My in-laws love to watch old westerns. Every time we go to Frankfort to see them, you can almost guarantee that they will be watching a TV show from the 50’s or 60’s about law and lawlessness in the Old West. And when we walk in, it doesn’t matter where you are in the movie, it takes about 30 seconds to figure out what is going on. It is usually pretty obvious. The bad guys are the ones in the black hats, the scowls on their faces, and you know immediately that they are up to no good. The good guys, on the other hand, have on the white hats. They are the cavalry, come to save the day, or Matt Dillon or John Wayne or some sheriff or marshal, come to bring order and justice to the town.
Wouldn’t it be nice is life were that simple! However, we live in a world of constantly changing morals and shifting ethics, value judgments like “right” and “wrong” are rarer and rarer! What is right for me might not be right for you. Ethical judgments are much more situational or contextual. Conceptions like “right” and “wrong” and “truth” are much more slippery than they once were. Or at least than they appeared to be.
And when I sit down and watch those Westerns, it is tempting to get drawn in by the worldview that they espouse. It is tempting to say, “if only we could go back to good old days! Remember when everything was simple and clear and the good guys wore white hats and the bad guys wore black ones?” Because we remember, or we want to remember, those days as the days of right and wrong and black and white. The era that produced those Westerns, and the era that they describe, seems like such a simpler time. A time when we knew the difference between right and wrong. But, let us not forget our history. For while Hollywood was cranking out those Westerns in the 40’s and 50’s and 60’s…
• African-Americans were forced to use different schools, different restaurants, different drinking fountains because of the color of their skin.
• Asian-Americans were awakened in their homes, rounded up, and put behind cages in internment camps because we weren’t sure who we could trust.
• The Cold War was beginning and the “right” and “wrong” of tyranny was thrown into the chaos of ambiguity, and that ambiguity could be found in the battlefields and the jungles and the halls of government of our world.
• Remember the good old days, when a woman who became pregnant out of wedlock was sent to a back alley to “take care of things?”
The “good old days” were a lot like “these new days,” weren’t they? Our music and our television and our culture told us that there was a stark difference between right and wrong, but scratch the surface very deep and you will find that moral ambiguity was there the whole time. The only difference is that now you don’t have to dig nearly as deep to see that ambiguity exposed, flaunted, and even celebrated as “50 Shades of Grey.”
So what is a Christian to do?
Those of us trying to follow the ways of Christ find ourselves with the dilemma of navigating such troubling waters. Even if we were fooling ourselves back in the “good old days,” we at least had a convincing façade to hang on to. Now what? How do we as Christians navigate a culture in which the conversation has shifted from “right” and “wrong” to “what’s right for me?” The worship team met a few weeks ago for our annual brainstorming session, and one of the most pointed and revealing questions that came out of the meeting was this one: How do we make judgments in a world that is constantly changing?
The author of the book of James is the perfect source to help us navigate the waters of our shifting culture, because he lived and wrote in a time of shifting morality and cultural ethics himself. Because of its traditional location in the New Testament, after all of the letters of Paul, and its subject matter, which looks like it is reacting to and maybe even correcting Paul’s message, the traditional assumption is that James was written as a corrective to Paul. But more and more scholars are suggesting that James was actually written at about the same time as Paul was writing, and his reaction was not to Paul, but to the message of Jesus. James was written by someone who was raised in the life of Judaism, with a clear understanding of the wisdom tradition (think Proverbs or Job). He wrote to provide a clear and practical response to the life and teachings of Jesus. Think of the Book of James kind of like “Proverbs 2.0”. It is an update on the proverbial wisdom of the Old Testament wisdom literature, in response the message and methods of Jesus.
It is targeted to those who had grown up with the traditional wisdom literature of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes and Job, but now were struggling to figure out wisdom and truth looked like after the life and teachings of Jesus. They, too, were struggling between the realities of the “good old days”, now that Jesus had shown up and revealed that they were not all that good! He had challenged the old guard and brought a new definition of “right” and “wrong” and “truth” and now folks in James’ church were trying to figure out how to put it all together.
So, today, in the passage we read a few moments ago, we find something of an orientation or a “table of contents” to James’ themes throughout the book. In this wisdom genre, he tries to make sense of Jesus’ teachings, and so in these few verses in chapter one, he lays out what those themes will be.
The first phrase from the passage that was important for James – and helps give us direction as well – is a favorite from wisdom literature through the ages. Verses 19-21 remind us: “Be quick to listen, slow to anger, and slow to speak.”
Sermon over. Once you have figured that one out, come back and I’ll give you the next one! Not really, but that is a tough enough order to try and handle from the outset, isn’t it? How many of us struggle with that simple word from James? How many of us would do well to start with such wisdom?
We live in a world that doesn’t do this well. Our world does not teach us to listen first, to be slow to anger, or slow to speak. If you doubt me, log on to your social media platform of choice and count how many people should have followed that advice. And how many of them probably wish that they followed that advice! How much of social media could pass the James test: “rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the impacted word that has the power to save your souls.”
One of my favorite comic strips is “Pearls Before Swine” and few weeks ago, it had a weekday comic that started with one of the characters saying to the other “I have a new motto designed to eliminate 90% of the problems in people’s lives.” “What’s that?” “Don’t click send.” Wise words indeed. How often do we wish that we could take back that email or that social media post? How many of us have hit send and come to regret it?
James gives us a clear alternative. And a clear word in the battle between right and wrong. “Don’t hit send.” “Be slow to speak.” As soon as we think we know all the answers, we know the truth, we know the difference between right and wrong (which means we know that we are right and others are wrong), James tells us to listen before we speak.
Again, this is one of the favorite themes throughout the book of James. He comes back to it in a few verses that I read this morning: “bridle the tongue” he says. Later he develops the theme a little more, reminding us that our tongues are like a blazing fire that can destroy, or like the rudder of a ship that is small but has a tremendous impact, and that one of the wisest things that we can do is “tame the tongue”. And I don’t think that James is telling us not to ever speak, not to ever get angry. Jesus did, and his righteous anger and pointed words were a powerful part of his message and his Gospel. But in our current era of incivility and division and splintering, and so many people who assume that they have the corner on truth, I think that James’ words here are wise and vital. Words matter. Be slow to speak. Be quick to listen.
I think that we as a church and as Christians in our society could have a tremendous, transformative effect on our world if we began to obey these words from James. This is what sets us apart – or should set us apart – from the world around us. To be a people who knows how to listen. And not just listen in order to get ammunition for the next point. Actually. Listen. Listen to hear, and listen to be changed. If we actually did that, it would change the world. James knew that 2,000 years ago. We would be wise to learn it.
The second answer from James comes in verses 22-25. “Be doers of the word and not hearers only.” Again, this is James translating Jesus here, for the Gospels repeat this point again and again. It is not enough to know what the Bible says. We have to do what it says!
Of course, when James was referring to the Word, he was referring to the Torah, the Mosaic law, the commandments of God. But Christians have extrapolated that over the centuries to include the words of Jesus found in the Gospels, and the words of wisdom of Paul and James and Peter and others in our New Testament. Over our 2,000 year history, we have come back to this point: the Bible is a big deal, and we should do what it says.
One of my favorite modern day parables comes from Brian McLaren, a story he calls the Parable of the Race. In the parable, an entire community shows up in order to run a race together. The participants are all geared up and ready to go, when the starting gun goes off! But then a strange thing happens. One of the men crosses the starting line, and then stops and falls to his knees, singing about how happy he is that the race has started. Another woman jumps in the air, high fiving the other race participants. A small group gathers to pray to God, thanking him for letting them start the race and that they aren’t like those skeptics who never even began it. An hour later, no one had gone more than a few steps.
But then, a handful of spectators stood up and decided that this was rather silly. Races are meant to be run, and so they took off past the high-fivers and praying huddles and – surprising the participants, they actually ran the race! Every step of the way, every mile and hill, they celebrated, not the fact that the race had simply started, but that they were blessed to be on the journey!
Of course, McLaren’s point is that so many of us in the Church live our lives as though it’s all about the starting point. As long as we have said the magic words and punched our ticket to heaven, then all is well. But Jesus never wanted us to be hearers only. He wanted us to be doers! He wants us to run the race, to live the life of salvation, to experience the journey!
McLaren’s other point is that sometimes it takes people outside the church to show us our folly. To show us how silly it is to gather in prayer and Bible study groups to talk about the journey and NOT ACTUALLY TAKE IT! How easy is it for us to hide in our ivory towers, assuming we know right from wrong, without actually living in the world?! James says it is like looking in a mirror and then not doing anything about what we see! Instead, the wisdom of Scripture should be our constant guide for the journey, a journey lived in our communities and our cities and amongst those who don’t share our faith.
So, James tells us that we must live IN the world, as a part of our communities and our neighborhoods. But our final word is the balance to that command. We must live in the world, but we must not be of this world. James exhorts his readers to “keep oneself unstained by the world.” This is another one of James’ favorite themes. Before the book is done, he will tell us to be wary of becoming too much of a friend with the world. He will tell us again and again that those who have come to see themselves as children of God, who have become reconciled to their Creator and accepted God’s view of who they are, must be careful not to run back into the world’s definition of who they are.
It is actually a common theme of all of wisdom literature. Friendship with the world vs. Friendship with God. Philip Cary speaks to this ancient wisdom in a contemporary context by reminding us not to go looking for any easy answers in the search for Right and Wrong:
If you’re looking for a formula or method for making decisions, then you’re looking for the wrong thing. There is no recipe. There is only wisdom, the heart’s intelligent skill at discerning good decisions from bad ones. This skill is not a method- not a formula you can apply to particular situations simply by following the rules, but a habit of the heart you have to develop through long experience of your own, which includes making mistakes from time to time. The concept of wisdom is what every method for finding God’s will leaves out of the decision-making process. It’s left out precisely because the project of finding God’s will is an attempt to guarantee that you won’t make a mistake. All such guarantees are falsehoods, attempts to short-circuit the hard work of acquiring wisdom.
The world is not going to be as obvious as the white and black hats of old serial Westerns any time soon (and it really never was!) But the wisdom that James espouses, that Jesus realizes, and that Cary points to than a set of principles and black and white answers. Instead, that wisdom begins and ends with a relationship. A relationship with our loving Creator, who not only allows to be friends with him, he invites it, hopes for it even. And so, I want us to sing together this morning the words of an old Gospel song: I have found a friend in Jesus, He’s everything to me, He’s the fairest of ten thousand to my soul; the Lily of the Valley, in Him alone I see all I need to cleanse and make me fully whole…