This sermon was prepared for Wesley United’s Sunday AM service on September 23, 2018. (Year B, Proper 20, 3:13-4:3, 7-8a)
Last week Rev. Heather preached to us about our words. She said that our words are something we can’t take back; they are something we need to be careful with.
And, I have to admit that, it felt like she was preaching right to me; because I too had had a week where I had been called out because of my careless words.
The Book of James is relentless with us because the author doesn’t just stop there—chastising us to think before we speak. The text calls on us to work towards the best version of ourselves. And, this week’s passage touches on a question I had last week.
What about times of conflict?
What about the times we see injustice happening?
What about the times others hurt us?
Is it possible to speak in love but also hold others accountable?
That’s something I haven’t quite figured out, and so I often find myself on that pendulum swing of too passive—where I freeze or flee. All the way over to too aggressive, or passive-aggressive—where my fight instinct kicks in.
It can make me feel out of control—similar to how Paul must have felt when he complains in Romans that, “What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise. […] I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. […] Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time.”[i]
How can I discern and then follow through with the kind of response God wants from me, when tensions are high and it feels like something important is on the line?
Well, our author has a few tips. He provides a litmus test so we can gauge the intentions behind our responses.
The Book of James says that we must ask whether our actions and our attitudes are “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.”[ii]
That’s not a small order. I think especially of that idea of “willingness to yield”! How often in conflicts is that our go-to attitude?
While I reflected on these verses this week, I was reminded of a favourite quote, which has helped to shape me in my own life…
Martin Luther King Jr., a pastor who knew his Bible, and someone who had every right to be angry and to respond to his enemies in kind, once said: “Hate begets hate; violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness. We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love… Our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate the white man, but to win his friendship and understanding.”
Living a life of wisdom and peace is profoundly challenging. To learn the difference between reacting nd responding—to get to a place in our lives where we own our power in the face of impossible situations, and say to ourselves: I will choose to respond from my principles, from what I know is justice.
And, I love the way James provides us with some practices to begin to ask ourselves about how we want to respond to the injustice and conflict around us. So, in the heat of the moment, we can stop and ask ourselves…
How can I plant peace in this place?
Planting is a wonderful metaphor for us in this Season of Creation. Our Psalm today, a tough Psalm, also calls on the metaphors of planting, growth and harvest. It draws a line between “righteous” or “blameless” people, and the “ungodly” or “guilty”.[iv]
Being righteous is about wanting to be near to God, right by that stream; it’s about wanting to soak up God’s counsel, to meditate on it and allow it to nourish us.
Because making peace is hard, it is a spiritual practice we need to work at. The Psalm tells us we need to strengthen ourselves so that we’re not blown away like chaff in a strong wind. We’re called to live with conviction.
Can you think of someone in your community who models this good life? Someone who doesn’t react, but responds with wisdom?
What is it about the way they live that is attractive to you?
There is an older woman in my life, a teacher, who is so gracious in admitting she is wrong that I find her truly inspiring. Because I know I struggle with that “willingness to yield”. But, when I see her do it, she sows something in my heart that makes it easier the next time I need to say: I’m sorry. I was wrong. Help me understand and do better. She’s taught me that peace work means no one goes unchanged—and that includes me.
The author of James promises us a harvest if we live wisely and peaceably, but harvests take a while to come. So, don’t be discouraged friends if your hand of peace is met with violence or apathy. There is a stream of abundance God offers us, to nourish us on this counterintuitive journey of loving others despite.
You may not change the heart of the person you’re reaching out to, but the wind gathers the seeds we sow, and they travel to the most unexpected places. In a world where force must be met with equal force, and punishments are offered instead of mercy—the way we are called to live will shock and confront. May we welcome God’s opportunities and surprises for us, on this journey together. Amen.