’t do. But for the Christian? For the one seeking to embody a biblical faith in Jesus as the Christ? It is the only way to live.

“Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”

James 1:27

Finally we arrive at the fourth proverb, found in v.27:

“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 1:27 NRSV)

I don’t know if you’ve noticed or not, but I believe James has sequenced these in a way that they build on each other. 

The first turned us toward God and tuned us to God’s “frequency” of generousity

The second countered our basic instinct to put ourself first in relationship and community.

The third insisted that faith impacts how we live our lives: our choices, commitments, and beyond.

And this final proverb now clarifies what those choices, commitments, and the like should look like.

We humans have never been very good at doing religion. When we look back to the Old Testament, we see countless examples of folks who didn’t sacrifice the right way, who didn’t honor holy spaces, who didn’t engage in the right rituals, and who kept privileging their practice of faith over human beings created in the image of God.

In a post-Jesus world, there shouldn’t be any chance we again fall into these errors—after all, Jesus is a full and complete revelation of who God is and who we are called to be. But we humans do seem to excel at repeating our mistakes. 

So James offers us a litmus test for our religious life. If we want to know if our religion is true to the one true God, known most fully through Jesus the Christ, we measure it against this yard stick—How are we caring for those on the margins of the world, and how much has the church conformed to the world’s way of doing business?

Sisters and brothers, when I consider the American church as a whole these days and measure it against James’s standard, it does not look too good. But I’ll leave you to reflect on that yourselves. 

Drawing it together…

Instead, I’ll offer one more thing for us to think about. Reading through this chapter has convinced me that James does more than give us some easy-to-memorize verses to carry around in our back pockets. I think there’s something to taking them all together……to assuming that they together say something more than each does individually.

Perhaps (I’m beginning to wonder) these are keys to making a real impact on the world. Maybe they offer us an answer to that elusive question of how we can know that our lives make a positive impact on the world.

Maybe, taken together, these proverbs do just that. Maybe they are indeed a back-to-basics roadmap for living out a good, righteous, and God-pleasing life. Maybe they show us how to help Christ’s kingdom come, and God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

All of these proverbs are teachings that James is going to return to in his letter—scriptures that we will be reading, and further reflecting upon, in the weeks to come. 

So come now, let us reason together. Let us discover again the ancient paths that produce abundant life.