This sermon was first preached at Bay View Lutheran Church on September 19, 2021 as part of a book event for #BaptizedinTearGas.
Relevant lectionary readings here.
In just a couple of days we are coming upon the Fall Equinox; the time of year when the sun crosses from north of the equator to the south, where the length of day and night are roughly the same. For many people throughout time, this has been a time to celebrate the harvest. That’s why a lot of the traditions and decor we see popping up this time of year feature things like gourds and corn and pumpkins. That’s why we have pumpkin spiced lattes and apple crisp. It’s harvest time.
As a modern Chicagoan I am often removed from the journey my food takes before I buy it in the grocery store. I am not a farmer and I confess that many houseplants in my home have met a bitter end due to my own careless neglect. There is a saying, attributed to many different people, that reminds us, “What we pay attention to grows.”
The author of James is making a similar point in the scripture we read today. James answers questions about discernment still relevant in our own time…how can we tell what is godly? The letter from James offers, “A harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.”
The word righteousness in the original Koine Greek in this passage – dikaiosunē – has a different connotation than the way we might think of “righteousness” today. In white Western society, our concept of righteousness often deals mostly with our own personal piety. Capitalism has taught us hyper-individualism, and so righteousness as a concept too has been individualized. We talk about spirituality and godliness in terms of individual moral choices. But righteousness in scripture is inherently communal. It is less about individual goodness and more about right-relationship. The Greek word here is about all people’s needs being met. Another word we might use is justice.
When I hear this verse, “A harvest of righteousness…A harvest of justice is sown in peace for those who make peace,” it reminds me a lot of a protest chant I know, one I first heard in the streets of Ferguson during the Uprising and still encounter in the streets today:
Both statements point to an inherent relationship between peace and justice.
When we talk about protests, particularly protests that are centered on Black liberation, like Ferguson was, white supremacist culture often sends up dog whistles using words like “peace.” When I was in Ferguson, it was not an uncommon occurrence that after a night of brutality by the police, the news the next day would report that the protests were not “peaceful.” But they weren’t referencing the tear gas, rubber bullets, sound cannons, and kettling from the police. They were referring to things like property damage or the refusal by the crowd to leave the street, with no talk about the state violence that instigated these actions in the first place.
The word “peace” has been co-opted to mean something nice, easy, convenient. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote about the way “peace” is weaponized by the status quo in his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” He talked about the difference between what he called “negative peace,” or an absence of tension, and “positive peace which is the presence of justice.” He told us that the greatest obstacle to the harvest of justice in his time was not the KKK, but nice white moderates like me who said things like, “I agree with his message but he is pushing too hard, too fast. Can’t he just protest the right way? The way that is comfortable for us? Peacefully?”
Peace has been weaponized by the status quo, to keep oppressed people in line.
But for many of our siblings, that status quo has never been peaceful. White people ignore or defend state violence because it protects our access to the status quo and our own comfort, void of the tense truths about the reality of the suffering of our Black and Brown siblings.
We know that the author of James is not referring to this kind of negative peace that is the absence of tension, as opposed to the presence of justice. James had no problem raising tension, especially on behalf of the oppressed. Only a few chapters earlier James literally wrote these words,
“Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.”
So it is clear that when James is talking about peace, he isn’t the type to talk about a convenient, palatable peace. He isn’t talking about the status quo that upholds things like white supremacy or corporate greed. When he writes, “A harvest of justice is sown in peace,” he also says, “for those who make peace.” For those who MAKE peace. We don’t “keep the peace” by refusing to rock the boat. We don’t keep the peace by preserving the status quo. We make peace. We build it together, by creating a world where everyone has what they need to thrive. We can only create deep lasting peace if we resist injustice.
Jesus models this with a ministry so dangerous to the status quo that it got him killed. And yet those of us who are white, like the disciples, jockey for position in society, wanting to be the greatest. This is white supremacy, a system that codifies whiteness as superior, as the greatest and lives this lie out in institutions and policies in education, healthcare, housing, and more.
James tells us that the faithful are to resist the devil and submit to God. Just as the Spirit comes to us in different times in different ways, the devil incarnates differently in different times and places too. And the devil of our day comes to us incarnate in the false idol of white supremacy.
James tells us to submit to God. Not white supremacy. Not the status quo. No master. No earthly ruler. We are to submit to God, the kind of God that liberates captives and terrifies Empires.
The role of the Church is to harvest justice. Jesus shows us that justice often comes at a high price. Building a world with deep, lasting peace in the face of such entrenched systems of oppression is no small task. But we do not go at it alone. Because righteousness, justice, is something that happens in community. We gather together each week to encourage one another, to read the freedom stories of our ancestors in scripture, to be fed at the table and fortified for the struggle ahead. And the God of love and liberation promises to draw ever nearer to us.
Thanks be to God.