I’ve encountered it more than once in my life— a parent coming down hard on a child in a public space. With a raised voice, the dad or mom seeks to correct or stop a child from doing some seemingly egregious act. Often it happens at a point of stress—like at a Disney vacation or a day at the beach—and everyone is overly tired, nerves frazzled, tempers short. I was that parent at a London tube stop—or was it Teddy Roosevelt National Park?—I was frustrated myself because things hadn’t gone as I expected and snapped at Olivia and Noah who were just being kids, and I’m sure I snapped at Melissa too who was trying to calm the situation down. Like I said, I’ve encountered it once or twice in my life.
A sermon on James 1.
One of the jobs I had in the hi-tech world had a few of the management folks who could sometimes be heard yelling behind closed doors. Maybe you had a co-worker yourself, or a coach or teacher who was the same. People who get angry about one thing or another and decide the best way to deal with it is to shout and demean.
James in his epistle holds up the better way for us to do things. “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger;for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” At a time when people in our country get into heated arguments over even a simple face covering, we need to hear and inwardly digest these words of scripture. Although James wrote about 2000 years ago, he knows human nature well—and it seems we haven’t changed that much at all. He starts of course where a well trained therapist would when helping a family in conflict: you need to be quick to listen and slow to speak. The act of true listening means focusing on what the other person has to say without having your mind consumed with how you plan to respond to make your point more fully. When we do that—when we craft our response as the other person is speaking—we assume we know what they are going to say and don’t need to hear them. Or worse, we cut them off mid-sentence in anger, stopping them before they can fully express themselves.
So James tells us to be quick to listen, and slow to speak, and slow to angry as well, for anger does not produce God’s righteousness—that is, having the kind of actions that bring us into a right relationship with God, of being just. In other words, we don’t exhibit the kind of behavior that brings us closer to God when we get angry with others and our tempers flare. We don’t show the love of God. We do not honor God with destructive words meant only to belittle and harm another person. Angry exchanges do not bring about God’s desire for us to be connected. And so when we get angry with others and refuse to hear their thoughts and their stories, we do not honor God.
And then James tells us that we need to allow the word of God that we’ve heard to grow, to become an impetus for us to act and not just let it go in one ear and out the other. Pastor Eugene Peterson tells the story of a parishioner who would greet him each Sunday after services at the Presbyterian church that he served and say, “Good message, Pastor, powerful words.” Peterson learned years later that the man belittled both his wife and his mother who lived with them on a regular basis, destroying their lives. Peterson wondered why it was that after sitting in the pews for decades and hearing those powerful words of God the man hadn’t changed at all. James says it plainly, “Welcome with meekness the implanted word that had the power to save your souls. Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” Put those things you hear in God’s word into practice, don’t just nod and think that’s a powerful message and then not change anything in your life. Allow God’s word to save your souls by changing your behavior. By only nodding in agreement and not allowing the words to impact your life, well, you’re just deceiving yourself.
James then goes all in and calls out the truth: “If any think they are religious and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.” Ouch, James. Can’t you tone it down a bit? Worthless? Just because I let my anger get the better of me? And then James displays his mastery of rhetoric and responds to what he knows will be the next question from those who read his epistle. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this:” he writes, and I imagine his first audience waiting anxiously to hear how they could embrace a life of faith that pleases God. “To care for widows and orphans in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
I suspect that isn’t quite what they had in mind. Even today if you were to ask church attenders what would constitute pure and undefiled religion, most would likely focus on our worship or Sunday School programs or the beautiful music we sing at church. Taking care of widows and orphans would likely not get as much attention.
This week a report came out in the Boston Globe detailing how food insecurity has doubled in Massachusetts since the beginning of the pandemic. Food insecure households are defined as those that lack enough food to get by. Before the pandemic began 8.2% of Massachusetts households experienced food insecurity. In the spring of 2020 it peaked to 19.6%, and in July it was 17.2%. One mother of three, Amber Holden, explained that she struggled to feed her family because her kids got meals at school. With school in remote learning or hybrid, they didn’t get the free breakfast and lunch, and their food at home ran out more quickly.
Let me say that stat once more for you: 17.2% of Mass households—more than 1 out of every 6—doesn’t have enough food to get by for the month. That’s staggering. Families with kids and the elderly make up a bigger percentage of these families, which sounds a lot like the widows and orphans in James’ day. People in need and distressed that they wouldn’t be able to make it.
During the past three months we’ve been designating our open plate offerings to places that work to stem food insecurity. This month that organization is Daniel’s Table which seeks to eradicate hunger in Framingham. That’s it. They don’t want anyone to go to bed hungry at night in that city. Last month we heard about a new community project here in Southborough to establish a free refrigerator. At its most recent meeting, our vestry decided to become the host site for that program. Supplementing the tremendous work done for years at the Southborough Food Pantry—which will continue to receive our support—this refrigerator and shelves of non-perishable will be available 24/7 for anyone needing something to eat without needing information from them, or having them fill out forms or meet certain requirements. While we’ll be hosting the refrigerator, community members in town will be working to keep the shelves stocked and the fridge clean and functional. We too can bring in food to share, of course, and I know that this will be a large blessing to many.
Jessica Levinson, the resident in town spearheading the project, told the story of having a man come up one day while she was putting in some things at a similar refrigerator in Northborough, and thanking her for saving his brother’s life. He was desperate and needed a lifeline; the free food provided by dozens of people did just that. I look forward to hearing more of these stories that will be taking place in our own parking lot in future months.
“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” That last bit at times might feel disconnected from the rest, but I think James is tying it back in to his instruction on listening and avoiding anger. The world we live in seems to thrive on angry speech—listen to talk radio, hop on to Twitter, or tune in to news magazine programs. People spew hatred toward others—and at times this gets directed at those in need. When people receive assistance, they get called lazy or much worse, and told that they don’t deserve help by some. Anger can create people to become vile, and when we allow our own anger to rise, well, we become defiled before God.
Choose to act in accordance with God’s love, James tells us. Do something tangible. Hold your tongue. Act out of faith. Raise up those who are in distress. Listen to their stories and bring them comfort. You want to call yourself religious? Then do those things, he says. Act like a religious person, and not someone who just goes through the motions. And so may we in our own day.