This is the ninth sermon in our sermon series on the book of James. You can find the audio for this sermon here: https://soundcloud.com/washingtoncitycob/they-also-serve-november-19-2017. *Note* The audio differs from the text.
If you are a fan of English literature then you may have already recognized from the title that I am going to talk about John Milton. Milton was an English poet and politician. He’s best known for writing “Paradise Lost.” Milton began going blind around 1651, and was completely blind by 1654. Being a poet, one of the ways Milton processed his experience of blindness was by writing about it. The date of his Sonnet XIX is not certain, but it is after he began losing his sight and it is his way of working through his blindness and his feelings about it.
I’m not going to try to explain the whole poem because then it gets to be too much like a college lecture, but I will read the poem and I will say that in the third line it talks about “one talent that is death to hide.” There, Milton is referring to the parable of the talents, where the third servant buried and hid his talent instead of investing it and was punished for it by the returning master. Here’s Milton’s Sonnet XIX.
When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide;
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”
I’ve never felt like Milton in terms of being physically blind. I have felt like him, though, in terms of feeling useless. I’ve felt like I had no gift to share, no wisdom to offer, no support to give. I’ve felt like I was without worth, without value, without benefit in a given situation. We’ve all felt that way at one time or another. We’ve felt helpless. We’ve felt hopeless.
Milton deals with these feelings first by owning them. He confesses his doubt about whether or not he has anything to offer, and wonders why – like the man in the parable who buried his talent – he has been cast into darkness. There is a sense of the “Why me?” about Milton’s words that we often ask when we are faced with hardship or suffering of some kind.
James recognizes this feeling. That’s why he writes to be patient. As Jenn said back when we started this series, James is writing to Christians who are being persecuted. Not persecuted in the sense of mass crucifixions or the slaughter of innocent people or anything like that, but more the kind of persecution that involves economic boycotts or social disapproval and ostracism.
When we recognize that’s the kind of persecution we’re talking about here, and when we remember that in the verses that come just before today’s reading James has called out the rich and wealthy as oppressors of the poor, then the call to patience makes more sense. As Susan Eastman has written:
This context is important, because without such warnings addressed to the “haves,” exhorting the “have-nots” to be patient can be a form of continuing oppression. Imagine, for example, telling the refugees in Darfur to be patient while they are being slaughtered. Or recall Martin Luther King’s response to the clergy of Birmingham, who counseled more patience on the part of Black people fighting segregation. It matters a great deal who counsels “patience,” in what context, and to what end. James first pronounces God’s judgment on greed and exploitation, before he encourages those who are suffering, with the promise that “the day of the Lord is at hand” (5:8). (http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=11)
In times of pain or worry it’s easy for people to turn on each other or be harsh with one another. It’s easy for people to withdraw from one another. It doesn’t have to be persecution – it can be any kind of crisis, any kind of trauma, any kind of difficult life change. James warns us about this, too. This is a part of patience – not just waiting out whatever the persecution or difficulty is that we are facing, but doing so while staying in touch with our brothers and sisters in faith. Verse 9 of our reading says, “Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors!”
That part about the Judge standing at the doors reminds me of the admonition to ask yourself what you would do if you knew that Jesus was watching. Would you visit that website if Jesus was watching over your shoulder? Would you laugh at that joke or turn your back or make that Facebook comment if Jesus was with you? I admit that I don’t always pass that test, and I need to work on it. We all do. We all need to work at treating people in general more kindly, and treating people who are a part of our faith community more kindly. We need to remember not to grumble against one another, because Jesus is standing at the doors where he can hear.
James gives a couple of examples himself of the kind of patience that he is talking about. He mentions farmers, who have to be patient. It’s not like you plant the crops on Monday and harvest on Friday. There is a lot of waiting in farming.
But the waiting doesn’t mean doing nothing. Even in a small garden, there is watering and weeding. There are pests to be dealt with, whether birds or bugs or squirrels. When we had a garden years ago we got only two tomatoes out of all the tomato plants we put in. We weren’t sure what was happening to the tomatoes that we would see when they were little and green and would disappear by the time they were big and red, until we saw a squirrel running up the driveway with a tomato in his mouth. I had not known until then that squirrels would eat tomatoes.
A small garden is a lot of work, let alone the kind of work that is involved in a farm. Even in the midst of all that work, though, the farmer has to be patient. The farmer has to wait until the time is right to harvest the crops.
James also talks about the prophets. This would have spoken deeply to the Jewish Christians who were the original audience for this letter. Time after time after time in the Bible you will see someone referring to the Jewish people and their struggles or to the prophets and their faithfulness or to the prophets and their judgment of the Jewish people in the name of God. These Jewish Christians would have grown up knowing the stories of the prophets, and the ways in which they were persecuted, and the ways in which their prophecies may not have come true during their lifetimes. The prophets had to be patient. The prophets had to trust in God. The prophets had to have faith that their prophecies would be borne out, if not in their lifetime then in the fullness of time.
At first, verse 12 doesn’t seem to fit in with what has come before. It feels like we move very suddenly from a discussion of patience and farmers and prophets into swearing oaths. But it’s not that sudden a transition if we remember the overall theme of persecution.
As Brethren, we have traditionally taken this verse fairly literally. Ideally we will not swear oaths in court. I was a witness in a court hearing once, and when I was asked if I swore to tell the truth, I replied that I affirm. That’s been the approach of the Brethren since their founding. Not just Brethren, of course, but other faith traditions as well.
But this verse has to mean more than that to make any sense in this particular context. In general, when we swear an oath we are talking to God. We may be talking to the court or the government or the House Intelligence Committee at the same time, but we are talking to God. An oath is a fancy way of saying, “May God punish me somehow if I don’t tell the truth.” So when we do that, we’re talking to the court, but we’re also talking to God. We’re telling God that we expect God to take some sort of action if we don’t do whatever it is we are sworn to do.
George Stulac suggests that here, James is talking about swearing an oath not for God to punish, but for God to save. He writes that facing persecution:
(These Christians) would be tempted to strike bargains with God, swearing to do one thing or another if only God would deliver them from their persecutors. Religious people have tried this kind of bargaining all through the centuries. Animists who live in fear of their gods are driven to make such promises. The unconverted young Martin Luther made his famous promise to become a monk when a bolt of lightning terrified him in 1505. James has been saying, “Be patient in your suffering. Remember the Lord is coming. Remember the example of the prophets. Remember the perseverance of Job. Remember the Lord’s full compassion and mercy.” Now he says, “Above all, don’t fall into swearing, as if you could manipulate God by your oaths. Instead, speak honestly and directly, and rely on God in prayer.”
Now, that part of the passage seems to fit for me. It’s not just about refusing to swear oaths in court, although that’s part of it. It’s not just about promising that God will take some action or other, although that’s part of it too. It’s also about being faithful and trusting God by not trying to bargain with God. It’s about being patient in the midst of suffering and persecution.
John Milton lived for another twenty-odd years after his blindness. He wrote many political and religious works. He went into hiding when his particular political group, the Republicans, fell out of favor and the monarchy returned to Britain. He married twice more. Even after his blindness, Milton had a life more full, more eventful, more influential than many other people.
That is because despite his blindness, he was willing to be patient. He was willing to stand and wait. Wait for what?
G. Campbell Morgan provides an answer. “Waiting for God is not laziness. Waiting for God is not going to sleep. Waiting for God is not the abandonment of effort. Waiting for God means, first, activity under command; second, readiness for any new command that may come; third, the ability to do nothing until the command is given.”
Through his blindness, Milton learned how to stand and wait. When it is time to act, may we act. And when it is time to wait, may we be numbered among those who also stand and wait – waiting for God’s command, and preparing to act on it in faith. Amen.