James 4-5: Autopilot doesn't just suck; it's unjust - Vince Brackett



So, back in June, as inspiration for our Sunday talks here, we were reflecting on a specific letter from the New Testament of the Bible — James, supposedly penned by James, the brother of Jesus — and we’re going to pick that back up this morning.

::To catch us up, the basic summary statement we’ve been using for the larger message of James’ letter is: “Resisting becoming too much talk, and not enough action”.::

Man, doesn’t that apply to us all? I want my life to be about things that matter — big values — service, justice and compassion, inclusion, personal growth, helping others grow — and I personally can talk a big game because I’m a pastor, BUT if someone was a fly on the wall for a week in the life of Vince, would those values be the first things that came to their mind? Or would they mostly just think, wow, he really likes his phone.

It’s so easy for me to “like” a cause or a position on facebook, but giving a cause or a position my time, energy, or money is harder.

It’s so easy for me to present an image of “woke” on issues to the world by the way I talk, or for me to rest on my appearance as “a pastor” (I care about people!), but consistently living in accordance with my big values — that’s a way deeper thing than appearances or how I present.

And I’m guessing all of you can feel similar challenges personal to you.

Well James, in his “resist too much talk, not enough action” message, has a specific focus on the power imbalances and injustices of society. His words are primarily for the rich and powerful in the early Jesus communities in the years after Jesus’ death, citing how easy it is for them in particular to drift into talking about the self sacrificial love of Jesus, yet not actually walking out the self sacrificial love of Jesus in their actions — but then giving themselves a pass because they invoke Jesus’ name.

The passage we come to today leans into this idea of that subtle “drift” it is so easy to fall into, that ::autopilot::

Read with me…

James 4

13Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.”14Why… you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.15Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”

So James’ approach is to draw the attention of his audience to their relative smallness and the passing nature of any human life — not to be morbid — but to make his point about resisting autopilot.

He’s begging the question to the rich and powerful in these early Jesus communities: how’s it going for you just doing life on autopilot? Just doing what society puts in front of you as a person of status, rather than trying to look thoughtfully to God for his will? Just going on about your business making money here, then moving on and making money there? What are you getting out of that autopilot setting? How meaningful is your life right now?

The early Jesus-communities were meant to be made up of people who, by following the Jesus way of self-sacrificial love, would break down the status quo of 1st century Greco-Roman society: they were meant to be the people who saw other people as fellow human beings rather than commodities or customers or obstacles to “me getting what I want”, meant to be the people who spoke truth to power, who sought to alleviate suffering for the people around them in pain.

THAT is a vision for life. I think any of us would agree a life spent pursuing those things would be full of purpose and meaning and connection.

BUT, given the fact that we’re talking about self-sacrificial love, it is also a life full of sacrifice... And, when you’re rich and have status, you feel like you have a lot to lose.

Although, says James, maybe not as much as we may think — are we not all just mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes? In Jesus’ words, can anyone take anything of their riches or status with them when we die?

That, to me, is a really powerful message.

AND YET, I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure it deals a death blow to my autopilot settings. I have learned the power of meditating on my relative smallness and the passing nature of life, and I experience a lot of good from that! BUT STILL, if I’m honest, so much of my life is consumed with maximizing my comfort, with trying to increase my status.

That autopilot, that drift — it is not so easily resisted.

James 5

And, so, James doesn’t finish there. He actually has only gotten started at this point. As we turn to chapter 5 of his letter, his approach changes a bit as he gets to ::what he really wants to say.::

1 Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. 2Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. 3Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. 4Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. 5You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. 6You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.

Wow. I just can’t get over how James’ examples of “the workers who mowed your fields” and “the cries of the harvesters you failed to pay” are so parallel to the story of America. This me think of the work of ::Cesar Chavez, the Mexican Catholic Activist who fought for farmers rights in the 60s and 70s.::

Certainly takes James’ message to another level! This is no longer just a nice TED talk on living deliberately. There’s a bite here: ::If there’s not a disruption to the autopilot, there’s a dystopian future for the rich, and they’re liable for their own destruction.::

And why?

Because, remember, the people James is directing these pointed words at are the privileged people in the early Jesus community… The parallel in today’s America would be people like me: white, male, straight, middle-class or upper-class... For someone like me, autopilot means a lack of meaning or purpose/malaise/indifference/apathy, which eat away at a soul, and that sucks, so I should totally want to be made aware of that and be pulled out of that.

BUT James wants to push me beyond just that to an even more important message: ::Autopilot doesn’t just suck; it’s unjust.::

I may not be able to see that because my privilege protects me. But for the not-privileged autopilot isn’t just “a meaningless but nonetheless comfortable life”, it is life and death. It is: the status quo gets reinforced. And the status quo keeps the not-privileged not privileged.

I’m frequently in conversations bemoaning the state of politics in our country that all eventually end with something like, “ugh, let’s just change the subject because this is depressing”…

And it is, but, for many, the state of our politics is NOT JUST depressing as a thought exercise — the state of our politics is life and death, because the orders and policies that are enacted (or not enacted) by our politicians determine whether someone is welcome in this country, or whether someone can get a job, or pay for care if they’re sick or injured, or go to college, or buy a home, or leave the country and return freely to visit family.

Autopilot doesn’t just suck; it is unjust.

One last note

The way James’ finishes his message here talking about ::“the innocent one”:: really grabs me — it’s a beautiful piece of writing with a double meaning — With one turn of phrase, he continues his defense of any given marginalized person who lacks power being innocent but suffering senselessly because of their disadvantaged position in society, AND he also brings into his readers’ minds “The Innocent One” in capital letters — Jesus, the ultimate innocent one who suffered senselessly at the hands of the powerful in society.

James wanted his readers to sit in the craziness and paradoxical beauty of that: The ultimate power in all the universe, God, entered into our human societal structures, in Jesus, and chose not the powerful as his allies but the powerless.

And then he broke the power of the powerful NOT by using his victim-ness as a weapon — which is the great temptation for us all whenever we are powerless — but INSTEAD he broke the power of the powerful with something more powerful: self-sacrificial love.

He willingly chose to be the scapegoat for all of the vile, angry, fearful, power-hungry violence that the 1st century Romans and Jewish Elite of his time harbored, SO THAT THE MARGINALIZED OF THAT SOCIETY DIDN’T HAVE TO BE THE SCAPEGOAT.

That doesn’t make sense — it feels backwards, because God should be the one in charge, or the one in power. Or it feels like a defeat, which our egos want to run from, because we all like to win! We don’t like to be losers, we like to be winners!

BUT there’s a deeper truth that I think our spirits recognize when we look at Jesus’ self-sacrificial love on the Cross — when we look at the Innocent One — that there is nothing like self-sacrificial love. Even though it looks like the ultimate powerlessness, it is actually the ultimate power, because it brings peace and connection, not dominance and blind obedience, and it trusts in God’s ability to resurrect us and our societies to something greater.

James is drawing his audience back to this, again and again in his letter — this is what our Jesus communities are to be centered on. The power of self-sacrificial love. NOT the phony power of the status quo that we all drift toward if we don’t resist autopilot.

Those of us of privilege (again, people like me) need to be rattled to see this, because it’s not life or death for us. So James makes it life or death with his dystopian picture.

Man do I need to be rattled that way! In this way, strangely, James is a bit like the dystopian narratives we all love today that get us to think about what we take for granted: Mr. Robot or Black Mirror or Man in the High Castle.


::So what if our church could live out James’ call?::

What if this community could be bringers (everywhere we go) of the self-sacrificial love of Jesus? Could we, like Jesus, be the willing scapegoats that disrupt the injustice of societal autopilot? Could we find the incredible connection with God and with our fellow human beings that comes with choosing to be victims BUT THEN NOT turning to use our victim-ness as a weapon, and instead trusting in the power of God to resurrect us and our society to something greater?

I can’t help but think about the debate going on about healthcare within the Democratic party right now (did anyone follow the debates this week?)

  • One side is: one government sponsored health insurance plan for everyone VS.
  • The other side: an expanded government sponsored option but also keeping the private insurance industry

The entire debate, whichever side you’re talking about, hinges on demonstrating that the country can at the same time…

  1. live out the value that healthcare is a human right, not a privilege, AND
  2. promise that overall healthcare costs for average Americans won’t go up.

I have been listening intently to this debate because I care deeply about both these things: I believe healthcare should be a human right not a privilege — to me the vision of Jesus is that all people are made in God’s image and therefore deserve dignity and care, especially those without power in society. AND I also care deeply about my own wallet — I do NOT want my costs to go up. The prospect of my costs going up makes me feel afraid. I am privileged, but not when it comes to my monthly income. What would have to change in my family’s budget? How uncomfortable will it feel to make those changes?

But James calls me to a different level of engagement with this issue: to try to MOVE THROUGH my fear of change, to RESIST the entitlement I feel that my life should be easy (I do feel entitled to that — I tell myself that I work hard and I plan well, and therefore I deserve a level of ease). James calls me to NOT make my fear of change or my desire for fairness (for me getting what I feel I deserve) — to NOT make those things a deal-breaker in how I vote or what policies I support, or beyond that, how I treat people, how I engage with the people around me. But instead to make my deeper values the determinant of how I act and behave and vote.

This is where I am prone to being “too much talk, not enough action”. And so I need James, who makes me ask myself how much I really believe in the vision of Jesus that all people are made in God’s image and deserve dignity and care, especially those without power in society? Do I believe in that EVEN if I personally have to sacrifice something to help make that more of a reality? Am I willing to sacrifice some of my personal financial comfort for this belief, so that all people, many of whom are in a less privileged situation than me, can benefit? Or, if I can’t have both, is the deal off the table for me?

I was actually trying to crunch the numbers for my health insurance if in the next 4 to 5 years America did move to Medicare For All, and given the way that the church here as my employer provides me health insurance currently and how that would change, I’m pretty sure I would be one of those few middle-class people whose personal costs would go up. But my wife and I are trying to commit to our value in healthcare as a human right even so, and we are finding that Jesus meets us in that with a spiritual consolation that feels more valuable than money lost.

I wonder if you asked yourself about your deepest values or beliefs? Healthcare is just an example for me, this could be about lots of things.

Ask yourself: Am I ready to put my money where my mouth is? Am I ready to give up some of my voice so that someone else can be heard? Am I ready to listen to someone else’s perspective even if it is critical of my own?

Ask yourself: What do I need from God to be able to make the sacrifices necessary to pursue my values?

  • Reassurance?
  • Hope?
  • A bigger vision for my life?
  • Healing from a past wound or insecurity?
  • The grace or courage to take a risk?
  • An ally, so I don’t feel alone?

These are all things Jesus claimed to offer to those who came to him.

The self-sacrificial way of Jesus feels like sacrifice, because it is… BUT, it’s also where we find all these things he offers.

And, also, learning to live with integrity, in accordance with our values — that is where life truly is! It is hard work, but a life lived in true accordance with your values is a life that you wake up every morning feeling good about, feeling proud of even, and not quietly worried you’re a horrible hypocrite — that is freedom! Walking the walk and not just talking a talk — In James’ words, “doing what the Lord wills” and not just doing autopilot.

Okay, I would love to pray for us.

  • For us as individuals to receive from God what we need to make the sacrifices we feel called to, AND
  • For our society, and for our church’s part in shaping our society with the self-sacrificial love of Jesus

Stand with me…