The teaching from today’s New Testament reading, from the letter of James, is also a ‘hard’ teaching, but in this instance it’s not that it’s difficult to understand, but it is difficult to DO: taming the tongue, looking after orphans and widows, and keeping ourselves from being ‘polluted’ by the world. These three things are very hard to do. But according to James, these three things represent ‘true religion’. In fact much of James’ epistle is about the ‘doing’ of our faith: ‘Do not merely listen to the word… DO what it says.’
Words are important. Most of us do try to control what we say to others and about others, but we slip-up, don’t we? There’s a common phrase for it: ‘a slip of the tongue’; which just goes to show how easily and possibly how often harmful words can slip right out of our mouths and into the world, adding to the world’s ‘pollution’, which is something we’ll come back to in a moment. But ‘taming the tongue’, which James further defines later in ch. 3, being able to tame the tongue is a good indication of self-control.
Self-control: We all struggle with it at times. By definition, the responsibility for self-control lies directly with us, and we should have the self-control to submit ourselves to God, as James states further on, in ch. 4 v. 7. It’s easier said than done, isn’t it? Allowing God’s will to be the driving force of our life isn’t easy, because we don’t want to give up our own will and our own desires. It’s certainly a challenge for us as Christians, and one we encounter daily, because it seems that each time we look into the mirror, we see the image of our former self - and we keep forgetting what we now look like in God’s eyes, because of Christ.
Because of Christ, in God’s eyes we now look like God’s holy children, loving him in perfect obedience as Jesus did when he walked on this earth. On our own, we cannot be perfect. But out of our thankfulness for the grace of God, we want to work at becoming more like Jesus. And by practicing James’ three disciplines of true religion (taming our tongue, caring for orphans and widows, and fending off the pollution of the world), these work together in us, with the Holy Spirit, building up the strength we need to follow Christ. So let’s now look at the second element: looking after orphans and widows.
James points out to his listeners that they (and we) must do the work of Christ by caring for people in need. Earlier this year, both my mother and my sister became widows and I flew back to California to be with them. Thankfully, neither of them needed financial help, but they both needed a listening ear, and the simple act of being there, providing emotional support and a sense of calm strength when everything in their world felt like it had collapsed. It's not too difficult caring for those we know well, but what about those who we don't know well? And of course, it is not only orphans and widows that are needy, but it’s also the homeless, the mentally ill, drug addicts, and anyone who has lost some aspect of their life that had provided security and wholeness.
We know this is how Jesus wants us to love – his parables and his example teach us this. We still find it so hard to do to the point that he wants us to do it – to the point where it becomes uncomfortable. He showed us that he was willing to give his life for us. That's what he wants us to do for others; and that is a hard teaching. We would rather be comfortable. We would rather love those who are easily loved – those we are related to; those who are clean; those who are touchable. But Christ calls us to love those who are difficult to love – the stranger; the shabby; the outsider. It's easier said than done! This isn’t what the media tells us we should desire to do with our lives. This is a hard teaching. And this brings us to the third aspect of what James tells us ‘true religion’ is about: keeping ourselves from being ‘polluted’ by ‘the world’.
I mentioned before about those harmful, hurtful remarks that can ‘slip’ from our mouths either carelessly or intentionally, which add to the pollution of the world. We all know what pollution is. We have it in the air, in the water, on the ground. We also know the world is not only polluted in the environmental sense, but also in the ethical sense, and this pollution is caused by sin. Sin is not a popular concept in today’s world, where the ethos by which many live is ‘whatever turns you on’, and ‘as long as it’s not harming anyone else’.
How can we keep ourselves from being ‘polluted’ by the world? It’s no good saying it’s ok to allow just a little bit of evil into our lives – here’s a story to illustrate this:
Becoming damaged by pollution can happen even with the small amounts of muck allowed into our lives. It’s hard to avoid the pollution of the world’s ethical sense, because it pushes in on us from all sides. The world’s polluted ethical sense says that ‘whoever dies with the most toys, wins’. It values things over people. The world’s polluted ethical sense says that it’s ok to see people as objects to be used and even abused. The world’s polluted ethical sense says, ‘I’m alright, Jack’. The world’s polluted ethical sense says that life’s goal is to be comfortable and content. These priorities pollute our relationship with God and with people.
One day some children asked their father if they could go to the cinema to watch the latest film. But the father knew that this film contained some dodgy things that would be harmful for his children to watch. The kids tried to justify seeing the film, claiming there were only a few bad aspects which they could easily ignore, but they couldn’t convince their father.
A little later that evening the father asked his children if they would like some brownies he had baked. He told them he had used the
family’s favourite recipe, but that he had added a little something new. When the children asked what it was, the father calmly replied that he had added dog droppings. However, he quickly assured them, it was only ‘a little bit’. All the other ingredients were gourmet quality and he had taken great care to bake the brownies at the precise temperature for the exact time. He was sure the brownies would be superb.
Even with their father's promise that the brownies were of ‘almost perfect’ quality, his children would not take any. The father acted surprised. After all, it was only one small part that was offensive. He was certain they would hardly notice it. Still the kids held firm and would not try the brownies. The father then told his children how the film they wanted to see was just like the brownies. Our minds fool us into believing that just a little bit of evil won't matter. But, the truth is even a little bit of droppings makes the difference between a great treat and something disgusting and totally unacceptable.
We can’t completely escape the pollution of the world, because it has infiltrated the entire planet. But we can keep ourselves from being ‘polluted’ by the world by continually submitting our will to God's will. And we can keep ourselves from adding to the world’s pollution by taming our tongues, and by doing the uncomfortable work of looking after those who’ve slipped through the net. It is a hard teaching. Let us pray for the strength and the ability to accept and to do the word which has been planted in us, which can save us: keep a tight rein on our tongue; help orphans, widows, and anyone else in need; and keep ourselves from being polluted by the world. And always be thankful for the grace of God which overcomes our weakness. Amen.