08/29/21 – Praise God and Pass the Admonitions

PRAISE GOD AND PASS THE ADMONITIONS

August 29, 2021
14th Sunday after Pentecost
Song of Sol. 2:8-13; Ps, 45; James 1; 17-27; Mk 7:1-8
Rev. Denise M. Clark-Jones

 

While I was in seminary, I commuted about 30 miles from Hershey to Lancaster in Pennsylvania. It took closer to an hour to drive because I had to go through small towns with low-speed limits and as I got closer to Lancaster, I might have to slow down for a horse and buggy driven by an Amish farmer. Central Pennsylvania has some town names that are the same as faraway places, just like Illinois which has Cuba, Havana, Milan, and several more. On my way to Lancaster, I passed two towns with biblical location names, Palmyra and Ephrata. On the other side of Lancaster, there were two towns that aren’t biblical unless you’re thinking about the Songs of Solomon – Intercourse and Paradise. The small-town square I drove through had a church whose sign read “Practical Christianity.” I always wondered about their theology. It didn’t seem to me that following Christ was very practical, at least by the ways most of our society operates.  But perhaps this congregation was influenced by the epistle of James, which has been called a Christian document of basic rules of Christian living. It does read like the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Scriptures, particularly Proverbs. As in Proverbs, there is a listing of dos and don’ts that define the character of a Christian.

James is unusual in the New Testament canon because it was not written to a particular congregation. It appears to be a general letter to Jewish Christians, circulated to congregations of both Jewish and Gentile Christians. We will be reading more passages from James in the coming weeks, but this first reading provides a basic outline of James’ theology. I’m using this term, theology, in its most basic definition – the study of the nature of God. Ideas about the nature of God are gleaned from sacred scriptures and human experience. Theology is then expressed in words and behaviors and differs in different cultures and religions. Our passage from James and our gospel reading is closely aligned. Both address the relationship between having religious faith and expressing it in behavior.

The first words of the selected passage from James today echo the first part of Jesus’ Greatest Commandment, to love God with all your heart and soul and mind; the last words echo the second part, to love your neighbor as yourself. James puts it in these words: 27Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress.” In the bible, “widows and orphans” is code for the most vulnerable in society, the marginalized, the oppressed and the exploited.

To use a common phrase, James advocates talking and walking our faith. James assumes the audience knows the talk, so the author focuses on the walk. ‘Don’t just think it, do it! Don’t just talk about it, do it!  James makes me feel tired… and guilty! The author of James just can’t stand for Christians to be spiritual couch potatoes. For the author, Christianity is not a spectator sport. Nobody sits on the bench, we’re a team and we’re all in the game, all the time.

James begins with a basic theology: God is good and everything good comes from God. God is unchangeable, thus is always good. God is our Creator who made us in God’s own image. God created us to do good in the world God created. Simple, but a theological statement accepted by Christians and other major world religions. Then as our theological forefather, John Calvin would heartily agree, James contends that the proper response to God’s good gifts, the grace God bestows upon us, is good works. Not because of some expected reward, but out of gratitude. We are to do good works because we understand we were created in God’s image and strive not to just project that image in our daily living, but to be transformed into the image.  At this point, James’ theology moves into the area of Christology. We know God because God has revealed Godself in Jesus Christ. Jesus was not just a teacher; Jesus was a doer. What he taught about living in the kingdom of God on earth was demonstrated by his actions.

It is from this vantage point that James provides a basic outline of Christian ethics. In our passage from James’ first chapter the first item on the list is gives us something to do: “let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” (v.19) How often our listening is just waiting for an opportunity to speak, Real listening requires the intention to learn. To have a relationship we must listen to learn about the other person. Listening shows respect for the dignity and worth of another and is recognizing our common bond as children of God, created in God’s image. As Mother Theresa so famously said: “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.” Later in James, we read: “Do not speak evil against one another, brothers and sisters. Whoever speaks evil against another or judges another, speaks evil against the law and judges the law; (4:11).

James understood that judgmental words emanate from a hardened, self-righteous heart. For James, as for Jesus, sin begins in the heart which, in the ancient understanding includes one’s thoughts, emotions, and will. John Calvin explained that judgment is a manifestation of pride, which he thought was the most pernicious sin. He observed: “The most effective poison to lead men to ruin is to boast in themselves, in their own wisdom and will power.” To put it in simplistic terms, when we judge others what we are most often expressing is the view that we are better than others.

One contemporary example is the negative judgment some people express about the “Black Lives Matter” slogan. The retort, “All Lives Matter,” conveys the sentiment of refusing to listen. I applaud the establishments that put out signs with the slogan: “All Lives Won’t Matter Until Black Lives Matter.” In our politics, laws, economics, and social hierarchies, black, and brown, lives have not counted as having equal worth as white lives. Similarly, the same equation holds for women, non-heterosexuals, and the disabled. Finding offense in the Black Lives Matter Movement and advocacy groups for Women’s Rights, Gay Rights, and the special needs of the disabled, sends the message: ‘I don’t want to listen. Your rights do not matter as much as my privilege gained by not being in any of these groups.

James includes the advice: “be slow to anger because anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” The bible tells us God gets angry. Even Jesus got angry, but it was righteous anger. In the bible, God expresses anger at disobedience, which according to the law as expressed in the Ten Commandments is the failure to love and honor God. Jesus expressed anger when treating people, particularly the most vulnerable in society, with contempt, judgment, oppression, and exploitation. In other words, failure to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Thus, righteous anger honors Jesus’ Greatest Commandment. However, more often than not, our anger is self-righteous. According to the scriptures, Jesus expressed anger most often at the hypocrisy among those that claimed to be the most faithful to God but did not act justly and mercifully towards God’s children.

As a Jewish Christian, James had high regard for God’s law, as did Jesus. Also, like Jesus, he was concerned with the intention of God’s law, rather than the literal words, written by human hands. In our gospel reading from Mark, Jesus was confronted by Pharisees who criticized his disciples for not washing their hands before eating. In these days of the Covid pandemic, this might be a legitimate concern. Some of the over 600 laws in the Hebrew scriptures do have a basis in the scientific facts we know today. One could argue, from a religious perspective, that refusing to get vaccinated or wearing a mask demonstrates a lack of care and concern for others. But in the case of Jesus’ argument with the Pharisees, the criticism of the disciples was based on following the law, not the intention of the law. Jesus answered their condemnation with his own: “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

James understood that we hurt others with our words even without action. As someone wisely said: ‘Words cannot be forgotten, only forgiven.’ So many of us hold onto the scars of words said to us as children. Those words of people important to us as children, make words said to us as adults’ affirmation of their truth, continuing the cycle of pain and humiliation. It is wise to disregard the hurtful words of people who know the least about us.

James provides us with practical advice from biblical wisdom if we take practical to mean doing the day-to-day work of our lives while following Christ and resisting the unChrist-like ways of the world. James gives us a straight- forward list of dos and don’ts —  do listen, don’t say things that will cause harm or be hurtful, don’t rush to anger because anger is only positive when it causes one to challenge injustice. Do read and listen to God’s Word in the scriptures, don’t ignore it, don’t neglect to act on it. And last, but not least, don’t let anything worldly taint you, make you spiritually unclean. Got that? It’s simple, straightforward, practical advice for being a Good Christian. But it’s a tall order to be sure. James understood we need God’s help and the help and support of a congregation of believers to do what we say we believe. In our worship, we reiterate and affirm our beliefs – that is the important work of the people, the liturgy, that reminds us of the promises of our baptism and opens our hearts and minds to the presence of God. We leave the sanctuary to reveal God’s holy intentions with our lives.

Amen. May it be so!

 

© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2021, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church | 1420 W. Moss Ave. | Peoria, Illinois 61606
WestminsterPeoria.org  | 309.673.8501