Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture,
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (James 2)
We’re not in a good place right now (and I don’t just mean Zozobra, the traditional man of doom and gloom). I mean each of us, and all of us — we’re not in a good place.
Just in the past week or two, I’ve had conversations with any number of people who have talked about how worn out they are, maybe from caring for vulnerable aged parents, or from trying to keep the children in their classroom safe, or even their own children.
Others speak of how exhausted they are, by having to make so many daily decisions about how to respond to the pandemic at school, at work, at the grocery store ….
Still others confess how angry they are, that so many refuse to be part of the struggle.
Some have spoken of how they’ve given up hope that we as a society will ever be able to respond to something as challenging as climate change, when we can’t even get our act together to face a threat as straightforward as a contagious virus. It is, as Maureen Dowd observed in this morning’s paper, as if nothing can be overcome.
And all that’s not to mention the shootings in our streets and schools, the end of a futile war, devastating floods, fires, hurricanes … no we’re not in a good place. And my sense is that just below the surface of our consciousness, that fact is eating away at our spirit. I feel it in restless, troubled dreams at night, and in physical and mental weariness by day … maybe you do too.
Cue the Epistle of James. It so happens, that beginning last Sunday, the lectionary has us reading from this rather unknown letter for five straight weeks, until we will have read the whole of it (it’s only five short chapters).
James is one of those parts of the Bible that is usually overlooked, perhaps under the influence of Martin Luther who dismissed it as a “straw epistle” because its emphasis on good works seems to contradict his emphasis on faith alone.
It is, of course, attributed to someone named “James,” but who that James is, is uncertain. Traditionally, it was ascribed to James, the brother of Jesus. (Can you imagine that poor fellow having to introduce his older sibling: “I’d like you to meet Jesus, my Lord, my God, and my brother.” Kind of puts some things in a different light, doesn’t it? But that’s an issue for another day.) The author of the epistle might also have been James, the son of Zebedee, or James the son of Alphaeus. Or maybe it was just someone using the name of James.
But in any case, the thing that is most interesting to me is that it is at least possible, and perhaps even likely, that this epistle is the earliest Christian writing in the New Testament—written even before the gospels or the epistles of Paul. If that is the case, then it gives us a glimpse into a very primitive form of Christianity, when Jesus’ followers were still vividly aware of his personal ministry and teaching, more so than the later theologizing concepts of Paul and the next generations of the church that we have come to know as “Christianity.”
Now, if James was in fact writing in the first few years after Jesus, then it was not a very settled time. In response to a Jewish rebellion, the weight of the Roman occupation was felt more heavily than ever, resulting in the destruction of the Temple. The Jewish synagogue community itself was divided over what to make of this new Jesus movement rising up in its midst, and repression of Jesus’ followers was becoming the norm. What the future might bring, no one could tell.
It was, in short, a stressful time rather like our own.
Now, if you were to sit down and read through the whole of the epistle of James (and I recommend that you do—it won’t take you very long), you might be struck by how often the author makes pretty direct allusion to Jesus’ own words, and especially to the Sermon on the Mount. In fact, that seems to argue for a pretty early date of composition. You can hear it for instance in the passage we read today, in James’ defense of the poor, or his identification of the “royal law” of “Love your neighbor as yourself” as a summation of the Torah.
But what is most striking is that in the tumultuous times in which he was writing, James focuses on giving advice and encouragement to his readers about how to do good. It’s as if he is convinced that the way to connect with the longed-for good, is to do good — or as Rabbi Heschel said, “The way to God is a way of God.”
So James admonishes us to do such things as to watch our tongue, and to be careful and thoughtful in what we say. He warns against partiality and favoritism—what we might call “privilege.” He urges us to reach out to the poor and the stranger (or again, what we might call “the refugee”). He encourages us to bear our tribulations with patience—not with a passive waiting, but an active anticipation of that good which is not only worth waiting for, but also worth working toward.
In short, James would have us to “keep on keepin’ on.” Those aren’t his words exactly, but it is a phrase that evokes that persistence and fortitude which James would have us to have. “Keep on keepin’ on” has a rich tradition with strong biblical overtones in other periods of American history which seemed full of tribulation, going back to its first use around 1910 by the Salvation Army, its reiteration in songs by musicians like Len Chandler in the 1960s, and then Curtis Mayfield and Bob Dylan in the ‘70s.
But perhaps the greatest use of “keep on keepin’ on” was made by Martin Luther King, Jr., in a speech he gave on March 22, 1956, during the Montgomery Bus boycott. In the midst of those dark days of the early Civil Rights Movement, King nevertheless had the strength and the vision to say this:
Freedom doesn’t come on a silver platter. With every great movement toward freedom there will inevitably be trials. Somebody will have to have the courage to sacrifice. You don’t get to the Promised Land without going through the Wilderness. You don’t get there without crossing over hills and mountains, but if you keep on keeping on, you can’t help but reach it. We won’t all see it, but it’s coming and it’s because God is for it.
We won’t all see the place for which we long either—a pandemic tamed, human rights defended, bridges built across social divides, the earth shielded from harm— but this too is coming, and it’s coming, because God is for it. And how do we know to hope for that? Well, because we read this morning in the epistle of James about just such a community of hope grounded in doing good. And based on their example, we too can keep on keepin’ on. Amen.