Sermon for Police Remembrance Sunday 2018
Williamstown Uniting Church
James 3:1-4:3 7-8a
Today is the Sunday before National Police Remembrance Day, which is held every year on the 29th of September. This year is the thirtieth anniversary of the murders of Sergeant Gary Silk, of St Kilda Police, and Senior Constable Rod Miller, of Prahran Police, and the subsequent institution of Blue Ribbon Day. Today we remember all the police officers, state and federal, who serve the community, particularly those who have died on duty. We also remember those police officers whose deaths did not occur while they were on duty, but which happened as a result of it, officers who have died by suicide. We remember and honour them all, and commit ourselves to supporting police officers currently in service, those who have retired, and especially those who are living with PTSD as a result of their work.
Today we are also hearing the fourth of the five readings the lectionary gives us from the Letter of James. Last week we heard about the dangers of our tongues, the dreadful things they can say if we let them loose. As James wrote: ‘The tongue is like a spark … our tongues get out of control. They are restless and evil and always spreading deadly poison.’ He warned his readers that if we let our tongues run away with us, which I certainly am prone to do, ‘from the same mouth come[s] blessing and cursing’. James condemned this. After all, ‘does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs?’ If we curse people with the same mouth with which we bless God, we are as weirdly unnatural as a fig tree that grows olives.
Now we come to today’s reading, which follows on directly from James’ warnings about our misuse of God’s good gift of language. Why is it that we allow our tongues to run away with us? Why is it that we allow our words to light forest fires? It is, James says, because we have chosen the wrong sort of wisdom.
The Letter of James may be the only book of wisdom in the New Testament, but books of wisdom were extremely popular among Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, and there are several of them in the Hebrew Scriptures: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job. I suspect that books of wisdom were as popular in the biblical world as self-help books are in our time and for the same reason; they give advice on how we can live the best life possible. But just as today’s self-help books can lead people astray, and there is another popular genre of books debunking them, some ancient books of wisdom could be equally unhelpful. James tells his readers that there is wisdom that comes from above, godly wisdom, and wisdom that is earthly, unspiritual and devilish. How can we tell the difference? Which wisdom ought we to follow?
James has an answer for this, and it is the same answer that Jesus gave his disciples when warning them about false prophets: by their fruits you will know them. I have mentioned before that James seems to have been aware of the collection of Jesus’ sayings that Matthew used in writing his gospel, because so much of what James writes resonates with Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, and this is another example of that. Matthew records Jesus saying: ‘You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits. Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven.’ (Matthew 7:16-21).
James writes: ‘the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace’. It’s no surprise that James’ description of the wisdom from above sounds so like Paul’s description of the fruit of the Spirit in his letter to the Galatians: ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control’. Paul and James might have disagreed on some things, but they were united on what a Christian life looks like. It looks like Jesus’ life.
We know what a good life looks like; we don’t need to read self-help books. It is a life of wisdom that imitates Christ. Why, then, do our lives so seldom look like that? In his letter to the Galatians, at the very moment that he is describing the fruit of the Spirit Paul warns them, ‘For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want.’ We still live fleshly lives. James says the same thing. All too often we have ‘bitter envy and selfish ambition’ in our hearts. We crave things that we can’t have, and so we become covetous, and engage in disputes and conflicts. I’m fairly sure that no one here has gone to the length of committing murder, which James says is another result of craving the wrong things. I don’t think that any of the people to whom James was writing had committed murder, either; I think we are seeing another example of Semitic exaggeration. At least I hope so! But I don’t think any of us can say that our lives are completely free of conflict and dispute, even if we’re not actually murderers.
James’ solution to these unmet cravings and desires of ‘the flesh’ that lead us into conflict and dispute is the same solution he has been offering all the way through his letter. Turn to God. It is only by turning to God and asking for the wisdom from above that we will be able to live ‘pure, friendly, gentle, sensible, kind, helpful, genuine, and sincere’ lives that imitate Christ. James has no illusions about how difficult it is to live a Christian life, but he gave the solution to that difficulty at the very beginning of his letter: ‘If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you’ (1:5).
I have a naturally hot temper, which flares up on me almost before I know what I am doing. Last week, when I was talking on Twitter about Serena Williams’ challenge of the umpire in the US Open Final I wrote: ‘I think everyone made mistakes and, as I said, I completely empathise with both because I have an appalling temper myself’. At least, that was what I meant to write. What I actually wrote was, ‘I have an appalling tempter myself’. I very quickly wrote another tweet explaining what I’d meant, but then I decided that my Freudian slip was accurate. I do have an appalling tempter who constantly tempts me to lose my temper. And James knows how I should deal with my tempter: ‘Resist the devil, and he will flee from you’. Blaming the hot temper that sometimes turns my tongue into the spark that starts a fire on an outside tempter doesn’t absolve me of responsibility in James’ eyes. I am still the person who decides whether or not to resist temptation.
In the most famous, or infamous, passage in this letter James writes that ‘faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead’. That was in the context of care for the poor, feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. But it also applies in our other interactions with one another. Are we engaged in disputes and conflict? Our faith is dead. Do we have bitter envy and selfish ambition in our hearts? Our faith is dead. Are we living lives of peace, and making peace when conflict reigns? Then our faith is alive and well and bearing good fruit.
By their fruits you will know them. Today we honour the police officers who serve this community, and we particularly remember those who have died. This is because we want to affirm good fruit when we see it, knowing that anyone whose life shows the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control is doing the work of Jesus’ Father in heaven. And as we honour police officers for showing patience, kindness and self-control in a variety of very difficult circumstances, let us all commit ourselves to doing the same in our very different contexts. We may not serve the community in the same way, but we too are called to serve. And God will give us everything we need to enable our service to happen. In the name of the God who is always near us, just waiting for us to turn to Him. Amen.