James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
There are affinities among religions. Places where they touch each other and share truths. Today’s reading from James is a place where we share an affinity, a similarity, to Buddhism. Both the Buddha and James said cravings, deep hungers, cause suffering and unhappiness.James explains it as such – inside of us are competing desires. Cravings at war. Things we covet – things we want with envy and jealousy. Usually this is money, because money is power. But other things of power we crave – the power over our lives, over our jobs, over our time. The power over others, over creation, over God. James says we humans murder so we can steal; we fight when we’re envious; and we ask for things for selfish reasons. From all of this wanting and wanting and wanting comes hurt.
Our affinity with Buddhist is the man called the Buddha– which means the awake one, the one know knows– also taught wanting and wanting and wanting causes hurt. Understanding cravings and how to end them is the core of the philosophy of Buddhism. You may have heard of the Eightfold Path – if not – it is the eight ways to combat cravings.
Right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right contemplation.
James, throughout his letter, is saying something very similar. He’s writing to early churches who are full of feuds. Full of temper-tantrums. He says look – understand where your conflict is coming from – it’s coming from having wrong cravings.
We can infer from his writing that everyone in this early church was doing good things – helping people out – but the helping was leading to fights inside the congregation. James says these fights are because people are helping each other for arrogant reasons, selfish reasons, because they crave more for themselves.
What’s this look like? Well, I think Jesus’ own disciples give us a great example today. They’ve left their homes and families. They are living hand to mouth, walking on the roads, following a heretical Jew who is gathering more and more followers and haters. They’ve sacrificed a lot. But they still are thinking with impure wisdom, with impure hearts and logic. They covet, they crave, to be Jesus’ right hand man. His number one.
So as the men walk to Capernaum they begin to bicker. Here they are – following Jesus, the Messiah, God’s anointed — here they are, not only witnessing miracles but being part of them. Here they are – personally chosen by God Incarnate for a New Revelation — and here they are, not happy with these honors because Mark might be a bit more chosen, or James might be a bit more loved, or that John a bit more favored by Jesus.
In Capernaum, Jesus sits down and asks them what they were talking about on the road. But no one answers. Silence. Shame. How embarrassing. None of them say a thing, for they all know Jesus heard them and they all know they were not focusing on the things of God.
Jesus had just told them he was going to die, and be resurrected! And they had all stayed silent because they didn’t understand and were afraid. Now they are afraid again and stay silent again.
And so again Jesus tells them a hard, hard lesson — Whoever wants to be first must be the last and servant of all.
As if this wasn’t hard enough, he then takes a little kid – some little girl or boy who can’t properly talk, might still need help going to the bathroom, and is utterly helpless without adults caring for him or her – this little grimy kid who isn’t even considered fully human, fully a person yet, because she or he likely will die before reaching adulthood. Jesus picks the kid up and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and who ever welcomes me welcomes not be but the one who sent me.”
In other words, whoever greets a the very low of the low as if they were seeing and welcoming Jesus himself, are actually welcoming not only Jesus but God.
What we do, how we act, how we treat the most personless people is how we greet God.
The people who can’t pay you back; the people who can’t give you honor; the people who can’t give you favors; the people who the world scorns… we are to serve them as if we are serving God.
I saw an example of this once. For this story, I’m going to call the boy Bobby. In a hospital room a boy lay in a bed. He was there for a routine procedure – routine for someone who has severe mental and physical disabilities. He’d been there so often he was now a non-person. I went in to visit with him and greeted him good morning. I talked with him about the cartoons on the TV and told him about my favorite ones. A nurse came and checked his vitals. She looked at me and said, “He can’t respond.”
“I know – it’s fine. Bobby, do you like Thomas or Percy better?”
The nurse asked me in the hall to explain the boy’s medical condition and asked me, “What are you doing? He can’t answer. He can’t think.”
I explained, “That boy is still a boy. Still a person. Still human. So I’m going to treat him human. It’s okay he doesn’t respond. I don’t expect him to. But thank you for letting me know.”
Later I saw the nurse speaking to Bobby the same way I had been. She saw me and said, “I agree. He’s still a person. This is good karma.”
Here in the west, we usually use the word karma to mean tit-for-tat. What goes around comes around. But in Buddhism, it is a religious word that means something a little differently. It means actions, deeds. Good karma is made of good deeds. Things that follow the core teachings of Buddhism: discernment, virtues, and will. In other words, being wise, thinking, reflecting; not lying or using words to hurt others, and having a job that doesn’t hurt others; and focusing on the good, being aware of our bodies and others, and focusing on higher thoughts.
The Buddhist nurse and I shared in our faith traditions that good deeds to those who cannot even respond are deeds we ought to do to be faithful to our faith.
These lessons are quite similar to the ones James gives us. Don’t focus on evil! Focus on God. When you focus on God, you and God become closer. Don’t turn your prayers into ways to hurt others. Use them for good. Don’t be envious of each other. Help one another. What is wise is working with gentleness, compassion, compromise, mercy, impartiality, and truthfulness. What is wise is greeting and treating each person as if they were God…
Because Jesus says how we treat others is how we treat God.
We are made in the image of God. Christians carry the Holy Spirit. We are the body of Christ.
Bobby in his bed. The child in Jesus’ arm. The man on death row. The pregnant teenager. The “welfare mama” and the “bleeding heart liberal” and the Teaparty extremist — we are all the body of Christ.
Since there is no human who lacks the image of God, there should be no one we ever think we can treat as less than the very reflection of God.
The Hindi phrase ‘nameste’ means something very similar. Not only is it hello, but it also means “I greet divinity” or “Not for me, but for you.” In other words, it means recognizing the divine is also in the other person; and saying that you will be a servant. These are rough translations, but namaste is a place of affinity, of similarity, where we can relate with Buddhists.
We both teach that the divine resides in people. And we both teach that we’re to think of the community, the whole, before individuals.
This is radically, radically different than our culture. Our culture lauds, approves, of selfish ambition. We celebrate a self-made man or woman. But James points out that selfish ambition and individual success is made possible by hurting others. To be standing at the top of the heap means standing on top of everyone else.
And Christianity is about giving up being up there at the top – but instead, going down to the bottom and joining everyone there. It’s about coming to the world like a child – unaware the CEO and the janitor are any different. It’s about welcoming God by welcoming all with the peace of Christ.
So, to paraphrase Helen Keller – let us long to accomplish great and noble tasks, but know it is our chief duty to accomplish small tasks as if they were great and noble. It is a small task to treat all as we would treat Christ, but it is a hard task, and a very great and noble one. Amen.
Given to Saint Michael’s United Church of Christ, Baltimore, Ohio 9-20-15