By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: James 3:13-17
It has been a tumultuous last couple of weeks for our community. In the wee hours of the morning on January 12, a man (captured on CCTV) walked along Main Street just a couple blocks from here and left pamphlets at businesses; recruitment pamphlets for the Soldiers of Christ, American Christian Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. The man is, as of now, still unidentified. But his bold promotion of white supremacy was chilling and offensive. One week ago, roughly during the time we were in worship, police were at the Unitarian Universalist Church just across the river investigating a scene of vandalism: banners left on the premises, filled with profane, hateful, and threatening speech that rattled a congregation and our community.
Nativism has been dramatically on the rise here in America and around the world in recent years and, though its manifestation right now is distinctive, it is a phenomenon that ebbs and flows through the centuries since – at its root – is sin… something the human species has struggled with since the dawn of time.
So my current sermon series on the book of James (which wraps up this morning) is a timely one. James is a wisdom writing (incidentally, Jesus was considered a wisdom teacher) and, frankly, given our current culture, I think we could benefit from a little wisdom… wisdom that can guide and frame our attitudes, our words, and our actions.
The Book of Proverbs is the best known biblical book of Wisdom. It states its goal at the opening of the book like a clear thesis statement: “For learning about wisdom and instruction, for understanding words of insight, for gaining instruction in wise dealing, righteousness, justice and equity…”[i] In the book of Proverbs, wisdom is personified. It calls out to us, beckoning us to leave foolish paths that will ultimately lead to our own destruction and to follow the path of wisdom. God wants to give us wisdom; he offers it to everyone. James tells us: “If anyone is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously…”[ii] Wisdom is associated with the commandments, or instruction, of God. So, we cannot ever hope to attain wisdom if we neglect the reading, studying, and application of scripture. Proverbs states clearly that we need to get our focus off of worldly assumptions about success and influence. Proverbs tells us: “wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare with her.”[iii] And Proverbs tells us that, only those open to further instruction and learning, will continue to grow in wisdom. Stubbornness – an unwillingness to learn or be corrected – shows us to be fools.
Now I’ve told you all of that about Proverbs because many of those themes are found in the book of James, particularly in this morning’s verses. However in James, rather than juxtaposing wisdom and folly (as the book of Proverbs does), the author speaks in terms of true and false wisdom: true wisdom (which comes from God) and false wisdom (which follows the standards of our world). And, James makes clear, true wisdom has the power to transform our world; to alter our culture.
Now, we can identify false or worldly wisdom because it is centered on our own ambitions and desires. This worldly ambition is about putting one’s self forward; pushing one’s way to the front of the line and it, obviously, results in friction and factions. It destroys any sense of true community.
Godly wisdom, on the other hand, is wisdom that reveals the values and priorities of God and is expressed through things like gentleness, patience, peacefulness, mercy and a willingness to yield to others. So let me say a little more about each of those and how they are being viewed in our current culture.
First: gentleness: From our families to our work places to our class rooms to the halls of congress and the oval office, we are encouraged to use terms of force and power because gentleness, we have been told, makes us look weak in the eyes of the world. And yet every one of us – I assume – as a child had an experience in which we destroyed life because we weren’t gentle. It was probably an insect or a flower. I know I’ve shared the story of my pet turtle that was killed when my younger cousin Susie failed to understand how delicate the turtle’s belly was. She pushed too hard and the turtle died. James tells us that wisdom gives birth to gentleness. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says the gentle will inherit the earth. So, it’s not power that wins the day; it’s gentleness.
Peacefulness: Just this week, scientists moved the Doom’s Day Clock to 2 ½ minutes before midnight; the closest it has been since 1953. And, according to the scientists, their decision was heavily influenced by the U.S. We seem to no longer be cognizant of what could happen to the whole world if any nation were to deploy a nuclear bomb. I guess it has been too long. Too many people who witnessed the aftermath of Hiroshima have died. Our collectively memory has disintegrated. Biblically, our New Testament understanding of peace is grounded in the Old Testament concept of shalom: an encompassing term that includes wholeness and wellness of body, mind and spirit; and a right-ness of relationship with God and with others. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says peacemakers are blessed and will be called children of God.
It pays to remember that our New Testament writers spoke of peace in a particular social context. They lived within the Roman Empire: expansionists and aggressors. In Rome, peace came at the tip of a sword. That was what the “peaceful” empire of Rome looked like. But peace for Christians is different. Our “empire” is the kingdom or realm of God: a place where everyone surrenders their own individual desires and selfish ambitions and we willingly submit ourselves to God’s consistently good and gracious desires as we pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” The only sustainable peace is the peace that comes from giving up our own selfish desires and letting God be in charge. Peace can’t come at the edge of a sword or the drop of a bomb. The only true path to peace is to surrender to the will and purposes of God; not our own self-serving desires.
Mercy: Throughout scripture, God proclaims that his very identity is to be associated with mercy. In the Book of Exodus, Moses goes to the top of Mt Sinai for God to give him the commandments that Israel is to live by. And in the context of forming that everlasting relationship, God reveals himself – describes himself – with these words: "The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.[iv] God is defined by his mercy and grace. And if we are made in God’s image, if we are to embody the Spirit of the risen Jesus, then an attitude of mercy must be revealed in us. Mercy isn’t something people earn. Mercy isn’t reliant on the character of the recipient; mercy reveals the character of the one who bestows it. Again, in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus blesses the merciful and reassures them that they will receive God’s mercy. In chapter 2, James expresses the flip side of that same sentiment when he writes, “For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.”[v]
Finally, James speaks of a willingness to yield to others. Friends; as a collective culture we have dug in our heels and have determined to stand our ground. We’ve stopped listening to one another. But there’s nothing biblical, nothing Christian, in that. In chapter 4, James tells us that envy is at the root of many of those conflicts among us.[vi] We have been taught to never be satisfied with what we have; but to want what others have. We refuse to yield because we are in competition with others. We want to win the argument and win the day and take all the prizes home.
I want to share with you a personal experience I have had over the past couple of years. I have a cousin in Pennsylvania and, in many ways, we are very different. Our politics are certainly different. But in some ways, we are alike. He is an addiction counselor. So he, too, is engaged in ministry. When we initially became FB friends, we had some struggles over those differences. But over the past couple years, we have learned to respectfully ask one another questions and to listen. This past Wednesday evening, I attended the service at the Unitarian Church. After the service I made a FB post. Speaking about my joy at seeing so many people come out to express love and support, my post concluded with these words: “In a nation increasingly aggressive toward ‘the other’, we affirm with a united voice that we welcome ‘the other.’” My cousin FB messaged me – a private, confidential form of communication – to ask who I meant by “the other.” That gave me an opportunity to talk about my values and beliefs and personal experiences. But over the past couple of days, I’ve just been thinking about how wonderful it was that he asked the question in such a respectful way. He didn’t need to. He could have made assumptions or just ignored my post. But he didn’t. He wanted to dialogue with me and we want to better understand one another. Our FB messaging time ended with the words: “Love you, cuz.”
Friends: the final distinction between worldly so-called wisdom and true, godly wisdom comes down to our trust in God. You see, what all of those things I’ve just discussed share in common is this: if we truly believe that God takes care of us – that God has our six and won’t ever abandon us; if we truly believe that God’s grace never runs out; then we don’t have to fear that “the other” – however we define that other – will take something from us. We have Jesus… the grace of Jesus, how can anything trump that? We’re not at the risk of losing anything when we’ve got Jesus. But when we become fearful and aggressive and self-promoting and self-serving, it belies that we don’t really trust Jesus. We don’t really trust his grace. We don’t really trust his ability to save us or provide for us. We don’t really think that his grace is abundant and never-ending. That’s the bottom line.
The pamphlets stuck in those Main Street businesses touted the “Soldiers of Christ, American Christian Knights.” But those people don’t trust in Christ. If they did, they’d never be trying to get the upper hand over another race or religion. They have given in to fear and the belief that they have to grab for what they need and defend themselves. That’s not Christianity. That’s not trusting in Jesus because when we trust Jesus, it looks very differently. When we trust Jesus, it looks like gentleness, peacefulness, mercy and a willingness to yield to others. It looks like love (what Jesus and James name as the most important commandment) and friends; they’ll know we are Christians by our love.
[i] Proverbs 1:2-3
[ii] James 1:5
[iii] Proverbs 8:11
[iv] Exodus 34:6
[v] James 2:13
[vi] James 4:1
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