By Rev. J.C. Austin
The Letter of James almost didn’t make it in the Bible. Only Revelation was more controversial as an inclusion in the Christian New Testament when the early Christians were assembling the New Testament. Many of the early Christian bishops felt it teetered on the edge of legalistic faith and what Protestants would eventually call “works righteousness,” arguing that our salvation is not by God’s grace through faith, but rather through the good works we do to earn God’s salvation.
That’s part of why Martin Luther famously called it an “epistle of straw” compared to the writings of Paul, and wrestled with whether it should even stay in the Protestant Bible because he felt that it lacks a focus on Christ and could too easily seem to argue for justification by works.
I think Luther may have had another beef with James, though. One of the main themes in the Letter of James is the need to govern our speech as Christians; he says our tongues are full of deadly poison, and we use them both to bless God and curse other human beings who bear God’s image. And he specifically warns those who are teachers to be careful, because they will be judged with greater strictness due to their responsibility.
Luther definitely wouldn’t have liked that, because he was a skilled and enthusiastic verbal bully, so much so that if you google “Luther Insulter,” it will take you to a website where you can click a button and receive some of his best zingers, like “Perhaps you want me to die of unrelieved boredom while you keep on talking.” Or how about, “your words are so foolishly and ignorantly composed that I cannot believe that you understand them.” That’s pretty good, but these two are in their own league: “you deserve not only to be given no food to eat, but also to have the dogs set upon you and to be pelted with horse manure.” Okay, settle down there, Martin.
But not only does he not settle down, he says this: “may your grain spoil in the barn, your beer in the cellar, your cattle perish in the stall. Yes, your entire hoard ought to be consumed by rust so that you will never enjoy it.” Whoa! Even the beer? That’s a pretty serious insult, given that it’s coming both from and towards a German. Clearly, Luther would not have appreciated James’ warnings about how one’s poisonous tongue should not curse those bearing the image of God in their humanity.
One of the interesting things about the Luther insult generator is that, archaic language aside, he would have fit right in on the Internet and social media these days. There are lots of important questions and issues being debated online, especially these days, but they are often done with such venom and hostility that even Luther might struggle to keep up.
James says, “your anger does not produce God’s righteousness,” but it sure feels that way sometimes when we’re we are in the midst of it, doesn’t it? Anger is seductive because it feels powerful and almost always feels justified, and even righteous. Did you hear what they said? Did you see what they did? Do you know what they think? Somebody had to speak up!
And the thing is, sometimes that’s true. Sometime our anger is justified; sometimes it’s even righteous. Notice that James doesn’t say, “never get angry.” He says, “be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.” I think that’s because he knows how quickly anger becomes both self-justifying and self-serving; we need to be quick to listen and slow to speak so that we are getting angry at the right things, and for the good of others, not simply ourselves.
Because we frequently get angry at the wrong things or at least the things that are secondary to what should be making us angry. And being quick to listen and slow to speak and get angry is one of the ways that really helps us make sure that our anger is directed where it should be and not simply where it feels right. Because often what feels right or important is what impacts our own lives the most, not what is most important.
This past week, the pandemic continued to gain steam in much of the United States, with 29 states showing increases in cases, even shattering record highs that were set earlier in the pandemic. Some of that, of course, is due to an increase in testing in general. But the percentage of tests that come back as positive is increasing in some areas, indicating a growing presence of the virus. And hospitalization rates, perhaps the most important indicator, have also gone up significantly in a number of states, with seven of them setting new all-time highs.
Yet we continue to face a national trend from both public officials and the general population that is indifferent and even hostile to the most basic public health actions of wearing facemasks and the practice of physical distancing. Those who resist such basic care for their neighbors often get angry at being asked to participate, arguing that they have a constitutional right to reject such measure, even if the price of their personal preference is the lives of others. Such behavior is now threatening to undo the painful sacrifices we have all made these last four months in staying at home, at a terrible cost to our economy, to give the healthcare system the bandwidth it needs to manage the pandemic. That problem is important, and is certainly just cause for righteous anger.
Similarly, daily protests all over the United States continue against systemic racism in general and institutionalized police violence against black people in particular, demanding transformative structural change to U.S. laws and institutions in order to ensure that black lives do, in fact, matter as much as any other kinds of lives in our society, which they have not for more than 400 years. That is important; that is certainly just cause for righteous anger.
And yet in the past week or so, a third movement has emerged in our society and on social media that has drawn considerable energy and focus and debate even with the response to the two pandemics of the coronavirus and systemic racism still raging: the anti-fireworks movement. Many people have noticed an unusual level of them shaking our neighborhoods and terrorizing our pets for weeks now and have been complaining about it.
But this week, it began taking up space as a major public issue in news and opinion pieces all over the country; social media was filled with people sharing those articles and affirming that they, too, were suffering. And, perhaps inevitably, some fanciful conspiracy theories arose that this was somehow related to the protests, though opinions differed whether it was the protesters or, more commonly, law enforcement, that was secretly behind it all.
Now, I will grant that the plague of fireworks is a quality of life issue, even a significant one. When fireworks are regularly going off well after midnight, sleep deprivation is a real thing; many dogs really are distressed by fireworks noise; and perhaps most importantly, fireworks are often very disturbing for people suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. But with all that said: in the current circumstances, fireworks noise can be infuriating, and that anger is even justified.
But if we find ourselves passionately focused on fireworks noise and righteously angered because of it, but we respond with a shrug to those who are endangering their neighbors’ lives as this pandemic continues, or we refuse to acknowledge or help change the systems that damage, traumatize, devalue, exploit, and end people’s lives on the basis of their race, then we probably should take James’ advice: be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger, because our anger does not produce God’s righteousness.
So what does? Well, James has an answer for that. Be “doers of the word,” he says, “and not merely hearers that deceive themselves.” And then he goes on with this unusual metaphor of a mirror. People who hear God’s word without doing it, he says, are like someone who looks at their appearance in the mirror and forgets what they look like as soon as they move away. Those who do God’s word by looking into the “perfect law, the law of liberty,” and then act on it, however, will be blessed as they do so.
Jesus defined the perfect law quite clearly when he was asked about the most important commandment. He answered, “love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind…[and] love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 22:37-40).
It seems strange to think about someone, aside from some form of serious dementia, who could forget what they look like as soon as they step away from a mirror. But if you dig a little deeper down into that image, there is a treasure of meaning there. We look in mirrors to check our appearance, how we look in that moment. We even call it that: checking our appearance, making sure that there’s nothing out of place, nothing present when it shouldn’t be, nothing missing when it should be there. So if you only hear God’s word without doing it, without living it out and having that living impact your understanding and experience of it, then you can’t remember what it says; you can’t remember what it tells you about who you are and what’s present when it shouldn’t be, what’s missing when it should be there.
And you can’t even remember that you can’t remember; you deceive yourself into thinking everything is squared away when it is not. But it is in looking into God’s word and then doing it that we can actually see and remember: see and remember who we are and whose we are. We can see and remember, in our own lives and our church and our community and our world, what’s there when it shouldn’t be and what’s missing that should be there. And then, and only then, can we do something about it. And in doing, James assures us, we will be blessed.
For the last month, we have been listening for and hearing God’s word in this extraordinary time in which we find ourselves. We have done so through this sermon series and in the “Faith and Living Color” class that has been running on Wednesday nights. But the danger of such things by themselves is that it is easy to walk away and quickly forget. And so we are going to commit ourselves anew, as a congregation to being not hearers who forget, but doers who act.
I announced in the last class that this coming week, we will begin a 21-Day Racial Justice Immersion Project that is focused on doing the crucial ministry of racial justice in Christ’s name. There will be opportunities to learn, notice, connect, engage, and reflect; all different ways of doing God’s word by acting upon it. You will learn more about it in the Spotlight communication tomorrow or by going on the church website to the racial justice page (fpc-bethlehem.org/racialjustice).
And while this work is but one of the many ways that we do God’s word every day as a congregation, it is one of the most important right now, and it will prepare us to do the next action, and the next, and the next, as we follow Christ in his ministry of justice and love for this world in the very midst of all its brokenness. I don’t know what all that will look like, where exactly it will take us, what exactly we will do and what the work will do to us. But we don’t need to know any of that right now; it will become clear as we continue to do it.
All we need to remember right now is who we are, and whose we are; all we need to see is what’s here that shouldn’t be and what’s missing that should be here; and all we need to know for sure is that, in doing God’s word this way, we will be blessed in our doing, as we have been so often and in so many ways on the journey to get here.