"Strengthened Hearts" a sermon from James 5:7-10 (11), (Advent 3A)
It’s never good when my husband starts a sentence with, “I talked to your mom today.”
As it turned out, my dad had been experiencing symptoms for several months. A tinge here. Out-of-breath there. But when his jaw began aching, a classic symptom of heart problems that was new to me, it all came together for him and my mother. They called the cardiologist who immediately put him on medication and scheduled a heart cath for the following Wednesday.
For those of you who haven’t gone through such a thing, you may not realize (I didn’t) exactly what a heart cath is. For my dad, they went in through a vein in his arm and inserted a dye that would show the technicians the condition of Daddy’s heart. I don’t understand it fully, but I know this: Your heart needs blood to flow through it. If the blood can’t flow through, you have a heart attack. You don’t want to have a heart attack. What they found out was that in three separate locations, Daddy had blockages that were allowing no more than 20% of the blood to flow through. My Dad needed to strengthen his heart.
That’s what James tells his readers in todays text. “Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.”
The book of James was written by . . . well . . . by someone. Theologians do not agree who that was. Early on, church scholars believed that James was written by the brother of Jesus. Later scholars uncovered evidence that this might not be the case, based on when the letter was written and when James the brother of Jesus died. It now seems that the book represents the teaching of the brother of Jesus though it may have been written down and edited by disciples of James. Whoever wrote it, it was aimed to instruct (probably) ethnic Jews who followed Christ. And it is not so much a letter as a list of directives kind of like proverbs, except that for James, the main point is that following Christ has to do with action, not just feeling. James says love God, love neighbor, then DO something about it.
My parents had chosen to go to a hospital close to home for Daddy’s heart cath. They wanted to stay with the doctor they knew as long as possible, even knowing that they could not do stents at that hospital. Well, the cath indicated a need for three stents. Do you know what a stent is? (Again, I didn’t.) It’s a tiny tube made of something like stainless steel netting. Doctors insert a little balloon into the tube and then place the whole thing inside the clogged artery. Then, they inflate the balloon to make the tube bigger which opens up the artery. They deflate the balloon and remove it, leaving the patient with increased blood flow. In my dad’s case, the doctors found that he had 99% blockages in those three places. He got the stents and went home feeling much better. But before that, Daddy was only getting 1% of the blood he needed from three places and he was walking around like no big deal!
Now this, I think, is what James meant. I think James looked around at the early Christians and thought, “Y’all can totally do better than this. You have so much more potential than this.”
And I think they (we) knew it. I think they felt twinges of bitterness but dismissed them. Afterall, those OTHERS out there don’t realize how hard it is. They take things for granted that we have to work so hard for. Little pricks of jealousy and sharp pains of judgment—sure they aren’t pleasant, but its not like everyone doesn’t feel that way from time to time. No need to pay extra attention to those not-necessarily-Christ-like feelings.
I imagine they had moments when building the kingdom of God just flat wore them out—and frankly, those moments were coming more and more. Did they have to do everything? Why wasn’t anyone else working at this? And anyway, what’s the point? People just fall back into old habits of poverty, addiction, and abuse. Why bother? It’s too hard.
But James saw the symptoms. And when they started outright arguing with each other, judging each other for the slightest imperfection, well James knew something had to be done. They were better than this. Like, you know, 99% better.
So he gives them all kinds of advice. He tells them things like, “You’re going to have trials in life,” and “Side with the poor; don’t be dazzled by the rich,” and “Always ask for wisdom.”
It’s not easy! James knows that. He also knows it’s a better way. So he offers them some . . . stents . . . to open up their hearts.
Now these stents are different than my Dad’s. These aren’t made of metal but of wisdom. And the balloon is not like my dad’s either—it’s made of patience. James says, we need to open the flow of your hearts so love can flow through. Let’s insert some wisdom, inflate that wisdom with patience, and see if that does the trick.
When my Dad left the hospital and when he awakened Saturday morning, he was feeling great. But then, my mother began to notice that something was not right with him. She took his blood pressure and sure enough, even with all that had been done to strengthen his heart, his blood pressure spiked, and my mother had to get him back to the Emergency Room. They ran lots of tests and determined in the end that the problem was related to a medication that needed tweaking. They took care of it and he’s fine now.
But what if Mother, having noticed the problem, just let it go. What if she said, “Well, you know, I hate to bother him. He just had to go through so much. . . . It’s not my heart so why not let it go . . .” Because of my mother, my daddy has a strengthened heart. Folks, we need each other.
Even with wisdom bolstered by patience, we cannot expect to build Christ’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven without each other. That message is woven throughout the book of James. He repeatedly uses the plural “You.” He says “among” as in 3:13 meaning you are in a group, not alone. James says, if we are to look like Christ, we must strengthen our hearts with wisdom and patience. And we are to do it together. We simply cannot do it alone.
Church. It is for the faint of heart. But it is also for those with strengthened hearts. It’s for you. It’s for me. It’s for us. Together. Amen.