(James 3: 13-4: 3, 7, 8a)
Jimmy Buffett, the musician and song writer, is known for his keen wit and clever quotes that are actually quite thought provoking. One of the ones that I like and have used myself when the situation calls for it goes: “Is it ignorance or apathy? Hey, I don’t know, and I don’t care.” When some people hear the saying they take offense because they think it’s a clever way of calling them stupid. That’s not the case. Ignorance is treatable, it can be cured with education, but stupidity is most often terminal, they’re apathetic, they don’t care, and don’t want to know. I can proudly say that I have been ignorant about many things in my lifetime and am probably still ignorant about some things, like technology for example. But I have always, and sometimes grudgingly, been open to being educated and having a light shown upon my darkness, illuminating me. You see, if you realize that you may be ignorant on a particular matter and seek to educate yourself you become informed, hopefully informed to the point where you are no longer apathetic and are moved to do something about it. The whole crux of the wisdom issue is from where do you seek it?
And from where we seek this wisdom is what the Apostle James is talking about in our scripture reading for this morning. In his letter to the scattered tribes of Israel, he had just finished telling them about how dangerous an uncontrolled tongue is, that it is like a small flame that can start a great and destructive fire. He says that we all make mistakes often, but that those who are mature and wise do not make mistakes with their spoken words. In today’s reading he starts out by asking: Are any of you wise and understanding? Show that your actions are good with a humble lifestyle that comes from wisdom. He’s basically saying not to act a fool. He says that if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, then to stop bragging and living in ways that deny the truth. He explains that This is not the wisdom that comes down from above. Instead, it is from the earth, natural and demonic. He points out that wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition there is disorder and everything that is evil. People who are jealous of what someone else has and are selfish in their ambition to get ahead are content to keep things stirred up as it masks what they are really up to, their hidden agendas. James rhetorically asks: What of the wisdom from above? And then he answers his question by stating: First, it 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. He’s saying that it has no hidden agenda, it threatens no one. If it’s good for you, it’s good for me. And then he asks: What is the source of conflict among you? What is the source of your disputes? Great questions. He’s telling the conflicted reader to look inward at the source of the issue. He says that the conflicted person looks for something they don’t have so they commit harmful and hurtful acts against others. The person is jealous for something they can’t get, so they struggle and fight for it, and they don’t fight fairly. He points out that the conflicted person doesn’t have because the don’t ask, and when they do ask and don’t have it’s because they ask with evil intentions, impure motives, and waste it upon their own cravings, their need to satisfy self over others. Therefore, James says, submit to God. Resist the devil, and he will run away from you. Come near to God, and he will come near to you.
If you didn’t know better, you’d think James was writing an Op Ed for the local paper urging people to stop wasting all their energy on fighting and to seek the wisdom to solve the problems that are the root of all this discord, and use this energy for good, for a peace that sows the seeds of justice. My Wesley commentary, on this reading, points out that our innermost character and commitments are on display in our day-to-day practices, especially in our speech, but also in whether we produce selfish ambition, quarrels, double-mindedness, and pridefulness, or peace and humility. Regardless of what we may say, it’s our actions that really reveal how we feel. Actions do speak louder than words. What James is telling us in this letter is that just as faith cannot exist without faithful action, so also one who is truly wise will demonstrate it by good conduct and a humble lifestyle. We must be careful not to confuse book-smarts with wisdom. Having a Doctorate of Jurisprudence may indicate that I might be smart, but in no way does this piece of paper give me any wisdom. For most of us, wisdom comes from learning from our experiences, but James is talking about the greater wisdom that is a gift of God available to anyone who seeks it. For James, the wisdom from above is full of mercy and good fruits, and the fruit of righteousness for him is sown in peace by those who make peace. As Jesus said in Matthew 5: 9; Happy are the people who make peace, because they will be called God’s children. (CEB)
James is writing to his readers about the competing wisdoms of the World versus God. He’s saying that there is a wisdom to the way the world works, and a wisdom to the way people work when God is operating in their lives. We’ve all seen it, and maybe we’ve experienced it, when God is at work in someone’s life, and we see them produce amazing fruit. Where did that come from, we ask? It’s a God thing, and because the world does not know the good God gives in the gifts he gives to all who ask, it operates by competition, greed, coercive speech, and strife. It assumes we live in a world of limited resources controlled by the rich and powerful, before whom all are required to show deference if we are to survive. But the wisdom from above enables God’s people to live in a way that is pure, and then peaceful, gentle, obedient, filled with mercy and good actions, fair and genuine. James pointedly asks his readers what is the source of their conflict amongst themselves and the source of their disputes? He could just as easily be asking us the same thing. Our temptation, when confronted with some unpleasant circumstance, is to lay the blame elsewhere; on the government, the church, the conservatives or the liberals, and so on as there is always somebody else readily available to blame, you know, “those people”. Don’t be a blamethrower. But he tells us that the answer is clear. Our social conflicts derive from our own envious cravings. The “me” over the “we”, so to speak. Our desire for material things or particular social structures, our status quo, makes us willing to dehumanize people in order to reshape the world according to our own desires. “If those people would just get their act together and be more like me, the world would be a much better place to live.”
For the Apostle James, the way forward is the way of submission to God. Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will lift you up. Sounds simple enough, but drawing near to God requires us to purify the thoughts of our hearts and in the work of our hands. We can’t be apathetic. It will also require us to lament our current state with tears joining in solidarity with those who are already weeping due to marginalization and poverty. There are people all around us crying out to the Lord and we need to cry with them if things are to get better, if there is to be the justice that James speaks of. But it will only be the humble who will be able to welcome the word God has planted within. They alone will be open to receive the gift of wisdom that comes down from above.
In the book I just finished reading, Love is the Way: Holding on to Hope in Troubling Times, by Bishop Michael Curry, he observes that in Christianity, just as in our national politics, the voices of extremists are drowning out the silent majority. And those extremists are using religion to defend a panoply of dark “isms” such as racism, nationalism, nativism, sexism, and so on. The Bishop says that their views do not represent the views of most Christians, but they are aggressively promoting them, to the point of a real crisis for the church of Jesus Christ. Now, we’re fortunate here at Community United Methodist Church because we have a congregation made up of Democrats, Republicans and Independents who are respectful and loving because we work to hold on to the lowest common denominator of the love of Christ and loving our neighbor as ourselves. But it is not that way everywhere. People are angry to the point that debate has ceased to be productive, ruled by ad hominem attacks and cruel innuendo from both sides. Bishop Curry sees the danger in that if all the decent people, you and I, sit this one out, we’re handing our country and our religion over to the extremists. As hard as it may be, we have to draw our wisdom from above, and shift the conversation to higher ground, above and beyond the politics, and the issues as the players have defined them. Hopefully, in that higher moral and spiritual ground, we may find genuine common ground. But sometimes it feels like we’re fighting a two-front battle. We have the enemy from without, but we also have the enemy from within, the church taking the other side and doing exactly what James cautions against. To get to that higher moral and spiritual ground we have to ask what Jesus would have us do, and in doing so we may actually find genuine common ground. For example, we should be able to all agree that The Golden Rule is a good place to start. We can all agree that we should do unto others as we would want them doing unto us. If we agree, then how do we get there? How do we achieve that one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all?
So how do we do that? Well, Bishop Curry suggests that we first identify the shared moral values and spiritual principles upon which we agree. Next, we share our personal story about how those values and principles became important to us. Third, we seek to apply those values to our current challenges and identify any commonalities we might have. And, lastly, we craft ways forward that best approximate those values and principles. We need to build on the positives and what can be done and not obsess on what cannot be done. We need to get some small wins, create momentum, and grow from there.
Walking love’s way, drawing our wisdom from above, a wisdom that is peaceful, gentle, pure, obedient, filled with mercy and good actions, fair and genuine may require us to stand up in public for those core values we believe are under attack. We must remember that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing. To defeat the evil in this world we must seek and ask for the gift of wisdom from above and then we will be able to sow the seeds of justice by our peaceful acts.
Let us pray.
All to Jesus we surrender; all to him we freely give; we will ever love and trust him, in his presence daily live. All to Jesus we surrender; humbly at his feet we bow, worldly pleasures all forsaken; take us Jesus, take us now. Yes Lord, make us thine and through the gift of the Holy Spirit show our actions to be good with a humble lifestyle that comes from the gift of your wisdom. Give us that wisdom from above that is pure, and then peaceful, gentle, obedient, filled with mercy and good actions, fair and genuine. Make us a people who make peace and sow the seeds of justice by our peaceful ways. All to thee, our blessed savior, we surrender all. In Jesus’ name, we pray, Amen.