Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Most Practical Word

The Most Practical Word

James 5:13-20

17th Sunday After Pentecost

27 September 2009

We have spent the last four weeks preaching from the Letter of James, an epistle that speaks in the strongest and most basic terms about how to live the Christian life, about how faith must express itself through how we live. You are familiar with some of the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament – the Book of Job, the book of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the book of Psalms, the Song of Songs. Wisdom Literature concerns itself with morality, ethics, the practical wisdom of right behavior. These writings attempt to offer insight into human nature, and into the nature of reality, so that hearers and readers might live more responsibly, more ethically, and more faithfully. The book of James is a kind of Wisdom Literature.

I have always loved the letter of James; it is so practical and so radical, laying out in undeniable and concrete terms what it means to live a faithful Christian life. Out of 108 verses in the whole book, 59 of them are moral imperatives. Martin Luther famously disliked this book, believing that it contradicted the Apostle Paul’s central teaching that a person is justified not through works but by grace through faith. But James does not contradict Paul; he is simply aiming to hold up what it means for the grace that saves us to find actual expression in our daily lives. James writes in very direct, very bare terms. There is no wriggling out of what he means. And what he means is for us to live what we say we believe.

James writes exclusively towards an intentional community gathered by a shared faith in Jesus Christ. His is not a book to be read alone, in the privacy of one’s home, as if he meant to teach us about a private faith and a personal morality. Like the rest of the New Testament writers, he does not believe that the Christian life is to be lived in isolation. James is meant to be read here, together, as a church, as a community that intends to work out our faith together and to live in radical contrast to the values of competition, acquisition, and envy.

We started a month ago, with his injunction to listen first and then to act. From there we moved into his teaching about how we treat each other, including how we do not judge or show favoritism, but instead show love consistently. After listening, and action, and love, we then considered speech, how our words are also actions and the importance of using them wisely and well. And then last week, we looked at the destructive nature of envy, and the power of recognizing we have enough.

And so we come today to the end of his short letter. He has written so far against so many behaviors. Don’t be like this. Don’t speak like that. Don’t treat people like this. Now his words turn in a more positive direction. How might we become a community that lives in the reality of friendship with God and with each other? How will that friendship shape how we speak and how we act toward one another? Fundamentally, how will we learn to trust each other, and be trustworthy? It is this sense of purposeful trust that has the power to transform us from just a loose collection of individuals trying to make our own way, into a solid community of believers working out our faith in action together.

Again, James focuses on speech, and the relationship between speech and action. Let your “yes” be “yes,” and let your “no,” be “no,” he writes. Truthful, simple speech lays the foundation for truthful right action. Both truthful speech and truthful action lay the foundation for trust within the community. Say what you mean. Do what you say.

This does not seem like particularly radical instruction, or even particularly Christian instruction. Who wouldn’t agree with the wisdom of consistency and truth in speech and action? But what he writes next, in the passage I read a few moments ago, is what distinguishes him from other moral philosophers.

“Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them…. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” (5:13-16)

We often think of prayer as the opposite of action. You can sit around praying and fretting about something, or you can get out and do something about it. At most, we tend to see prayer as a precursor to action, not as action itself. It certainly doesn’t strike us as the most practical response to any given situation.

But here is James, the most pragmatic of Christian thinkers, offering prayer as the first response. Are any of you suffering? Pray! Are any cheerful? Pray! Are any sick? Pray! I believe he would answer the same to any given situation. Are any depressed? Pray! Are any angry? Pray! Are any out of work? Pray! Are any confused? Trying to make a decision? Dealing with disappointment? Celebrating good news? Pray! Pray! Pray!

In a way, this is his most practical word. He writes consistently of the importance of true and trustworthy speech. He writes of the need to be slow to speak, and when you do speak, to be careful with how you use your words, and to mean what you say. He writes of the need for your actions to match your words. Here, he strips language back to its most fundamental – the words we speak not to one another, but to God. And with one another, to God. And on behalf of one another, to God. Prayer is primal speech. It is primal action.

Prayer is an expression of the truth. Speaking the truth first to God helps keep us honest. If we are suffering, we say that. We do not pretend otherwise. If we are cheerful, we take note, we pay attention, we celebrate by singing our praise to God. Whatever you are dealing with, James says, be honest. Pray.

There is nothing we go through that we cannot speak directly with God about. There is nothing we deal with that God does not care about. There is nothing we face that God will not face with us. No human emotion is foreign to God. We can be brutally honest. We can whisper our most desperate hopes. We can cry our pain. We can sing our joy. We can beg for what we want. We can shout our anger, ugly as it feels. We can bring it. And we can bring it all.

In the movie The Apostle, Robert DuVall plays a Pentecostal preacher named Sonny, who has just discovered his wife is having an affair. Sonny is a temperamental man who flies into a terrifying and violent rage that has life-changing consequences. But in the midst of that, he does not hide anything from God. In one of the movie’s greatest scenes, he paces the floor in his mother’s attic, muttering his prayers. He gets louder and louder until he throws his hands up in the air and he is shouting at the top of his voice, “If you won’t give me back my wife, give me peace. Give me peace! I’ve always called you Jesus and you’ve always called me Sonny.”

This is a man, who, even in the midst of anguish, knows he can trust his truth to the God who knows him so well, and calls him by name. A neighbor calls to complain and Sonny’s mother answers. She explains, “Sometimes he talks to the Lord. Sometimes he yells at the Lord.”

Do we believe in such a relationship? Do we know that we have, or can have, that kind of real relationship with God? Do we know how to tell our truth?

“Is any among you suffering? They should pray. Is any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them.”

And of course none of this is meant solely for the individual, but for the community. Ultimately, we don’t only pray alone in our attics – whether it’s shouting, crying, or celebrating. We pray together. We pray for each other. We pray with each other. We pray in solidarity with one another.

And that is part of what makes this teaching from James so practical and so radical. This is fundamentally what makes us something other than a social club or an activist organization or a charity. We are people who pray. We are people who pray together. Those prayers put us in solidarity with one another, and remind us that we are one people, belonging to one God, a God who has a relationship with us. Those prayers also keep us honest. And they should keep us attentive. They should keep us faithful to God and to each other.

Week after week, we come together on Sunday mornings and we pray for Elizabeth Lee, and Bill Kerr, and Bonnie Jensen, and Marge Shannon, and a host of others who suffer. And we pray for our Vespers ministry. And we pray for our sister church in Nicaragua. And these prayers are not just words, they are actions – they act to pull us together in solidarity with those in our midst who suffer, and in solidarity with those beyond our walls who need our care. Our prayers act to bind our hearts with each other’s, and with God’s. And these prayers should bleed out into our daily lives, acting to prompt even more attention and action. Prayer is not just saying words, it is uniting our intentions with God’s intention. That’s what shapes a life. That’s what shapes our life together.

Are you a person of prayer? Are we people of prayer? Maybe you don’t feel like you’re very “good” at prayer. Maybe you struggle to find the time. Maybe you don’t feel it’s worth the time. Maybe you struggle to believe that it means anything, or does anything, or changes anything. Say that to God. It’s as good a starting place as any. If you want to be more faithful, if you want this church to be more faithful, more vital, more vibrant, then the most practical thing to do is to say our prayers, and to say them together, and to keep on saying them.

In about ninety seconds, I’m going to sit down, and we’re going to have a moment of silent reflection, as we do every Sunday. This isn’t just a pause in the action. It isn’t a moment for finding our offering money or checking the time. This is a moment of quiet solidarity as we sit together before a God who listens. This is time for prayer, together. Just because it’s done in silence, doesn’t mean it isn’t real, or that it isn’t done as a part of community. Silent prayer can still be shared prayer. You don’t have to know any fancy words. You don’t have to say the right things. Just say what is true. Like: “Thank you.” Or, “I hope.” Or, “I need.” Or, “Hallelujah.”

We just keep doing this, apart and together, speaking our truth, holding up our hearts, holding up each other, uniting our voices, uniting our intentions to God’s, and allowing our prayers to take hold of our lives and our church and every action that flows out of them.

Now. Let us pray.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Littlest Power

The Littlest Power
James 3:1-12
15th Sunday After Pentecost
Christian Education Sunday
13 September 2009

I dropped our boys off at kindergarten this week. It was about as hard as I had imagined. They did fine. Me, not so much. It’s a mixed bag, watching your kids grow up. It is a constant process of letting go, and of giving your child away to other people, more and more, and then more still. This first giving-away feels momentous. It is hard on the heart.

But mostly, I am excited for them. I think it is safe to say that there is no year in the educational process that is quite as joyful and tender as kindergarten. You high school students don’t get story time any more, do you? You college students, do your professors give you a hug at the beginning of each class? You graduate students are not getting to play Red Rover after lunch, are you? Most of us have tender memories of kindergarten as a safe and happy time, and nothing that comes after can quite match it.

But it is not without its own series of rude awakenings about life in this world. It was on the kindergarten playground that many of us learned to defend ourselves with these words: Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. And why did we learn to say that? Because at some point, someone we thought of us as a friend, or at least a trusted classmate, used words against us. And it did hurt. In fact, as we become older, we realize that the real truth is mostly the opposite of that playground retort – most physical wounds are temporary; they heal. The hurts that get done with words – those can sometimes last a lifetime. The words we live under shape who we become. Loser. Princess. Klutz. Nerd. Know-it-all. Just words?

Compared to sticks, stones, bombs, and bullets, words can give the illusion that they are of no consequence. But James knows that words have a power disproportionate to their size. He makes much of the littleness of the greatest weapon we have – our tongue. He compares it to a bit in a horse’s mouth – if the tongue is bridled, the whole self can be kept under control. He compares it to a ship’s rudder – a person can steer the ship of her life if she just controls the very small rudder, which is her tongue. And he compares it to a small fire. It starts small – just a spark. But what comes out of the mouth can make a life go down in blazes.

But what is at issue for James is more than a simple matter of self-control. At issue is our double-mindedness – or our double-heartedness - our split in allegiance. On Sunday mornings we sing our praises to God, and then we turn around and use these same tongues to tear down, to distort, to destroy.

An ancient story tells of Rabbi Gamaliel, who said to his servant: “Go and buy me good food in the market.” His servant went and bought him tongue. Gamaliel said to his servant: “Go and buy me bad food in the market.” His servant went and bought him tongue. Gamaliel said to his servant: “What is this?” His servant replied: “Good comes from it and bad comes from it. When the tongue is good there is nothing better, and when it is bad there is nothing worse.”[i]

It is this duality that James finds most reprehensible. “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing,” he writes. “My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.” (v.10). If we praise God and then shred someone with our words, we betray our allegiance. God created the world with a word. God saved the world with the Word made flesh. We claim to live under that life-giving Word, the Word of God. That is our allegiance. That is our home.

When we use our words to curse, tear down, distort, shame, criticize, manipulate, bicker, judge, gossip, or deceive, we betray that allegiance. We are placing our own words above God’s. We are taking ourselves out of the shelter of God’s Word and placing ourselves instead in a different framework, that of envy and competition and violence and greed. Language has the capacity to create reality. When we use our words against each other, we are building a reality that is contrary to the one God has called forth. We are responding to God’s creation by making our own.

This is not what we set out to do. We do not mean to tear down what God creates. We just can’t seem to help ourselves. We speak carelessly. We speak without thinking – and without listening. We are indiscreet. We think negative thoughts – and then we verbalize them. We are anxious for approval – so we try to connect with people through gossip and judgment and complaint. We are anxious that things won’t go the way we want – and so we use our words to control and maneuver and manage situations and people to our advantage. We don’t mean to be tearing down God’s creation and erecting our own unlovely reality in its place, but that is what we are doing.

How do we stop?

In the end, the problem with our tongues is really a problem with our hearts. Who do they belong to? If they belong to us, then we can just keep speaking however we want. But if they belong to God, then what comes out of our mouths will reflect that. In place of negativity, there would be wonder. In place of judgment, there would be compassion. In place of blame, there would be humility. In place of manipulation, there would be respect and mutuality. In place of gossip, maybe there would be silence.

In every worship service, the most important moment for me personally comes when I pray the words from this morning’s Psalm: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” In those moments of prayer, I am most aware of the power of my own words, and my responsibility to God, who is also listening. I am most aware of the connection between the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart. And I am aware of my own inability to make my words or my heart right. I become dependent on God's sufficiency.

What if we prayed that prayer ourselves, each morning? What if we bathed our lives in it? A prayer of yielding our words and our hearts to God. A prayer seeking to submit ourselves again to life under the Word of God, a Word meant only for life, truth, goodness, loveliness, kindness, and grace.

We cannot take back the faithless and damning words we’ve spoken. We cannot hope to keep our tongues as fully bridled as they ought to be. What we can do is place our hearts in God’s hands. We can confess our sins. We can seek to pay attention to God, and to the importance of our words. We can ask God’s help. Most of all, we can keep giving our hearts back to God.

“Let the words of our mouths and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to You, O Lord, our rock and my redeemer.”

[i] Dibelius, James, pp. 201-202. Found in “The Power of Words and the Tests of Two Wisdoms: James 3,” by Alan Culpepper, in Review and Expositor, p.413, Summer 1986.