First Lesson: Galatians 5:22-26
Children’s story – Matthew 25:1-13
We are continuing to ask the question: “Who are the spiritual Leaders of North Kent Presbyterian Church?” We are not asking who are the long time members, or who are in charge of this and that in the church, or even who are the elders and deacons at the moment. We are asking “Who are the spiritual leaders of this church?” Now we could answer that question in many different ways, and maybe we will. But for the next couple of weeks, at least, we are looking at the book of James and today we are also reading from the book of Galatians. And we’ll see what these two books have to say to us about what spiritual leaders look like.
Last week we jumped into the book of James without giving much thought to who James was, and when he wrote this letter. Now it would be very tempting to think that this James was the brother (or really half-brother) of Jesus – a son of Mary and Joseph. And some do think that. You remember him. We’ve talked about him. Right after Jesus’ death he was the head of the Christian Church – the mother church - in Jerusalem and in fact sometimes we refer to him as the First Bishop of Jerusalem. We’ve had the story of how Peter and Paul were summoned back to Jerusalem from where they’d been starting churches all over the Mediterranean region. A good many of the folks in their churches didn’t have a drop of Jewish blood in them and they didn’t know all the Jewish laws and they ate all the wrong kinds of food and they didn’t celebrate the proper Jewish holidays. Which was a real problem for the good Jews in the mother church in Jerusalem. For all kinds of reason. So Peter and Paul were summoned back to Jerusalem to answer for the actions. There was a very long and heated discussion, you remember, and finally it was James, the brother of Jesus, who helped to negotiate a compromise.
So we’d like to think that it was that James who wrote the words we are reading. But the historian Josephus tells that Jesus’ brother James was stoned to death in about the year 62. And the very smart people whom I trust about things like this tell us that this book was probably written much later that – maybe even as many as hundred years after Jesus’ death. So it probably wasn’t Jesus’ brother James who wrote this.
But there’s another possibility. In those days it was very common indeed for an unknown person to write in the name of a very well-known person. Carefully writing in the spirit of what that person would have said. Today we would be critical of that, and we would call it very dishonest. For an ordinary person to write a letter and then pass it off as written by somebody very famous. But actually, that was fairly common in the world of that day and it was even sometimes seen as a compliment to the famous person. That somebody would write in his name, maybe long after his death. So that is likely what happened with the book of James. Somebody wrote in his name, long after he had died.
But now to what this James says. In the verses that we did not read today James talks very pointedly. He is not tactful and he is not delicate in his language, and if he were a preacher I picture him pounding the pulpit. He condemns people who judge others and those who honor the rich but ignore the poor. He blasts people who say they have faith but who don’t help to cloth and feed the hungry and he has harsh words for those who can’t control their tongues. But in the words we have chosen for today his mood changes somewhat and he gives us a positive picture of what our Christian lives may be.
He talks about our good works that are done with a gentleness born of wisdom.
You know that it’s my habit to sit in front of God every morning at 5:00. I think of all of you and your names and your faces run through my mind. I think of the Women’s Wednesday morning breakfast, and I am grateful for that group of beautiful women – caring, kind, compassionate, who sit around the breakfast table every week in loving companionship. They are not gossipy. They are not judgmental. They have genuine care for each other and for the members of this church. Every once in a while I invite myself to the men’s breakfast, and I watch as they care for each other in much the same way and gently joke with each other, and support each other in subtle ways. You have heard me say more than once, how our session is learning to slog through the tough stuff, and come to consensus on tough stuff, and you’ve had an example of that this morning.
And I read what James says, “wisdom from above is first pure, then peace-loving, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without any trace of partiality and sincere.” That’s what a wise person looks like. That’s what spiritual leaders look like. That’s what many of you look like.
Spiritual leaders go out of their way to hear another’s point of view and listen to it and take it into their hearts. They listen more than they speak, and they hear with their hearts and when they speak they speak gently. They are ready to discard their own very precious ideas or opinions in favor of somebody else’s. They are willing to look honestly at themselves and see themselves as they really are rather than what they’d like to think they are. They are open to new ways of doing things when somebody else might suggest that. They genuinely want the good of the other person, sometimes above what they think is good for themselves. Some of them have the great gift of bringing together people who are at odds with each other. And being peacemakers.
They humbly open themselves up to inspection by the Spirit of God. And if they are envious or impatient or angry or if they insist on their own way or if they are selfish, or judgmental or harsh or if they have bitter thoughts, they ask the Spirit of God to work in them. Sometimes the Spirit of God gently nudges us or tenderly takes us by the hand and leads us. Sometimes the Spirit of God comes quietly into the hard soil of our hearts and loosens it up. Or sometimes we go through hard experiences that teach us hard lessons and the result is that we are more loving or more considerate and less judgmental of others. Maybe you have experienced that.
Now there are plenty of very good people in this world. There are people who are gentle. And full of kindness. And they are very sincere. They go about doing good things in their communities and in the world, and we commend them and honor them and join with them when we can. BUT WE are peace-loving and kind and gentle because that’s what God asks of us as part of God’s family. We have spent several weeks in the desert with that motley band of former slaves whom God claimed. And we have experienced for ourselves that God has rescued us and provides for us and cares for us and leads us and we have eaten the food which the Lord has given us to eat. We have seen who God is and how God is with people and what God expects of us. We have taken a good long look at Jesus for several weeks from the book of Luke and we know God’s love for us through Jesus.
And out of gratitude that we have no words for, we practice generosity – again and again until we’ve got it right. And we learn the very hard work of forgiveness and we offer it and receive it. And we flush our hearts clean of envy and pride so that there’s room for kindness and humility. And we relax our clenched fists and jaws and the muscles in our necks and backs and we let all that anger flow out of us until we can be genuinely peaceful. Toward somebody who has hurt us deeply. We drop our heads to our chests and we take a deep sigh and we let go of the bitterness that has been festering in us, and we welcome joy. We exchange our harsh judgement of others for a little compassion. We look at other people with gentle eyes and tender hearts.
That’s what spiritual leaders look like. That’s what spiritual leaders do. That’s what we do here.
So I offer you the picture of the wise person that James shows us – pure. Peaceloving. Considerate. Willing to yield. Full of mercy. Full of good fruits. Impartial. Sincere.
And then I will stand on tiptoe and I’ll crane my neck to see what the Spirit of God is going to with a church-ful of folks who look and behave like that. In a very new time.