The other day, I was trying to get a little work done while I was hanging out with Ruthie. The two of us were in the living room, her playing with her toys and me reading and using the computer occassionally. During a moment when I was particularly engrossed in what I was reading, Ruthie knocked over her sippy cup of milk on the coffee table, the top popped off, and milk begin to stretch over the table, slowly approaching my laptop. The spill jerked me out of my book and back to reality and without thinking I reacted. “No Ruthie!,” I yelled. “No, no, no!” I repeated as I frantically removed my computer and books and everything else from the milk soaked table.
And then, I caught myself. After my initial reaction faded, I was able to see myself in the situation. I could see what I was doing, and what I was teaching my daughter to do. I was crying over spilled milk. Worse, I was scolding her for having spilled the milk. As though spilling your drink as a twenty month old is somehow beyond the pale of expected behavior. I was teaching Ruthie that her mistakes were not acceptable. I was teaching her that small accidents could provoke outsized reactions. I was teaching her that the proper response to spilled milk is to cry.
There is difference between a reaction and a response. A reaction is quick, instantaneous, instinctual. Reactions don’t involve thought and analysis, they simply let slip whatever is on the mind or heart with no concern for the consequences. A response on the other hand is slower, it allows for thought and consideration. A response involves choice, we choose how to respond, but not how to react. When Ruthie spilled the milk, I reacted. Without a moments pause I shouted my first thought, “No!” I might have acted differently. I might have paused after the spill, thought about how I wanted to respond, and then chosen the response I felt was best for the situation. I could have chosen to respond in a more gracious and kind manner.
There are days when I do I precious little responding, days when I can feel myself moving from one reaction to the next. These are days when I’m especially irritable, when it feels like everything is out of my control, that nothing is going my way, that I am fighting 100 different battles on a thousand different fronts, and losing them all. My first reaction on these days is to search for someone to blame: its the cable company, or the stupid computer, it’s the dog that’s driving me crazy, or its Ruthie and her reckless milk spilling. However, along my exceedingly slow journey to some semblance of spiritual maturity, I have learned that when everybody and everything is driving me nuts, the cause is usually to be found in me rather than anywhere else.
We recently welcomed a group of Alcoholics Anonymous to begin meeting each Tuesday evening in our sanctuary. There is phrase commonly used in AA circles, a question of whether you are spiritually fit. Spiritual fitness is meant to refer to the state of your spirit, how are you feeling inside? Are you bouncing from one reaction to the next, increasingly angry and frustrated and edging towards despair? If so, you are not especially spiritually fit. To become spiritually fit, is to make room for a pause, to allow ourselves to remember that we have entrusted our lives to a loving God, to invite the spirit of that God into us, and to attempt to respond with that same loving spirit. How one becomes spiritually fit will of course depend a great deal on the individual, but in general the idea is to do whatever it is that helps bring you into a closer relationship with God. Pray. Come to church. Go to an AA meeting. Call a friend. See a therapist. Exercise. Write a list of all you are grateful for. We all must find what works for us, what helps us to connect to a power greater than ourselves, what helps us to escape our anger and reaction and helps us to find serenity.
The letter of James in the New Testament treats just this topic of spiritual fitness. James writes that all good things come from God. He further counsels us, “Let everyone be quick to listen, and slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” Be slow to anger. There may be situations of intolerable injustice, systems that degrade the dignity of the image of God in our sisters and brothers, and at such systems and situations anger may be a proper response, anger like that shown by Jesus when he threw out the money changers from the temple. But this is a slow rising anger, it is anger as an appropriate response, and not as a first reaction. “Be slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” If we want good to be in our lives it does not come from our anger, rather it comes only from God. It is God and God alone who produces God’s righteousness. Our angry reactions are futile attempts to control our surroundings, to change what has already happened, to reject our lot in life, and they keep us from welcoming a more gracious and loving spirit into our hearts. These are all a result of our lack of spiritual fitness. If we wish for good, for God’s righteousness to take the place of our anger, we must learn to pause, to ask for God’s presence, to welcome God into our lives, to allow the Holy Spirit a more firm grip upon our souls. As James says, “Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.” This is what is to be spiritually fit, to have rid yourself as much as possible of your self-centered wickedness, and to be able to welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.
When James refers to the implanted word, he is referring to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The content of this Gospel, this good news, is both so simple it can be understood by any and all human beings, and it is so infinitely complex that it has inspired and will continue to inspire countless minds to explicate it and investigate its implications. The simplicity of the Gospel is this: God has chosen to love us now in the present moment just as we are, despite all of our sin, our faults, and our shortcomings. The Gospel is the good news of the unmerited grace of God. James wants us to welcome this word into our hearts. James wants us to truly believe that we are loved and loved unconditionally. He wants us to be constantly reminded of the depth and breadth of this unconditional love. He wants us to allow that unconditional love to transform us, to lead us from reaction to response, he wants it to save our souls.
How might our lives be different if we took James’ advice, if we welcomed the unconditional love of God into our hearts and let it guide our responses? If I want my response to Ruthie to teach her of the unconditional love of God, I do not want to give her the impression that her mistakes are unforgivable breaches of ettiqutte, I don’t want to shout No Ruthie at her, I want to respond with grace. I want Ruthie to know that accidents happen, that we make mistakes, and that no mistake she could make would ever stop me from loving her. I want her to feel and know that she is loved without condition. This is what James means when he says that we must not only be hearers of the word, but also doers of the word. It is not enough for me to know that through God’s grace I am loved unconditionally, if that knowledge does not somehow transform my behavior towards others. The grace of God has transformative power, to truly hear it and accept it, is to have you life transformed. It is to live not from a place of reaction and insecurity, but rather from a place of abundant love and generosity. It is to live with a desire to love as freely as we have been loved.
Finally, I want to speak a word on James’ measure of religion that is pure and undefiled before God. At the very end of today’s reading, James claims that true religion is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world. Certainly James believes that we ought to care for all people and not only widows and orphans, right? So why does he single them out? What is special about widows and orphans? The times in our lives when we most need love are not the times when we are doing the best. The times when we most need loving care and support are when we are in distress, when they’re is no one to care for us, when we have been abandoned, when we are in need, that is when we need love the most and that is precisely when the world makes it most difficult for us to receive love. Who needs love more than the abandoned child and yet who is less likely to receive it? It is always easier to love the people closest to us, it is always more materially beneficial to support those who are doing well. The world will always give us reasons to support those in power, those dripping with success. The world will also give us countless excuses not to care for those in distress. We can blame their distress on them, they are lazy, they should have stayed in their own country, they should have followed the rules and waited their turn. We can believe that to help those in distress will only ruin their personal responsibility and teach them to look for a handout. We can even decide that they are not the same kind of people as us, they are not Christians, not Americans, not law abiding citizens, and therefore not as deserving of our love and care. Yet what all these excuses not to love and care for those in distress have in common is that they place conditions upon the giving of our love. Though God loves us without condition, the world will always demand conditions for our love and care. If we are to welcome the implanted word that will save our souls, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the unconditional love of God into our lives, we must cut through every excuse the world gives to not freely love and care for others. We must seek not to react to people’s distress by finding fault in them, but rather respond to their distress with the unmerited grace and unconditional love that we were fortunate enough to experience ourselves. To love God is to love what God loves. God loves all of us, but God most especially loves those of us who are most in need of loving support and care. God most especially loves those that world has cast out and found excuses not love and care for. If God’s love is truly unconditional and truly for all, it must be lavished upon the widow and the orphan and all others the world has deemed unworthy. The test of our true religion is the unconditional love of God, a love that can never leave any out, a love that seeks out the lost, a love that especially embraces the widow and the orphan. Let us welcome this unconditional love into our hearts and let us share it as wildly and freely as it has been shared with us. Amen.