When I was growing up, something happened to my church. I was only 7 at the time, but the only thing I noticed was that suddenly we had a whole lot more people around. These people were from many different places and in the space of two years our 30 person church became a 250 plus person church. Our church went from being a predominantly white congregation to having our worship services in three languages. At the time I saw this as just a normal thing and was not paying attention to what might have caused this shift. The teaching didn’t seem to have changed, it was the same stuff about living as a Christian, doing what was right in God’s eyes and being good witnesses to what the gospel was really about. To keep the suspense down to a minimum, what changed was simple and profound, people actually started living out the gospel. The church had been something we did on Sundays to identify with a type of faith and had not penetrated beyond that. Then the church started to pray and listen for God’s call, and those prayer meetings were electric, people were listening with the desire to obey God, and change started to happen. One of the members of the church took in some refugees, who were fleeing Vietnam, then more people opened their homes, more refugees started coming and people were living their lives as if Jesus really meant all that stuff he taught in the gospels. Incredible changes started happening. It was an incredible time of growing and stretching, people were being saved, body, mind, and spirit. A few years later when we were chugging along and doing well, a serpent came in. This person tried to force themselves into a position of authority in the church, gossip, backbiting and slander crept in, eventually there was a split and the church that had been growing in every way when it had focused on God’s call, crashed and declined. We had lost sight of this week’s scripture from James to our detriment.
26If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (James 1:26-27)
These are some pretty important words for us to revisit on a regular basis. When we are un-cautious with our words, there are consequences that range from broken relationships to lost opportunities, to people losing their faith. I have a family member who went through that split and because of the degree of nastiness that was employed, gave up on the idea that God was doing anything to redeem people. Last week we talked about our actions and the way we interact having consequences, and James is reminding us that an unbridled tongue wreaks havoc on a faith community. I will not lay any kind of claim to having complete control of my tongue yet. I do not always think before I speak, and the reality is that none of us maintains perfect control at all times. What James is saying here is that there are consequences to our lack of control. I don’t know about you, but most of my regrets in life are tied to words that escaped my lips. Words that came out of my mouth followed by the thought “I can’t believe I just said that.” And eventually the words “I am so sorry, I don’t know what came over me.” Regrets are not God’s best for us, and when we don’t reign in our words we are stepping away from God’s desires for us and are operating without the support of the God who loves us. These lapses have even greater consequences in the faith community. When our tongues flap around without connection to the Holy Spirit, without us weighing the words and their possible impact, we take our religious focus off of Christ and set it on ourselves. We speak in self-serving ways that do not consider other parts of our body and we begin to fool ourselves into thinking that we are the center of creation rather than God. Our religion becomes worthless to others and us because it has lost its Christ-centered focus and is instead focused on the self. What we focus on becomes our destination, and when what we focus on is ourselves, we stop growing and changing into the image of Christ.
Thankfully James doesn’t leave it there, but tells us what pure and undefiled religion looks like in God’s eyes. The first thing we notice is that the focus of this religion is outside of ourselves. When our religion is focused on the needs of others, we are much closer to God’s best intentions for our lives. These aren’t just any others, however, these are widows and orphans, literally the fatherless. In our society it is possible for women to survive without a husband or male figure in their lives, but in the times that James writes women had no voice, no right of self-determination, and no power in society. For a woman to lose her husband was to become almost instantly destitute, for a child to not have a father was to have no advocate for them in society. James is reminding us that God sees the value in every human being, and that keeping our religion pure would be demonstrated by the assistance we give those who our society has no use for. To care for the orphan and widow was a bold proclamation of the inherent value of human beings regardless of social status. Or to quote Jesus:
12He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14:12-14)
This message has equal application today as it did then. Our society teaches us to work hard at connecting with those who are wealthier or socially equal in order to advance ourselves, but when our focus moves outside of ourselves and onto Jesus, we begin to look for how we can give others the advantages and opportunities that circumstances deny them. To think beyond ourselves in ways that benefit others brings us into a connection with God defined by Jesus as righteous.
What this external focus with priorities that serves others also does is insulate us from the temptations of the world around us. The world has priorities to sell us more stuff, to get us to seek self-fulfillment, and to covet what we see others have. I have to keep asking myself all the time the question of what ways my priorities are being determined by cultural expectation rather than submission to God’s values. If I am not keeping vigilant then, just as when my vigilance over my tongue brings self-serving behaviors, my priorities become influenced by the covetous nature of keeping up with the “Joneses”, but really a little ahead of them if I can swing it. Keeping ourselves unstained by the world is our goal, but it is one we struggle to reach for. We cannot bridle our tongue, serve those at the margins of our society, or live according to the priorities of God without two crucial relationships. The first relationship we need to cultivate is our relationship with God. Without God none of these objectives is achievable. We must cultivate a constant sense of the presence of God, knowing that Jesus is right here with us ready to direct us in the path of righteousness. The second necessary relationship is our relationship with this faith community. God has called us together to challenge each other when we are blinded by the world, to encourage each other to reach for God’s hands and to support each other against the onslaught of covetous advertising trying to distract us from God. Only when we cultivate both of those relationships will we be able to come close to the goals James has given us here to control our tongue, to care for those who are marginalized, and to not allow our priorities to be dictated by cultural expectations. As we enter into open worship consider your relationship with God and our faith community and ask God to show you how you are living well in those relationships, and to help you make the changes needed to grow in those relationships. When we humble ourselves in the silence ready to obey the words that flow from communion with the Holy Spirit our community will begin to order itself according to God’s priorities and the world around will notice that there is indeed something different here, something that calls each of us beyond ourselves, something that makes it possible for people of multiple classes and races and other worldly divisions to come together in mutual service. Let us enter the purifying presence of God together with hearts ready to obey.