People who are much wiser than I am, scholars of scripture, people who not only read the Bible in its original Hebrew and Greek, but who actually dream in those languages… these folks remind us: Be careful… be very, very careful… about plucking individual verses or short passages out of the bible and interpreting them separately from the larger story.
Occasionally, they admit, scriptures isolated from the big picture still hold. Often, these are verses that are repeated, over and over, throughout the bible. That repetition testifies: these verses hold true. Here’s one of the best examples:
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” ~ Matthew 22:39
These words are not only found in the bible, in both the Old and New Testaments. Words meaning the very same thing are found in nearly every religious and philosophical tradition:
“And if your eyes be turned towards justice, choose for your neighbor that which you choose for yourself.” ~ The Baha’i Faith
“Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” ~ Buddhism
“Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire.” ~ Confucianism
“This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you.” ~ Hinduism
“All things are our relatives; what we do to everything, we do to ourselves. All is really One.” ~Native American Spirituality, Black Elk
“None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.”~ Islam
Some things in scripture can be taken out of context, and still be found to be universal principles… something Protestant reformer John Calvin described as “natural revelation.” If presented with this lovely smorgasbord of world religions expressing the same sentiment, Calvin would likely say that God has revealed to the hearts of all people, whether they are followers of the God of the bible or not, that it is good and right to love one another as we love ourselves. We can pluck that verse out of context, and it still holds true.
Scripture can be found here...
Then we have texts like ours today, from the Letter of James. It’s good to read these few verses from James. It’s better to read the verses that come immediately before and after. It’s even better to read the entire letter. It’s better still to understand the mindset of the people who were anxiously reading these words of encouragement written, perhaps, by the brother of Jesus. That James.
The people to whom this letter was written were Jewish Jesus-followers. The people to whom this letter was written were beginning to know persecution because of being Jesus-followers. And the people to whom this letter was written were trying to figure out what Jesus-followers should do while they were waiting for Jesus to return.
The return of Jesus is, in fact, the elephant in the room of every single word written in the New Testament. Every gospel, letter and apocalypse was written with the expectation that Jesus would return soon, and very soon. Every single believer for whom these words were written was sure they would see the return of Jesus in their lifetime.
And so, we need to scour these words for that expectation, and that hope, and to understand the advice given in THAT context: hopeful waiting for Jesus. (And James gives a LOT of advice.)
Fun fact about the letter of James: Did you know that that other Protestant reformer, Martin Luther, considered it to be “a letter of straw,” and thought it should be thrown out of the New Testament? Do you know why?
Luther didn’t like the letter because James focused on doing, as well as believing, or in Luther’s words, “works” in addition to “faith.” The Reformation, which, arguably, was initiated by Luther, was based on a doctrine of “salvation by grace through faith.” This doctrine is still the mainstay of Protestantism. Well, it’s one mainstay. The other mainstay is that we ought to place scripture in the hands of the people, and let them read it for themselves.
So, here’s what James wrote that got Luther so incensed: In chapter 1, he writes, “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like” (James 1:22-24).
In chapter 2, he warns about partiality, saying, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (2:8). He tells us not to be swayed by riches—our own or others’, and he warns against favoring the rich over the needy. And then he repeats his warning about thinking our faith exempts us from having to do anything:
“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:14-17).
In chapter 3, he talks of the ways in which we can harm one another with our speech, and he puts the lie to the nursery rhyme that incorrectly told us, as children, that “names would never hurt us.” He writes, “So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire” (James 3:5-6).
In chapter 4, he warns against judging one another, because Christ is our judge, and we are waiting for his return. And in the beginning of chapter 5, he has harsh words for those who get rich off the poor, and who don’t pay their laborers a living wage.
James is on fire. His letter is passionate. It is heartfelt. It is written by one who is sure of the kind of faith we are called to: faith in action.
And this makes our passage stand out all the more. After four-and-a-half chapters on doing, through speaking, and fairness, and kindness… James comes to a halt. It’s almost as if he sits down, with a proverbial cup of tea, and a candle lit for contemplation, and closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. He tells us to practice patience.
Side note: I am pretty much the last person on the face of the earth who should be writing or preaching a sermon about patience. I am NOT patient, and I am at my absolute worst when I am anxious, and fearing that a relationship is at jeopardy. I could tell you a story about me, driving around town like crazy, trying to catch up with someone I was sure was angry with me, driving here, driving there, making calls, leaving voicemails, leaving handwritten notes. I am not patient.
I am not patient.
James has this to say, to me, and to you, and to anyone else who finds patience a challenge:
“Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord.”
Is it possible that we can find our patience in knowing that we are beloved?
Another translation of this is, “Be patient, therefore, brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord.”
Is it possible that we can find our patience knowing that we are already a part of the “family” of God?
Is it possible that we can let go of our compulsive need to know now, to have now, to do now, and simply, for a moment, rest in the knowledge that God loves us? That God welcomes us? That all will be well, and all will be well, and every little thing will be well, according to God’s design and God’s plan? And that we… in and through our faithful doing… are a part of God’s design, and God’s plan?
Is it possible that all this can take place only because we are already resting in God’s absolute tender mercy towards us, which we find, fresh, again, every morning?
Anne Lamotte says, “Peace is joy at rest. Joy is peace on its feet.”
Peace is joy at rest, in the love of God, as we strengthen our hearts for what lies ahead.
Joy is peace on its feet, in the love of God, a faith lived in action, in service to God’s people.
Be patient, therefore, beloved people, until the coming of the Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen.