I want to begin this morning with a few quotations that I read this week from the political debate. There were a handful of put-downs, and the ones that stood out to me were these:
“Has [your argument] not got down as thin as the homeopathic soup that was made by boiling the shadow of a pigeon that had starved to death? But at last, when it is brought to the test of close reasoning, there is not even that thin decoction of it left. It is a presumption impossible in the domain of thought.”
Or this one:
[Your assessment of my argument] “is but a specious and fantastic arrangement of words, by which a man can prove a horse-chestnut to be a chestnut horse.”
I ought to mention that these quotes came from political debates, but not the one that happened this week, or any this campaign. These were words spoken by Abraham Lincoln 150 years ago in the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. Abraham Lincoln and Steven Douglas debated in their race for the Senate seat from the state of Illinois. Lincoln lost. But humble and gracious in defeat, went on to a pretty decent political career in spite of it. You may have heard about it.
For comparison, I thought about sharing a few quotations from the debates this season, but to be honest, didn’t think it would be appropriate in a venue where children might be present. But we all know what they have said. We have read it in the newspaper, on Twitter, in the comments sections of online articles. It is indeed a stark contrast, and a reminder that both Lincoln and Douglas are long gone, and with them have gone a sense of civility and decorum and ability to disagree without calling names and personally attacking one another. And I am not only talking about political discourse.
- We marvel at any politician or celebrity who “speaks his mind” or “tells it like it is,” even though we usually like it because they make it okay to say out loud what we only think in our ugliest, darkest, most despicable moments.
- We love it when someone isn’t bothered by “political correctness,” which usually means that he or she has chosen to treat another human being without respect or decency, but instead utilizes blatant stereotypes or dehumanizing language to exert power over another person.
- We recoil in horror at the ways that the Nazis used propaganda and harsh language to legitimize the mass murder those who were Jewish, black, disabled, gay, and/or otherwise different, but yet we choose to legitimize the same language when we forward a racist email, hit “like” on an Internet meme, re-tweet a put-down, or reply with a ugly comment to an article that you didn’t like.
This blatant inability to treat one another with respect is the reason why NPR recently removed the ability of readers on its website to comment on the articles. They, like many of us, began the experiment of the internet with hopes that it would be an opportunity to have constructive dialogue, healthy conversation, and a chance to learn from differing perspectives. But NPR eventually decided that the vast majority of the user comments were quite the opposite – a chance to bully, to rant, to troll, or to otherwise dehumanize, all hidden behind the wall of anonymity. So, they recently decided to remove the ability to respond in such ways, hoping that constructive dialogue could happen in other ways.
It is a sad commentary on our society, and a reminder that the way we treat each other matters.
Which is, of course, not the first time that we have needed such a reminder. The author of James was seeking to deliver a similar message in his letter to the early church. The way we speak to each other matters – “tame the tongue,” he put it. The way we listen to each other matters – “be quick to listen,” he says. And the way we treat each other matters – whether we show favoritism or fairness, which is what was happening in this morning’s passage.
James wrote about a disturbing trend that he had seen in at least one church, probably multiple churches, and it came down to a question of fair treatment. Basically, whenever someone who was poor walked into their church, they were treated with contempt or suspicion or just apathy. But when someone rich entered the church, with their rings and their robes, church folk bent over backwards to offer them the best seat, to cater to their needs, and to give them all the attention.
James was incensed! “Has God not chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom?” he rails. He reminds them that this is not the way that Jesus has taught us to treat each other. Ideally, they should treat everyone the same. But if they are going to be preferential in their treatment, James says, they should prefer the poor! It is the rich who are flaunting their privilege, dragging the poor into court, and abusing those who had less.
Instead of the world around them, which bowed to those who dressed in fine linens and wore gold rings and abused their power in the courts and the culture, James wanted the people of God to live by a different way. To refuse the culture around them that categorized and “favoritized” and dehumanized, in order to live in a different way. To see that every human being is a child of God, and those who are favored in this world will not be favored in the Kingdom. Choose, he suggests, the law of empire – giving power and authority to those who have it in the world – or the law of love – what he calls the royal law.
And this is just one example of James’ attempt to lift up an alternative vision of how Christians were to live. He struggled to lift up this alternative vision to a culture that had made it normal to dehumanize, to legitimize hatred, to excuse and even encourage contempt.
I chose James as today’s Scripture because this passage, and really the whole book, is a wonderful example of the third and final part in our series. Over the last three weeks, I have invited us to look at Scripture from the wide view: 30,000 feet, I have put it. Instead of just focusing on one passage at a time, I have asked how all of Scripture ties into larger, more foundational themes.
In week one, I tried to make the point that we are a redeemed people. This significant theme of Scripture repeats itself, most clearly in the Torah, or the Law, and in the Gospels, where the redemption of God’s people by covenant and by the death and resurrection of Jesus hit home again and again with this same point: we are a redeemed people.
In week two, my point was to suggest that God redeems us throughout the entirety of history. The books of History in the Bible tell this repeating story: that God has been and always is working, breaking into our history, in order to enact this plan of redemption. Joshua, Judges, Kings, Chronicles, Acts – these are examples of that in-breaking by God and the redemption that follows.
Finally, today, I want to make a final point, and that is this: As a redeemed people, there is a special way to live. This is a theme that continues throughout the Scriptures as well. If the Torah and Gospels claim our redemption, and History books give practical historical examples, the rest of the Bible tells us how to live because of this redemption.
The basic term for this theme is ethics. Some of you perhaps took Ethics in college, some of you might have even majored in philosophy. But as I wrote the sermon this week, I decided to go straight to the source and ask the professor. Dr. Brandon Gillette, also known around here as…Brandon…helped name for me a basic definition of Ethics for the point of the sermon. Ethics, or morality, is a branch of philosophy that seeks to discuss our basic human values. “When we turn to questions about the best way to live, the right thing to do, or the best way to be,” says Dr. Gillette, “we are talking about Ethics or Morality.” Value theory has a sister philosophical study – Justice – which asks questions of how good and evil relate to the collective, or to institutions or societal rules.
The book of James deals with these very questions. How are we going to treat each other? Communicate with each other? Show favoritism or fairness to each other? For James, it all boils down to what he calls the “royal law” – “love your neighbor as you love yourself.” “Be doers of the word and not hearers only!”
But it is not just James that deals with this question. Ethics is a significant theme throughout much of Scripture. Think about all of the times that Biblical authors teach us the best way to live…the right thing to do, the best way to be.
What is the difference between right living and wrong living?
Between just living and unjust living?
Between good and evil in the world?
In other words, what is this redeemed way to live?
Proverbs tells us how to live wisely.
Ecclesiastes tells us not to chase after meaningless pursuits.
Micah tells us to live with kindness and with justice.
Job reminds us that we cannot assume someone is bad even when bad things happen to them.
Corinthians tells us to value the community – the whole body of faith – and not think we have all the answers ourselves.
Revelation tells us to be passionate in our faith and not lukewarm.
James tells us to obey the law of love.
The Bible is filled with clear, practical, descriptions for how to live the redeemed life that God intends for those who follow God.
But where is the good news for us today? We struggled with this question in the Two-way conversation on Wednesday night with this passage. It feels James is just giving us another set of rules, of restrictions, of unrealistic expectations. One person brought up the comic strip Zits by Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman. If you don’t know the strip, one of the repeating jokes is that the teenage boy has to be reminded all the time by his mother to clean his room. In a strip this week, the son says, “I was going to clean my room, but I knew it would never be good enough for you, so I gave up.” Mom’s exasperated response: “So it’s my fault your room is a landfill?” And the son responds, “Hey, don’t blame me for your high standards!”
And it really is a brilliant picture of the ethical teachings of Scripture, for many of us. A 66-book list of restrictions, expectations, reasons that we are going to disappoint Mom all over again. Jeff Woods suggests that a huge percentage of those who choose not to come to church avoid us because there are “too many rules.” Even for those of us who show up every week, are we able to say that we treat the rich as the same as the poor? That we have tamed our tongues? That we can say we always follow the royal law? Sometimes, it feels like we are not going to do it right anyway, so why try?
But here is where James – and the ethical teachers throughout Scripture – reminds us that this redeemed way to live is not just for God’s sake. Our motivation for living the Godly life, the moral life, the ethical life, is not guilt. It is something much more basic: it really is the best way to live. Living with wisdom is going to make life easier for us in the long run. Living with justice is the best way for us to live as a community. Treating each other with respect and decency – like they are a child of God and not someone to be feared or judged – this really is the most life-sustaining, faithful, healthy way to live! As James puts it, “mercy triumphs over judgment.”
And the philosophers of Scripture have come to this realization again and again. Living life as redeemed people, choosing to live out of that redemption a life of redemption is better than the alternatives:
Not a doormat, but assertive, because we know we have been redeemed.
Not grudge-bearing, but forgiving, because we know we have been forgiven.
Not arrogant and boastful, but humble and well-differentiated because we know as redeemed people that we don’t have to lift ourselves up… We’ve already been lifted up.
Not entitled and privileged, but justice-minded, because we know that all people are God’s redeemed children, not just some.
Not hungry for the things of this world to make us worthy, because we know we are already worthy, because of the redemption of the God who made us and loves us, and created us to live a redeemed life.
Not desperate to impress the rich or famous, the powerful or the forceful, because we know that the power of redemption is greater than even they can wield.
And not name-calling, insult-throwing juveniles in a desperate (and transparent) attempt to make ourselves feel better my making others feel worse, because being a redeemed people means sharing in the redemption of all of God’s beloved.
One more Lincoln quote, this one from his first inaugural address. It speaks to the way that we are created by God, redeemed by God, and called by God to live more than “the good life.” But to live a life that is good. In the context of a country that was deeply divided, in the face of those who would rather focus on self instead of other, out of a deep and abiding faith, he spoke these words: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Let us go into the world, aware that God has created us with said better angels, and show the world what it means to live the life of the redeemed!