“A Humble Lifestyle” Colchester Federated Church, September 19, 2021, Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a)

The great preacher (and Preaching and New Testament Professor) Fred Craddock was once invited to preach at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.  This famous church was once Martin Luther King Sr. and Jr.’s church.  During his lifetime, Fred Craddock was considered one of the best preachers in America in part because he introduced a whole new style of preaching.  He was known as a storyteller, freely sharing his encounters with God in a folksy, conversational way.  Craddock was a soft-spoken man from Tennessee who was actually told in his youth that his voice was too weak to be a preacher.  Those comments made him determined to strengthen his voice, and he would go out to a nearby pasture and preach to the cows.  Craddock thought that if he could get those cows to raise their heads when he spoke, maybe he would be heard in churches one day.

So Fred Craddock was this soft-spoken Appalachian storyteller preaching to a historic African American congregation in Atlanta on that particular Sunday.  During the worship service, Craddock moved to the pulpit ready to read some verses from Mark Chapter 8 and begin his sermon.  As he was about to start, the Senior Minister Joe Roberts began to sing, “I feel much better now that I’ve laid my burden down.”  Then the Associate Ministers began to sing and the musicians went to their instruments—the piano, the organ, the drums, and the electric guitar and the people began to sing.  Craddock realized that he’s the one up front, the leader of this part of the worship service, and so he began to clap his hands and sing along.  At a certain point, Pastor Joe Roberts put his hand out and the congregation got quiet, sitting down to finally hear the scripture and the sermon.  After worship, Fred said to Joe, “Well, that kind of shocked me a little bit.  You didn’t tell me you were going to do that.”  Joe replied that he didn’t plan to sing either, but said, “Well, when you stood up there, one of the associates leaned over to me and said, ‘That boy’s going to need help.’”[1]

Now there are many reasons to appreciate this story.  It acknowledges different worship styles and congregational expectations of ministers.  It shows how clergy can have each other’s backs.  Though it also shows how we human beings tend to make assumptions about each other.  It’s fascinating that one of the associate ministers looked at Fred Craddock about to preach and said, “that boy’s going to need help.”  We’re talking about one of the best preachers in America in his day.  But his soft-spoken storytelling preaching style was different than what the good folks at Ebenezer Baptist Church were used to hearing from the pulpit.  Thankfully Fred Craddock was a humble, down-to-earth man.  And Fred and Joe had enough of a relationship (it seems) that no offense was taken.

As we continue on with the Letter of James, we are now contemplating the virtue of humility.  James writes, “Are any of you wise and understanding?  Show that your actions are good with a humble lifestyle that comes from wisdom.”[2]  Last Sunday we thought about how teachers are judged more strictly because their words and actions need to be aligned.  James focused on taming the tongue and how with our tongues we can both bless God while simultaneously cursing those made in God’s image.  And that just shouldn’t be the case.  Now James gets more specific about how we are to live.  Because remember that for James, faith without faithful actions is dead.  There’s no point in having a well-developed faith if we are not living out our beliefs.

What does a humble lifestyle actually mean and look like for James?  He writes about not having bitter jealousy or selfish ambition in our hearts.  James says that we should stop bragging and living in ways that deny the truth.  Because “wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there is disorder and everything is evil.”[3]  Instead, James implores people to focus on the wisdom from above.  That is “pure, and then peaceful, gentle, obedient, filled with mercy and good actions, fair, and genuine.  Those who make peace sow the seeds of justice by their peaceful acts.”[4]  James is echoing the words of his brother Jesus: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”[5]

What does this look like in our daily lives?  Years ago, I preached a Sermon Series on the 7 Deadly Sins and how out of these sins we could find 7 Lively Virtues, using the book The Virtue in the Vice by UCC Minister Robin Meyers as inspiration.  Instead of pride, we could have worthiness.  Instead of envy, emulation.  Instead of anger, we could have righteous indignation.  Instead of lust, holy eros.  Instead of gluttony, we could have communion.  Instead of greed, wanting wisely.  And instead of sloth, we could have contentment.[6]  After this sermon series, I was gifted these cool 1920s inspired prints of the 7 Deadly Sins that hang in our dining room at the parsonage and 7 Deadly Sins whiskey glasses.  That sermon series was a hit, far more than I expected. 

If I had to guess why looking back on it now, it was because we know that we all sin.  We all sin and fall short of the glory of God.  Coming to church and being shamed for our shortcomings or threatened with hellfire and damnation is not going to ultimately make a person joyfully live out their Christian faith and trust in God.  Some people sitting in those pews had that experience in their religious backgrounds.  Perhaps some of us sitting here today in these pews have that experience too.  But thinking about virtue ethics, about our morality and values as human beings—that feels attainable.  The truth is, I preach about virtue ethics all the time.  Because we are going to get mad.  Are there instances of injustice that are worth being righteously indignant about?  We are going to look at another person and be envious about something.  But could we think about emulating that thing we admire about them instead?  And so on. 

James cautions us that our conflicts come from our cravings that are at war with our own lives.  James writes, “You long for something you don’t have, so you commit murder.  You are jealous for something you can’t get, so you struggle and fight.”[7]  What would happen if we focused on the virtue of contentment, and even challenged ourselves to ask what is enough?  What is essential in our lives?  What do we actually need (not just want)?  And in the end, using fear and shame to get people in line, that won’t make people genuinely love God so much as be afraid of God smiting us because of our shortcomings.  Love, if someone with that mentality could even say that they love God, is based on fear and not on trust.  What kind of a god would want to be loved based on fear?  Coercive love based on judgment is not the love freely given that we see in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  

In the end, James wrote to us today about a humble lifestyle.  “Show that your actions are good with a humble lifestyle that comes from wisdom.”  This ties into virtue ethics and how we think about our morals as human being making our way in a complicated world.  Every day we are faced with choices in how we respond to people and situations before us.  We’re not going to always get it right.  But God longs for our faithfulness in the life that we have been given.  Remember that we can always come near to God, for God has already come near to us.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Fred B. Craddock, Craddock Stories, Ed. Mike Graves and Richard F. Ward, 128-129.
[2] James 3:13, Common English Bible.
[3] James 3:16.
[4] James 3:18.
[5] Matthew 5:9, NRSV.
[6] Dr. Robin R. Meyers, The Virtue in the Vice: Finding Seven Lively Virtues in the Seven Deadly Sins.
[7] James 4:2.

Photo by J W on Unsplash