(Click here to listen.)
[So I gave a sermon that felt like like two disjointed pieces, both of which needed to be said. I wrestled with whether to just chuck the whole thing and try again or go with what I had and hope I was hearing what God wanted me to share. I chose the latter, but would love to hear some critique of what I might have said better.]
When I was younger and quite a bit more abrasive, I had stuff to say about the way my church was organized, about all the hypocrisy I saw and about how that one customer wouldn’t be able to recognize a clue even if Sherlock Holmes handed them one on a silver platter. My relationships abraded and eroded rather quickly when I indulged my insecurities in this way. Of course what I was really trying to do with my acidic comments was to hide exactly how insecure I was about my own failings. I had no integrity in the way I dealt with myself, so of course that same lack of integrity spilled over into my relationships with others. As we enter the grand finale of James’ epistle, he gives us another view into what it does and doesn’t look like to maintain the integrity of our relationships.
9Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! 10As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. 11Indeed we call blessed those who showed endurance. You have heard of the endurance of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.12Above all, my beloved, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “Yes” be yes and your “No” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.
Grumbling and judgment again! I think we can be a little encouraged that every generation of the church has had to struggle with these things. Even from the beginning there has not been complete agreement on the important issues of the faith, and in some ways that shows a healthy investment in our faith. Our integrity starts to unravel in the interactions that come when we disagree. As I mentioned in a previous sermon James got to see this kind of intense disagreement in his time as a leader in the church, and this disagreement featured two of the apostles almost coming to blows in the street and groups of Jews who went out to Gentile churches to preach a gospel that required conformity to Jewish law. Even after the first council of the leadership of the church that was recorded in Acts 15 with such phrases as “after much debate” and James’ elegant solution, many of the Christians who had come over from the Pharisees continued to grumble against those who thought differently, and Paul got irate and did his own grumbling about those Pharisees, some of which ended up in the letters to the Galatian church. James is calling everybody on the carpet; himself included, and is reminding us and the people of his day exactly what the results of grumbling and working against those you disagree with in the church are: judgment. James says from experience that going around and playing the grumbling political games reflects poorly on us, not the ones we are grumbling against. At its core this passage calls us to have the highest standards of integrity for ourselves and our own interactions, and he gives us some instruction on how to maintain the integrity of relationships that contain disagreement.
James begins by reminding us of the suffering and patience of the prophets, that maintaining our integrity in our relationships may mean painful waiting. James is talking about the disagreements we have over faith not being resolved according to the timetables we wish them to be resolved in. When we try to impose decisions on others, build coalitions to promote our views, deliver ultimatums, and engage in whisper campaigns in the church we damage our witness by displaying a lack of faith in God. By reminding us of the suffering and patience of the prophets James is reminding us that we have a call on us that is larger than simply being intellectually correct. We are called to bring the truth in love. All too often we will err one direction or the other if we are impatient and don’t wait. The prophets who truly are speaking in God’s name aren’t looking for specific effects on a specific timeline, but are trusting in God to change hearts in His good timing. They aren’t so focused on bringing the truth that they do all sorts of collateral damage through judging attitudes and they aren’t so open that they become enmeshed with the very problems they seek to alleviate.
We are called to endure in our love beyond the easy outs of judgment and apathy and persevere in showing the compassion and mercy of God. God’s purpose as expressed through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and the gift of the Holy Spirit is reconciliation and not judgment. Our work, if we truly desire to follow Jesus, is the same. Are we willing to pay the price? Are we willing to remain whole and not over-function for others by trying to be their conscience, moral compass, or to do other’s internal work for them? Will we maintain our integrity by focusing on the calls in our own lives and allowing others to work their own salvations out in fear and trembling? That is what James is talking about here, not worrying about what others are doing as much as about how my interactions with others reflect the love, grace and mercy God has shown me. This is not easy! It is not easy to watch friends and family learn life lessons the hard way. It is extraordinarily tough to witness pain in the people we love and care about. We must witness it though, not only witness it, but painfully endure beside them, extending the compassion and mercy of God even, no especially, when we think someone doesn’t deserve it. Job endured not only physical trial, but the trial of religious “friends” who wanted to fix him, because he obviously wouldn’t have suffered so much if he hadn’t done something deserving punishment. Sometimes we have to endure the bumbling efforts of others trying to make sense of our pain. What Job saw that we miss sometimes is that his friends were deeply affected by his tragedy and desperately wanted to find some way to fix it. Yes, they were lousy comforters, but Job is sure not the last person to experience poor comfort from religious folks that were uncomfortable with someone else’s pain. To prevent this, I am going to teach you one of the secret things that get handed on in seminary. If they find out I told you, the seminary mafia will come and force me to read Dialectical Metaphysics. Shudder. Anyway here are the do’s and don’ts passed on to us: Show up, make coffee, make a meal, wash the dishes, be a calm presence, don’t speculate about why, don’t quote anything from scripture or platitudes about silver linings or things getting better, speak as little as possible, listen, and don’t be afraid to cry or say “I don’t know what to say but I love you.” When we operate from a place of integrity we are better able to be with someone through their pain without anxiety. Job’s friends had a broken and imperfect understanding of God, and their own fears of God’s wrath were projected onto Job. Job endured however by recognizing the compassion and mercy of God, that God was not the mean judge in the sky waiting for people to mess up so he could strike them down. James reminds us that Job kept his integrity through the time of trial because he never accepted the judgment of his friends who had all of the answers and none of the questions. Since Job retained his integrity in the face of accusation and trial, he became the one through which his friends’ integrity could be restored. God did rebuke Job’s friends, but He didn’t condemn them. God gave them a path to wholeness that began with restoring the relationship with the friend they had so deeply harmed. Integrity came from imitating the character of God and following his purposes that James describes here as bringing compassion and mercy to the world.
James was deeply concerned that the way he saw the people of the early church interacting did not match up to the mission God had laid on the church and he saw that Christians were displaying a lack of integrity not only with others in the faith, but also with people outside it as well. Christians were mimicking the practices of Roman culture, who invoked the name of their gods to witness to the truth of their words in court or business dealings. Integrity of speech and integrity of action are mutually dependent. When we say “Yes” it needs to be a given that we will do “Yes” and when we say “No” we will not do the action we said “No” to. This is a fundamental Friend’s testimony, that our words will be true even when that does not go in our perceived best interest. Swearing an oath proves nothing about whether a speaker is honest, and can create a division in our minds between the time to speak the truth, and a time where truth is less important. James says boldly that in order for us to keep our integrity intact we must follow Jesus’ command to not create any division in our souls that gives room for untruth to be expressed from our lips. Lies and broken promises condemn us. The very God we invoke to cover us and attest to truth listens for the whole time, not just those words, and our untruths and broken trusts will stand and condemn us. That is not the end of the story though. Our failure to live up to the holiness of God is forgiven, if we ask, if we turn away from patterns of brokenness and seek to live in the compassion and mercy of God. God waits for us, waits with his compassionate arms flung wide. God waits for us to accept his eternal compassion and mercy by passing them on to every person in our lives no matter what. Then we will be made whole because we accept that we need repair, just like our neighbor. When we look at our lives from the perspective of trying to manage sin, we become overwhelmed and look for ways to pass that judgment on to others because we cannot in any way, shape or form manage our sin. When we look at our own brokenness or refuse to look at our own brokenness it shows in our interactions. We get critical of those we say are living in the more visible forms of sin. We try to pass the shame we feel in ourselves onto others as a way of getting some relief, but friends there is no relief there. In fact we have been given a way that is much more effective in bringing transformation. We can in word and deed give the grace of God that we were given. We can stop trying to manage sin and instead become grace managers. When we give God’s grace and truly show with our actions and words that God loves each human being, right now, exactly as we are with a love that cannot be stopped by any of our actions. It is God’s love of me as I am that gives me the strength to look at the calorie counter app, step on the scale, and begin making changes in the way I have been mistreating my body. I need God’s love and grace first through because without those things I can’t see myself as worthy of caring for myself. The same goes for each of you. I want you to know that God loves you exactly the way you are, that God put you on this earth so that he could love you. Right now God loves you exactly the way you are and wants nothing more than to be part of your life. No matter what change you or others think you need wait and accept God’s love, because without recognizing the unconditional love of God you and I have no integrity. When we deny the fact of God’s love for us we cannot see ourselves or others clearly, and when we look through the lens of our own shame and guilt the damage we do to ourselves and others turns our words against us. That is the incredible paradox here that when we give and receive unconditional love we can then begin to live up to that love. As we enter our time of open worship, I want you to take in the love of God, to recognize and tell yourself that God loves me exactly the way I am. After 5 minutes of silence someone will rise with the microphone. If you feel God stirring you to speak take a moment to discern around that calling. You can use the blue pamphlets in the pews to aid you. Let us pray.