Sunday, September 8, 2019

Don't Kiss Chickens: How to be a Christian Prophet ~ James 5:1-6 (a series on James)

Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.

When I read this text my first response was, “Why, Lord? O why didn’t I ask Helen to preach this week?” What was I going to say? And then I was helped in the oddest way by the CDC, the Center for Disease Control, and chickens. The CDC has recently declared a public health emergency because average people are raising backyard chickens, kissing them, and contracting salmonella. So
they are responding with a promotional campaign warning people of the danger.

Now, maybe you don’t kiss chickens - maybe you do. Maybe our biblical text about the dangers of hoarding wealth doesn’t directly deal with you – maybe it does. Maybe you aren’t technically “rich” or a “hoarder.” Maybe you haven’t failed to pay workers or maybe you’re saying, “I don’t have workers unless children count.” That’s fine. Then be like James and the CDC – be willing to warn others about tragic consequences. Call out danger
or injustice when you see it. Be willing to speak for the innocent or the marginal when you hear about it. Maybe you haven’t “condemned or murdered” but have you looked? Maybe you can’t ultimately change the broader society but you can warn people about what not to kiss, what harms, what hurts, what makes them and others sick.

So I would like to use this text in a different way this morning. I’d like to imagine that it’s not calling us to account for deeds done per se. I’d like to imagine that it’s a job description for what we must do. If James, the half-brother of Jesus, is our mentor, what is the prophetic task that he is calling us to? What does he want us to be saying to a dangerously wealthy society?

1.    Tell the truth about wealth in this life

The “rich people” here are very possibly non-Christians which changes the tenor of this part of James’ letter (vs. 11 is “brothers and sisters” rather than “rich people”). It means that Christian theology is never simply “family business” and private but also should be public, civic and social. God is Lord of, and over, everything and everyone. Now, the prophetic role and its public dimension is not the role of a cop or even a judge – it’s more like the CDC – warning about tragic, public health concerns; aiding in public health crises. It doesn’t police them. Christians often get into trouble when they turn from prophets to police. And let’s also be honest, the church as a prophet is rare (save, possibly a few concerns). The church as a prophet about money is practically non-existent.

Some of you are already thinking, “But wait a minute, pastor, being rich is not a sin.” - I know. “Wealth is not the devil.” - I know. But the poor are never warned as much as the rich, you know? There is a great temptation with wealth to “hoard” it, James says, and to fail to pay people a proper working wage. And that temptation does not simply impact the wealthy in some future judgment but is corrosive in this life, James says. – their wealth “has rotted,” “have eaten,” “are corroded.” Hoarded wealth, James insists, is poisonous in the present because it hurts the poor in the present.

James reminds us that the prophetic task isn’t simply to warn about future consequences but that there is a current danger as well, and that we can use strong language not because we know the future but because God exists in the present, knows now rather than later, works currently and not merely after. All your best plans, your precious idols, your paper money, can go – just like that, *snap,* he warns. And they will – sooner or later. They will tell your story, testify as to what you’ve done. In the courtroom of your life your
money will take the stand. My former pastor tells of performing a wedding for a wealthy couple in a national park in Colorado. As part of the wedding ceremony, the couple had butterflies shipped on dry ice (to put them in a sort of stasis) in individually wrapped paper cocoons. Each wedding guests was given a paper cocoon that he or she was to keep near their body to warm up so that at the proper moment they could release the butterflies to herald the new couple’s commitment. Unfortunately, however, there were two things the couple did not expect. First, the day of the wedding was colder than normal temperatures so that when the butterflies were released they were unable to fly and all came flitting to the ground. Second, they didn’t know that this park was known for a large flock
of wild chickens. As my pastor told the story, their marriage was celebrated by a carnage of epic proportions. As Christian prophets we must tell an economy whose sole point of reference is “more”, whose primary concern is cheaper labor, whose poor are ever increasing, whose planet is being abused, that the chickens will come to roost. We must warn of the impending carnage in this life.

2.    Listen, look, and speak for the oppressed

Three imperatives are very much a part of the prophetic task:

Listen (vs. 1) – Who should we listen to? On the one hand, James has urged us to listen to the “Word of truth” (1:18) – the scriptures and all that they command about “love of neighbor” and help for the poor. Are you listening? But there’s more. One of the clear elements of our passage is that James is telling us that he has also listened to the poor and their stories of abuse. He is clearly referencing something that is happening in the present. It’s specific. Laborers are sharing their stories and James is listening. When I was a pastor in Santa Barbara I was part of an organization called CLUE (Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice) and we were trying to deal with the growing problem of homelessness so we went out and started listening to those who were homeless. And we discovered something – that many of them were being ticketed for being on the street, immediately after being kicked out of the shelter because it lost 100 beds due to the city’s own conditional use permit. So it was the city that was placing them on the street and then ticketing them for being there. But James tells more than to listen.

Look (vs. 4) – The next task of the prophet is to investigate. It’s not simply enough to know what the Scriptures tell us but also to discover what is happening in the lives of people. We must take
Psalm 10 and read in the midst of our city are broader political life. We must look at our cities with “love of neighbor eyes.” We must move beyond trafficking in opinions and pay careful attention to real instances of people and policies which seek to harm others, particularly the most vulnerable. We must bring our best critical thinking skills to the task.

Speak (for the oppressed) – Finally, we should share the stories we’ve heard with those in power. Prophets are called not simply to speak for God but also to the rich for those who cannot speak for themselves, or who are easily dismissed. Now, don’t forget what James already told you – be aware of insidious and caustic anger. Don’t engage in the behavior or methods of your opponents but neither should you stay silent. James’ letter is his refusal to say nothing. Friends, if you find yourself mainly (or only) speaking for those in power, defending the status quo, or simply silenced by a privatized spirituality of “you and Jesus,” then you are not modeling James’ letter and not being a Christian prophet.

3.    The law won’t always help.

The first verb of vs. 6 (“condemn”) describes legal violence, the corruption of courts and the subsequent physical violence (“murder”) they can utilize and legitimate. The text intimates that the rich are leaders at some level, who have influence to shape who sits where in the synagogue and thus dominate the courtroom. The process for justice, in other words, is rigged.

On the one hand, I am not suggesting that laws don’t matter or are necessarily evil. Nor am I saying that we should simply be silent in the face of unjust laws. I am suggesting however, that the law should not be our primary, moral concern. The rich, James advises, will often twist the law to suit their own purposes. The cry of the prophet is not so much, “You have broken the law” but “The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.” Never forget – Jesus was executed by the law and all will give a reckoning to God because God sees, hears and knows.

The law, James tell us, can harm the righteous one, can be unjust.
James is being intentionally vague here to make a point. The “righteous one” can mean the innocent one – the workers who are being hurt by the rich or it could be a designation for Jesus, the “righteous one” (Acts 3:14, 7:52, 22:14). Which is it? It doesn’t matter, James remembers because Jesus told us, because ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ (Matthew 25:40). Do you want to find Jesus? Then we all know where to look.

Let’s pray for the courage of being prophets – to not simply listen to James but to BE James. But know that the task I’m calling you to is a corporate task, to be the church. You shouldn’t do this alone but maybe you know something, have heard something we should be doing. If you see something, say something.

Let’s pray for the courage to love – we must learn to love the poor and hurting more than we fear for ourselves.

Let’s pray for the courage to do better with our money – we must remember that it will not keep our secrets, but write our memoir.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Avoid "Kata-Speak" & Let Freedom Ring ~ James 4:11-12 (a series on James)

11 Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. 12 There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor? ~ James 4:11-12

It’s always interesting yet hard to remember that the early Christian world of which James was a part did not have the New Testament. Their Bible was the Tanakh, the Scriptures of Israel or what we call the Old Testament. And many texts that make up the New Testament are commentaries/sermons on the Old Testament, a practice which Jesus himself started. When Jesus pronounces “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” to be the second greatest commandment and a restatement of the first commandment to “love the Lord” (Matthew 22:37-40; see Leviticus 19:18), he sets up a way of reading and understanding the Hebrew Scriptures that marks his own faith and shapes ours forever (James 2:8). Had he chosen, for example, “You shall not ... tattoo any marks upon you”
(Leviticus 19:28) as the second commandment, we would be in an entirely different religion (and we would have a lot fewer young adults in church). And like big brother Jesus, James’ remarks about "not slandering others" (4:11-12) come right out of Leviticus 19:16-18. How are we to understand our faith in which “love of neighbor” is placed front and center? How are we to speak if our love for God is demonstrated by how we talk to others?

[Note: After I wrote my sermon but before I preached, my wife threw a bit of a wrench into my sermon by asking about toxic individuals who use both Scripture and the niceness of Christians to abuse others. It was a good a good question but rather than rewrite my sermon I chose to offer a brief caveat to what I am about to say. 1) James text is not all the Bible has to say about the topic of toxic communication. There is plenty to think about in terms of communicating with people, even abusive people, and we should not too quickly lump together all kinds of problems or communication styles. 2) The second caveat is that James is primarily concerned with “how” Christians should communicate but doesn’t focus too much on content, which leads us to the third caveat. 3) James is not advocating a “doormat theology” which settles for abuse. Yes, we are to love our neighbor which certainly curtails certain things but love can and should oppose other things, as well. James, for example, is himself opposing zealous teachers who are promoting division and violence in the church, as well as opposing rich Christians who are oppressing the poor.]

          1.    Avoid “kata-speak”

The word in our passage which is often translated “speak against” or “speak evil” or “slander” is the word katalaleo. It’s a compound word which joins a preposition to a verb. In this case, kata – against, down to or upon; and laleo – to talk or speak. So two meanings stand out that we are not to do.

First, there is the kata that means “against” – translated as slander, evil, speak ill of. It’s negative speech that opposes someone, verbally treats them like an enemy rather than a child of God, brother, sister, or friend. It’s speech that seeks to offer nothing good, spreads harm (e.g. to speak ill of, like you’re spreading disease intentionally), but that doesn’t mean it’s lying or deceptive. A kata-word may be perfectly true: we do not have to tell lies in order to harm another. If you tell a slanderer to stop slandering, 99% of the time he/she will respond with, “Well, it is true!” People think that as long as something is true, it is free to be said. But the fact that it is true gives us no right to say it. James has already noted that the truth can be weaponized.

But kata can mean more than “against.” There is also a second kata that means down to or upon – think belittling, or speak condescendingly to. It’s a reminder that we can also misuse speech when we speak from the wrong place – from above, as if we know more than others, or believe we can see all that we might need to see. It imagines that we are better, immune from the things that so easily seem to trap others. It’s when we think we can speak like God.

In my previous church, I was lucky enough to have a number of college volunteers

who were often eager to help with the youth program. I was surprised, however, by the odd way that so many began their volunteering. Rather than focus on relationships with the kids, which they were perfectly suited for given their age, many of them would become overly worried about discipline, constantly correcting the kids only to be utterly ignored. I would often advise these volunteers – “You’re trying to take the role of the cop. Unfortunately, you don’t have a badge or gun. Without authority or a weapon, you look pretty silly trying to get people to obey. It’s not your job to get people to obey, it’s your job to know them and love them.”

Last week James said to “resist the Devil.” Do you want to resist the Devil? Then don’t talk like him. It’s so interesting to me that we imagine a foul mouth as one who uses “bad language” and when the Devil possesses anybody in a movie one of the more common features is that the possessed person spews curse words. But if the Scriptures are our guide as to how the Devil talks, we should be sobered by the fact that the Devil or “Satan,” which means “the Accuser,” is often revealed to be a pious, religious figure who quite enjoys quoting Scripture. To “resist the devil” then we need to recognize that you can do both “katas” (speaking against or belittling) using Scripture – the Devil did so in the temptations of Jesus. You can use the Bible to talk to neighbors in ungodly ways.

          2.    Speak Reasonably

The one who speaks down to, or against another, James says, is one who sits in judgment but James go on to say that such a person also slanders and sits in judgment over the law. What does that mean? Well, we are helped by remembering how Jesus summarizes the law with the two greatest commandments: loving God whole-heartedly and loving our neighbor as ourselves, which James calls the “royal law” (2:8; c.f. Leviticus 19:18). James the brother of Jesus, follows Jesus’ lead. He loves the Old Testament, and you should too. Leviticus is James’ book and he is carefully restating it. Let’s reassert Leviticus 19:18 in some context:
Leviticus 19:16-18: 16 You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not stand up against the life of your neighbor: I am the Lord. 17 “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. 18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. (English Standard Version)
When we recognize that James’ own letter is a commentary on Leviticus 19, a number of things become helpful. We recognize that we aren’t simply being told to say nothing but to speak in a certain way – to “reason frankly.” A couple of practical things stand out:

a.     Speak as a brother and sister – there is an
intimacy that is very much a part of Leviticus and James’ own letter. We are talking about our “neighbors,” “your people” and James will say in vs. 11, “brothers and sisters.” If you are struggling to talk with someone about something, if you’re worried about how a conversation might actually go, focus on the relationship. The better the relationship, the easier it will be to have a good and helpful conversation. You most likely will learn something that you did not know that will make your conversation more fruitful. Love is the key. If you don’t love, don’t speak because the goal is making “brothers and sisters.” You can’t talk like an enemy and accomplish that.

b.    Don’t gossip. Go to them. – Slander is a corporate sin involving speaking to others about someone. In Jesus’ own playbook about how to handle to conflict in the community – Matthew 18:15-20, he says, 15 “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.” The going is important. To speak about difficult things demands a going that brings us face to face. Don’t try to speak of difficult or intimate things in an impersonal way. And listen to this command, “Don’t use email to talk about a difficult topic!”

c.     Don’t speak like God. To “reason frankly” is to recognize that that we are commanded to do these things because God says, “I am the Lord.” So we do so with a great amount of respect and nuance for who God is and whom God loves. This also means that we should repeatedly remind ourselves – “I am not God.” I find it helpful to be careful of my language. I try and ask questions, use words like “I wonder . . .” or “I imagine . . .” because I don’t know like God. I try and restate what I am hearing because I don’t reason like God. James is right to ask in vs. 12 – “who are you?” - you aren’t able to save or destroy. You shouldn’t judge, because these are God’s “special” activities and only God can do them well. We (and we can all admit it) make terrible gods.

          3.    Let’s give them something to talk about. Holiness!

But let’s take a look at an even bigger context. Leviticus 19 is all about holiness: God's holiness and the holiness of God's people. The word “holy” appears in Leviticus far more frequently than in any other biblical book. The backdrop for the commands from Leviticus 19 is found in vss. 1-2: “The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.”

 If holiness is in God's nature, it is important to understand that nature. Leviticus 19 begins with a call to be holy, for “I the Lord your God am holy,” and it ends by telling us what this means: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (19:36). True, God is holy simply because God is God, but -- even more important for biblical theology – God, unlike other gods, is holy because God liberates captives, sets people free, stands opposed to tyrants and oppressors. If Leviticus 19 is the backdrop for our text from James then our speech is not simply policed speech, it’s not simply about what we don’t say and how we shouldn’t say it. It also should be liberating speech, love of neighbor speech, speech that advocates for others rather than accuses. Does your speech liberate people?
If we are going to be holy and if we are going to love our neighbor, we are going to have talk about how we do it without falling prey to the divisive forces of hateful rhetoric. By linking holy speech to Leviticus 19, James is doing more than asserting how we are to talk but what we must talk about. If we wish to be holy as God is holy, we will have to engage difficult topics without slander or backbiting, without condescension or sarcasm, and without a claiming that we can’t have these conversations at all. 
If Leviticus 19 and God’s holiness inform us about what we need to be talking about with one another, then as a holy community we should be talking about 
  • how to care for the poor and immigrants (19:10), 
  • fair wages for workers (verse 13), 
  • care for the disabled (verse 14), 
  • better laws and justice (verse 15), 
  • how to avoid hate or vengeance (verse 18), 
  • care for the aged (verse 32), 
  • not cheating on the poor (verses 35-36), 
  • and--again, surprisingly, for a people who understood themselves to be uniquely the people of God -- love not only each other but also the immigrant as ourselves (verse 34). Speaking about these things and for these things is what mark us as a holy people.
This week is the four hundredth anniversary of the first enslaved Africans being brought to this country. We need to talk more about this painful legacy if we are going to be a holy people. And we must talk about it in such a way that liberates without sarcasm or condescension. Many of us may have to repent but we do so that we may be holy and free. Let's talk and let freedom ring!