James 5: Comfort In Injustice, Patience In Suffering - Vince Brackett
I want to begin by asking my friend Jack to share a reflection on the word ::“patience”::, which he shared with me recently. Let’s give Jack McKeegan a hand…
A reflection from Jack on “patience”
Recap of James‘ message
Thank you Jack.
I want to return to this idea of patience in a moment. ::But just to set the stage a bit,:: the inspiration for a number of our Sunday talks here this summer has been the words of James, the brother of Jesus, in the letter from the Bible carrying his name.
James addressed his letter to the earliest Jesus communities around the Mediterranean world after Jesus’ death, and, as we talked about last week, a good deal of it seems primarily targeted at the people in those communities who had wealth and status.
Because of Jesus’ messages of human dignity for all, compassion, justice, inclusion, these communities were out of the ordinary in the ancient world for their socio-economic diversity — rich and poor at the same dinner tables — very uncommon today — even more 2000 years ago.
BUT these were people, just like us — so, just like today, just like all of history, socio-economic diversity did not always mean peace and harmony; it very often meant the rich and powerful being shown favoritism, and the poor and less-privileged being taken advantage of or getting the short end of the stick.
James’ words throughout his letter again and again call the rich and the powerful within these Jesus communities back to Jesus’ messages — to not just fall into what the rich and powerful everywhere fall into — to not just talk a talk that sounds like “Jesus’ values”, but to actually walk the walk, to live it out — EVEN when that means sacrificing some of their status, their wealth, their privilege. Because, the fact of the matter is: it ALWAYS will mean some sort of sacrifice if you have status or money. It has to if you’re pursuing dignity for all and compassion and justice and inclusion. Part of those realities, if they are to become realities, is, as Jesus said, “the last becoming first and the first becoming last.”
I shared last week how James’ words hit me, personally, hard, because my demographic (white, straight, middle-class, male) is kind of the best modern parallel for the audience James originally had in mind.
I am the quintessential example of someone for whom it is easy to “talk a talk” but then give myself a pass for actually having to “walk the walk” — because sacrifice is hard: I can say I’m about justice and and dignity for all, but is that only to the point that I don’t really have to sacrifice anything myself?
Like I remember being on the train and overhearing a man sexually harassing a woman, and feeling the immediate pull within me to just put my earbuds in, turn up the volume, and pretend I didn’t notice — that’s what everyone else on the train was doing — being about “dignity for all” in that situation meant sacrificing my comfort and speaking up.
Or last week I mentioned the current debate within the Democratic Party about healthcare. All of the candidates, regardless of the specifics of their unique plan for healthcare are trying to demonstrate their plan will:
- Make a reality the value that healthcare is a basic human right for all, not a privilege for some, AND…
- NOT raise costs for middle-class Americans
That would be amazing if any of the candidates can accomplish both of those, but what if the only way to achieve healthcare as a human right is that my personal costs as a middle class American do have to go up? Does that mean my support for that larger value is off the table? That’s being about opportunity for all only to the point that I don’t have to sacrifice any of my own opportunity.
So James is challenging to individualist middle-class Americans, and the more and more you drill down to further levels of privilege (like mine), the more and more challenging he feels.
Turn to to today’s comforting James passage
But, as we come to today’s passage, James’ focus zooms out — not just addressing the temptations for the rich and powerful in the early Jesus communities, but now addressing the whole of these communities.
All of them (rich, poor, privileged, not-privileged, whatever) are presumably in on making Jesus’ vision their pursuit, and here, he says, is what it’s going to take to keep at this…
::Patience. And endurance. In suffering. As Jack reflected on for us to begin this morning.::
Because living poor OR living with the poor, in solidarity, in opposition to the status quo, fighting for Jesus’ values, will bring suffering to your doorstep. It certainly did for Jesus. The powers that be don’t like that sort of resistance. And here’s the thing about “the powers that be” — they have power. And they know how to wield it.
And so we see ::James turn from being provocative to being comforting…::
7Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains.8You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.
9Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors!
Briefly here before reading on, something we often talk about here at BLV is that, in the Bible, when we read references to “the Judgment” or “the coming of the Lord”, these would not have been received by their original audience as threats, even though that’s how they are often mis-used today in religious contexts.
- Like: “get right with God or else you’ll be left behind at the rapture”.
Scholars of the Bible tell us that references to “the coming fo the Lord” or “the judgement” like James’ here would have been received as comforting promises, not threats.
- Like: there is evil and injustice, yes, but in the end it will NOT go un-noticed by God — your suffering is NOT lost on God, James is saying — we may not see it in full in our lifetime but God WILL come in the end and “make all things right” and “wipe every tear from every eye”, as the famous line from the book of Revelation says.
James goes on…
10As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.11Indeed we call blessed those who showed endurance. You have heard of the endurance of Job…
A character from the Biblical tradition who experienced enormous suffering…
and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.
James understood how needed challenge was, but he also understood how needed comforting words were for these early Jesus communities.
How needed are comforting words for us right now? — This week, after last week’s shootings. And on top of all our pent up feelings about the state of America right now.
Who will speak comforting words to us? So that we can be patient and endure the injustices and senseless sufferings of our time?
So that we can stand in solidarity with the young men Jack has been learning from.
It’s important to note, that, in one sense, belief God in the midst of suffering for a cause, in the midst of injustice, and drawing comfort from that, can feel challenging for many of us today.
I remember talking with a friend a while back, who knew I was a pastor and we’d had lots of good conversations before, but the first time we ever talked about faith he shared really honestly how it was after the Newtown shooting years ago that he just came to a place where he was like “yeah I’m done” — meaning with faith and with belief in God and church. This really comes back to me after a week of more mass shootings in the news. How many more people just came to that place my friend did?
I can totally sympathize with that. Because most of us have been formed to believe a specific picture of an “all-powerful God” that makes us ask “how could a good God allow such suffering and injustice?” So there must not be a god, or if there is, that god doesn’t deserve my devotion.
I don’t know if this helps anyone to hear this from a pastor, but I actually agree: if that is who God is, that god doesn’t deserve your devotion, and I would not recommend pursuing relationship with that kind of god.
For me, Jesus is so captivating because, from what I can tell, he seems to present a different understanding of the “all powerfulness” of God.
Not all powerful in the sense that the world is just his chess board and he could change or reset the game if he wanted at any time (which makes us yell, so why don’t you already!). But, rather, all powerful in the sense that, even though there is very real evil and injustice, there is NO evil, NO injustice, NO senseless suffering that he can’t overcome. There is nothing that can thwart God’s ability to redeem, to resurrect. “Death could not even hold him,” as St. Peter is recorded saying.
Jesus seemed to live and operate with the understanding that good is NOT always done, that God’s will is NOT always done. That’s why Jesus encouraged action and taught people to pray that God’s will would be done.
According to Jesus, evil is real. Systemic injustice is real. The chaos of the natural world that causes destruction and disaster is real (and the acceleration of that chaos because of climate change brought on by humanity is also real). Disease is real, and I feel this one in particular, as I lost my brother to an unexpected stroke, and my mom to ovarian cancer — one of the most indiscriminate cancers.
Jesus gets that these are not things that can be righted with the snap of a finger. They are things that must be fought, year after year, generation after generation, and on every front we know how. Spiritual, medical, political, interpersonal.
We can see tastes of God’s will along the way — AND we can hold to a hope that one day, in the fullness of time, even though we may not see it, God’s will, in entirety, will be done, when God will wipe every tear from every eye, and God will right every wrong.
As a white man, I can’t personally speak to suffering systemic injustice. It has been untimely death and grief that have most taught me about patience and endurance.
And Jesus, this God who acknowledges the realness of loss and suffering in life, this God who has tasted loss and suffering himself, as the pinnacle of his story is being executed on a cross — this is the God who got my attention as a kid trying to figure out how to make sense of life after my mom died at 52 when I was only 15.
I felt understood by this God. I didn’t feel talked down to, as though God is some distant puppet master explaining the arc of his story to me. I felt a connection, a familiarity — oh, you get this, you’re trustworthy to listen to. You’re not going to give me some trite saying or false promise.
Have you ever met someone who has experienced a similar hardship to you? The immediate connection I feel with someone when I learn they also have lost a parent or sibling is so much more powerful than any connection I feel with someone when I learn they also graduated from DePaul University. You know what I mean?
That kind of connection is what I felt first being introduced to Jesus, and that’s what I still so often need to ask him to give me a feeling of again today. So I don’t feel alone in the midst of whatever loss or suffering or injustice life is currently bringing me — whether I’m thinking about losing my mom and brother, or I’m thinking about the shootings this past week in El Paso and Dayton, and also here in Chicago.
I need that connection so I feel like someone more powerful and creative and resourced than me is with me, because I get worn down and I want to just rage at life and the world sometimes, and I want to just quit sometimes.
In my prayer life, I’ve found that, unlike me, Jesus never feels hardened or cynical or worn-down. He is always full of hope when I come to him — hope in God’s all-powerfulness to overcome anything, to redeem anything, to resurrect anything — even in this in between time when we must be patient and endure injustice and senseless suffering.
James ends this part of his letter with:
“You have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.” I can imagine these early Jesus communities, starting to become worn-down by the injustice that isn’t changing, by the suffering they’ve endured in the meantime, starting to become hardened and cynical… and then feeling so seen and heard by these words from James.
- Like: Stay with this. I know it’s hard. It is true you may not ever get to see the endgame in this life, but you are part of an important struggle bigger than just your lifetime, and the God of compassion and mercy is with you, and has your back.
And so my recommendation for us this week is to ask Jesus for these same sort of comforting words, for the connection I’m talking about. After this last week, I feel like I need it, and I’m guessing many of us feel that.
Stand with me, and I’d love to pray for us…
- [Also pray for anyone who needs to unlearn or deconstruct beliefs about God’s “all-powerfulness” that aren’t serving them?]