By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: James 1:22-25
I believe I have previously shared the story of my family visiting a church in eastern Pennsylvania while I was in high school. There was a guest preacher who had a lot to say about the need for Christians not to engage in buying and selling on the Lord’s Day. Later that afternoon my family went shopping at a local strip mall. As we were walking into a shoe store, who did we spy but the morning’s preacher. We watched with curiosity as he strode through the parking lot. Perhaps he was headed to the drug store. One couldn’t blame him if a family member were ill and needed medication. But no, he walked into the Hallmark Store. My family had a good laugh over that; a perfect illustration of our American cliché, “Do as I say, not as I do.”
I begin with that story because – I believe – the perception of Christianity in the broader culture of America may well be at an all-time low. Christianity is getting a bad name in our culture and we – not the unchurched – are the culprits. In today’s culture, individuals can self-identify as “Christian” while they: engage in predatory behavior; sling racial and ethnic slurs and epithets; or belittle the weak and marginalized. I read an article about a year ago revealing that (based on research) – more than ever before – self-professed Christians in America are willing to compromise their moral integrity and accept unscrupulous behavior if they see some individual benefit in doing so.
Meanwhile, others “do good” in the name of Jesus while verbally attacking those with whom they disagree; thus turning Christianity into a club with which to beat down the opposition. While “doing good” is always better than “doing bad,” good works apart from wisdom can easily lead to feelings of superiority and attitudes of arrogance. Christianity in our culture is awash in duplicity; a duplicity that bears no resemblance to the biblical presentation of the one we claim to follow: Jesus Christ, whose words and deeds were consistent and compassionate.
So what are we to do about it? Well, these next couple of weeks, I’ll be preaching from New Testament wisdom literature: using God’s Word to offer wisdom as we begin a new calendar year. Wisdom – as it is understood in the New Testament – begins with knowledge (acquired learning); but then moves beyond mere learning to include thoughtful reflection (one might call this perception or interpretation) on that knowledge in light of three things: God’s Word, one’s lived experiences, and our relational commitments. I might add that this also aligns with what our Methodist founder, John Wesley, had to say about how we should form our theology: through examination of scripture, experience, reason and tradition.
So let me elaborate a little more on this understanding of wisdom:
Now, the portion of James I shared this morning makes use of an image: that of an individual who glances at themselves in the mirror with so little attention and thoughtfulness that, once they walk away, they forget what they look like. Now, that might sound absurd to you. But certainly it is no more absurd than someone who does nothing more than glance at scripture and who never engages in any self-examination. But that is, in fact, what an enormous number of people in our culture are doing. They memorize a few bible verses to support their own already-established opinions and whenever they find themselves in a difficult situation or relationship, they simply extricate themselves and move on. They give the mirror of their lives but a passing glance and go on their way and foolishness – not of the comic variety, but of the tragic variety – is the ultimate result.
So this morning I want to say a little more about what it means to truly live with wisdom.
James tells us that this wisdom is inextricably linked with the Word of God. In this morning’s passage that I shared, James refers to it as “law;” not that’s not a very appealing term. But James uses the term “law,” defines “the law,” in the same way Jesus does in the gospels. In fact, the book of James has more sayings of Jesus than any other New Testament book outside the gospels. Friends: Jesus is God’s Word made flesh; the embodiment of the Word of God. And Jesus boils God’s law down to two things: love of God and love of others.
In the Book of Matthew, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says things like:
Friends: The law – the Word of God – as Jesus interprets it isn’t about legalism. It’s about loving God and loving people. It’s about being set free not only from legalism; but being set free from attitudes of fear and envy and retribution. That’s why James can refer to it as the law of liberty. It sets us free from the suffering we impose upon ourselves when we succumb to fear, envy and retribution.
And let me illustrate this by drawing attention to our current culture. Many want to drive out immigrants simply because they have succumbed to fear and envy. They’ve become fearful of cultures and customs different from their own and fear leads to envy that someone else will strip them of an opportunity for employment or some other social advantage. Also, when we fail to challenge a system that uses our tax dollars to incarcerate – rather than seek appropriate treatment – for people in addiction, we are succumbing to an attitude of retribution.
But, when we understand the Word of God as interpreted by Jesus and James (and dare I say on this weekend, Martin Luther King); then we experience the world differently because we are grounded in the knowledge that “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above;”[v] from a God who “gives to all generously and ungrudgingly.”[vi] Or, as Jesus puts it, “God makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”[vii] We don’t need to fear others, judge others, or compete with others when we live secure in the knowledge of God’s generous love.
So, any knowledge we accumulate must be interpreted in light of God’s Word. Friends: if you are not seriously studying the Word of God, it is highly unlikely that you will ever acquire wisdom. Wisdom springs from God’s Word. We need to study God’s Word. Not just read it, but study it. Study it with consideration of biblical context and culture; with understanding of the situation of the original audience. Those things must be understood in order for God’s Word to bear the fruit of wisdom in our lives.
But we also need to reflect on and consider our own life’s experiences. We need to truly see ourselves; to look into the mirror deeply. Too often in our culture today, we race from one thing to the next. We’re on the move from the time our feet hit the floor in the morning until we drop into bed at night and we disdain silence. If we are by ourselves, we will drown out our inner voice with music and podcasts and news or a TV constantly on in the background. But if we ever hope to move from knowledge to true wisdom, we must take time to sit in stillness; too look deep within our souls; to listen for the voice of God. It’s a matter of making ourselves quiet and humble before God. James speaks of the need for meekness and gentleness; qualities that can only be cultivated over time and with patience.
Finally, James reminds us that true wisdom is acquired in the context of community. Wisdom is revealed through the nature of our relationships. So James, like Jesus, emphasizes attitudes of mercy and compassion towards others. Wisdom is something we acquire through practice in the training ground of our relationships with one another. In other words, Church is a place where we should be helping one another acquire wisdom through the authentic, honest relationships we live out with one another. That’s why Trinity’s vision statement is “growing in love and service through relationships with God and community.”
Friends: our world has plenty of foolishness going on right now and more than enough who have ascribed to the theology of “do as I say, not as I do.” But wisdom is needed: wisdom grounded in God’s Word so that we not only hear and go quickly on our way; but become doers of God’s Word and God’s work in our world.
[i] James 1:22
[ii] Matthew 5:43
[iii] Matthew 5:21, 22
[iv] Matthew 5:38, 40
[v] James 1:17
[vi] James 1:5
[vii] Matthew 5:45
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