St. Philip Lutheran Church
12 September 2021 + Lectionary 24b (Pent. 16)
Rev. Josh Evans
My recent road trip brought me safely from Chicago, through Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania. Next stop: New York. As I made my way through New Jersey – about to cross the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan – traffic that had been steadily moving along came to a screeching halt in the thick of New York City traffic. Even two decks of the bridge with a combined fourteen lanes of vehicles didn’t seem to help.
The sudden standstill traffic gave me a chance to take in the sights of the vehicles around me. Surely my Illinois license plate stuck out like a sore thumb in the sea of mostly New York and some New Jersey license plates. I also noticed, curiously, that none of the vehicles around me – at least none that I could see – had bumper stickers of any kind.
Which made me even more acutely aware of my own many bumper stickers – and what they say about me. In addition to window clings for my college and seminary, I also have – like some of you – a St. Philip magnet with the bold declaration: “Love > Hate.”
Back on the George Washington Bridge: As I’m attempting to navigate an unfamiliar city, paying attention to road signs and trying to change lanes as best I could, my inner road rage started to emerge – muttering things under my breath about my fellow drivers that I’ll leave to your imagination … things that aren’t exactly so harmonious with a “Love > Hate” bumper sticker. (Pastors are people, too!)
“The tongue is a fire,” the writer of James tells us. “With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we [also] curse those who are made in the likeness of God… From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.”
It’s unfortunate that this book gets such a poor reputation among Lutherans – so much so that Luther himself didn’t think it belonged in the canon – the official list of books – of the New Testament because it didn’t contain enough gospel.
“Can faith save you?” we read last week. Well, yes. That’s the good Lutheran answer, right? We are “saved by grace through faith.” But the writer of James isn’t so convinced: “Faith without works is dead,” James writes. You can see why, at first glance, James seems to be at odds with basic Lutheran theology.
Still, it’s unfortunate that this book gets such a poor reputation because in other places it’s so brutally – and perhaps even refreshingly – honest about the human condition.
At its core, James highlights what the writer perceives to be “the critical distance between the head and the heart, between the idea of Jesus and his radical care for the other and the actions born out of the idea once it roots in our soul.” (Casey Thornburgh Sigmon) In other words: between what we like to think we believe and how we actually act. Or between what the bumper sticker says and what comes out of our mouth in rush hour traffic.
On the one hand, it’s easy to be left feeling ashamed when we hear passages like this. Shame is a mighty powerful emotion. It might leave us feeling hypocritical – like “bad” Christians – or just “bad” people in general.
But at the same time, this book – and, in particular, this short essay on the dangers of the unbridled tongue – is so brutally honest about the human condition that it is almost like grace in and of itself.
These words don’t have to conjure up overwhelming shame – and these words certainly shouldn’t be used against anyone to make them feel ashamed. (And, really, who among us could level that judgement at another person without being liable to have it come right back at us?)
Instead, the good news I hear is that when it feels like we can never live up to the ideals of our faith (or our aspirational bumper stickers), James reminds us that we will, inevitably, mess up and fall short. It’s not license to mess up – but it is okay – and more importantly, it gives us an opportunity to live more intentionally going forward. To lean into grace that gives us strength to keep going.
At the risk of making it sound like I’m suggesting it’s all up to us – our works alone – and thus proving Luther’s distaste for James – I want to be clear that it’s not.
Luther himself wrote about the place of works in the life of faith in his 1520 essay “The Freedom of a Christian.” In that essay, Luther reaffirms that we are indeed saved by grace through faith because of what God in Christ has done for us. And it is because of what God in Christ has done for us that we are compelled to joyfully and gratefully respond in acts of loving service to our neighbor. We love because God first loved us. James really isn’t at odds with Luther after all. Faith and works go hand-in-hand.
Today, in addition to Rally Day and the start of a new program year at St. Philip, we also celebrate “God’s Work, Our Hands” Sunday, along with congregations across the ELCA. The name itself is telling: It is God who works through us, as we are swept up in the work of repairing the world that God calls us to.
God’s work, our hands.
God’s work, our feet.
God’s work, our voice.
As the hymn we’ll sing this morning repeats:
Bless, God, our hands,
Bless, God, our feet,
Bless, God, our voice,
Bless, God, our lives,
as we share the good news of your gospel.
The writer of James reminds us that being called as God’s people in the world is a bit like playing with fire. The words we speak, the things we do, and the way we live have the potential to do fiery harm…
But they also have the greater potential to set the world ablaze with Holy Spirit fire – the light and life that shines brightly as a witness to the great love that God has for each and every one of us.