This sermon was preached at Broadway Baptist Church on September 23, 2018. Click here to listen to the audio.
“St. James’ epistle is really an epistle of straw, compared to the others, for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it.”
Martin Luther, the Father of the Protestant Reformation wanted James removed from the Bible.
Luther saw James’s assertion that “faith without works is dead,” as a contradiction to Paul’s gospel, “We know that a person is justified[a] not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.”
In the face of a Catholic Church that he saw teaching justification by works, Luther boldly preached Sola scriptura, Sola fide, Soa gratia, Solo Christo, and Soli Deo gloria
By scripture alone, by faith alone, by grace alone, by Christ alone, we are saved and to God alone be the glory
As protestants like Luther we believe that it is the grace, the love, the faithfulness of Christ who saves us.
It is Christ’s life, death, and resurrection that reconciles us with God’s self and with the world. And it is Christ’s continuing work in our lives through the Holy Spirit that is transforming us. It is easy to understand Luther’s complaint
But what if the epistle of James is not a contradiction to the gospel at all? What if it’s actually a practical invitation to trust in Jesus more deeply, to surrender our more fully…
Surrender is not passive. Surrender takes hard, intentional work
It’s one thing to say “yes” to God’s grace, intellectually. It is another thing altogether to actually do what it takes to open ourselves to receive that Grace in our lives. That doesn’t just happen because we make a profession of faith or walk down an aisle or have the right ideas about God. It happens with everyday habits and decisions that allow God’s grace to enter into the deepest parts of who we are and produce fruit in the way we live.
Pope Francis recently told a group of teenagers, “the road to holiness is not for the lazy.” James would agree
In the chapters before this morning’s readings he writes that holiness is about being quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger…about being hearers of the words but doers of the word, about not acting on our prejudices, about caring for widows and orphans, about doing what we say we believe.
And in today’s passage, being gentle, yielding to others, and working for peace
In some sense, the Christian life is about working hard to choose these practices, to choose these habits, not to earn the love of God, but because we trust that God would use our obedience in these things to change us and to change our world.
But James understands that our ability to choose the way of Jesus only gets us so farAs the Apostle Paul wrote in Romans 7, We don’t “understand our own actions. For we don’t do what we want, but we do the very things we hate.” James describes this way of being as “double-minded”’That within us we have both wickedness and the salvific presence of God. That we often contradict ourselves in word and action without even realizing it. That we are at the same time attempting to follow Jesus and filled with “bitter envy” and “selfish ambition”
For us envy is a rather benign word, but in ancient world “envy” was shorthand for the most deceptively destructive forces within us. Socrates called envy the ulcer of the soul. Aristotle called it our deepest sorrow as others have what we want. Like other ancient writers of his time, James calls this “an insatiable hunger or craving,” that operates beneath the surface of everything we do. Whether we recognize it or not, it creates turmoil within us and every conflict and dispute we have with others. It makes us believe subconsciously that we are not enough and there is not enough for everyone to share. So we take what we need from others, we do what we have to do to protect ourselves, to keep our power and control.
And this “envy”, this hunger, this craving, unchecked can produce hatred, faithlessness, abuse of power, ambition, and arrogance. James calls this unexamined sinful, instinctual way of being “earthly wisdom.”
It is easy to look at the world around us and see this in everyone else. The hard truth is that it is within us too…
Five years ago, I did Clinical Pastor Education, a hospital chaplaincy internship that they tell you is about learning how to take care of other people in crisis. What they don’t tell you is that you the program forces you to deal with the crisis in your own life.
In my first days visiting patients I was consumed with anxiety. I was so focused on performing well, on saying “the right thing”and doing the “right thing.” But no matter how hard I tried, my interactions with patients were rigid and awkward, and probably not very helpful for them.
In one of our first peer reflection groups, I spoke up to defend a colleague who I thought was being unfairly criticized. Jonathan felt attacked by my words, and it seemed that he was angry at me for the rest of the internship. I perceived myself to be someone who is easy to get along with but I couldn’t convince Jonathon of that. Over the course of the semester, he called me on my white priviledge, and my intellectual arrogance. Every encounter with him proved to be another conflict.
And the coursework didn’t provide any relief! Our instructors gave us readings and facilitated group conversations to help us better understand our family stories. We were asked to write about the most painful parts of our lives.
And out of all of this came a breakthroughWe learned that there was a connection between the particular hurts we experienced as children and the way we navigate the world as adults. For the first time in my life I was able to name my insatiable perfectionism and the deep fear of rejection that drove it. I could see it’s root in the quick temper of my father and the playground bullies standing at the chainlink fence.
Somewhere back there those critical voices without had become a critical voice within. It was my way of surviving. Doing whatever it took to not deserve the criticism of others, or criticizing myself so harshly that no one else could possibly say anything worse. I finally began to name the deep pain that I had always felt.
And what finally began to sink in was that I wasn’t the only one hurt by this wound. As the old adage says, “hurt people, hurt people.” I was shielding myself from hurt in the patient room as I focused on my own need to perform and in the process their hurt was neglected. It was in my critic speaking loudly to defend someone else that hurt I Jonathon. And my critic who was so afraid to say the wrong thing as I tried to repair our relationship that prevented me from gaining his trust. As I realized all of this, I tried with all my might to shut down the inner voice that was causing all of this pain. But in a moment that changed my life, my supervisor, Angela, said,
“that voice is not an enemy you must defeat, but a hurt little boy who never grew up, a hurt little boy just trying to protect you. Hear him with compassion. Speak gently to him. Acknowledge his pain. Feel his pain as your own. Embrace him and embrace yourself, even if it hurts.”
Five years later, I talk to this little boy often. Sometimes when I feel angry, I look into his red, crying face and realize that my anger is not really about the person or thing I’m reacting to but about my own hurt.
And by God’s grace in those moments, I sometimes choose to feel my own pain rather than projecting it on someone else, saying that thing that would have hurt them or insisting on my way when I could just let it go. As James instructs, I draw close to God, and I pray, and rather than giving this immature little boy what he thinks he wants, rather than saying yes to what James calls the craving within, I yield to God. Most of the time though, I’m only able to see the hurting little boy in hindsight when the damage has already been done.
As I think about today’s gospel lesson I wonder if this is why Jesus took that child into his arms? I know that it might feel like a stretch for you to interpret in this way, but just think aboutJesus holding that little child.
I wonder if This was his way of trying to break down that “double-mindedness” he saw in his disciples in a way that words could not touch.
The disciples had left everything to follow Jesus on the way, learned from his teaching, worked with him in his ministry, but they were also filled with what James called “wisdom of the world,” the envy, the craving that constantly grasped for power. They could not reconcile God’s reign on earth, with a Messiah who would die. They would resist Jesus’s suffering and their own. Protecting themselves was the only wisdom they knew.The disciples did not see any inconsistency in following Jesus and also exalting themselves to positions of greatness.
And so maybe Jesus grabbed that child so that they might confront within him their own fear of vulnerability? Perhaps Jesus held the child closely hoping that they and we might have the courage to feel and hold our own pain?
It doesn’t matter how wise we think we are or how hard we try. We will never be able to be gentle and yield to others. We will never be able to make peace with others. We will always protect ourselves at the expense of others, as long as our wounds go unaddressed.
Are you willing to face your wounds? Are you willing to let Jesus hold that little child within you?
This is not something that I can even begin to tell you how to address in a sermon. This is the spiritual and emotional work of a lifetime. Facing our wounds might take sessions with a psychotherapist or counselor or spiritual director. Our stories are so complex that we usually can’t unravel them without help from someone with professional experience. Our hurt is too deep to safely face on our own. And not all of us are ready to do this. Our wounds from childhood (and adulthood) are just too much, just too painful.
Facing our wounds will certainly take prayer. A willingness to listen deeply to all of the voices within us, and a kind of spiritual grit, that keeps us moving forward, allowing God to love us and forgive us, and loving and forgiving ourselves as we walk one step forward and two steps back
Facing our wounds will take community. We need others to hear them. To challenge us when we let ourselves off too easy. But more often than not, to encourage us when we are too hard on ourselves.
Whatever it looks like for you, I pray that today you will begin to listen to that child within. That you would have the courage to feel her pain and the humility to acknowledge how your survival instincts have held you back and hurt others.
This hard learning is the way to gain what James calls “the wisdom from above”, but the wisdom from above is really from below. We see this in the life of Jesus, the One whom Paul called, “The Wisdom of God.” The Wisdom of God who was made known in humility, in suffering, and in the cross…
but also in the resurrection!
The good news this morning, is that if we follow Jesus down this path of self-knowledge, self-sacrifice, and self love, we will find new life.
For though James sees wickedness within us, he also instructs us to “welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save our souls.”
No matter how hurt and wounded we are deep within, and no matter how much that woundedness has turned us in on ourselves and caused us to attack others, the image of God within us can never be corrupted. The Holy Spirit is also there. In God’s grace and with God’s help, we can always change.
Neuroscience tells us so.
In preparation for our upcoming adoption, our agency required us to attend a training called “Pathways.” Jenny and I spent two days learning about the way that neuropathways form in an infant’s brain based on his environment. If a child cries and mom comes to comfort him and feed him, his brain wires together pathways that help him to understand that if he asks for help his parents will respond. The creation of these pathways in those first few years determine a child’s ability to learn, his reaching of developmental milestones, and the level of safety and security he feels
Children who have experienced trauma develop different kinds of pathways. A stressful pregnancy already begins to shape the brain of the child. When a baby cries and no one answers, no one feeds, no one comforts, pathways go undeveloped. When a baby or toddler cries, and he is shouted at, or shaken, or hit, the brain wires pathways of fear.
We were told that all of our children had experienced neglect or trauma and that our children’s neuropathways, development, and behavior would reflect that. We spent the afternoon talking about how to respond in ways that would not compound the trauma.
Our facilitator told us that the biggest challenge we faced in parenting would be not be our child’s trauma, but learning to deal with our own unresolved childhood trauma. To recognize and deal with the ways that our neuropathways were warped and hot-wired by our own pain, so that we can begin to help our children find healing.
I was overwhelmed. We are first time parents and our son has been through more in his three years of life than we will ever understand. He was abandoned at birth and has spent his whole life in an orphanage.
I want nothing more in life than to ease his pain, but I know that like every parent I will inflict new wounds.
I raised my hand and asked the social worker, “What do you do when you really blow it? When you realize that you’ve really hurt your child?”
Surprisingly, she said, “You’ll find it’s better for your relationship to make a mistake in parenting and work through it with your child than to not make the mistake in the first place. This actually begins the work of rewiring the brain in a healthy way.”
Friends, change is possible. You can let go of selfish envy and ambition. You can be gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy, a peacemaker. Not by your willpower, not by your understanding, but in the grace you will find when you are willing to embrace the hurting child within, seeing the ways that unresolved fear and pain drives your restlessness, your hunger, the deepest cravings within you and be willing to let go and surrender to the grace of God.
Draw near to God, little children. Let Christ pull you to himself and hold you close today