Show It By Your Good Life sermon: James 3:13 – 4:3, 7-8a

Who is wise and understanding among you?
That’s quite a question. No pressure, right?

Who is wise and understanding among you?

James’s letter is quite the fierce treatise. James is interested more interested in conduct than in doctrine, in how we behave toward one another more than what we profess to believe.

Faith is demonstrated by action.

These passages we’ve read tonight are a continuation of ongoing reading that Christians around the world are doing from the book of James. James wrote his letter in an ancient world to long ago Christians, but I’ll argue that James’ message without question speaks into the circumstances of our lives today.

One theme that’s clear in this letter is that that our words can get us into trouble. Anybody know something about that? Anybody out there NOT ever have their words get them into trouble?

That too often we curse rather than bless. That’s from earlier in this third chapter.

And James would also tell us that too often we live out a LIFE that curses rather than blesses.

We hear the temptations in this passage here – we’re tempted to bitter envy, boasting, selfish ambition, falseness. Partiality and hypocrisy. Murder.

There’s lots of ways to murder things. This could be pretty literal, but we also crush the life out of all sorts of hopes and dreams and ideas and sparks of goodness and creativity all the time. This doesn’t have to be just those folks who actually pull out a gun or a knife. Dispute and conflict. It’s all around us. It’s within us.

Who is wise and understanding among you?
Show it by your good life.
So what does a good life look like?

In looking to answer this question, I’ll suggest tonight that we can take the words of James on three useful levels – or at least three useful levels and we’ll talk about 3 of them tonight – our relationships with others, our relationship with the society around us, and our relationship with our very own self. That’s one thing I think we can learn from James and his fierce call.

‘You covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts.’
We covet money or power or some balm to our ego. Our culture teaches us to always want more.

To never be satisfied.
To want shiny new things.
To want the last word.
To want things our way.
To aim to have it all.

And since I want it all and you want it all and Ed wants it all and Joyce wants it all – well, we might just have to have words. And once I start having some words with Ed, it might get a little ugly. And I might lose but then I’ll try again. And I might win. And then when I win, I might feel quite pleased with myself and my rightness and my righteousness. I might do a happy dance when I get my way.

And the thing here – is that even if I happened to be right, even if I happen to be reaching beyond the shallow and the material and I am actually right, RIGHT in big capital letters, if I am up in your face and proud of myself for it, that’s sounding awfully earthly.

That’s not sounding like the fruits of the spirit. That’s not sounding like what God teaches us.

If I am treating you like an object for me to pour my whole bucket of pride at being right over, James is telling me I’m doing something wrong.

We can tell it like it is.
We can speak truth to one another.
But how we do it matters as much as what we say and do.

It’s like me hollering at my daughter – now this a total hypothetical, of course —
“KID, why are you so GRUMPY?!! Just CUT IT OUT AND be NICE, OKAY???
Just a hypothetical, right?? Doesn’t work so well though, let me tell you.

James reminds us of the gentleness born of wisdom. There’s never a call not to speak the truth, not to set boundaries, not to hold people accountable. Truth, boundaries, accountability. Those are important. But HOW we treat one another – the words we choose, the ways we engage with one another, the compassion we show – whether it’s to the people you live with or the people you work with or the people you go to church with or the people you pass by at Walmart or the people you talk to on Facebook.

James points us toward a higher standard of relationality. To words and deeds that are worthy of one another and of our call as Christians.

The second place we see this is in our relationship to our whole culture and society. I think we have to be careful as we hear the call to be peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy, and good fruits.

This is not a call to simply be perpetually sunny, blissful and joyous and utterly oblivious to all of the problems in the world. I mean, do we think James is instructing us to just kick back and bliss out in kindness while the powers and principalities of this world arrest brown children for bringing clocks to school?

Are we feeling peaceable while loving couples are denied their legal right to marry by someone who claims to speak for OUR faith?

Are we willing to yield to those who mine tar sands and dump slag into waterways and protect their fossil fuel profits in the short run while ignoring the desperate need of billions of people for climate security, for basic clean water, shelter, food, and medical care?

Our actions give life to our faith.

Who is wise and understanding among you?

Being peaceable doesn’t mean we don’t speak truth to power. It means we act from a heart of love, a soul of faith, and a brain that helps us discern the difference between the culture-driven, ego-fed motivations of bitter envy and selfish ambition, discern the difference between those things and the vision of God’s justice and mercy and love.

So we speak into the public sphere. James is big on the accountability of the rich. He has fierce words for those who care only for themselves and their own pleasures and not the needs of the community.

And we speak into that space in our own time. As Christians, we must add our voices to amplify the call from those at the margins, whether they are Black, Brown, transgender, refugee, disabled, old, poor, gay, Muslim. If we speak neither with our actions, nor with our words, we fail to be the DOERS of the word that James calls us on behalf of God to be.

But – and here’s the key –

We must not seek conflict for its own sake.
We must not take pride in our righteousness.
We must not rejoice in our disputatiousness.
We must not glory and gloat or be ugly and mean.

We need to see God in all that we do.
We need to hear God in all that we do.
We need to take our God filter and let our words and our deeds flow through that filter out into the world.

This is every day. Daily life. The world around us. All that we do and all that we are. Our words and our deeds give life to our faith.

And how do we do it?

Who is wise and understanding among you?
A
nd how in the world did they get that way?

Ultimately – and now this is where if you were my Grandmama taking notes on the back of your church bulletin, this would be number 3 – these teachings give us an aspiration for ourselves. This is about how we ourselves are formed and what we have inside us.

My friends, we make that way by walking it. We can’t think ourselves into it. We have to do it.

It is about the practice of it on a daily basis, so that we are ever in the becoming. Our actions give life to our faith.

We will be known by our fruits. We will be recognized by our behavior. This happens in the life of the everyday. James holds before us patience, kindness, wisdom, and prayer.

We speak this into being. We turn toward the light of the Holy Spirit. Submit yourself therefore to God. Draw near to God and God will draw near to you.

This is active. This is real. We are moving. This is not words that we speak and sing HERE and leave behind for next week. If you remember it – and remembered to put it on in the first place – as you leave here, you unclip your nametag and leave it behind. That is NOT what we do with our faith. We are called to live it out every day.

What we are nurturing is that connection to God right inside of us.

So we can understand this demand from James into right relationship with others, right relationship with our society and culture, and right relationship with our own spirits. Honesty, joy, authentic expression, humor, beauty, the fullness of mercy, gentleness. If we practice our faith, if we walk that walk, and we talk that talk – even when it’s so hard – we will continue to come into right relationship with ourselves.

Loving God and loving justice does not mean that we will not be angry. In fact, we’ll probably be angry a lot. But there’s a difference between being angry – even rightfully angry – and speaking from a place of anger. We can be angry – at everything from the bill collector to Donald Trump to traffic to the horrific patterns of violence in our world.

This, however, is where I think James’ words are so valuable – on a personal, human, trying to live everyday level – what does it mean if we accept that anger, but don’t speak from it? Can we acknowledge that as Christians we are called to speak from a place of love and mercy and gentleness?

So we know the anger and the frustration, but before we open our mouths to speak and move our bodies to act, we feel the presence of God in our lives and in our bodies. We live that faith – so that when we open our mouths and move our hands and feet, we speak wisdom and understanding. We speak from a deep well of faith-born kindness, wisdom, and grace.

According to James, there is no separation between faith and practice. It is our actions that give life to our faith. The words we speak, the way we interact with one another, the choices we make, and motivations we bring.

THAT is who is wise and understanding. THAT is how we can live and speak a blessing rather than a curse.