“The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart.” There is absolutely no doubt about it in the psalmist’s mind: God’s word is good. It is beautiful. It is life giving. It is more to be desired than gold and sweeter also than honey.
Which is a totally understandable thing to say and even believe when you lived 600 years before Jesus said these ominous words in our Gospel lesson this morning:
“If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and go to hell. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two and to be thrown into hell, where . . . the fire is never quenched.”
How refreshed and restored do you feel after hearing that?
Jesus’ words are not exactly what we’d call good news — because we have a feeling that his warning is meant for us.
All we have to do is take a quick look at our hands and our feet and ask what we’ve been doing with them or where we’ve been going with them. All we have to do is think of what we’ve seen, what we haven’t looked away from, that is not noble or true or pleasing to God. We have all stumbled, and even with the most surface-level evaluation, we know that Jesus’ words implicate us.
But what do we do with that? Jesus’ words are hard. We hear “cut off your foot, chop off your hand, pluck out your eye,” and we quite understandably freeze up, wondering if our Savior could possibly be serious, or if he was just having a really bad day or playing a really bad joke.
The writer of Proverbs famously said, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy,” which is a poetic way of saying that it is actually better for us to be rebuked by someone we love than commended by someone who doesn’t care for us at all. And that’s true because the person who loves us wants what’s best for us, wants us to thrive, and they want this so much that they will sometimes risk hurting us so that we are saved from more and worse pain further on down the road.
I bring this up because I think it’s part of what’s going on in our Gospel lesson today. Jesus knows, just as we all do, that we are imperfect people, unable to keep our eyes fixed on God because we keep getting distracted by ourselves. We keep wandering off on wayward feet. We keep reaching out for what we should not have. Jesus knows that our situation is so dire that even if we were to cut off our hands and our feet and pluck out both eyes, we would still be unable to stand in God’s presence — because we are sinful, and we cannot save ourselves. That is not a truth we like to hear. Not a reality we want to deal with. But it is what Jesus tells us today.
And that testimony does revive the soul and make wise the simple because “by them is thy servant warned . . . . Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression.”
When Jesus came to earth to save us, he didn’t come to inflict strange and painful religious ceremonies on us. He didn’t come to command us to do violence to ourselves and then just move on, as though that would overcome our separation from God. What he did come to do and what he asks of us today and every day is much more serious than losing an eye or a hand or a foot. “Take up your cross and follow me,” Jesus says, “for whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” The stakes are high, so Jesus asks for everything — but only because he wants to give us everything in return.
In a few moments we will hear, “This is my body, broken for you.” And that is the truth to which our Gospel lesson ultimately points us. God so loved the world — God so loved you and me — that he sent his son into our world of sin and violence and sickness and death, so that his back might be whipped, his hands pierced, and his side broken open for us. Only then, only through the broken body of God himself, are we saved. Only then are we counted blameless and innocent of great transgression. Only then are we welcomed into a future more beautiful and safe and holy than we could ever imagine.
This is the hope we have. The hope that rests not on our efforts but on the Cross of Christ. And we can truly and with our whole hearts say that it is more to “be desired than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.” AMEN.
You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.
We’ve looked quite a bit at James this month, one of the New Testament letters, which we’ll finish reading at Mass next week. As both Deacon Chris and Marisa have mentioned, this letter focuses on behavior – how those of us who belong to Christ live out that belonging. So James doesn’t really address the baseline question of what makes somebody a Christian; he’s focused on the next step, what it looks like when Christians express the identity God has given us.
Luke Timothy Johnson, a NT scholar from Emory University, points out that throughout his letter, James speaks about two measures for human behavior. How do we measure what’s good and admirable? How do we decide what’s the best way to live? James teaches that either we can measure this by God, our creator and source, or we can measure it by the way human priorities, oriented around us, measure things. Throughout the NT, and here in James, that second attitude is often called “the world,” that whole bundle of human priorities independent of God -- “what looks worth it to me by my own lights, what everyone else is doing, what just feels normal.”
When you hear the word “world” in the NT, that’s usually what it means, which is worth remembering because by “world” we often mean the whole planet or the beauty of nature or something positive. So when James says “friendship with the world is enmity with Christ,” or the apostle John says “do not love the world,” they don’t mean Christians shouldn’t value natural beauty or enjoy life. They mean we shouldn’t love approaching existence as if we were on our own to get what we want out of life.
So there are these two measures, in James: we measure what’s worth doing by God, our creator and owner, or we measure what’s worth doing by us. And where James is especially interested in making inroads, is in waking up people who think of themselves as accepting God but are actually measuring what’s good and helpful and valuable by themselves, by the values of the world. James calls this “double-mindedness.” He says that we can either be a friend of the world, or a friend of God. But we can’t live by two measures at once.
What you measure by, what counts for you as a good way to live, affects your behavior in all kinds of ways. So we’ve already heard James address over these past few weeks what it looks like when you use God to measure how you respond to economic inequity, as well as when you use God to measure how you respond to the way language can be a tool for violence and exclusion. In the whole first section of today’s reading he talks about how disputes and compromises are handled when you use God as your measure.
In all of those areas – dealing with economic disparities, with our speech, with conflicts -- measuring the best way to live by God produces very different results than measuring the best way to live by us, by the world. In fact those two measures produce different results in every single thing we do all day. And James is trying to tell his readers: OK, we’re sitting in church right now, but in our routine assumptions, what measure of value are we actually going by? What ideas of the best way to live are we actually putting into practice? Because that will tell you whether you are living as a friend of the world, as he calls it, or a friend of God. Far more than what you say, what priorities you put into practice tell you who you really are.
James applies this today in a really subtle way to prayer, and I want us to try and notice how his flow of thought works here. First he talks about cravings that we have and how we respond to them. Just these baseline, I want it experiences, whether big or small. This could be anything at all. You’re at an event and someone is being made a fuss over and you think, how come I’m not getting any credit? I work way harder than her. Or my flight is delayed and we have to sit on the tarmac for an hour. Or I went to my lunch restaurant and they didn’t have the tuna salad today and I only went because I wanted the tuna salad. Our lives are full of experiences where our cravings get denied. Where we don’t get what we prefer.
And James uses this very common experience to ask us to notice what measure we use in prayer. Up till now he’s talked about daily life, now he talks about prayer. You do not have, because you do not ask, he says. In other words, whatever craving is getting frustrated right now, have you prayed about it? If you’re measuring the way you live by you, not by God, will you think to pray in situations that don’t seem quote, religious, unquote? Probably not.
You know, you can pray in absolutely every situation. On the tarmac. At lunch. God is present in every millisecond, relating to you, loving you, closer than your own breath. There is no situation in which it isn’t possible to measure by God. Now, probably only the greatest saints live minute to minute with that perspective. But it’s always possible.
So James first says: you’re measuring by yourself, so you do not ask. And then he goes even further: You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. When someone’s measuring by themselves, even if they do pray, they’ll tend still to pray with that self focus. They will tend to measure what’s important by themselves, even in prayer. It’s such a subtle point James is making. That’s what he means by “you ask wrongly.” If someone is measuring what’s valuable by themself, their prayer will be mostly trying to recruit God for their agenda, to treat him as a resource for satisfying cravings.
You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.
So if we are willing to be as subtle and self-aware as James this morning, we can look at our prayer lives. Are we mostly praying when we have a want or a craving? Are we praying in order to get things? Or are we praying, if you will, in order to get God? In order to draw near to God and allow him to draw near to us? When you’re a friend of the world, in James’ language, you’ll talk to God about the world.
When you’re a friend of God, you’ll naturally start to talk to God about God. To thank and adore him for who he is. To just sit in his presence in silence and soak up his love. To let yourself steep in the words of Scripture so that your perspective can get bigger. To receive his limitless forgiveness. Just to enjoy him. Our Presbyterian friends say in their Westminster catechism, that the chief point of being a human being is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.
Praying not to get things, but to get more of God, to enjoy God, to draw near to God, to allow God to draw near to you. And those of you who know what I’m talking about know that what often happens is that we start our prayer with self, and then God widens us out to enjoying him and seeing things from a broader perspective. We start with the worldly concern we have: “God I’m so angry about this flight being late,” and then as that prayer goes on he opens everything up for us, widens our vision, and changes our reactions. We see this all the time in the Psalms; today’s is a good example though we don’t have time even to look at it. It alternates prayer based on that human measure, that self-preoccupation, with God widening out the preoccupations and pouring down his love and his spaciousness.
If you think you might be stuck in that human measure, if you talk to God mostly about things and mostly when you want something, rather than spending time routinely enjoying him and letting him broaden your mind, I’m going to suggest you use today’s collect as an initial little bit of leverage to begin changing that. Take the bulletin home, or use the Forward Movement app or your Book of Common Prayer, and spend 10 or 15 minutes in the presence of God with this week’s collect. You do not have because you do not ask. Submit yourselves therefore to God. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.
Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.
It boasts of great things because the words that cross our lips can never be taken back — though we don’t often think of them that way. We’re so used to the constant stream of information and perpetual noise of TV and social media that when we speak we imagine the words disappearing, as short-lived as our attention spans. The sarcastic comment toward our loved ones may be bad but it doesn’t really have a lasting impact. The muttered insult at people who cut us off in traffic won’t really change anyone or anything. But the reality is that nothing we say will truly go unheard. Our words make up our reality. They linger on in our memory. They make us who we are and lead us toward who we will be.
But we don’t often speak as though that is the truth. Words have a power we don’t fully understand, a power that St. James refuses to downplay: “How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. . . . For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by humankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”
James makes such an impassioned case against the human tongue because he knows that our words matter more, much more, than we think they do. Listen to what the Proverbs say:
“Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits” and
“Whoever guards his mouth preserves his life; he who opens wide his lips comes to ruin.”
Our words matter. But it’s not only in the here and now that they weigh on our lives and the lives of others. We are told in Scripture that one day we will give an account for our words. For all of them. Jesus said that on the day of judgment we will stand before God himself, and he will weigh everything we have ever said: “I tell you, on the day of judgment you will give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
If we think about that for a second, it should scare us. Every careless word we utter, every backhanded complement, every passive aggressive aside — we will give an account for it.
Where, then, does that leave us? If every word we say will be examined before God’s judgment seat, then what hope do we have that mercy awaits us?
In his letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul writes: “Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ . . . Putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another . . . . Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up . . . so that your words may give grace to those who hear . . . . [Be] kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”
The Father has spoken one Word, the Word who took on flesh. The Word who has come to us full of grace and truth. This Word is Jesus Christ, the one through whom all things were made and through whom all things will be redeemed. He is the certain hope that we have because he offered himself up for us, that we might become one with God himself, his words becoming our words, his grace our grace.
It is only through Christ, living in us and among us today, that we can speak grace and truth to one another. Our human hearts are hard, quick to judge and quick to hate; yet Jesus remains with us, never leaving nor forsaking us, leading us on to better things. And as we travel with him, as we walk his road, we are changed. Christ Jesus shines into our hearts and our minds and our voices, revealing the depth behind every kind word, the consolation behind every sorrow. His story becomes our story, his life our life. As St. James says, “Draw near to him and he will draw near to you. . . . Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you.” May these words sustain us today, tomorrow, and in the coming weeks. AMEN.