TANGIBLE FAITH (OIL, SONG, AND PRAYER)

James 5:13-20; John 9:1-12

Jennifer Hosler

This is the tenth and final sermon in our sermon series on the book of James.

 Since it is Thanksgiving weekend, it would be rather appropriate to start my sermon with some gratitude. I’m thankful for many things but one which came to mind is my fantastic and caring neighbors. When we lived in Chicago, our home was in an apartment building where we only once saw the back of our neighbor across the hall. The only person I got to know in our building, in the 9 months we lived there, was a lady who got on and off the bus at the same time as me. The bus stop was 2 blocks away and it took a few months for us to start talking and a little while longer to learn that we lived in the same building. Our neighborly experience in DC is quite different.

Many of you have met our neighbors, who are often keen on talking. Our neighbors often care for us in tangible ways. Sometimes, the caring comes via the lending of an onion or vanilla extract, or in the safe-keeping of a package from our porch. Recently, one neighbor insisted that he drive me all the way to National Airport in his truck, instead of letting me walk to Metro. While it wasn’t “far” per se, we all know that 8 miles can feel like forever when it involves crossing a bridge over the Potomac. Another neighbor, when Nate was recently away in the Middle East, both had me over for dinner and sent me home with leftovers for the next day. From what I’ve read, our neighborly experiences are becoming a rare occurrence in modern U.S. life.

Researchers say these kinds of relationships are becoming less normal in our society. Robert Putnam’s (2000) book entitled, “Bowling Alone,” highlights the decay of social ties or social capital. Social capital is the term used by sociologists to refer to “the networks—together with shared norms, values and understandings—that facilitate co-operation within or among groups” (OECD, n.d.). Social capital involves social reciprocity, a give-and-take that might be formal or informal, but provides power and resources to meet one’s own or the community’s needs. Putnam called his book “Bowling Alone” because he found that, while Americans were bowling more than ever, bowling had shifted from being primarily a group sport where people competed against each other in leagues (like how our church used to have its own bowling league) to bowling individually. Changes to how our society functions (in work, family structure housing, entertainment, commuting, and other aspects) have led to a decrease in social capital: people are joining fewer organizations, knowing fewer neighbors, getting together with their families and friends less.

In our sermon series on James, we’ve spoken extensively about how the ethics of Jesus are upside-down from society’s values and practices. Social status, money, dealing with conflict, and more: following Jesus involves being counter-cultural. I think today’s passage in James 5 illustrates how our approach to social capital is also transformed when we follow the Jesus-way. We are not bowling alone after Jesus, but walking together after Jesus, making our faith in God tangible and concrete. One of the main purposes of the church is to make tangible our faith in Jesus, which we share together.

Hear, Touch, and Smell

How many of you have been to an Orthodox Christian worship service? The Orthodox Church worships in ways that are very different from our service. Some Protestants like to deride them as all “smells and bells” (not an ecumenical approach, clearly). While we have theological differences, I believe the Orthodox Church does a very good job of captivating human senses and using sensory experiences to lift people up to the Divine. The shape of the building and the paintings on the ceiling draw your eyes up. Icons to gaze upon can prompt prayer and reflection. Bells are used to signal the proclamation of the Gospel message throughout the world. Incense symbolizes both the presence of the Holy Spirit and the prayers of the people wafting up to heaven. When I first attended an Orthodox service, the richness of the sensory experience was very spiritually moving. 

I found myself thinking of Orthodox churches this week while studying this passage, because our passage presents early church practices that are tangible and sensory. The way that James teaches the early church, it’s an auditory faith. It’s a tactile faith. It’s a scented and oily faith. In James, we see that the early church advocated sensory support: words of prayer, the joy and laughter of singing praises to God, the touch and smell of anointing oil for healing. Being the church involves being the tangible presence of God to one another.

Tangible Faith

James 5:13-20 is the conclusion of James’ letter. According to scholarship on typical Greek letters from that era, most letters would end with a wish for good health from the gods. James takes a different approach because he knows who is the source of our health, strength, and well-being. Rather than looking to the Greek gods to curry favor, James declares that—whether in trials, joy, or sickness—in all things, we look to Yahweh. What I want to stress here is that the cultural context implies that we do this together. In all things we look to God and, whether praying, singing, or asking for healing, we do it together.

Our section starts by James writing, “Are any among you suffering? They should pray.” Suffering likely refers to the trials and social persecution that were referenced in earlier parts of this letter. Those who are facing challenges, trials, and temptation, they are urged to seek strength by praying to God.

It’s important to note that, in the era of the early church and for the specific group of Christians whom James was writing to, prayer was less likely an individual supplication and more likely a corporate time of intercession. One commentator explains, “In Diaspora Judaism, Jews were characterized by their commitment to times of community prayer (see Acts 16:13, 16). The synagogue and temple were places Jews gathered to pray. We find that the early church was a distinct entity gathered [regularly] for prayer (Acts 1:13-14; 2:42), while at the same time they carried out the traditional times of prayer individually (Acts 10:9) and at least at the beginning attended the temple at the prescribed hour of prayer (Acts 3:1; cf. Acts 2:42, 46, ‘the prayers’)” (Wilkins, 1997, p. 944).

Because James is writing to Jewish Christians, it is highly likely that they heard this admonition to prayer as an urge for group prayer. James is saying, “If you are suffering, you should bring your suffering and experience with hardships to the community of faith.” Praying for one another, praying together, is how the church supports one another. But it involves vulnerability, saying, “I need help. I’m struggling. I am discouraged.” It requires the sisters and brothers around a person to be attentive, to refrain from judging, and to lovingly present these requests to God.

While praying to God on your own behalf when alone can still be comforting, communal prayer—having someone pray out loud for you, together—allows our faith to be felt more tangibly. Perhaps you’ve felt that during joys and concerns, which is an important (and I believe, biblical) part of our worship service. Being prayed for is a powerful experience. Beyond the tangible words that we hear that can strengthen our hearts, asking for prayer in community often also brings the tangible comfort of a hug or a hand on the shoulder.

Following Jesus together makes our faith more tangible, through voice and touch. This is true for when we are struggling and is also to be true when we are rejoicing. James continues and says, “Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise.” Not only are the early Christians instructed to pray together when times are hard, they are also called to rejoice and sing when times are good.

We do call it Joys and Concerns, but sometimes people have mentioned that it’s heavy on the concern end. This might be because we feel sheepish sharing our joys when we hear that others are struggling. It may also be linked with the fact that humans are bent to look for a higher power when things are difficult, but that we’re somewhat self-focused when we’re doing well. James stresses that whether we are in trials or joy, our response should be to look to God as our hope and strength. For those who are experiencing good times, James instructs them to recognize the source and origin of all goodness—the Creator God—by singing songs of praise.

Lifting our voices together in thanksgiving, in joy, praising God, strengthens our faith. Singing together is a spiritual experience that allows us to give our voices as an offering and to be moved by the combined voices of many sisters and brothers in Jesus. By singing, we make our faith more tangible—or at least more sensory. We use our vocal cords to make our gratitude manifest, in the audible richness of tune, rhythm, and harmony.

Oily Faith

Beyond prayer and song, James also mentions oil. Oils are kind of a big deal for some people today, with multi-level marketing companies trying to sell us oil for everything that ails us and for a better, wholesome life. I don’t know about the health claims they purport…but I do know that the oil mentioned in James has a different sort of application and benefit. 

James asks, “Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven” (James 5:13-15). James continues, urging the sisters and brothers to confess their sins one to another, for healing and forgiveness. While confession and sin are mentioned alongside healing here, I must caution that this is not implying that all physical illness is caused by sin. In our companion scripture in John 9, we see Jesus explain to his disciples that the illness they see is not connected to the person’s character.

For some of us, anointing with oil has been a normal part of church life for as long as we can remember. For some of us, anointing is weird and we’re not really sure how to understand it. In the Church of the Brethren, anointing is one of our ordinances, together with baptism and the Love Feast (communion). We see these things as rituals, or tangible practices, that can be used as symbols to strengthen our faith or help us practice our commitment to Jesus. Of course, rituals can be warped and used in ways that cause spiritual death instead of spiritual life. A lot of things are like that – things that are good but can be abused. They are risky of becoming ends in themselves, so we need be careful that we understand their meaning and that our hearts are in the right place when we do them.

Why do we anoint? A Church of the Brethren resource on anointing describes it this way: “We anoint one another by gathering with people who are ill, hurting, struggling with decisions, or beginning a new phase of life. Our presence, together with the oil and prayers, represents the healing and comfort of Jesus. By anointing one another we trust that God hears our prayers and works for the good of the one we lift in prayer” (Church of the Brethren, n.d.).

Oil was used in ancient times for many different purposes. Oil was “one of the best-known ancient medicines” (Kaiser & Garrett, 1996, p. 2007). In the Hebrew scriptures, it was used in rituals to dedicate priests and items used in worship, setting them apart as holy. It was also used for other leaders, like kings or prophets. There is even an anointing oil recipe in Exodus 30:22-33, with olive oil as the base, accompanied by the essential oils of myrrh, cinnamon, calamus, and cassia. In the New Testament (Mark 6:13), we see Jesus’ disciples going about the Galilee countryside, visiting the sick, anointing them with oil, and bringing healing by the power of God.

The oil mentioned here by James likely would have been fragrant—and one commentary explains that people in the ancient world “were keenly aware of the presence and suggestive powers of odors” (Kaiser & Garrett, 1996, p. 1746). Good odors could signal a spiritual act or invocation. However, the references in James or in the gospels don’t place any weight in the oil itself. In our passage, “What is clear is that James attributes the healing power not to the oil but to the ‘prayer of faith’ and the action of God. This removes the activity from the arena of magic and places it squarely in that of prayer and miracle. Thus, the anointing is done either because Christians believe that is how Jesus taught the disciples to pray for the sick or because it is itself a form of prayer” (Davids, 1997, p. 49).

It is helpful to be clear on what this use of oil means and what it doesn’t mean. Unfortunately, James doesn’t say that everyone anointed will be physically healed and restored. What it does say is that God will save them, deliver them. Faith and trust in God may bring physical healing in this life, but that may not be God’s plan. The healing that is guaranteed is the full healing of our souls, transforming our hearts and allowing us to be reconciled to God. Anointing oil is a way to make tangible this assurance of faith, transformation, and deliverance—especially in times when we feel alone, confused, lost, or when we need affirmation of God’s abiding presence. “Putting a touch of oil on someone’s head prayerfully assures us of God’s healing, constant presence with us as followers of Jesus” (Church of the Brethren, n.d.).

In James, we see that the early church advocated sensory support: words of communal prayer, the joy and laughter of singing praises to God, the touch and smell of anointing oil for healing. Being the church involves being the tangible presence of God to one another. It requires vulnerability, sharing, singing, and touching.

How can we experience our faith together more tangibly, here at Washington City Church of the Brethren? Perhaps it looks like more intentional sharing that provides opportunity for communal prayer. God has not designed us to walk alone, but to walk together, being the tangible presence of God to one another. Can we be vulnerable with a few people about some needs or struggles that we are having difficulty sharing?

Perhaps our lives our going well—but we don’t often think to praise or give thanks to God for what we’ve experienced. How can you add more songs of praise to your life? How can you share your joys and thanksgiving with our community, so that we can sing praises to God with you?

Perhaps you need a tangible sign of God’s presence today. Do you need assurance that your sins are forgiven? Do you need your faith strengthened? Do you need healing and wholeness? If so, I invite you to come forward and seek God’s presence today through an anointing with oil.

Anointing Blessing: Sister/Brother _____, you are being anointed with oil in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of your sins, for the strengthening of your faith, for healing and wholeness in accordance with God’s grace and wisdom. The love of God abides with you. Amen.

References

Davids, P.H. (1997). Anointing. In R.P. Martin & P.H. Davids (Eds.), Dictionary of the later New Testament and its developments (pp. 48-50). Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press.

Church of the Brethren (n.d.). Anointing. Retrieved from http://www.brethren.org/discipleship/documents/ordinance-annointing.pdf

Kaiser, Jr., W.C. & Garrett, D. (2006). (Eds.). NIV archaeological study Bible: An illustrated talk Through Biblical history and culture. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

OECD (n.d.). Social capital. Retrieved from https://www.oecd.org/insights/37966934.pdf

Putnam, R.D. (2000). Bowling alone. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Wilkins, M.J. (1997). Prayer. In R.P. Martin & P.H. Davids (Eds.), Dictionary of the later New Testament and its developments (pp. 941-948). Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press.

THEY ALSO SERVE

James 5:7-12

Jeff Davidson

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.”

 https://www.biblegateway.com/resources/commentaries/IVP-NT/Jas/Do-Not-Swear

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.

YOU ARE MISTY

James 4:13-5:6, Job 38:4-21

Nate Hosler

This is the eighth sermon in our sermon series on the book of James. Due to technical difficulties, there is currently no audio for this sermon.

Writing this, I was sitting on the Mount of Beatitudes overlooking the Sea of Galilee. Below me closer to the water on my left and right are spots that mark many significant points in Jesus ministry. The ancient village of Capernaum, a chapel marking the Primacy of Peter, and a chapel with the famous mosaic of two fishes and 5 loaves from the year 480 marking the spot where Jesus multiplied these meager foods and fed the crowds. In Capernaum there is a house that then became the site of a church in 5th century. The house is thought to be that of the mother-in-law of Peter where Jesus would stay and where the mother was healed. It was also the site of one of the earliest house churches. Maybe 50 yards away there is the remains of a Synagogue for the Byzantine period. This synagogue is built with stone imported from Jerusalem but built on an earlier foundation of local basalt stone—Some archaeologists assert that this earlier synagogue is from the time of Jesus.

To my left (to the north) 20 miles is Syria whose civil war and refugee crisis requires no introduction. Back south is the West Bank of the Palestinian territories. Most of the week to this point has been hearing from an assortment of political, religious, NGO, and peacebuilding workers struggling in a situation of conflict that feels rather intractable. The significance of the land both present and past is of incomparable magnitude.

Along the way I have been reading and meditating on our passage in James.

13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.” 14 Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. 15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. 17 Anyone, then, who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin.

Narrowly, this and the following verses are about wealth. I think however, that money stands in for the assumption that we are in control or our desire to be in control. Though God (and the world with its histories and cultures) are big, you are misty—mist-like, ephemeral. This assertion is not negative, not an insult, it is simply honest. Though those of us who are at least relatively well-off may forget this, our lives are indeed contingent. Our lives are dependent. They are based in God. James addresses the one who confidently says they will do this or that. The hearers of the letter of James were likely not the well off—or the overly wealthy. So, it may not be that this or the next portion are as directly applicable to the immediate crowd. The general assertion, however, is very applicable, hence its inclusion. To those who are well confident that their plans will succeed, James asserts—you are mist—misty—mist-like in the fleeting quality of your life. Because you cannot know what will happen you should always acknowledge that even the best laid plans rest in God. The habit and practice that James exhorts is to, in all things, acknowledge that one’s life is held in God.

Your existence is in God

As I’ve been reading James I have also been thinking about a similar passage in the Sermon on the Mount. Given my writing location if felt particularly relevant to note this. In the 6th chapter of Matthew, Jesus teaches. Why worry about your life?—about what you will eat or drink or wear. Are not the flowers of the field more splendid than Solomon, the most extravagantly dressed of all kings?

The sign by the entrance says, “We refuse to be enemies.” The Tent of Nations (http://www.tentofnations.org/ )  is a Palestinian farm on a hill top in area C. Area C is part of the West Bank, the land of the future Palestinian State. It is also the site of many settlements, which are illegal in international law, undermining the possibility of a future state, and more like towns or cities than anything makeshift that is indicated by the term “settlement.” To get to the Tent of Nations we left our van and climb over boulders that have been place on their road a few hundred meters from their farm in order to impede access. The farm is on a hill top. Every other hill top surrounding has a massive settlement.

We met with Daoud Nasser whose family has lived there for generations. Unlike most Palestinians whose land is at risk they have a clear line of documentation of land ownership going back to the Ottoman Period in the early 1900s. Since the land is documented but still deemed very desirable they have been fighting in courts since the early 1990s. The case keeps getting passed back and forth between the Supreme Court and Military courts. They must keep fighting and filing because if they don’t they will be forced out. They can’t build any new structures and the structures they have—even the tent like structures—have demolition orders on them. Daoud Nasser, though, seems to be full of joy. He told of their struggle just to keep their family’s land. He demonstrates a trust in God and in others to continue on.

Again, your existence is in God. You are mist-like but God is steadfast.

Unsurprisingly the rich also have this problem. They also easily forget that their existence is in God.

Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you.

James doesn’t discuss if there are righteous ways to be rich. Certainly, our congregation isn’t rich compared to much of Capitol Hill. Because of this and certain prophetic inclinations we may find it easy to speak critically—to speak “prophetically.” However, though we are not that rich we are comparatively rich in relation to much of the world. And as such may be indicted. The rich people that James addresses have built their riches on the backs of others. For white America the legacy of slavery of Africans and genocide of Indigenous communities is a clear example. But also, immigration, trade, and foreign policy often continue this pattern.

What we don’t know is if James has certain rich folks in mind or assumes that all those who are rich have earned it through injustice. It is also unclear if the “rich” are those who meet a certain income bracket (which seems unlikely) or if it is short-hand for those in power.  This call is a call to repentance. It is a call towards being rightly oriented toward God and others. The call to repentance and to acknowledging that one’s existence is based in God rather than in one’s own might or smarts or good looks or cunning is not against but for the one being challenged. Only when you care about that person or entity can you fully embrace the uncomfortable confrontation. Repenting of this is in the interest of both the oppressor and the oppressed.

Let’s suppose that riches and power are somewhat interchangeable. During the past two weeks the question of power and who is criticized in what manner has been close at hand for me. For Palestinians living under Israeli occupation the restricted rights, living under military law, limited ability to move freely, and lagging infrastructure is clearly unjust. For many Israelis their existence as a small country surrounded by the much bigger and often hostile Arab world, history of the Holocaust, and repeated abuses throughout history lead to a strong emphasis on “security” at any cost. Many wars in the past decades as well as an enforced separation which does not allow interaction with Palestinians in normal life keeps these fears alive and well.

One morning on this trip we met with Defense for Children International. They explained that there are 500-700 cases of Palestinian children being convicted in Israeli military courts. Many times, the kids (usually but not always boys) are arrested from their beds at night. Regularly they are beaten on the way. Harshly interrogated. And sign confessions written in a language which they can’t read in order to get out sooner. Rarely can they see their parents or actually meet with a lawyer to know their rights. Because of this work of documentation and exposure DCI is declared an enemy and traitor of the state of Israel because it highlights these abuses. Many Christians in the US would harshly criticize me for repeating these things—claiming that the Old Testament commands me to “Bless Israel.” However, as noted earlier, criticism is not the opposite of blessing. Criticism may be part of blessing.

Even as I recount these few notes from an hour long meeting I think back and begin to feel overwhelmed. And this was only one meeting out of the whole week. It is easy to feel the mist-like character of my life when held up against the enormity of the world. The enormity of the ancient stones and places of Jesus. The enormity of Syria just down the road. The enormity of the so called Israeli and Palestinian conflict. I’m not sure that this is what James intends, but getting to the point of realizing our mistiness—our mist-like nature—is half the struggle. The second half is recognizing that our existence is in God. We are mist but our existence is sustained by the God who has mysteriously created us and called us. Our existence is in the God that has created and called us beyond ourselves.

Reflections by Members of the Congregation

James 4:1-12, Colossians 3:12-17

This is the seventh sermon in our sermon series on the book of James. You can find the audio for this sermon here: https://soundcloud.com/washingtoncitycob/reflections-november-5-2017. *Note* The audio differs from the text.

Will Morris
This passage has particular resonance with me because it speaks to an on-going, interior
argument of sorts that constantly goes through my head, where I try to reconcile the Christian humility discussed in the passage with my life here in our power and material obsessed society. The writer speaks of submission to God and opposing ‘friendship with the world.’ I take ‘friendship with the world’ to mean adopting values where we prioritize our own security and comfort over others’ well being, where we justify our own excess on the meritocratic grounds that we earned and deserve all that we have, and further, though we might not admit it to ourselves in these terms, that one’s worth is determined by the wealth we display and positions of power that we hold. We are called instead to submit with humility, to God and one another, to temper our individual ambitions and build the kind of community that raises up “the spirit made to dwell in us.”

The question I often wrestle with is how to submit when I spend so much of my time
trying to figure out how to get ahead in my career and improve my family’s economic position. After all, is it wrong for us to want to get out of debt now, avoid being a burden on others when we’re old enough to retire, and have enough when the time comes to give our hypothetical children as much opportunity as possible? Is it wrong to have a lifestyle that supports flying across two continents regularly to visit family? I don’t have a clear answer for you, but I am wary of how I can use those questions to justify unhealthy ambition in my career. I feel like the world around me is telling me that I should be “killing it” all the time, that it’s up or out, that I should be full of pride (or walk with ‘swagger’ as the company emails put it) and that my number one purpose is satisfying my client – even when my client’s goals conflict with my own core values. Having friendship with the world is being successful in the sense of the wealth I
accrue for myself and my firm’s partners. It’s hard to submit to God and seek humility when I’m looking for approval from the people and institutions around me in that context.

The thing is, I can sense how self-destructive it is to get caught up in all of that even as it
occurs. It’s impossible to find personal satisfaction in those things, and it’s impossible to build meaningful relationships with others when I view them as my competition and rivals. I want to draw near to God and build meaningful relationships with those around me, and to an extent I’m able to when I stop worrying about my performance metrics and stop angling for position. I’m constantly re-learning that our society is structured to reward the proud and gain from conflict, which goes against the Jesus way.

Turning from the world isn’t easy though – the passage even says “let your laughter be
turned into mourning and your joy into dejection” in verse 9 before the promise that God will exalt you. I know ultimately there is greater joy in closeness to God and neighbor that can only be realized through submission to him. I’ll keep trying to figure it all out day-to-day, but being humble with others, recognizing that we’re all beloved of God and equally in need of his grace, is a good first step.

Jennifer Hosler

Full on Zombie Mode (the war within you)

Being in a PhD program, my intellectual oomph gets maxed out with school, so I don’t have the mental energy to read literature. After a very think-y type day, what I like to do is watch something entertaining. One of the shows I’ve watched involves zombies, but not in the gory horror movie sense. In one show, there’s a main character who just happens to be both a medical examiner and a zombie.

Her job as a medical examiner gives her access to the ethically-sourced brains that she needs to remain like a normal person, and not go staggering around, gasping for brains from peoples’ skulls. The morgue brains give her visions as a side effect, which are helpful in solving crimes with a police detective. A mix of a zombie, comedy, and crime show.  One catch is, if her life is threatened (as can happen solving crimes), her eyes turn red and she enters what she calls “full on zombie mode.” An inner zombie rage comes out. It is difficult to manage, because her red eyes and enormous strength will give away her secret that she’s actually undead.

James writes about a war within us, with forces and cravings that lead us to do rather despicable things. While none of us go into full-on zombie mode, there are times when our impulses lead us to do things that we are not proud of. Seething with anger or frustration, our inner animal can be ready to verbally abuse, ridicule, put down or put someone in “their place” with our sarcasm and biting “wit.” Or maybe we don’t wield words, but we wield guilt, using it as an emotional tool to achieve the ends that we seek.

James says that this war within ourselves even leads us to murder. But none of us have gone that far… or have we, if James is referencing Jesus’ words on the Sermon on the Mount? In Matthew 5:21-22, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” Jesus says, you think murder is wrong, but hating someone in your heart will equally make you susceptible to judgement.

Have you ever been so angry with someone that you just really crave to hurt them? Physical pain isn’t usually what I’m tempted to partake in, but to verbally wound someone, to hurt them deeply, to say the words that seem so perfectly suited to shut that person down and put them in “their place.”

Last week, I spoke about the fruit of the Spirit and the gentleness and pure-hearted mercy that characterizes wisdom from above. The fruit of the Spirit and the wisdom from above that James describes – these all seem to build on one another, in ways that complement each other. Gentleness, it seems, is linked to self-control. Peace—working through conflict in a constructive way—is linked to these too, as well as love and kindness. While these fruit, this wisdom from above, are what we are aiming for as Christians, we must be realistic and even blunt in acknowledging that sometimes, we just want to tear someone’s head off and eat their brains.

In the zombie show, there are moments when the main character is in “full-on zombie mode,” in the heat of the moment responding to some type of life-threatening situation, that she seems so close to continuing down the zombie path to attacking and eating her friends. In her zombie rage, somehow her human remnant needs to find a way to take back control and live out her human morals of not eating living people. Somehow, a spark of humanity awakens her back to the way she truly wants to live. Her human-self triumphs over her zombie-self.  

There are times when I’ve been in arguments or frustrated situations where I am thisclose to tearing someone apart, or saying something that I might regret for a long-time, maybe even forever. And this small, creeping thought, whispers that I’m entering a danger zone. This momentary Spirit-whisper provides an opening to resist, to I remember what I am, or to remember whose I am – a child of God, redeemed and reconciled, indwelt by the Holy Spirit.

This moment allows me to pivot and turn back from the relationship-damaging brink. The Hebrew word for repentance means literally “to turn.”  In that whisper, there’s a softness, a turning or pivoting, which allows me to submit to the wisdom of Jesus. It’s a wisdom that steps away, cools down, recognizes wrong, apologizes, reframes, and tries again at a better way.

“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” (vv. 7-8).

What is the war that happens within you? Is it responding wrongly in anger and verbally beating someone to a pulp? Is it a temptation to actually use physical force? Maybe your war is different. The monster raging can involve many things. Maybe it involves sexual fantasies about someone who is not your partner, getting too close with someone who is not your partner, watching pornography, crossing proper boundaries on social media or in person that constitute sexual harassment, maybe it is lifting things from the office, or cheating figures in your finances. Or some other monster. There are monsters that lurk within us, sisters and brothers, and temptation is real. What is yours?

In the midst of temptation, there will always be a moment where – if we can hear it – the Spirit whispers for us to resist, to turn back, and gives us an opening (maybe momentary) to choose a way that better reflects the wisdom of Jesus. James says that if you take this moment and remember whose you are, God will draw near to you and bring you out of that temptation. If you’ve already gone there before, you don’t have to keep falling into the same trap. Repentance and confession are just as real as temptation; God is gracious. God is jealous for you (in the good way), that is, God earnestly seeks you. God wants you to live in the wisdom of Jesus as a redeemed and forgiven child of God.

Jerry O’Donnell

Everyone could use a healthy dose of humility. Some people could probably use a few.

Do any of you have a friend or know someone who always “wins” or always has the highest score in whatever they do? Well this was me as a kid, as I, believe it or not, struggled with humility.

I’m chalking it up more to immaturity, though, not so much a desire to disobey God. Finishing first and winning was everything to me, and in the unlikely event I fell short—I’m kidding, it happened a lot—I refused to accept it. As a preschooler or even into my early elementary years, I would get physically upset when I didn’t win. Probably worse was how I reacted when I did win.

I didn’t care about sportsmanship at all. I had no compassion for whom I may have just defeated or how they might have been feeling. All I cared about was how good winning made me feel and how I must have looked to others around me. Again, as a little guy obsessed with winning games, sporting events, academic competitions, what have you, my drive was not to displease God and exalt myself, but I was clearly seeking the ways of the world.

Our passage in James talks about how being a friend of the world, choosing worldly desires, makes us an enemy of God. James goes on to say God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble. I don’t know if I first received this lesson in humility in James or whether it was Philippians 2: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourself. Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others.”

What I do know is that as I matured, I began to understand the importance of humility—both how one appears to others and also how one feels about oneself. I could feel the change within me as I cared more about the people I interacted with in areas of competition. No matter what the end result was, I felt a sense of joy because of the fellowship/companionship with all. In the same way, other people have affirmed this change, as it has been outward as well. Now many people will say things to me like, you’re such a good sport, or wow, you don’t care who gets credit? To which I reply, hah! Look how good I am at not caring who wins! Just kidding.

It’s a daily challenge, as humility continues to be undervalued in a world of exploitation of so many for the gain of so few. I will continue to do my part in my life in this church, in my place of work, and in my circles of family and friends to promote teamwork, and doing things together to make sure everyone is loved and respected. I hope you will join me in drawing near to God in this endeavor so God will draw near to us.

Carolyn “Care” Nestman

Have any of you ever done something that you felt God specifically told you not to do? I have! When I was 17 I dated my high school’s “golden boy”. You know the guy. The one who gets straight A’s and is the drum major of the marching band, but is still super cool. We actually had a teacher say that she wished her daughters would have dated my high school boyfriend. It was ridiculous.

Anyway, when we started dating, I felt God telling me that this was a terrible idea. It got to the point where I had a prophetic dream about how I should not be with this person, but I refused to listen. I was 17, I obviously knew better than God. To make an EXTREMELY long story short, in the 4 years that we dated we managed to plan a wedding, and I lost myself. The happy peppy person that stands before you didn’t exist when I was in this dysfunctional and controlling relationship. During this time I had also stopped going to church and spending time in the word.

After I broke up with him, I felt like this huge weight had been removed from my shoulders. No longer bogged down by my disobedience, I had this joy that I didn’t realize was missing. I spent more time in church, and eventually started doing my daily devotionals again. And I’ve been much better at listening to the voice of God as the Spirit continues to direct my path.

Unfortunately, this story isn’t completely over, and I’m not magically fixed now that I’m spending time with God again. 5 years later, I’m still healing. I was visiting the city where he lives, this past weekend, and I realized that I am still REALLY ANGRY. But even in this, there is something so utterly comforting knowing that I can turn to God in my anger, and say “I made a huge mistake, and I need help to fix the brokenness.” And as I draw nearer to God, I can feel and see the Holy Spirit continue to work in my life and continually wraps me life in her joy and love.

THE UPSIDE-DOWN or SOWING IN PEACE

James 3:13-18; Mark 9:30-37; Galatians 5:13-26

Jennifer Hosler

This is the sixth sermon in our sermon series on the book of James. You can find the audio for this sermon here: https://soundcloud.com/washingtoncitycob/sowing-in-peace-october-29-2017. *Note* The audio differs from the text.

For science-fiction and fantasy lovers—or people who just generally swoon over a 1980s visual aesthetic—this weekend was highly anticipated. The series “Stranger Things 2” was released on Netflix this Friday, meaning that the continuing saga of Hawkins, Indiana, is finally available to stream, or binge watch if you are so inclined. In season one, we met an endearing crew of four 12-year old boys named Will, Lucas, Mike, and Dustin. They love dungeons and dragons, science and radios, talking to each other with walkie-talkies, and riding their banana seat bikes through the woods on adventures. One night, Will goes missing. As the whole town searches for their friend, Mike, Dustin, and Lucas encounter a mysterious girl called Eleven, who has secret powers. She eventually reveals that Will is trapped in a parallel dimension. This parallel dimension looks like an upside-down version of our world, one that is dark and full of decay. In it lurks a creepy, faceless monster. From what I could tell by the season 2 trailer, forces from “the upside-down” are slowly invading the regular world. I haven’t started watching yet, since I’m dutifully waiting for Nate to return home, so we can watch it together. Exercising the fruit of the Spirit called self-control.

Thankfully, we don’t have an alternate reality of darkness and monsters lurking in another dimension quite like the folks in Stranger Things. However, our passage in James does describe two realities, two ethics, two wisdoms, which are like night and day. In my last sermon on James 1, when we kicked off our series, I spoke about how Jesus’ teachings on the Kingdom of God illustrate an upside-down kingdom. In this upside-down kingdom, the poor are lifted up and the wealthy are brought low. James encourages both the wealthy and the poor to boast in God’s alternate reality. That is, the reality that God is on the side of the weak and poor, and that riches are as ephemeral as wildflowers.

In James 3, we are yet again confronted with an alternate reality of what is valued, what is wise, what is good. This section in James, along with our readings in Mark and Galatians, presents the upside-down wisdom of Jesus. The world says, “Strive to get as far ahead as possible, seek as much status and wealth as you can, talk about how important you are, and try to get ahead of everyone else.” In contrast, God’s followers are called to be sowing in peace, living out a love-your-neighbor-as-yourself ethic defined by gentleness, generosity, and kindness.  

Gentleness born of Wisdom, Sowing in Peace

I think that our three scriptures today complement each other, so I’m going to unpack each of them one by one. Let’s start with the book of James. What have we seen in James so far in our sermon series? James has spoken about trials and temptations, encouraging the early church that if they need wisdom to face these trials, God is able to provide. James also discussed the need for faith to be accompanied by action, that we must not only be hearers of the word but also doers of the word. True religion does not involve slandering others, but caring for the most vulnerable.

Throughout the book of James, there is a thread focusing on dealing with conflict in the church. Social class conflict is a running theme. As I mentioned, James states that the poor are being lifted up by God, while the rich are told to boast in being brought low by God. God’s wisdom inverts what the world says. James also instructs that followers of Jesus are not to favor the rich and powerful. Partiality is not for God’s people; the poor are equally welcome in the church and the rich should not be given special status. Beyond social class, James also talks about communication. God’s followers are to be careful with their speech, since careless words can cause conflict to ignite and can poison relationships. Following the section on speech, we come to James’ discussion on wisdom from above and earthly wisdom.

“Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom” (v. 13). What is this gentleness born of wisdom? James tries to first define it by showing what it is not. It is not envious and self-seeking. James writes, “But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish.” Remind me next time to call bad character devilish. The NIV actually says demonic here. The antithesis of Jesus’ wisdom is having bitter envy and selfish ambition.  James explains that they are the source of divisions and destructive conflict: “For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.” In contrast, Jesus’ followers are called to another way: “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace” (vv. 17-18).

I remember coming across this sowing in peace verse (verse 18) in Nigeria, and it was very salient because we were trying to build up the local church’s capacity to do peacebuilding, trying to plant seeds of peace. The NIV is a bit more poetic than the NRSV, “Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.” At that point, I was designing a logo for the EYN Peace Programme. We asked around for indigenous cultural metaphors of peace, since the peace sign and the dove are common Western images. Rev. Toma Ragnjiya, our boss, heard from some elders that they thought that Guinea corn was a symbol of peace. It’s a staple crop, the main traditional grain in northeast Nigeria. The elders said, “Where there is Guinea corn, there is life, there is peace.”

Guinea corn looks like an unbelievably giant version of maize (what we call corn). The grain grows in the tassel, rather than as an ear, and the Guinea corn in our village was often around 15-20 feet tall (check it out on our church Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/washingtoncitycob).  Peacemaking—building healthy and strong relationships, engaging in constructive resolution of conflict—requires committed effort and gentle perseverance, like farming or gardening.

James teaches us that God’s wisdom is defined by pure intentions and honest, willingness to work through conflict. Gentleness or gentle are used twice. Gentleness is one of those words that I need a few more synonyms and antonyms for, to unpack what James is saying here. Gentleness also means sympathetic, compassionate, with kind intentions, not harsh. God’s wisdom is also defined by a “willingness to yield,” to consider others’ viewpoints and negotiate to find common ground. James ends his laundry list of goodness by saying that wisdom from above is also “full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy” (v. 17).  Jesus’ wisdom, the wisdom from above, is other-focused, kind and gentle, and aims to build strong, healthy, and just relationships. Earthly wisdom is self-seeking and envious; it leads to destructive relationships and disorder. Following the wisdom of God involves sowing peace; God blesses this sowing so that it leads to a harvest of righteousness.

Who is the greatest?

It’s poignant to me that James says envy and selfish ambition are the source of all disorder and wickedness. A self-centered focus, materialism, or an approach that prioritizes me (or my family) above all else: James says that these will inevitably lead to a toxic and painful mess in human relationships, communities, and societies. One could read into what James is saying and conclude that envy and selfishness are source of all sin.

Putting “me first” is a universal human tendency. A variant of that is, putting me and my family first above all other people (especially those I don’t know).  It could sound valiant: “I just want to protect my family’s interests and my children—that supersedes everything else.” But it still is self-seeking, prioritizing what affects me or the people I love over the needs or interests of others. Me first or my people first. “Me first” can lead to a literal or figurative clawing over people to compete for resources, for the top spot. In “me first” wisdom, it makes sense to talk yourself up as the greatest or the most important. But this is not the Jesus way.  

In our second scripture, found in Mark 9:30-37, we find Jesus and his disciples. Jesus has been teaching and healing and loving, in ways that have put his life at risk. Jesus predicts his death and teaches about his upcoming trials, but the disciples do not understand. They’re also afraid to ask exactly what Jesus means. They all travel back to Galilee, in secret, because Jesus knows he might be killed.

When they arrive at Capernaum, Jesus asks the disciples, “What were you all arguing about along the road?” He is met with silence. The disciples, presumably, had thought that Jesus was out of earshot. It turns out, they were arguing with one another about who was the greatest among them all. Jesus sits down and calls everyone over. He says, “Whoever wants to be first must put themselves last and be the servant of all.” Jesus then brings over a child, maybe one of the disciples’ kids or one of their hosts’ children. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Weak people, small people, vulnerable people. Following Jesus requires that we stop arguing about who is the greatest, put others’ needs first, and welcome those without power.

Considering this passage, the question that came to me is this: what do we say when we think that we are out of Jesus’ earshot? How do we speak when we think we’re out of Jesus’ earshot? How do we talk or think about others? How do we talk or think about ourselves? Are we arguing that we are the greatest? What are we striving for? Our own success, or Jesus’ definition of success—that looks like humble service and radical welcome?

Love as You Would Love Yourself

Our final passage is in Galatians 5:13-26. It’s a famous passage, highlighting the fruit of the Spirit. I chose to pair it with James because the discussion about wisdom from above reminded me of spiritual fruit. The lists are somewhat similar. Paul starts out by reminding the church in Galatia that they have been set free in Christ—freed from sin! But this freedom isn’t open license to be self-serving. “Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (vv. 13-14). Paul continues, and it seems like, again, the human problem can be distilled down to selfish ambition and envy: “If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.”

Paul then contrasts earthly wisdom and wisdom from above, but he chooses to use the words flesh and Spirit instead of James’ motif. The flesh and the Spirit are antithetical to each other, upside-down from one another. “Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (vv. 19-21). Dang, Paul. This laundry list of bad is exhausting. Importantly, none of us is off the hook, since the list is long. We had a similar conversation this week about Romans 1 at Bible study.

But, thankfully, we’re not bound to this list of despair and sin; we’ve been set free. “By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another” (vv. 22-26).

In our James passage and this passage, when I read through the wisdom from above or the fruit of the Spirit, it’s like a breath of fresh air, a Spirit of peace washes over me. This is what we’ve been waiting for, what we’re living for, what God is doing. What I want to see in me, in you, in us together, as what we demonstrate to our community and world.

I am also struck by the fact that Paul here references Jesus, the ultimate commandment, the other-oriented “love your neighbor as you would love yourself” love. Poignantly, we see James and Paul are step-in-step here. The opposite of the love-your-neighbor Spirit-led life is being conceited, competing against one another, and envying one another.

Love as I would want to be loved. How do I want to be loved? Thought of kindly. Assume my intentions are good but have my weaknesses treated with grace and encouragement. Be willing to forgive me and engage me if I do something hurtful. Kind helpfulness. Laugh at my jokes. Laugh with me and find me amusing rather than lame. Speak gently with me.

How do you want to be loved? The call to love your neighbor as yourself is a call to an other-oriented gentleness, to generosity, to kindness.

I think of these 3 scriptures as meditations that can easily speak to us at the personal and interpersonal levels. And they should. How do we sow in peace in our friendships, our families, with our coworkers, in this church? But more broadly, how do we sow in peace, practice loving our neighbors through gentleness, generosity, and kindness, at other levels? How do we engage or regard (or not engage and disregard) our actual neighbors, our neighborhood, our city (whether that city is the District or Arlington or a town in Maryland)?

Where do you need to sow in peace? Where do we, as a church, need to be sowing in peace? As we discern how to live our mission after laying down BNP, James’ and Jesus’ and Paul’s calls should be the meditations that we carry with us as we discern. God’s followers are called to be sowing in peace, living out a love-your-neighbor-as-yourself ethic defined by gentleness, generosity, and kindness.  Sisters and brothers, let us seek wisdom from above as we live this out as individuals, families, and as a congregation in our community and world. AMEN.

A WORLD OF EVIL

James 3:1-12

Jeff Davidson

This is the fifth sermon in our sermon series on the book of James. You can find the audio for this sermon here: https://soundcloud.com/washingtoncitycob/a-world-of-evil-october-22-2017. *Note* The audio differs from the text.

Sometimes people take things away from a sermon that aren’t necessarily what you intended them to take away. I remember when I was a pastor that once a member of the church came up to me and said something about trying not to pray too much, or something like that. I asked her what she meant, and she referred to a sermon I had preached a few weeks before. What she had taken away from that sermon was that if we truly have faith in God, we will pray about something once or twice, and then stop praying about it and trust God to take care of it.

I don’t remember any more what exactly it was that I had said, but whatever it was I am reasonably sure that it wasn’t that. Whatever it was I said, though, she had not received the message that I was trying to send. That’s pretty much on me. In general, it is up to the person communicating to make sure that they are communicating in a way that the audience will understand and to be as clear as possible about what they are trying to say. Obviously I missed the target someplace with that particular sermon.

James could have had that moment in mind when he wrote this morning’s passage. Words can get us into trouble. Words can define us. It is possible, although I hope it didn’t happen, but it is possible that among that church member’s friends I became known as the pastor who thinks you shouldn’t pray so much. 

Think about presidents of the United States. Often a president speaks words that will come to define his presidency, for better or for worse. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” “Read my lips: no new taxes.” “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” Don’t those words kind of sum up, to one degree or another, the presidency of the man who spoke them? 

Words have power. Words have impact. Words make a difference in our lives and in the lives of others, whether we are speakers or hearers. We can’t always control what we hear, but we can control what we say.

Let me change that. We can control what we say, in theory. In practice? It’s hard. I know that I say things sometimes that I shouldn’t say and I write things (which is just speaking in written form) that I shouldn’t write. I know I do that; sometimes I just can’t help myself. I think we all deal with that. 

But at the end of the day, what does it matter? Who really gets hurt? We can always apologize, we can always explain what we meant, right? I’m just one person. How much impact can my words have? What difference can my speech really make?

When I was growing up there were certain words and phrases that I was taught not to say. Some of them were just thought of as rude, like “shut up.” I was taught not to say that. Some were vulgar, some were considered wrong from a religious standpoint – cursing in God’s name, for instance, or saying “hell” in a context that wasn’t actually referring to hell.

I think the list is still pretty much like that in terms of what parents teach children. I once played as part of a sermon a clip from the BBC play “The Son of Man” in which Jesus tells the disciples to shut up. I heard later from a parent who had been working to stop her daughter from saying “shut up” and was now finding it very hard since the daughter heard Jesus say it in church.

Our passage from James is sometimes used to reinforce that kind of teaching. And that’s fine, as far as it goes, but it has to go farther than that. This passage has to mean more than that kind of thing. You can tell because James puts it in the context of authority. The passage starts off saying, “Not many of you should become teachers.” The entire discussion starts off with a warning about assuming authority, and proceeds from there to talking about how those in authority can use their words to abuse that authority.

I started the sermon with a story about when I misused my authority, even though it was unintentional, a time when the words I spoke carried extra weight because of who I was and did not convey what I wanted them to convey. We all have authority in different situations and different contexts. 

You may think that the kind of authority you have isn’t the kind where words can make that kind of a difference. You’re wrong, though. The Post had a piece this week by Meg van Achterberg, a child psychiatrist. She was writing about the late-night TV host Jimmy Kimmel’s annual Halloween prank. 

In case you’re not familiar with it, Kimmel asks parents on the day after Halloween to tell their kids that they (the parents) have eaten all of the kids Halloween candy and to tape the children’s reactions. Those tapes are then sent in to the show and some of them are shared on the air.

van Achterberg writes, “(Children’s) bonds with their parents are built on trust — trust that Mom and Dad would never do anything to hurt them. And it can feel like a violation of that trust to hear that Mom and Dad have stolen and eaten all of their hard-won spoils, the stuff they went to bed dreaming about.”

“Small kids also have rigid moral codes. Stealing is wrong. People are either good or bad. When they hear that their parents have stolen from them, they may wonder: Does that make my parents bad? Does it make me bad?”

“Of course, this isn’t exactly child abuse. But many kids will feel this particular prank as an emotional gut-punch, a breach of their parents’ love. When we consider that the sole aim of this betrayal seems to be the amusement of other people, in this case millions of strangers watching on TV, we’ve got to question the values of all the adults involved.”

That seems reasonable to me. It is an example of what James calls setting on fire the cycle of nature. The cycle of nature is that parents protect their children, and children grow up learning to trust their parents. The Kimmel Halloween gag breaks the cycle – maybe not irreparably, but it still breaks it. And while time will likely mend that break, things that are mended after a rupture are often not as strong as they were to begin with.

In the New International Version verse 6 of our reading says in part that the tongue “is a world of evil.” It doesn’t have to be that way, though.

Consider John 1:1 – “In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” Here the term “word” is being used to refer to Jesus. Jesus is the Word of God. Jesus is God’s message to the world. Jesus is the expression of God’s thought, the communication of what is in God’s heart. The world is saved through Jesus, the Word of God.

Words can hurt, but words can heal. Words can wound, and words can save. James wrote about the tongue and the spoken word, but he could also have been writing about the written word, about the Facebook post, about the YouTube video, about the tweet, about anything that expresses an idea or a thought or a message. 

Our words especially can hurt or heal. Not just as parents, or as supervisors at work, or as teachers, or as anyone with authority as the world counts authority. Our words can hurt or heal as Christians.

We carry with us the authority of Christ. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a pastor or not – if you’re a Christian, you’re a minister. That’s called the priesthood of all believers, and it’s something that the Brethren have believed since their very beginning. All of us have the authority of Christ with us, whether we have been to seminary or not, whether we call ourselves Reverend or not, whether we ever stand up here behind this lectern and preach on Sunday morning or not.

We speak for Christ in the lives of anyone who knows that we are Christians. We speak for Christ in the lives of our friends and families, our colleagues, our Facebook followers. We speak for Christ in the lives of people who we may not know, but who know of us somehow. We speak for Christ in the lives of anyone we interact with, either actively or passively.

The tongue can be and can create a world of evil. The tongue can also speak the word of God. We are the ones who decide which it will do. Amen.

FAITH WITHOUT WORKS IS DEAD

 

In this passage, James says it’s not enough just to believe in God. We need to follow him, become like him. Real faith looks like action: Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with our God.

But what’s really interesting is that a lot of Christians, now and throughout history, have not agreed with James’ view of faith. A common belief throughout Christian history – perhaps even the predominant one in many times and places – has been the idea that pure faith is the only way that human beings can find relationship with God. Because of our human sinfulness, they argue that we are totally incapable of doing anything righteous. We are so lost, so mired in sin, that the only hope we have is to have faith in a God we can never understand, and a kingdom that we can never truly enter this side of death.

Christians who have this view of sin, faith, and righteousness, tend to be really big fans of Paul’s letter to the Romans. That’s not surprising. Paul takes a deep dive into some really deep and mysterious theological questions in this letter. He spends a lot of time reflecting on the law, sin, and what it means to be a righteous person. Romans is a fascinating letter, and well worth our attention.

Given how important and influential Paul’s letter to the Romans is, I thought it was worth reading together with today’s passage from James. Paul and James seem to have such divergent views on what it means to have faith, and the role that works play in this whole process of salvation.

Before we get to Paul, though, let’s just walk through James for a minute – make sure we understand what he has to say. Our passage today starts with this:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

This passage really convicts me. I work near the White House, and after I drop George off at daycare, I walk through Chinatown and most of downtown before arriving at my office. On my walk to work, I pass a lot of homeless people. Some of them are just hanging out, doing their own thing. But some are usually panhandling, asking for money. Most days, I get asked for money at least once.

I usually don’t give them anything.

I don’t have any legit excuse for this behavior. Jesus says pretty clearly in the gospel accounts that we should give freely to everyone who asks of us. It doesn’t speak well of my faith in Jesus that I don’t even manage to follow his clear and basic teachings.

I know I should do better, but the truth is, much of the time, my faith in Jesus is outweighed by my desire for comfort. I don’t want to have that awkward interaction with a person I don’t know, asking me for money. I don’t want to stop in the middle of my commute and get pulled into someone else’s life. I don’t want to give some stranger my money. But most importantly of all, I don’t want to be drawn into an interaction that makes me feel nervous, guilty, or diverted from my goals for the day.

And that’s OK. That’s pretty human. But it doesn’t exactly scream, “follower of Jesus,” does it? How much faith can I really have in Jesus if I don’t even stop to give change to a beggar?

Faith without works is dead.

James goes on:

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren?

I can believe in Jesus all the live-long day. I can believe that he healed the sick, raised the dead, preached good news to the poor, and triumphed over death. I can believe these things as historical facts. And James says, “that’s all well and good – but the evil spirits believe all those things, too. You’re still in the realm of facts. That’s not the stuff of faith.”

Real faith, for James, involves doing something about it. Faith in the Lord Jesus is powerful. He raises us from the dead. Any life that is being touched by his is going to be radiant. Faith in Jesus changes a person. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 4, “the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power.”

As James goes on, and he uses the historical examples of Abraham and Rahab to show us what he means when he talks about the kind of faith that brings life:

Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.

I think this just about sums up James’ view on what it means to live a faith-filled life. Faith is brought to completion by works. Faith is the seed, but works are the necessary flower. Without the growth of the flower, the seed has no meaning.

Now what’s really interesting for me here is that James and Paul use the exact same example to make what appear at first glance to be contradictory arguments about faith. James points to Abraham as an exemplar of faithful works. He notes the phrase from Genesis, which says that “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” From this, James concludes that Abraham was such a faithful person in his works, that he was called a friend of God.

Paul takes a different view on the relationship between faith and works. And what’s fascinating to me is that he uses the exact same example from scripture to make his point. Like James, Paul zeros in on Abraham as being an exemplar of faithfulness. But listen to where he goes with this, starting with the same phrase that is the crux of James’ argument:

For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.

So Paul is saying here that is that Abraham’s righteousness is itself a gift from God. Abraham didn’t earn it through his actions. He was without works, but God “reckoned his faith as righteousness.” Abraham was righteous because God said he was righteous. According to Paul, it wasn’t works that saved Abraham – it was trust in God.

For those of us who grew up in traditions that told us that every word of scripture is dictated by God and divinely guaranteed for its accuracy, this presents a conundrum. It seems like James and Paul are in disagreement here. Which is it? Is faith only real when expressed through works, or are we saved through faith alone, without works?

In order to answer this question, it’s important to look at what James and Paul meant by “works.” Because while I do think these two men were in general agreement about what the word “faith” means, I would argue that they have very different definitions of works.

For James, his entire discourse is immersed in this idea of works being based in mercy, social justice, and acts of risk-taking to express the love of God. In the case of Abraham, the example of works that James holds out is his willingness to sacrifice his only, beloved son. Abraham was willing to take real, tangible risks for God. His trust made him able to sacrifice the things – and even the people – that meant the most to him.

I don’t think anyone thinks that human sacrifice would be an example of good works, but the fact that Abraham was willing to give up everything for God demonstrates how much more powerful his faith was than mine. I know I don’t have the strength to sacrifice one of my children for God. Most of the time I can’t even muster the strength to stop and open my life up to panhandlers on my commute through downtown. This road of uncomfortable faithfulness is what James calls me to when he says that “faith without works is dead.”

Paul’s vision of works is different. In his letter to the Romans, Paul is singularly fixated on the Jewish law. He’s doing theological reflection on what the law means to him, to Christians, and to the Jewish people. He’s taking a look at religious ritual and trying to make sense of what role it should play for the followers of Jesus.

Above all other aspects of the Jewish law, one that was most concerning for the early church was the rite of circumcision. For Jews, it was required of all men. For most pagans – and for Christians who had once been pagans – it was a painful form of genital mutilation. Honestly, how many gentile converts to Christianity would there have been if the price of admission had been cutting off part of your penis?

The early church was wrestling with this. Paul, above all, as an apostle to the gentiles, was digging deep to understand what really mattered in the life of faith. Was circumcision an essential matter that the church had to stand firm on, or was it an optional rite that some could take part in and others didn’t need to?

In this context – in the midst of all these thoughts about the law, the gentiles, and the Jewish people – Paul writes about the relationship of faith and works. And what a difference that context makes! Unlike James, Paul views works as a secondary matter. The crucial thing is to believe God, trust God, have faith in God. Everything else flows from that. Works – religious rituals – are at best a reflection of faith. Not strictly necessary.

When Paul talks about works, he’s not talking about the same thing James is. There’s no mention of social justice – care for the poor, the weak, the elderly. For Paul, who is thinking very deeply about Jewish/Christian tradition and liturgy, the “works” being referred to is the keeping of religious traditions and observances.

When Paul talks about “righteousness apart from works,” it’s proper to understand works as referring to things like circumcision, wedding ceremonies, the Lord’s Supper, Sunday-morning worship, water baptism, hymn singing. These kinds of religious observances and rituals may serve a positive purpose. They may build us up and bind us together. They can help provide a sense of meaning and continuity in our community and our religious traditions. But these works are incapable of saving us. Without faith, they are empty and dead.

When you start to consider the context out of which both James and Paul are writing, their different views on faith versus works start to make sense. It’s true that faith is dead without the works of justice and mercy. It’s also true that the works of religious rites, ceremonies, and seasons are dead and useless without the power of faith to animate and redeem them.

Faith without works of righteousness is dead. The works of human religion are empty and without meaning in the absence of faith. True faith is demonstrated by acts of justice and repentance, not ritual and adherence to tradition.

So what does this mean for us? What does faith mean in our community? Do we believe God? Are we open to the ways he reveals himself to us every day? Do we believe Jesus? Do we believe him when he teaches us, through the written words of scripture and the living word of his resurrected presence? Do we believe the Holy Spirit when she speaks in our hearts?

If we do believe – if we believe God and our faith is reckoned to us as righteousness – what do those works of righteousness look like? Are we more focused on the religious works that Paul talks about – our worships and conferences and baptisms and songs? Modern day circumcision. Ways to remind ourselves that we want to follow Jesus, maybe. But not enough to save us.

Where are the works of righteousness that James talks about, the works without which our faith is dead? Maybe it’s time for me to start stopping and interacting with people who ask me for money. Maybe it’s time for me to start questioning the way I interact with the money economy altogether. Certainly, it’s time for all of us to follow the clear commands of Jesus and the witness of the early church. To care for the poor and marginalized, turn away from greed and selfish pleasure, and turn our lives towards those in need all around us. These are the works that our faith can’t live without.