I want to ask you to do a simple exercise with me:
Clench your fists as tightly as you can. Squeeze like your hanging on for dear life or squashing a bunch of grapes in the center. Now hold them there until I say stop…
Now, let go. Open you hands, relax them… Try this all again.
— “May the words of my mouth…” —
Which was easier? Which do you think you could sustain longer? Which was more grace-filled?
Which do you think is more Christ-like?
My heart actually started pounding a little bit with the clenched fists, sweat…
Of course, it’s easier to relax and let your hands be open.
At the core of our text from James is an invitation — in the midst of all the gripping and grasping and clenching in our lives and our world — to relax, trust and hold your hands open. This is to receive the peace of God, the gentleness of the Spirit, the welcome of the Word, the vulnerability of Christ himself.
James is a “400-level” letter written for an early Christian community, a small congregation. [Explain “400”.]
Obviously conflict has been an issue in that small church. Disputes have broken out among members of the family. Competition, gossip, backstabbing, judgmental status seeking, high anxiety...outright hostility even...have ripped into the fabric of that early church community, and so James is addressing these directly and clearly.
And here’s what’s surprising us in Scripture today:
(A couple weeks ago, Ephesians said that the opposite of drunkenness was singing? That was Scripture surprising us too: not sober, stoicism, but singing...)
Today, James describes wisdom as gentleness...also not what we would think of. I’d think of some Harvard Astrophysicist, who’s travelled the world, knows every species of plant and bird, and is now well into her 80‘s. That’s my definition of wisdom, but James says that the one who is wise is [open hands] gentle. Nothing to do with age, education, social standing. The one who is wise is willing to yield, peaceable, full of mercy, no hypocrisy. That’s where James says there’s “a harvest of righteousness.” Not grasping and grabbing...but open and welcoming. Isn’t that a fantastic invitation...and a surprising idea? In the midst of communal strife in James’ congregation, comes a lesson: wisdom is gentleness.
We live in a cut-throat culture, where wisdom (which we would now call, acc. to James, earthly wisdom) is used to get ahead, even at the expense of others. But the wisdom from above, as James teaches, the wisdom of another level, is not envious or boastful [clenched fists]. It’s gentleness [open].
Friends in Christ, when you pray, how do you do it? I mean, we’re thinking about our hands today. Do you clench your fists, interlocking your fingers? That’s fine if you do, but just as a spiritual exercise at least today, maybe this next month, try praying with your hands open. See if that does anything for you. When you pray with us here at church, or at home at the dinner table. That might be an interesting experiment.
Fake it, if it doesn’t feel natural at first...but try to stick with it. I’ve actually invited people into this practice before and the results can be...like Scripture...surprising.
This passage talks about disputes among church people. Can you imagine that? ;) Good thing that’s a thing of the past. Poor early church. ;) Those of you who are joining BLC today, we don’t ever have disputes here, right? ;)
No, there is a timelessness to conflict within God’s church. Helps us to take a breath and realize, when churches do have issues (not us of course ;), that that’s nothing new.
And here’s what James shares with us about disputes: They come from clenching and gripping and grasping so tightly. James uses words like envy and coveting and “craving after”...but isn’t that just language for what you physically experienced in your body earlier? Heart racing, sweat, a flexing that simply can’t be sustained — eventually we give up or burn out!
When it comes to disputes in God’s church, we are called to relax our hands, open and welcome what Christ teaches and elicits from us.
I have a giant poster of Planet Earth in my office. And in the bottom corner I have taped a tiny newspaper picture cut out of the SD Union Tribune. The woman’s name is Tameka Brown, and she’s obviously standing in a courtroom, wood panels, police officer standing in the background. I’ve always kept that tiny picture, ever since I heard the story behind it...
It was a couple years ago in San Diego. Tameka Brown’s son was shot and killed...in yet another act of downright evil, aggression: “clenching”. The crime was careless, racially motivated by someone who did not, as James would say, “resist the devil”. But, Tameka’s son’s murderer was caught.
And Ms. Brown was given a chance to testify in the courtroom, to speak about her son to the jury, the judge and this young man, all looking at her. What would you say? Ms. Brown had a well-prepared statement ready to go. She was going to talk about her boy, about justice being served, and she would have most definitely put her son’s murderer behind bars. Evidence all there.
But in the interview, Tameka Brown said that something came over her that morning: She had literally been clenching onto her prepared statement for days. But when she was finally called on to testify, she let her statement fall [open] to the side, she went up to the stand, [pause] and began singing “Amazing Grace” to the courtroom. “I don’t know what came over me,” she said, “but there was no more room in my heart for hate and revenge.” Then, in a stunning and eloquent display, she turned to the judge and looked at the young man who shot and killed her son and said, “I forgive you. And I even love you. Judge, I beg of you, let me take this boy home with me and take care of him. We all know what prisons do to young men: it won’t make him any better, and it won’t make me or our neighborhoods any better. I’ve lost my own son, but let him be like a son to me.” The judge said in an interview, he had never seen anything like this in all his years in the judiciary system. His eyes welled up with tears.
Tameka Brown may be the wisest person in the world, according to James...because of her gentleness.
Friends, Ms. Tameka Brown doesn’t just inspire, her little picture in my office serving as a reminder of mercy: Tameka Brown gives us a glimpse of God.
Will you pray with me: [open hands]
“Ever-gentle God, you are wise. Thank you for bringing us home and for caring for us. Fill us now with your wisdom. Release us from our gripping. Open our hands to trust, and call us again to service, humility, and peace, in Jesus name. AMEN.”