Monday, September 10, 2012

The Letter of James, and Me

I'm considering preaching on the letter of James this weekend.

There's this great imagery about the power of the tongue:  how our words matter, whether we uses our tongues for blessing and cursing.  The author compares the tongue to the rudder of a ship, small but instrumental to the direction the ship is going.

This strikes me as true, in an era when we are drenched in words:  written words, spoken words, words over the internet, words over email, words in political ads, words in advertising, words of persuasion, words of critique.  Blessing and cursing, clarifying and muddying the waters.  What we say to one another, what we say about one another matters.

I'm considering preaching on the letter of James this weekend, because I'm drawn to this particular reading at this particular season, but I have to say:  I have sort of a complicated relationship to this letter, and its teachings.

Perhaps it's because I'm Lutheran, and Luther once called the letter of James "an epistle of straw."  It was not his favorite part of Scripture.  (He wasn't a big fan of The Revelation, either, but that didn't stop him from calling the pope 'the anti-christ.')  If you read parts of James, you can't help but get the feeling that James is responding personally and directly to the apostle Paul in some places, especially in his comments regarding whether one is 'saved by faith'.   (This might say something about my personality, but I find myself wanting to mediate their disagreement, saying, "James, I think you might be misunderstanding what Paul is really saying here."  and "Paul, here is where James is concerned about your point of view.")

Perhaps it's because, much as I find wisdom in James' letter, and as much as agree with him, I also find the mirror he holds up to me, to us, a little too much to bear, sometimes.

So, I love the imagery about the tongue being like the rudder on a ship.

Then I think of James' words, "Out of the same mouth come blessing and cursing.  Brothers and sisters, it should not be so."

But it is so.  Brothers and sisters, parents and children, pastors and civil servants, teachers and custodians and neighbors, liberals and conservatives, out of our mouths come blessing and cursing.

It should not be so.  But it is.

Even these many years later, I still remember some family friends who I overheard saying that my sister was "the pretty one."  I know that words have the power to shape our reality, not just describe it.  I remember a tall girl in our school that other children used to taunt and call "daddy long legs."  I didn't speak up; I held my tongue when it could have been a powerful instrument.  And I've said dumb things and mean things to people too.   I'm not just talking about expressing a political opinion that some others disagree with.  I still remember long ago, in one of my fervent religious phases, writing a letter to my aunt and uncle where I said some pretty condescending things about their faith.  I still can't believe that they forgave me.  I guess they love me.

So what should I do with this great insight and wisdom of James?  Certainly understand the power in blessings and cursing, the power in our words to one another to shape reality and not just describe it.

But much as I love James, I also want to hear the word of one who shapes my reality instead of just describing it.

"Let there be light," he said.  "And there was light."

"Your sins are forgiven," he says.

I have a complicated relationship with the letter to James.  He is wise.  But he never says, "Your sins are forgiven."

1 comment:

Terri said...

I am finding a great deal to appreciate about James in this Lectionary cycle...but no doubt it is complicated. Your wrestling with it will be fruitful, I am certain! And sermon and the congregation will reap the reward of you labor.