August 29, 2021

"Faith: A Balancing Act"

Rev. Scott Landis

James 1:17-27

It is a balancing act – isn’t it? Faith, like so many other things in life, requires our attention, our ability to focus, AND our desire to practice, in order for the balance to be just right as we seek to walk in the way Jesus invited. [Pause]

Just a few weeks ago, while I was satisfying my addiction for all things Olympic, I watched – as many events as I could. My favorites were swimming, diving, and gymnastics. The one event in gymnastics that I have a love/hate relationship with is “the balance beam.” I’m always on the edge of my seat as the women mount the beam, with singleness of concentration and seemingly undeterred focus. I am anxious as I watch their jumps and splits, twirls and handsprings all to demonstrate their ability to remain balanced at all times. I keep wondering whether or if they are going to fall off – and sometimes they do. It’s not a bad metaphor for life AND for faith – and may be a helpful visual for you as we consider these words from the book of James. [Pause]

James’ writing has taken quite a beating over the years. The decision whether to include his letter in the biblical canon was hotly debated. Even after it WAS included, theologians like Martin Luther insisted it not be read in church. Referring to it as an “epistle of straw,” he declared it worthless and saw it as countering his ideas on “grace,” i.e., Luther’s understanding of how grace is unmerited. Luther insisted that grace is a free gift of God. James – he decried – countered – that one must earn his or her salvation by demonstrating faithful acts – acts that resulted in grace. I actually think both were wrong – or, at least, out of balance.

What is called for – as I read the WHOLE thing – is a balancing act – just like I demonstrated in keiki time. It’s one that requires both emphases. Faith requires both our belief – that is acceptance of grace as a gift AND our response – living our lives in gratitude as a result of the grace which has been given. James simply gives us some examples of how that is done. But his ideas can be a bit difficult to swallow.

For example, James says, “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” Hummmmm.

Eugene Peterson said it this way in his Message translation, “Lead with your ears, follow up with your tongue, and let anger straggle along in the rear. God’s righteousness doesn’t grow from human anger.” Hummmmm.

I had to chew on that one for a while. The ideas in the book of James may be correct, but do give me pause.

I’m often told that I am a good listener. I take some pride in that, but I must admit that when it comes to listening, I am a bit of a multitasker. Let me explain. I sometimes catch myself listening AND doing other things at the same time like: thinking of other things I’ve got to do, OR overhearing and trying to catch the gist of another conversation going on nearby, OR (and this one I am not very proud of) constructing a brilliant response to what is being said to me well before the person speaking to me is finished. When I do that, I can’t possibly listen to everything that is being said to me. It’s a bad habit and it’s predicated upon my need to demonstrate competence, or brilliance, or some other ego need. I wonder how things might be different if I just truly listened? Or, if I listened, as St. Benedict challenged, “with the ear of the heart.” [Pause]

I saw an interesting idea expressed in the signature section of clergy colleague’s email this week that challenged the way I sometimes listen. What I read reminded me of the importance of slowing my response when I am listening. The idea is to hear and “THINK” before I respond. It even used the word “THINK” as an acronym to guide our responses, and I found it rather helpful. It said simply,

Before You Speak: THINK
T = is my response true?
H = is my response helpful?
I = is my response inspiring?
N = is my response necessary?
K = is my response kind?

THINK - That may sound a little saccharine at first but ponder it for a moment. It’s really not a bad guideline. I wonder if we adhered to it in everyday conversation if it might enhance civility just a bit, and raise the level of discourse to one of compassion and decrease our level of judgment. It may not help your listening all that much – but it may slow your anger. At the very least it reminds us to be gracious as we engage in our conversation. It reminds us to listen with the “ear of the heart.” It reminds us that what the other has to say is just as important (if not more so) than our response. [Pause]

But James goes further. He challenges believers that conversation is one thing. That our words matter a great deal – even the words of our prayers. But, for James, our actions are where it’s at. Our good deeds don’t grant us salvation rather they are the result of embracing the gift of grace given to us in Jesus Christ. In other words, it’s a balancing act.

James said, “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers.” It is in doing that we make a difference in the world. It is in doing that we “live our faith.” I wonder if we might not apply that same acronym to our doing as well.

Is it True – just – honest?
Is it Helpful?
Is it Inspiring?
Is it Necessary?
Is it Kind?

We had fun this week in our Wednesday Zoom group as we pondered an old Kenyan proverb (with which I will close) that says, “When you pray, always remember to move your feet.” In fact, I initially entitled my sermon for this week, “Praying with your Feet.” To me this sums up the balancing act that James was calling for.

It is important to spend an ample amount of time in prayer. There is nothing I enjoy more than coming into this space throughout the week, sitting here in the silence of this sacred place – to listen to the waves AND to listen to the voices of the past – our ancestors who were here long before me and who prayed similar prayers for guidance, courage, healing, provision and so much more.

But then, I am called to leave this place. To move my feet. To put the cart in motion. To try and do something in the name of Jesus to make my life and the lives of others better. To strike a balance between being a hearer and a doer of the word.

This is not an easy time to be a Christian for so many reasons. Many are suspicious of our message and wonder if we indeed “practice what we preach.” It is up to each one of us to walk our talk to live a balanced life. To listen and to live – with grace.

So, I encourage you to THINK today – to think about whether your life is “in balance.” Are you praying with your feet? Are you listening with your heart? Is your life making a difference in our world? Is it true? Is it helpful? Is it inspiring? Is it necessary? Is it kind?


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