Year B, Pentecost 16 James 3:1-12
Recently one of our parishioners posted a meme on facebook that said, “I would never want another 9/11, but I miss the America of 9/12.” It went on to explain how unified we were the day after our country was attacked. I remember that as well—going to give blood and being turned away because the line was around the block. I recall churches full for weekday services that usually averaged 10-12 people. We weren’t arguing about politics, at least not nearly as much. There were countless stories of heroism and selfless acts. Now we argue about masks and we can’t even agree on what news station to watch. At times it feels almost like a different country.
Occasionally I will hear a person lamenting that they have seen someone’s true character after that person has displayed cruelty or weakness, as if all the good they had previously seen was just a façade. I have fallen into the same trap—choosing to judge someone by their darkest moment, rather than their finest, or even an average moment. I thought of all this as I looked at that meme. Which America is real–the America from 9/12 or the America of vitriolic school board meetings and people insulting one another from behind their computers?
We are reading from the book of James for the third week in a row. As I told you the first week, James is perceived as one of the more practical books because of the relatable topics he covers. In today’s reading, it’s about how important the words we use are. We all know what it is to experience pain because of the words of another. Often cruelty is not the intention. It’s just the result of words that were carelessly chosen. We’ve heard, maybe even said the childhood quip, “Sticks and stone can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Yet both children and adults know that could not be farther from the truth. The spoken and written word can torment someone far after a physical injury has healed.
Yet while James warns us of the injury our words can cause, he doesn’t give us any advice on what to do about it. He admits that no person can tame their tongue. We can try, but even at our very best, we fall short.
What seems to concern James most about words is not the effect that they might have on another person, but what it means about the person who speaks the words. In the first chapter of James, he warns of being double minded and thus unstable in every way. He returns to that theme in our section for today, “With (the tongue) we bless the Lord and Father and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth comes blessing and curse.” James goes on to question whether salt water can produce fresh water or whether a fig tree can produce both figs and olives. No, obviously not. The implication is that a Christian who praises God cannot be genuine in that praise if that person also curses the person who is created in the image of God. The question is: which is the true and genuine part of the person?
Some would say, you can’t be both. You can’t be both snarky and faithful at the same time. I would disagree. I would say at our best, we worship and serve God as well as loving and serving our neighbor. Yet we also sin and fall short of the glory of God. However, if we are all created in the image of God, than our true self is always the best of us, not the worst of us. Therefore, even if we use our mouth to praise God and curse those made in the image of God, our true purpose (our true identity) is praising God. Yes, we will fall short, we will make mistakes. And some will veer so far off course that all of their intentions will seem evil. But no person is beyond God’s saving help. No person ceases being a child of God.
I have noticed that one of the most common things people say of newly born child is that they are “perfect.” Even newborns who might not be perfect by outside standards, are still perfect in the eyes of their parents. Now, I don’t know any parents—who while their child is in the midst of a tantrum— looks at them and says, “Isn’t she perfect.” Frankly, I don’t think very many people describe others as perfect after infancy. Because we are not. Our flaws come out. We say things we regret. We do things we regret. But—we never cease being God’s beloved children. We always have a purpose, not merely as children of God, but as disciples of Jesus.
Now some of you might be wondering what this has to do with a facebook meme about the America of 9/12. And for those of you who are new or visiting, this is the first time I have ever highlighted a meme in a sermon. I believe that our country is still a country of people who care and want to be united. I believe that we as a nation have made countless mistakes and there continues to be injustice and pain. But there are even more examples of goodness today. It’s just harder to see. So on this day, Sept 12th, let’s try to find the good in one another as opposed to the flaws. Maybe, more importantly, let’s be the good and compassionate person God has created us to be. Let’s praise God more than we curse the children of God. And one day we might find that our default is praise and the other stuff just pops up occasionally.
Today we had a baptism. My favorite part of the service is when I put the oil on the baby’s head and say, “Anna you are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.” I want us to burn that into our heart and mind so that when we find ourselves judging another, we can also remember that they too are Christ’s own. They too were once without sin. They too (hopefully) had a parent who considered them perfect. They and we will always have a God who chooses to claim us as his own.