Sunday, September 2, 2018

Phil Kniss: You know who you look like?

“Doers of the Word”
James 1:17-27

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All sorts of people are angry.
Read the news for a day or two.
Look around at your neighbors.
Look within.
You’ll find anger.

The reasons for anger are real.
People are not being nit-picky.
At least, not usually.
And when their anger does seem nit-picky,
their stated reason is likely a symptom.
There’s a deeper anger,
based on a deeper injury or deeper threat
that’s driving the surface anger.
They may feel their identity being threatened.
They may feel some core moral value is under siege.

We see it all across the political spectrum.
There are angry conservatives.
There are angry liberals.
There are even angry moderates.
Is that an oxymoron?
Can one be irate, in a moderate way?

And anger is not limited to those at the bottom of the power structures.
Yes, the powerless can rise up in righteous anger.
But since fear is at the root of anger,
people in positions of power
or people with inherited privilege
(people like me),
when they feel their power or their privilege getting threatened,
can lash out in rage as much as anyone,
to point of losing all reason.

We can see live examples of that every day.
Rage is rampant in the halls of power in our country,
all the way up to the oval office.

So the book of James seems very apropo for our times.

I remember memorizing a good portion of the book of James
when I was in sixth or seventh grade.
And it has stuck with me throughout life.
Especially those vivid images in the third chapter about the tongue.
How the tongue is a tiny thing that can have a huge effect.
Like a small metal bit in the mouth
that can turn a mighty horse left or right.
Like a tiny rudder that can turn around a great ship in the sea.
Like a spark that can set a whole forest on fire.
It was kind of sobering to my young and impressionable mind.

And from the first chapter of James,
we heard these words this morning:
“You must understand this, my beloved:
let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger;
for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.

So I wonder what wisdom James might have for us,
in such a time as this.
How do we reconcile James’ dire warning
that anger can start a forest fire,
and does not produce God’s righteousness,
with the apostle Paul’s advice to “Be angry, but do not sin”?

Isn’t there such a thing as righteous anger?
If so, what does it look like?
How do we know we are being righteous in our anger?

That’s not an easy question.
Yes, we throw around the phrase “righteous anger” pretty often.
We use it to mean there is a just cause.
When someone is justified for being angry,
then, by definition, they have a righteous anger.
So if the cause is just we are slow to question
someone’s way of expressing their anger.
But does a just cause automatically mean our anger is righteous?

Are there some other criteria we should look at,
before we bless anger as being righteous—
perhaps, criteria equally important as the rightness of our cause?

Here’s one I’d like to try on for size, in the light of the book of James.
Let’s think about it and see if it holds up, as suitable criteria.
It’s this:
Does the anger help us reflect our true God-given identity?

There are some interesting ideas in James,
that go beyond the stereotype.
You may know, we usually say James is a practical book,
focused on our behavior, and actions.
That is, our works.
The reformer Martin Luther thought the book
had less value than Paul’s epistles,
because he thought James overplayed works,
and underplayed justification by faith.

But James cares about more than just how we act.
He wants us to understand the God-breathed origins of our works,
and how God’s intention is implanted in us by God,
and how we then live out that intention.

I love this first chapter that Gordon read, beginning in v. 17.
James tells us what lies behind our good works.
Everything good, every good gift, James says, comes from God.
Because of God’s intention for good (v. 18),
God gave us birth by the word of truth,
so that we would become the firstfruits of God’s creation.

And then come the words of practical advice,
about being quick to listen, slow to speak,
and slow to anger.
Those words of advice grow directly out of first affirming
that we are created by God
to reflect God’s justice and righteousness.

Therefore, James says in v. 21,
we rid ourselves of “all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness,
and welcome with meekness the implanted word
that has the power to save your souls.”

See, clearly James is not saying our works save us.
The implanted word has the power to save—
that is, the Logos of God, implanted in us at creation.
Or, you might say, the image of God which is within us all.

God created us to reflect that Logos, that Word,
literally to be the mirror image of God to the world around us.

That is why James implores us
to be “doers of the word, and not hearers only.”
We are to do right, not to earn brownie points with God.
We already have all the points we need.
We do right, because it reflects who we really are in God’s eyes.

When we get a glimpse of that implanted image of God in ourselves,
and then live in a way that’s inconsistent with that image,
we are, according to v. 23,
like someone who looks at themselves in a mirror,
and walks away and immediately forgets what they look like.
Or in this case, “who” they look like.

James is not just calling out that kind of inconsistent behavior
because it’s wrong, and the way to be saved is to do right.
No, he’s calling it out, because he thinks it’s a sad and tragic thing,
for someone to forget who they look like.
James is lamenting the fact that many in this life
are confused about their core identity,
who don’t see this larger trajectory of their lives,
implanted in them by their creator.
So they are left to live only a partial life,
and not the full life God wants for them.
They walk away from the mirror, and forget who they look like.

James ends the chapter with these words about religion.
If someone thinks they are religious,
but their lives, their tongues, their words
don’t reflect their Creator,
then their religion is worthless.

Pure religion is what we should strive for, says James in v. 27.
“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this:
to care for orphans and widows in their distress,
and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

That’s how we should measure our own lives, and words, and deeds.
Do they reflect the compassion of God?
Do they assume inherent goodness in the poor and marginalized,
those the world discards as unworthy?
The “stain of the world,” James seems to say,
is not to see people as God sees them,
to be unmoved by the plight of the poor.

The lens for defining righteous anger, according to James,
is how it reflects this Logos or image of God in us.
How do we react when anger rises up at injustices
perpetrated by persons with power,
persons in high places politically,
or in high places in religious institutions like the church.
We don’t react by dehumanizing them,
as they dehumanized others.
We don’t react by implying
they are unworthy of the image of God in them.
We don’t react by assuming God is incapable
of being reflected in their lives.

We see them as we wish they would see others.
We see them as human beings who, sadly and tragically,
have walked away from God’s mirror
and forgotten who they look like—
or, persons who never actually saw their true image,
even while they stood in front of the mirror.
Something clouded their vision.
And it carries through in how they see others, and see the world.
That is tragic.

And, I suggest, it is something that should elicit in us
some righteous anger—
righteous anger consistent with the framework James gives us.
Anger that pushes us toward righteous and moral action.
Anger that does not retreat into safety and self-defense.
Anger that demands accountability, yes.
But, anger that never denies in the other a basic human dignity,
and affirms that human goodness is present in them,
even though obscured.

We are called by God, intended by God, to live whole lives,
that is, lives that have integrity, wholeness, consistency.
So in our righteous anger
we reject malice and dehumanization
and dishonesty and manipulation.
That’s what Paul was warning us against,
when he urges us to “be angry and sin not.”
Anger that has integrity, reflects wholeness, is without sin,
and fits perfectly well within James’ moral framework,
that of living in a way that remembers who we are,
and remembers who the other is, in the sight of God.

So, on this Labor Day,
when we remember all who put their convictions into practice,
in the way they live and labor on a daily basis,
we take James’ idea of moral integrity as it relates to anger,
and see it in an even broader context.

James’ view was much broader than that, too.
It was not only speech ethics he was concerned about.
He also spoke out in objection to people in the church
who would show favoritism based on social class,
giving the wealthy a more prominent voice,
and a better seat at the table, than what the poor person got.

This thing of remembering who we look like
(that is, reflecting the image of God)
follows us everywhere in life.

It has to do with how we relate to our neighbor.
It has to do with our attitudes
toward the foreigner and immigrant and refugee.
It has to do with how we speak to power,
how we operate in the workplace,
how we decide what kind of job to seek,
how and where we shop and spend our money.
It has to do with how we are stewards of all that we have—
our money, our possessions, our other gifts and talents.

And it has to do with how we choose to engage
in the ministry of the church.

There are myriad ways to live out our faith with integrity,
in the workplace,
in our neighborhoods,
in the larger world, and even in the political realm.

And as Christians, as followers of Jesus,
we do that always aware of our identity in Christ,
and aware of our place of belonging in the community of Christ.

We will know who we look like,
when we work out our faith in community,
owning our part in the body of Christ,
joining in the collective work of the body.

—Phil Kniss, September 2, 2018

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