“Blessing and Cursing” by Pastor Rosanna McFadden
Good morning! I hope that last weekend was an opportunity to rest from your labors. We are glad to have you with us for this Sabbath day. As we continue to work our way through the remaining months of the year and through the Christian year, we are going to dip into the book of James. This book was famously scorned by Reformation leader Martin Luther, who called it “an epistle of straw,” but it is beloved in the Church of the Brethren. Ironically, Luther disliked it and Brethren love it for the same reason: its emphasis is on practical wisdom for Christian living, rather than theological concepts like salvation through grace. Of course, over-steering to either side of that road can tip us into a philosophical ditch. It’s good to keep a balance in our theological reflections, and books or passages which we love or dislike are especially helpful in helping us to examine what is important to our beliefs about Christianity.
James 1:22 and 25 have statements which resonate with Anabaptist folks: “Be doers of the Word and not merely hearers . . . [it is not] hearers who forget but doers who act [which] will be blessed in their doing.” You can understand the appeal of these words to folks who think that Christians should be identifiable by the service we do, and not only by our convictions and beliefs. But if we come to believe that our salvation lies in the good works we do, we have lost our way. Works righteousness is not salvation through Jesus Christ. On the other hand, if we are so assured of our salvation that we live and act however we want because the grace of Christ will bail us out in the end, we have indulged in a mis-representation of grace. Salvation which does not transform our lives devalues the cost of Christ’s love and sacrifice on the cross. These are ongoing conversations which are healthy to have.
The identity of the author of James is tricky to pin down: tradition has identified him as James the brother of Jesus, who was widely revered in the church, but the letter is so general in nature, that it’s difficult to know a specific time or place that it was written. Whoever the author was, he was someone who paid attention to human interactions and the importance of ordinary interactions. Here’s what commentator Archie Smith Jr. had to say
[James] noticed the generous acts, the small gifts, the gestures and words we use. He knew that small acts are the nuts and bolts of everyday life, holding together the scaffold on which we build community.
I love Smith’s images of words as the hardware which fastens the scaffold of relationships together. Good words — welcome, encouragement, and blessing — build sturdy and secure relationships within community; and bad words — criticism, gossip, and cursing — make that structure unstable and even hazardous. Most of us are smart enough to spot the difference between good words and bad words, even though good words are not always sincere, and bad words may be unintentional. As I told my daughter years ago when they were dating: a man who is nice to you and nasty to the waiter is not a nice person. Being encouraging and sharing blessing with the folks who are already on our side or whom we’re trying to impress, is fine, but it’s a pretty low bar to clear. James is inviting us to aim higher.
The first 12 verse of James 3 paint some vivid word pictures of how small things can have a big impact: a bit in a horse’s mouth, a rudder on a sailboat, a spark which starts a forest fire. Of course, a bit and rudder steer horses and boats, while a forest fire is out of control. The spark starts a fire which can become unmanageable. James writes, “The tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell.” Whoa. This author has observed or had first-hand experience with words which were out of control and tearing up whatever was in their path. And remember, this was before speech had the ability to go viral through videos, instagrams, or tweets. If James were living in the 21st century, he could certainly have thrown some pandemic metaphors into the description of how words can go wrong.
James is certainly trying to get our attention with this forceful language. Remember, he is rooted — as all of us in 21st Western society are — in some deep convictions about the power of words. In Jewish tradition, it is the words of God — God’s speech — which bring Creation into being. God’s speech bring order from chaos , light from darkness, and life from a formless void. The world’s three great religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam are all People of the Book: God’s Word in the law and history and revelation of holy writings. James was also part of the Greek philosophical tradition which the gospel of John references when John calls Jesus the Logos: the Word. In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the word was God. Jesus Christ as the perfect embodiment of God’s thoughts and desires did not only represent God, Jesus was one with God from the very beginning.
Such authority and even divine power embedded in words and speech ought to give us pause. What if the things we said actually happened? OK, that wouldn’t be so bad when someone sneezes and I automatically say, “Bless you!” But how about when that driver cuts me off in traffic and I say . . . I am not going to say it, but it’s an eternal destination that I have no business wishing on anyone, even if they are a terrible driver. Some of you have heard me repeat a Jewish proverb which speaks to this passage for me: “Words are so powerful they should only be used to bless, to heal, to prosper.” What kind of scaffolding would we be constructing for our communities if the only hardware we used were words of blessing, healing, and prosperity?
In a better world, words of blessing would carry more weight than words of cursing — blessing would build up more than cursing destroys. Unfortunately, that isn’t the world I live in, and I’m guessing you don’t, either. I know that I am blessed beyond what I deserve in my family and especially with you folks at Creekside, but just one crabby conversation with my husband or negative interaction with someone from church can affect my entire day — sometimes even an entire week. I know, because I’ve seen it happen to other people, that those who put themselves out there in leadership and service can become easy targets for criticism or other hurtful words. It takes a heap of blessing to make up for even just one curse. If you are someone who has experienced being cursed, you know what I’m talking about.
And that is where the rubber really hits the road in this passage from James. James is picking up on idea from someone who said “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Do you know who said that? Jesus Christ; it’s recorded in Luke 27-28. I believe this is the middle road between works righteousness and cheap grace. It is not enough to simply say nice things to people who are nice to us; it is not OK to treat other people however we want, and let Jesus sort it out because we’re covered by grace. Christian living demands that we hold ourselves to a higher standard: the standard which was set by the example of Jesus. Jesus didn’t just talk about blessing those who cursed him; he actually did it–under the most difficult circumstances imaginable. Jesus asked for forgiveness for the people who were causing his death. He could have cursed them; he could have called down the wrath of God; he could have damned them to hell. The grace which Jesus offered to his persecutors is the same grace which Christ offers to us. We weren’t present at the crucifixion, but I’m sure you have said and done things which you aren’t proud of; which you would rather people didn’t know about, or wish they would forget. If we get into the cursing game for anyone who has fallen short of the glory of God and the example of Jesus, and frankly, has retribution coming . . . we are all cursed. We cannot hold other people to a different standard than we would want to be held to ourselves.
Since Christ has blessed us, we ought to bless one another. Not a complicated concept; very difficult to live up to. James knew this, of course — that’s why he used all the inflammatory language about the tongue being set on fire by hell. God knows, people are annoying. The only way which we can consistently bless others is through the grace of Christ. But here are three words to keep in mind: practice, practice, practice. In my experience, if I’m looking for a reason to curse someone, I can probably find it. But the reverse is true, as well. What opportunities do I have to bless someone today; even if I have to work pretty hard at it. It gets easier with practice, believe me. You don’t have to wait for “that person” to sneeze in order to say “God bless you.” Here’s another suggestion from my experience: if you are not able bring yourself to bless other people, begin with giving thanks for what God has done for you. The more we look for blessing, the more we will find it. May God bless you, and may you bless God. Amen.