“Love’s Labors Lived”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
The Congregational Church of Hollis
2 September, 2018
How often, recently, have you heard someone lament the nosedive in our culture’s tone and expression: the decline of respect, of dignity, of honoring the equal humanity of the “other” in the ways we treat those with whom we feel at odds? I’m not just referring to the tributes at Aretha Franklin’s and Senator John McCain’s funerals across the weekend, either. If I had a nickel for every time someone’s despaired over the decline in our national civil discourse across the past several years, or decade even, saying they didn’t think it could get any worse (until it has), I could buy a pretty big cup of Starbuck’s, maybe two.
But, let’s not despair: the fact that we’re asking the question, acknowledging the brokenness, lamenting the current state of affairs with increasing pain, alarm, and frustration, is a manifestation of God at work in our midst. In the laments, we can hear God calling us back—to God, to one another, to the version of ourselves that is greater because it is established in something greater than self. When we are established, firmly rooted and grounded in God, who is Love, then we bear the fruits of love. And the fruits, the works, of Love do not include meanness, vindictiveness, self-importance, or fear in any of its countless guises.
As individuals, and as a society, we know we’ve strayed from our better selves. We are aware that it’s possible to be different—not least, because of the witness of our Scriptures, which bears the testimony of thousands of years of human experience. Experience that is common to us all, across space and time, from the longing to connect with our Ultimate Source, to the confusion and resistance we feel about following that longing, to the deliberate waywardness we’ll engage in as we search out more immediately gratifying and less demanding ways to fill the void we feel.
We’ve chosen ways of living that lead not to more profound love and contentment, but instead to deeper alienation. And that is sin. What issin, but alienation—separation or distance from God, from others, and from the best version of the self that God created us to become?
The Psalmist expresses the deep longing to be closer to God in our first lesson, when he asks in Psalm 15 who may approach God’s dwelling places. And the answer? “Those who walk blamelessly, who do what is right, who speak the truth from their heart.”
Of course, there are lots of people who claim to be speaking the truth these days, who obscure the meaning of “truth.” Who sow confusion about what is worthy of believing. And plenty who applaud “speaking from the heart” when what that looks like, in James’ terminology, is notbridling their tongues but saying whatever their passions possess them to say.
We know that these are not the behaviors of one who is close to God—because with God, there is no change or obfuscation. From Jesus’ life and witness (and those of countless other Biblical characters, but Jesus was the perfect one), we know that those who are close to God inevitably resemble God more closely: living out, embodying, the character of God—the character of selfless Love—despite their own human flaws and failures.
There are some passages in the Bible that are just so plain and straightforward, they essentially preach themselves. Today’s lesson from the Epistle of James is one of them. Let’s hear the passage again, this time from the Contemporary English Version, because sometimes it helps to hear it in a fresh way. Listen again to James 1:19-27:
17 Every good and perfect gift comes down from the Father who created
all the lights in the heavens. He is always the same and never makes
dark shadows by changing. 18 He wanted us to be his own special people,
and so he sent the true message to give us new birth.
19 My dear friends, you should be quick to listen and slow to speak or to get angry. 20 If you are angry, you cannot do any of the good things that God wants done. 21 You must stop doing anything immoral or evil. Instead be humble and accept the message that is planted in you to save you.
22 Obey God’s message! Don’t fool yourselves by just listening to it. 23 If you hear the message and don’t obey it, you are like people who stare at themselves in a mirror 24 and forget what they look like as soon as they leave. 25 But you must never stop looking at the perfect law that sets you free. God will bless you in everything you do, if you listen and obey, and don’t just hear and forget.
26 If you think you are being religious, but can’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and everything you do is useless. 27 Religion that pleases God the Father must be pure and spotless. You must help needy orphans and widows and not let this world make you evil.
The wisdom is so pithy, I just want to take a moment to elaborate briefly on each one, to unpack the passage a little bit.
The first thing James encourages his audience to do is: Be quick to listen. I’m convinced (as are many of you, I know this!) that if everyone were eager to listen, to genuinelylisten, most conflicts would be largely averted. But listening takes time. And it takes practice. And most of us feel like we don’t have enough time as it is. Broadly speaking, we’re impatient as a species. And we don’t like change—particularly when the change that’s needed might be a change in our own attitude or perspective.
Genuine listening means opening ourselves to changing, or being changed: we may need to change our mind about our firmly held position on an issue. Or we may just change the suspicion or dislike we feel for the other person when we learn more about their point of view. The sad truth is, some people really love the grudges they nurse, more than they honor the idea of loving their neighbor as themselves, so that’s hard. But I don’t think that anyone who’s committed themselves to genuine listening—listening as an act of love—has regretted the changes they may have undergone as a result.
Next, be slow to speak. Many of us are guilty of feeling the urgency of our own need to be heard, more insistently than the need to listen to the other. Have you ever realized you’ve completely missed most of what another person was saying because you were so busy forming your thoughts about what youwant to say? Be slow to speak, we’re advised . . . bridle, or control, your tongue, your speech: this allows time to weigh and choose your words carefully—to consider whether you are speaking them guided by love.
James has harsh words for those who can’t control their tongues, whether those tongues are busy lying, or trash-talking, gossiping, berating, or verbally bullying others. He says, “If you think you are being religious, but can’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and everything you do is useless.” You may be a church member who does all sorts of good things, but if you demean others with your words, or talk hurtfully behind others’ backs, or speak with hostility lacking respect, then your other actions are undermined.
Jesus was quick to listen, slow to speak. But when he spoke, the source of his wisdom and understanding was evident; it was clear that he was rooted and grounded in Love, in God.
Next, James says, be slow to anger. He doesn’t say we ought to suppress anger altogether, to deny ourselves the freedom to feel or express anger, nor does he say that anger itself is a sin. What’s often sinful, or alienating, are the actionswe take (or fail to take) in responseto our anger. In fact, understanding anger is key to seeing how to harness its energy for positive transformation.
Anger, almost always, results from a feeling of being emotionally hurt or recognizing wrongdoing. It’s important to keep this in mind, because once we do, we can weigh up what a response motivated by love might be. Too often, the knee-jerk response to emotional pain, or to seeing wrong being done, is to teach the “other” what it feels like by doing the same or worse to them. Vengeance. Retaliation. But love would urge us to go deeper, to take steps or actions that can lead to reconciliation instead of further alienation. Being slow to anger demonstrates an awareness of one’s self, our emotions, and a commitment to invest in love’s ultimate power to heal and transform, even if we’re feeling hurt or wronged.
The Bible repeatedly proclaims (at least six times!) that God is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, forgiving wrongdoing, and abounding in steadfast love.” As we draw closer to God, our own attitudes and behaviors increasingly mirror these.
“Be doers of the word,” James says, “not just hearers who agree.” That can feel difficult for us today, especially when there are so many calls to action in faith: where do we even start? And especially if we’re following through on his next exhortation, that we must care for orphans and widows in their distress. Orphans and widows were considered the most vulnerable in the society to which James was originally writing. In our time, we are aware of so many other vulnerable and despised members of society: today, it includes but is not limited to, refugees, asylum seekers, immigrants, people with darker-colored skin and accents different from our own.
Finally, James says, religion that is pleasing to God is pure—it’s the same sort of life the Psalmist described of one living in God’s temple, or on the holy mountain of the LORD. It is demonstrated by those who obey God, who speak the truth and don’t spread gossip; who treat others fairly and don’t say cruel things. The more closely we conform to God, to Love, in whom there is no evil, the less we will be stained by this world, not drawn in by the evil and falsehoods that only promise us cheap satisfaction.
Well, for those of you who like a “how-to” sermon, you had it in spades today, thanks to James. There is very practical, specific advice about how Love’s labor is lived out—how we can embody works of love. Jesus was the One who showed us perfectly what a life grounded in Love and guided by Love—one devoted to something greater than self—looks like, how it behaves. There was none of the meanness, the pettiness, the tribalism, hatefulness, or fear of the other that is running rampant in our world today.
Jesus showed us how to do it with his life and by his teachings. But James and the Psalmist have spelled out some practical behaviors, most of them related to the ways we speak, and listen, and engage one another with mutuality and love, that every child of God bearing witness to the light within them will demonstrate. In our efforts to draw closer, and abide in God’s tent, may each of us turn away from sinning; let us reject the things that create distance between ourselves and God, ourselves and others, between us and our own best version of ourselves, by devoting ourselves to love’s labors in our lives. Amen.