A sermon based on Psalm 15 and James 1:17-27 preached on August 30th, 2015
The news will break your heart, and this week it did. There was the shooting in Roanoke where yet another individual with mental disorders and a gun has killed the innocent. And also the news that 37 million wives got this week when their husbands’ names came to light after an infidelity website was hacked. We don’t have to leave our houses to find that our world is full of disordered and broken relationships—that there are people out there who don’t know how to regard others, even their loved ones, with dignity and respect.
It’s in moments like these—in the wake of senseless shootings and reminders of our tendency to destroy relationships by physically and emotionally hurting one another—that these words from James can speak to us and teach us something about whole and redeeming relationship, and how to confront in a Christ-like way all the images of marred relationship we encounter as we stare out into the world—watching our TV sets or opening our morning paper.
On the lighter side of the news this week was the 12 year-old Taiwanese boy who was strolling through an art gallery with a drink in his hand. If you haven’t seen the video, the boy stumbles over a platform in front of a 350-year-old Paolo Porpora oil painting called Flowers, valued at $1.5 million, falls over the rope divider, and punches a hole in the painting—a fist-sized gash in the lower center of the masterpiece—it’s news of a completely different marring of image, but a marring nonetheless.
The epistle of James takes the Gospel and gives it legs. This letter from James stands out as the active news of God given to the world through Jesus Christ. Much of the New Testament is filled with Paul’s thoughts and letters that are more descriptive—they’re full of adjectives—ways to describe who Jesus is, why God sent him to us, and who we should be because of Jesus. The apostle James, though, is more about verbs. James would say that we can spend all of our time talking about the good news of Jesus—we could, if we wanted to, gather into circles and wax theological all we want—but that’s not what God wants from us.
James would say that you could take the time to memorize verses from the bible, you could show up to church every Sunday from the day you were born to the day you die, you could say your prayers morning, noon, and night, and any time in between, but it doesn’t matter at all if we never act out our faith by practicing kindness, seeking out justice, and caring for the most vulnerable among us. James wants our lives and the way we live them to be shaped by the Gospel of Jesus Christ—the Word made flesh who still dwells among us, and he urges us to shape the world with this Word, with this Good News, by devoting ourselves hands and feet and mind and heart to the work of shaping the world with the Word—the Word who is Jesus.
Words are a dime a dozen these days. They’re spilled or spewed in our direction everywhere and at all times. 24-hour news, radio, websites, you name it. We are inundated with information and it’s so easy for us to lose ourselves in it. And it’s only gonna get worse now that we have about 300 men and women running for President. They’re going to spend the next 14 months shouting words at each other, everyone of them with microphones, and we’re going to know about every single thing they say. It will be our task, as it is every day, to sift through the phony jargon and try our best to discern where the truth lies. Most of the words we will hear from these candidates will be destructive words—their words will be like wrecking balls hurled in each other’s direction, meant to clobber one another so, in the end, the only one left standing can be declared winner. Such is the way of the world.
James has something to say about the danger of loose words. It’s surprising to me how important the words we say to one another is to James. In verse 19, he writes,
Know this, my dear brothers and sisters.
With those words our ears perk up, we sit straighter in our chairs—we think he’s about to share a major point, drop some huge eternal truth on us that will leave us in awe of his wisdom and insight. But what comes next isn’t like that at all. It actually seems quite ordinary, even. He writes,
Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry.
That’s it. According to James, that’s our purpose as Christians. Less talking. More listening. Keep calm. James knows the power of words. He knows they have the constructive potential to build up and devastating potential to tear down. The thing about words is that they’re so easy to say. Sometimes, they leak from our lips before we know it or can help it, and it’s impossible to unsay them. Speech is so easy, so immediate, so hard to control. So mighty. The words we say shape us. And the words other folks hear from us go a long way to tell them about who we are. We are what comes out of our mouths. As ancient Sufi poet, Hafiz has written:
The words you speak become the house you live in.
Words matter deeply. They shape our reality.
James also knew that we have a tendency to speak more than we listen, and this too separates us from one another, causes divisions among us, and lends itself to misunderstandings between us. If James had his way, we would practice our faith in Christ by doing a lot less talking and a whole lot more listening.
Think back to the last time you felt truly listened to? When someone else just simply sat beside you and let you speak whatever it was that was on your mind and heart. When is the last time you felt like someone afforded you the safe space to say whatever you needed to say, and you knew the only agenda they had was to simply listen to you? It’s a rare occurrence. There’s really nothing more empowering than those moments when we know we’re being heard and honored—when we know that we’re being understood by another.
The God who created the world with words has given us the gift of speech and the gift of listening to others as they speak, and both in our speaking and in our hearing, we create worlds for one another. We have that potential—that capacity—to become world-creators, world-shapers for others. We also have the capacity, on the other hand, to be world-destroyers. And that happens, James would say, when we’re slow to listen, quick to speak, and quick to anger. We are the architects of our relationships. We need to take responsibility for the constructive and destructive potential of our words and our actions.
James goes on to talk about anger. He says an angry person doesn’t produce righteousness. I think there is healthy anger—anger that demands justice and wants truth. So, rather than dismissing anger outright, I imagine what he means is that whoever acts on their anger can do nothing good. Acting on our anger never makes things right. As Presbyterian peace activist, David LaMotte has written in his book Worldchanging 101,
Anger is an important place to visit from time to time, but a pretty rotten place to live.
No one’s ever solved a thing by lashing out in anger. It only creates more problems. Destructive acts can never be the means of God’s presence, and they cannot produce God’s righteousness. This is the way we practice our faith. Being quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. That’s the scaffolding we need to build up for ourselves a faith that honors God and one another, for we are the architects of our relationships. And these small acts of paying attention to—practicing good relationship—are the bricks and mortar of the Christian life: they come together to be the house we live in.
James wants us to be builders of our faith—to take our hands and use them, to flesh-out the Kingdom of God with our lives—to make it known to others with our words and through our actions.
We are enticed to treat our faith like a pricey painting hanging on the wall. It’s something nice to look at, observe, admire once in a while, to gather around God’s Word and hear it only. As if simply in its hearing and understanding we are doing what God wants. There are some who think of faith as a series of truth claims—something conceptual—limited to their heads. To that, James says no. Our faith is not like an art museum we stroll through—with ropes and platforms dividing us from it, to keep us from touching it, interacting with it. Faith like that is just mere theory—a museum exhibit of ancient artifacts. Faith like that is nothing but a head trip.
James would say that our faith is more like a pottery workshop. We create our faith by spinning it around, sculpting out every side of it with the touch of our hands. It takes its shape only when we give it some elbow grease—leaning into it with our bodies and coming up with something that we can use for and in the world, in our everyday lives. Our faith is nothing if we don’t create something with it—if we don’t do something with it.
The word Christian, means little Christ. That’s what you are. That’s what I am. We’re little Christs running everywhere, going where others are going, encountering strangers, neighbors, family, and friends right where they are. Words shape worlds. Names shape us. The word Christian not only identifies our faith, it names who we are. We’re little Christs everywhere we go. Jesus wants you and I to be Christ to others—not merely a representative of Jesus, not just an image of him, not just a 1-dimensional painting on the wall that make others think of him, but something they can reach out to, touch, grab a hold of, share themselves with.
May we do our Lord the honor of bringing him to life in us so that others may know who He is. May we be quick to listen, and listen to others well, when they speak so they may feel heard and understood.
May we be slow to speak (and whenever we do speak, to speak with kindness) so that others may feel important, honored, and uplifted. And may we be slow to anger, so that others may know that we are safe space—that our desire is never to tear down but always to build up. That, my friends, is the how the Word will transform the world.
All praises to the one who made it all and finds it beautiful!