Pastor Chris Tweitmann
We live in a world filled with lies.
Now that may seem like a harsh and pessimistic statement
but consider the following the evidence.
No one has to teach us to lie. It just happens, doesn’t it?
In fact, it’s telling the truth
that we have to teach our children – to be honest.
And as we grow up, despite being taught to always tell the truth,
our lies become more sophisticated and complex
– less boldface and more careful, calculated, and therefore, easier to deny.
Have we told any of the following lies this week?
• Yes, Mom or Dad, I finished all my homework.
• I don’t have a clue where this mess came from.
• I never responded to you because I didn’t even see your text!
• Oh, I’m so sorry, I can’t make it – something suddenly came up.
• I had no idea that would happen.
• I didn’t know what I was doing was wrong.
All the little white lies we tell end up making us into a bunch of big fat liars.
Despite what we say, dishonesty is more widely practiced as the best policy.
Nowhere is this more evidenced than by the fact that
whenever we appear in a court of law, the operating assumption is
we will lie and therefore, we have to “swear to tell the truth,
the whole truth, and nothing by the truth, so help me God.”
Even outside of a courtroom, we will find ourselves believing
we need to emphatically avow that we are telling the truth,
saying things like “I pinky swear” or “Cross my heart and hope to die,”
or “I swear on my life.”
But as we turn to the letter written to the church by Jesus’ half-brother, James,
we are steered in an entirely different direction.
Today, if you can believe it, we’re looking at a single verse. Just one.
I wrestled long and hard about whether to attach this verse to another sermon.
But ultimately, I landed on preaching a message dedicated
to these three sentences sandwiched
between a section about patience (last week)
and a passage on prayer (next week).
Because this lone verse stands on its own
– offering us unique and needed wisdom
– both in light of our observance today of Reformation Sunday
(moved from last Sunday, more on that later)
and especially on the eve of our national election this week.
Intrigued? I hope so! Well then, let’s get right to it.
Let us listen to what James has to say in chapter 5, verse 12.
This is at least the sixth section in James’ letter that has to do with what we say.
And to underscore the importance of what he is sharing
James begins this single verse by saying, “Above all, my brothers and sisters.”
He wants us to understand what comes next is paramount
– overshadowing all the directions he has given us throughout this letter.
And what is it? What matters above all else?
“Do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath.”
To be clear, James is not talking about using foul language
– a more modern association that we make out of “swearing.”
While it is always advisable to watch one’s language,
while we regularly should be mindful to keep it clean in terms of
whatever comes out of our mouths,
that is not the kind of swearing James has in mind.
In telling us not to swear, James is directing us against the practice of
regularly making vows or taking an oath, specifically, in the name of the Lord.
Making vows or taking oaths had become a common practice in,
the ancient world of James’ day.
A person would take an oath or made a vow in order to convince someone either, that they were telling the truth or that they would keep a promise.
We have a similar practice today when we raise our hands or cross our hearts
in order to communicate the same intention — that we are telling the truth
or that we will keep the promise we are making.
In James’ world, however, the practice of swearing oaths and taking vows
had become a complex system with subtle nuances.
Originally, the practice of swearing was tied to one’s relationship with God.
It was understood that to take an oath or make a vow
in the name of the Lord was held to be binding.
So, to get around this but still appear to be truthful,
people started making oaths or taking vows by seeming to appeal to God
but never actually mentioning the Lord by name.
“I swear by heaven and earth” “May I never see the comfort of Israel”
“I promise by the Temple in Jerusalem”
Oaths or vows that never invoked the name of God
technically were not held to be binding.
So, a person could swear or make a promise that appeared to be guaranteed, when in fact, it could be invalidated or evaded
due to an inaccuracy in the formula that was used.
So, basically, what people had done was
craft a way to lie while appearing to tell the truth.
Today, children exercise a similar device
when they cross their fingers while making a promise.
If you cross your fingers, then the promise doesn’t count.
As adults, we similarly profess to make binding contracts
and yet we put in or look for loopholes to get out of our commitments.
If you didn’t read the fine print,
if you forgot to sign in that certain place,
if you didn’t put it in writing,
then the agreement or promise made can be invalidated.
Now the point James is making is not that
we should not ever take an official oath or formally make a vow.
There is nothing wrong, for example, with an oath of office or a vow of marriage.
There is a time and a place for such things
and they should be honored in their intention,
not manipulated in order to void them for our convenience or comfort.
But James’ point goes beyond such situations.
What James is asserting is we shouldn’t trivialize or attempt to be deceitful
in our everyday commitments through frivolous promises and evasive oaths.
Or as James simply puts it, “All you need to say is a simple “Yes” or “No.”
In other words, let your word be your word.
When it comes to telling the truth,
we shouldn’t need anything else except our word.
When we say “Yes,” it should mean “Yes.” Not “Maybe.” Not “I might agree if…”
When we say “No,” it should mean “No.” Not “We’ll see.” Not “It all depends…”
We’ve probably all heard the phrase, “Your word should mean something.”
Most, if not all of us, have been taught,
those of us who have or are raising or influencing children, teach them,
the importance of meaning what you say and doing what you promise.
We teach that to our kids. We want that from other people.
Most of us desire that for ourselves.
And there’s a reason for this.
If a person does NOT mean what they say,
if someone doesn’t do what he or she promises,
then that is a person, that is someone who cannot be trusted.
When we say something, when we commit to something,
people should know that our word can be counted on
– that our “Yes” means “Yes” and our “No” means “No.”
What do people think when you say, “yes?”
What do people believe when you say, “no?”
James says we shouldn’t have to add any further declarations
to what we say in order for people to know we are telling the truth.
Yeah, okay – but everyone fudges or fibs every now and then, don’t they?
There’s nothing wrong with bending the truth
or leaving things open to interpretation on an “as needed” basis, right?
Not according to James. James says very clearly, if our “Yes” doesn’t mean “Yes”
and our “No” doesn’t actually mean “No,” then we will be condemned.
Some translations read we will fall under judgment.
With this warning,
James is not invalidating the reality of our forgiveness in Christ.
James is not suggesting that the grace of God is not deep and wide enough
to cover the fragility and fallibility of our best intentions gone bad.
We can and we will say things we don’t mean.
We can and we will not do some things we say we will.
And there is forgiveness, there is grace for such moments.
But there also will be consequences that we will have to face and endure
– not without hope or redemption – but still having to bear the pain, the grief,
and the lessons of such failures.
Forgiveness and grace do not negate
our responsibility and our accountability for how we live as followers of Jesus.
This is a truth that James has underscored this quite a bit in his letter.
We must be careful we aren’t professing to be Christians
when we actually aren’t following Jesus.
It bears repeating how James in writing this letter
often draws his instruction from Jesus’ Sermon on The Mount.
In this verse, James is directly quoting Jesus from that message.
When Jesus tells the gathered crowd,
“Let your “Yes” be “Yes” and your “No” be No,”
Jesus is calling us to reflect the image of the God in whom we are all created.
God is the God of all truth – and not lies. When God speaks, creation happens.
The word of the Lord never returns empty or void.
If we review the gospels, when Jesus told someone “yes,”
you could rely on that word.
There was no question Jesus would accomplish whatever He said He would do.
Jesus never swore by God that He would heal someone or calm a storm.
And if Jesus said “No,” He never supported it with
any kind of extra assurance, like the taking of a vow.
He stood by what He said, and didn’t compromise or negate it
in order to satisfy public opinion or as a shortcut to get things done.
Jesus simply said, “Yes,” or “No” and kept His word.
And those who follow the Word of God made flesh
ought to be the kind of people who keep their word.
Jesus wants our word to mean something
– because our credibility reflects on His credibility.
This is the sacred trust Christ has given us.
As Christians, when we speak, when we act,
people ought to perceive in what we say and do,
a reflection of who Jesus is, of what Jesus was about.
In a world full of lies, where humanity’s default in her divorce from God,
is to play fast and loose with the truth,
straight talk and acts of integrity in the name of Jesus
are desperately needed as a counter witness.
Perhaps our most influential means of evangelism
– of sharing the Gospel of Christ and the Kingdom of God
resides in our courage and commitment as followers of Jesus
to work with all our might, by the grace of God,
to mean what we say and to fulfill the promises we make.
Likewise, all our “No’s” as disciples of Christ
must not be negotiable just for the sake of fitting in
or compromised in the name of making a deal
– political, economic, or otherwise.
In summary, this verse is about character – reflecting the character of Christ through the honesty, the dependability, and the trustworthiness
of what we say and do as followers of Jesus.
As we honor and keep our word,
our witness for Christ is strengthened and enhanced.
As we break and compromise our word
our witness for Jesus becomes hypocritical and suspect.
Applying James’ wisdom in this verse leads us
to our remembrance of the Protestant Reformation.
The 16th century to the 17th century was
a time of great division within western Christianity.
The Roman Catholic Church had become corrupted by power
and deformed by false and misleading teaching.
The growing waywardness of western Christianity
perhaps was most epitomized in the widespread church practice
of selling what were known as indulgences.
The teaching of the Roman Catholic Church at that time was
that those who died in a state of unconfessed sin before Christ
spent their afterlife in the wretched torments of purgatory
– think of it as a transitional spiritual space
– of not being good enough to go heaven
but not necessarily bad enough to end up in hell.
But the Roman Catholic Church also taught
those who were fearfully concerned or uncertain about the eternal fate
of a loved one could purchase an indulgence
– basically, a get out of jail free card authorized and issued by the Church.
For the cost of three days’ pay, you could
save the soul of a family member or friend,
and your “donation” would contribute to
the 11-year-old building project of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
It was in response to falsities and abuses like these that on October 31, 1517,
a 33-year-old priest, named Martin Luther nailed to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany 95 theses or a long list of abuses
that he wanted to talk about.
He was not alone in insisting upon having this conversation.
Other Christian leaders like John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli,
Thomas Cramner, and William Tyndale also were protesting.
Together these followers of Jesus were not advocating
for a new Church or the 1000’s of separate denominations
that have arisen within the Body of Christ in the aftermath
of this important moment in world history;
they were pushing for needed reform WITHIN the western Church.
As the inheritors of this reformation, we Protestants,
each year remember this significant chapter in the history of the Church
so that we would not repeat the mistakes of our ancestors in the faith.
So that we would not forget that while the Church is a work-in-progress,
the ongoing development and maturity of the Body of Christ is
a movement of the Holy Spirit rooted in God’s Word.
And that when we forget this, when we look to or rely upon
other elements – human elements – both to dictate and to shape the Church,
the Body of Christ becomes deformed – ultimately looking less like Jesus
and more like our sinful humanity.
One of the things that often get missed when talking
about the Protestant Reformation of some 500 years ago,
is the objection of Luther and others was as much political as it was theological.
Their concern was that the Church of their day was being formed more
by matters of money and power than the truth, the life, and the way of Jesus.
The Roman Catholic Church was allowing political and economic concerns
to inform and define the practices of the faith.
While those who protested absolutely were seeking
to more faithfully worship God in Christ as a God of grace,
in living out of that grace, they also were taking a stand for
the more just and equitable treatment of others
– especially those who were being taken advantage of and abused.
Five centuries later, as we are in the throes of the seismic changes in our world
– both leading up to this year but certainly,
laid bare in 2020 and the age of COVID,
we must ask ourselves what is shaping us as the Church today?
If Martin Luther were alive today what might he nail to the door of the Church?
Are we being reformed by the Word and the Spirit, or are we being malformed,
much like the Church was 500 years ago, by matters of politics and economics?
Are our “Yes” and our “No” grounded in following the way of Jesus
– no matter what the cost or have we, out of fear for our institutional survival
and our desire to be culturally accepted,
let our “Yes” and our “No” be mandated by
the aims of the nation-state and dictated by the global market.
Which is greater, — a more driving force in our lives
– our radical faithfulness to Christ
– to generously serving and forgiving others like He has us
or our rabid devotion to our political party or candidate
– to mocking and demonizing those on the other side of the aisle?
Less campaign signs, banners and flags for politicians
and more visible and tangible signs and displays of our allegiance to Jesus.
How as Christians can we justify either our continued silence or worse,
our thoughtless propagation of all the unfounded conspiracy theories,
all the wanton gossip, all the strife and petty jealousies
that polarize our relationships, fracture our communities,
that divide and conquer us?
Less time watching, reading, and listening,
less time repeating baseless, partisan propaganda and
more time studying, reflecting, and sharing the wisdom and the truth of Jesus.
Much like the Reformation of old, we are seeing like never before
a growing impatience and cynicism towards
the Church’s insistent profession of faith in Jesus
while at the same time being functionally willing to deny Christ
for sake of political influence and temporal power.
Younger generations no longer perceive the Church as a force for good
but rather as the primary source of pain and abuse in the world.
And who can blame them when our “Yes” and our “No” for Christ
are so easily sacrificed to advance the aims of the Church
when it comes to the laws we want passed,
the judges we want confirmed,
and the candidates that we want elected.
How can we claim to be the Body of Christ
as we argue character only counts personally but not professionally or publicly?
How do we dare argue for moral, intellectual, and spiritual integrity
when we are willing to excuse cruelty, dishonesty, and dehumanization
as just the nature of the beast when it comes to leadership?
Where is the spirit of Moses and Elijah in the church today,
leaders of faith who boldly entered the courts of Pharaoh
and King Ahab and demanded justice for the least of these?
What has happened to the ancient and yet timeless biblical ethic
of mutual aid and restorative hospitality
– that whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none
and whoever has food on their table must likewise break their bread
and extend their table to those in need?
How have we managed to take Christ’s clear command to love our neighbor
– the stranger, even our enemy – as ourselves – as God loves us,
and made the advocacy and securities of such love both selective and conditional
– including not just the unborn but all those living in the shadow of society,
encompassing not just fellow citizens but all immigrants and refugees,
and standing with not just those who protect and serve us
but also with everyone, all persons of color,
who are entitled to be both protected and served?
While the western church isn’t the only expression of faith
in Christ in the world, the power and influence that
the western, and particularly, the American church
has achieved has come at the expense of the faith it proclaims.
Many will push back that the acid test of the truth of Christianity
is who Jesus is; the Christ we proclaim.
But that argument, while valid, goes only so far.
Because, the fact remains, people, certainly outside the faith
but also within it, judge the merits of Christianity and the truth of Christ,
on the conduct of those who profess to follow and to speak for Jesus.
And let us make no mistake – part of how we follow and speak for Christ
includes both exercising our right to vote
and specifically, how and on what basis we cast our vote.
To have the right to vote is one of our most precious means
to speak our “Yes” and our “No” as followers of Jesus.
Voting is not just exercising our civic duty;
it is responsively and responsibly using the wisdom God gives us
as we listen, debate, pray and choose accordingly.
And as we step into the voting booth or cast our ballot by mail,
we must vote being mindful, that while we are exercising our right as Americans,
our true citizenship is in the Kingdom of God,
which means the choices we face and decisions we make are to be
first and foremost, informed not by our political party or voting guide
but by the King of Kings and the Word He has left us to live by.
Our allegiance is to Christ and not to the party line or platform.
In selecting the candidates and the causes we believe,
by the Spirit’s leading, will be best for our nation as a whole, let us not forget,
whatever the results of this election,
whatever we believe the future of this country will be,
one thing is certain: in the end, the age of America will cease to be anything.
It will no longer exist. But the Kingdom of God will never end.
And all of the hopes, dreams, and promises of Heaven will come to pass
not by our vote but thanks to divine election – and they will endure forever.
Until that day, we, who follow Jesus, have been called to reveal and share
the coming of that Kingdom through every “Yes” and every “No” we utter.
For fulfilling the Great Commission means
more than going to the ends of the earth
and just proclaiming the Kingdom of God to all nations
and to every area of society; it is also about
the truth and the quality of what we are proclaiming
while we are present as well as in whatever we leave behind.
In other words, we must mean what we say and do what we promise,
in reflecting the character and the integrity of the Gospel
and the God who has authored it in Christ.
Let us then speak and act with word and deeds
that model and inspire engagement with God
in His promise and deliverance of not just individual salvation,
but social, economic, and political justice.
Let us express and embody the good news of God
that seeks to rescue the poor and the oppressed,
that extends salvation that offers health and healing to all who suffer,
that purposes to extend Jesus’ resurrection by giving new life to all creation.
Let us vigilantly rebuke the evils of racism, sexism, classism, exploitation, and destructive competition even as we passionately defend human dignity, champion justice, and create the conditions for the flourishing for all persons.
Relying on the accessible and inexhaustible riches
of both the Word and the Spirit, let us refuse to be co-opted or dependent
on any political party or power structure in order to advance
our Creator’s vision for all His children
– a vision where we pool together all the wealth, resources, skills, and ideas
the Lord has blessed us with for the common good,
a vision where our collective work is rewarding
and the fruit of our mutual labor is shared equitably,
a vision where we worship and give glory to God
by meaningfully and deeply relating to each other in our work, in our play,
and in our life together as a diverse and yet intimate family.
Let us look forward to what will emerge as we as God’s people
continually pause and listen to how the Spirit is helping us to remember our identity and purpose and shaping us for the next generation. Amen.