Year B, James 1:17-37 (and Mark 7:1-8) Sermon to Pohick Church 8-29-21
The Rev. Dr. Lynn Ronaldi
Do you remember the collective national embarrassment we felt during the 2020 Presidential debates, when the candidates angrily maligned and shamed one another on international television?
Then-Senator Biden called President Trump a “Clown,” in vitriolic response to Trump’s accusation of his son. Of course, Trump counterattacked with, “There’s nothing smart about you, Joe.” Throughout their relentless ping-pong match of angry outbursts, moderators intervened like referees.
Didn’t you think, surely they know better than this? After all, they are Christians! Where is their integrity? Why are they not reflecting Christ to the world?
Today, political, racial, and religious polarization are rampant in society – even among Christians. Angry and shaming invective flies back and forth daily on social media, and in print and electronic media.
It is never effective to shame someone to change the way they think or act. So, what is effective? According to James, it’s having integrity. Being and doing what we say we believe: Love. Be kind. Listen and respect the other.
Although more visible than most, our nation’s leaders are far from alone in their lack of integrity and inability to bridle the tongue.
Comedians even get in on the act. Have you ever seen Jimmy Kimmel’s “Celebrity Mean Tweets?” He pokes fun at celebrity guests, asking them to read aloud the mean, angry things people tweet about them. Tom Brady was subjected to many hateful tweets before the Super Bowl, like: “I hate Tom Brady so much, but I have a legit reason to. He is a nice guy, but I hope they break his legs.” One wished he’d be dropped in hot grease.
Deep down, we know this is not funny. We sense our culture has become an incubator of rage. With the advent of social media, even we Christians are quick to speak our piece, and slow to listen and respect others.
A 2018 Gallup and Pew Poll shows partisanship has been increasing for decades. Meanwhile, another* reports, “ideological polarization,” or opinions on issues, have shifted little. Nor have they changed behavior. However, “affective polarization” – dislike and distrust based not on ideology, but on animosity – directly affect attitudes and behaviors. People embrace the power of their group as their social identity, and dislike members of the other group. They automatically assume others’ ideologies are counter to theirs.
As Christians, we have another identity. We reflect Christ’s love to the world. We are called to maintain inner and outer integrity. We are to be doers and not merely hearers of God’s Word.
Being and acting like Christ becomes a central theme in James’ letter to the earliest Christians. Many are persecuted, scattered, and rootless, after Jesus’ death and resurrection. James gets right to the heart of it: Christian disciples must commit to integrity:
“Be doers of the Word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”
Those who lose their identity in Christ forget whose they are, and who they are. Without roots and without integrity, they lose their truest sense of self.
James explains what it is to have integrity. First, he says, know who God is. Then, know and become who we are meant to be: Reflections of Christ.
James describes God’s essence: “The Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” As God’s beloved, we become first fruits. We are meant to reflect his divine light, and bear to a divided world the fruits of love, joy, peace, hope, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control.
James recommends simple, profound spiritual practices: “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.” and “Welcome with meekness the implanted Word.”
- Be quick to Listen and slow to speak. The core of St. Benedict’s guide for the spiritual life is simply: “Listen with the ear of your heart.” The goal is to be formed in Christ. This requires humility, the ability to see yourself as you are. Silence, listening, and learning are the ground of humility: “We control our tongues and remain silent, not speaking unless asked a question. A proverb says, ‘In a flood of words, you cannot avoid sinning.’”
- Be slow to anger. James says do not react in anger. The root of anger is fear. St. John’s first letter says, “Perfect love casts out all fear.” Benedict wants us to be rooted in love: “When we know our place in the universe…there is nothing left to fear…We don’t have to dominate conversation or call attention to ourselves.”
- Welcome with meekness the implanted word. Benedictine hospitality emphasizes welcoming the “other” with respect and honor, seeing them as Christ, who has a word for you. He prescribes prayerful reading of God’s Word, allowing it to be implanted firmly in the heart.
- Ultimately, be a doer, not merely a hearer. James insists this is essence of integrity. As you internalize God’s Word, you become a reflection of Christ. If actions do not line up with heart, then you lose your truest self:
“For if any are hearers of the Word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror. For they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.”
Like James in the first century, St. Clare of Assisi in the 13th century also uses the metaphors of light and mirror. James describes God as “the Father of Lights in whom there is no variation or change.” Clare describes Christ as “the splendor of eternal glory, the radiance of eternal light, and the mirror without stain.”
Clare recommends contemplatively gazing upon “the mirror of Christ,” so we see ourselves as we truly are:
“Look upon that mirror each day…and continually study your countenance in it, so that you may clothe yourself inside and out with beautiful robes…Indeed, poverty, humility and love will be reflected in that mirror.”
Looking at ourselves with honesty, both inner dispositions and outer actions, we open ourselves to ongoing transformation. Over time, we see in the mirror a clearer reflection of Christ.
Meanwhile, what will you do next time you are tempted to insist on your opinion, or shame someone into changing? How will you respond to an argumentative, angry person, who insists on having the last word?
Perhaps we’ll look into the mirror of Christ and remember our true identity. As we do, maybe we’ll feel less compulsion to fire off a quick retort, a nastygram, an opinionated post, or an angry tweet.
Instead, we will be compelled by love to be doers – not just hearers of God’s Word. And when we live with integrity, we will bear fruit to the world. Amen
*Annual Review of Political Science 2019