The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost: September 23, 2018
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
On Friday I got another obnoxious email from my brother. We don’t agree on things political. Despite my efforts to get him to leave me out of it, every now and then he decides to forward our whole family something that I find totally irritating. Just to make it worse, my other brother also chimes in, which he did on Friday, trying to needle me a little more. So I deleted the emails, having learned the hard way that replying only makes things worse – whether I respond earnestly or ferociously, we end in the same place, neither of us convinced, both more annoyed with each other than before. So I deleted the emails and went out on my run. And for the next hour and a half as I ran my mind came up with clever, devastating replies, every one of them smart and witty, taking the high ground while making it clear how utterly stupid my brothers’ idiotic, Koolade-drinking views are. I’d think of a reply, catch myself, tell myself, Stop it, I’m not going to reply, I should think about my sermon instead; and over and over again my mind would go relentlessly back to trying to destroy my siblings in argument. What an utter waste of a lovely run.
None of you ever do this, I know. But thank goodness people behave like this in the Bible, so I’m in good company. Jesus’ disciples wasted their time arguing pointlessly, as we hear in today’s story; James’ community was in the midst of fierce and petty disputes, it seems; maybe actually each one of us has wasted time and good relationship engaging in pointless argument. Bickering is not something that is new to the Internet age. We know it’s a waste of time. How do we stop?
Well, what is it we’re all arguing about? Jesus’ disciples argue about who is the greatest, which just sounds like a ridiculous argument. It is hard to think of a more ludicrous pursuit for the followers of Jesus of Nazareth than bickering amongst themselves about status, like these grownup disciples are actually all just 3rd graders on the playground. No wonder when Jesus asks what they had been talking about on the road, none of them answer – even they know how stupid their behavior is. So Jesus gives them an object lesson. He pulls a child into the circle, saying, whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all. Welcome in my name those who are like this child, the least important of all, and so welcome me – my place is with the least and lowliest, not with the one who wins the power struggle.
Well, we all know that arguing about who’s greater is ridiculous. Being everyone’s servant and moving to the back of line, though…I’m not giving that to my brothers.
So maybe we should look at the advice that James gives instead. What’s fueling your conflicts and disputes, he says? Wanting something and not getting it. That’s not supposed to be your primary motivation, you community of Christians. Instead, your life should show that you are in touch with the wisdom from above – godly wisdom. You aren’t being godly when you fight and argue over scraps; the Spirit of God is present when instead you are pure in love, a peacemaker, gentle, non-combative, merciful toward the other, impartial, utterly sincere. This is righteousness – this is being in right relationship with God, yourself, and others. This is how we’re supposed to live – this is how we’re supposed to deal with conflict. Make peace – be merciful – be gentle. Hard to write a good email out of that.
This kind of righteousness or humility James and Jesus are teaching and modeling has sometimes been understood as being a doormat, or being ‘nice’ to everybody whatever the cost. Christians for a long time – and particularly, Christian women – were taught to be submissive and gentle to a fault, part of the landscape of power that went far beyond minor argument and has allowed generations of abuse to happen in the church. But the gentleness James writes of is not passive avoidance. Neither Jesus nor James are saying that conflict will never or even should never happen – Jesus is often and regularly in conflict with the Pharisees and other religious leaders, after all, and the early church James is writing to had some pretty significant differences they had to work out about who was and who wasn’t part of the community. But both James and Jesus are telling us that our priority even in conflict should be to act for the other’s well-being – starting from the place of recognizing ourselves as God’s beloved children too. So it’s not about throwing ourselves and our own needs away. But it’s also not getting caught up pursuing our own will above all, or being insistent on our own way of seeing things and getting everyone else to see things that way too. Not getting caught up trying to ‘win’ the argument – but to seek the good of all: right relationship. Not, it turns out, to determine which one of us is the greatest.
The thing is, being in community brings conflict. We are different people and we will disagree. And where there is wrong in the world, we are absolutely supposed to call it out – witness the Me Too movement happening in the church at last. It is not un-Christian to be in conflict – Jesus never modeled niceness for us or told us not to rock the boat. We can’t just avoid conflict forever.
So how do we do it? Well, James points out warning signs for when we’re doing it wrong. When we sense in ourselves a kind of partisan spirit, when we find we are working ourselves into a faction and seeing the other as the enemy, we’re getting off track. When our goal shifts from solving the problem to overpowering the other person or proving them to be in the wrong, there’s a problem. When we find it easier to manipulate truth to make our own position sound better, it’s time to stop ourselves: acting out of this kind of place leads to abusing the other and seeking something other than the good. Endless self-vigilance is required – it is so easy to tip over into seeking our own way. Spouting off on Facebook and fighting with our siblings by email is probably not leading to right relationship. As we can all see in our world today.
But again, this does not mean we are not to seek out what really is right and fight for it, or to ask questions that lead to greater truth. There is truth to be spoken; we have core beliefs about each person’s dignity, each person made in the image of God. Which means we call out wrong when it is done. But it also means that we don’t get to hate the one who disagrees with us, or even the one who does us wrong. We have the altogether more difficult task of loving everyone – those we agree with and those we would call our enemy. Even if they’re wrong. Even if they’re worse than wrong – devilish, to use James’ word.
We can imagine that James’ community heard his words with trepidation, just as we do. This is hard work, really, really hard. We each have a part to play in making people whole, in building healthy community, in witnessing to this fractious world what it looks like to be and hold each other accountable in love. How can we possibly do it? James says, Let God direct your heart and will. Resist the influence of the evil one. Draw near to God and he will draw near to you. Ask for help, in other words. Love your enemies, and pray for those who hurt you, Jesus says. Only with God’s help can we try this.
So I didn’t send an email to my brothers. I just let it slide, again, and after those first few hours I stopped mentally responding too. I will renew my efforts to pray for them daily, and to make time on our vacations to spend time with them, to stay connected – and actually, I know that they will too. Who’s got the right opinion really doesn’t matter here, after all. What matters is being part of one family. As we all are, all of us here today, all of us here on earth, part of God’s family.