A sermon for September 20, 2015
James 3:13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. 14 But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. 15 Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.17 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. 18 Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness. What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? 2 You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. 3 When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.4 You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.
“What causes wars and fighting among you?” we just heard James ask. That was my question 40-plus years ago, during high school, in 1973. It was the question with which God got my attention. Two things were forcing that question on me then. One was the Vietnam War. It had dragged on so long through my youth that it looked like I too might soon face the draft, and maybe the war. The other thing was coming to terms with what my father and his family had gone through before coming to the U.S. as refugees from war-torn Europe in 1947. It seemed like their trauma was having some effect on me, the first generation after that event. I would ask my father about what the Second World War was like. Seeing tanks and bombers and aerial dogfights, and the bombing raids he experienced, sounded so cool as a kid. But he wouldn’t ever say much. I finally understood why.
So I dug into the history books, and what I found was horrifying, repellant but also fascinating, in a disturbing sort of way. Confronting such nasty things about human history and human nature, of course I wondered, Why? Why are we so often prone to all these spasms of violence and bloodlust? And could that potential for brutality and bloodlust be in everybody? Even me?
I thought I had hit upon something new and original with this answer to that question, Why? when I thought that nations are not at peace with each other because people are not at peace with each other. And people are not at peace with each other because people are not at peace with themselves. Furthermore, people are not at peace with themselves because people are not at peace with God. I’m not sure where I got that last part, about being at peace with God. My family and I weren’t going to any church at that point. Maybe it had to do with Martin Luther King, Jr. and the nonviolent civil rights struggle, which also had such a big effect on me and my generation. I also had some Christian friends in school, whom we called “Jesus freaks.” While I thought they were kind of weird, something about them also intrigued and attracted me. Now I know it was the peace they seemed to have, in contrast to all the cliques, gangs, bullying, jealousies and rivalries in my high school.
I was pretty impressed by what I thought was my new and original insight. Maybe I would write a book about it and become rich and famous! And yet I was studiously avoiding the question of how much I was at peace with others, myself, or with God. Or not.
And then my cousin invited me to a Bible study in which the focus was James 4: 1. In the King James Version we were reading, it starts out with, “From whence come wars and fightings among you?” It goes on to say, “come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members?”
Hmmm. So, maybe I had not come up with anything unique and original, I thought. Well, there goes my claim to fame. My next thought was, “Maybe I’d better pay more attention to this Bible business.” In the next few weeks, God made me face up to how much I was not at peace with neither myself nor God, though God had already declared peace with you and me, through Christ.
Which is bringing us to the first question in the outline: Why would James write these words? At that time, I thought, we should take this Bible passage to the Pentagon and the White House, and the top CEO’s of the military industrial complex. And it would apply. The diagnosis of Dr. James of the human condition, that we are divided and driven against each other because we are dominated by lusts and illusion that divide us and drive us against our very selves, makes this an important passage for anyone, and everyone.
But James did not have Caesar, nor any Roman or rebel soldiers in mind when he wrote these words. Go to the beginning of the letter, and you’ll see, in verse 1, that he was writing to “the twelve tribes dispersed among the nations,” in other words, to the church among Exiled Israel.
James was Jesus’ younger brother. He was, then, a Jew’s Jew among Jewish Christians. He was probably writing to other Jewish Christians dispersed from Jerusalem and Judea by persecution and poverty to other parts of the Roman Empire. Jews back then believed themselves to be still in Exile, until the Messiah gathers all of them back to Jerusalem. Most Jews believe that yet today.
But in Romans 11 we read that we Gentile Christians have been grafted on to Israel like wild olive branches onto a domesticated olive tree. That’s so we might share Israel’s blessings, riches and heritage. We also share Israel’s Exile. If things we experience in our lives, our culture and our community ever leave us feeling out of place, like we’re spiritually and morally out of place in the world, we’re supposed to feel like that. Through Christ we Gentile Christians are honorary Israelite Exiles, living dispersed as moral and spiritual aliens in the world’s versions of Babylon today, citizens and ambassadors in the world’s temporary kingdoms of God’s eternal kingdom. So, the first part of answer number one to Why James wrote these words, is so that he wrote them to spiritual and moral exiles and aliens in this world, like us, so that……(more on that in a moment).
If we read James’ words from the perspective of Israelite Exiles, that points us to what the Prophet Jeremiah wrote to the first Jewish captives in Babylon. If ever they were tempted by resentment and desires for revenge, to do like Al Qaeda and ISIS sleeper operatives in the West, to commit acts of terrorism and sabotage against the brutal, corrupt and immoral pagan empire, Not so, says Jeremiah in chapter 29: 5-7. “Don’t give in to the Dark Side!” Instead, he says, 5 “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. 7 Also, Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”
In case we missed the memo about being exiles and alien Israelites, “strangers in a strange land” like Moses, James comes back to that exile theme with his words in verse 4: “Don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.” As honorary Israel in Exile, we are to be peaceable and friends to all people, but not friends of a world system, a world culture of domination, division and discrimination.
So, again, James writes these words so that the dispersed church of aliens and exiles, Jewish and Gentile, might witness to the God of peace by being a peace seeking people, and a peace-making people, the way Jeremiah called the Jewish exiles in Babylon to be. By and large, they were. Jewish public servants like Daniel served the Babylonian people and cultivated peace with the kind of wisdom, integrity and humility that James calls for in chapter 3.
But James is not only concerned with the church’s peace witness to the world. He’s concerned even more about the peace of the church. And that’s the second reason why James wrote these words: to strengthen the peace of God within the churches. For what threatens the church most is not the world’s hostility nor even persecution. God often works wonders through that. Nor is having disagreements always fatal. Rather, it’s the ways in which we deal with disagreements. It’s one thing to be on a common quest for greater understandings of the truth. It’s one thing to contribute, compare and critique our different but partial perspectives on truth. It’s another thing entirely to load those differences of perspective up with the kinds of actions and attitudes that James lists, the “bitter envy…selfish ambition…coveting, killing, quarreling and fighting.” Then the church becomes its own worst enemy, more deadly and destructive to itself than the worst persecutor.
Lest that happens, James alerts us to the two basic kinds of wisdom, so-called: Point two in the outline. One kind of wisdom, he says, is “earthly, unspiritual and demonic.” Such “wisdom,” so-called, is based on fear; it calculates things and makes strategy on the basis of fear, especially the fear of scarcity. That’s the fear that says, “You know, there’s only so much love, only so much dignity, honor, worth and power to go around, so I must get mine at the expense of yours, lest you get yours at the expense of mine.” Such fear might lead us to pray, like the prayers that flood heaven just before each Super Bowl, for all the bets people have laid on the game. But James says that such praying is with wrong motives, to satisfy our lusts, whether for power, prestige or possessions. So don’t be surprised that God doesn’t answer such prayers, James says.
Maybe we need another name for that first kind of wisdom, the worldly, devilish and unspiritual kind. A Native American proverb says that, “Wisdom unites, but knowledge divides.” I’m all for knowledge and education, but mere head knowledge can divide us when fear, greed and pride drive us to use that knowledge for advantage over others, or to use knowledge as a weapon against them. That’s more like cleverness, or craftiness, than wisdom.
It’s amazing how crafty and clever people can be with knowledge, when under the influence of fear and greed. Like someone who contacted me by email, who had the right head knowledge to ask the right questions and say the right words to make me think that he really was a recent convert to Christian faith in a Muslim family. Maybe he had been at one point, but fortunately I realized over the course of our correspondence that he was actually seeking personal information by which to steal my identity and empty our bank account.
Knowledge can be used to divide, but real wisdom is about uniting and reconciling. That’s the second kind of wisdom James mentions: the heavenly kind, which is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. While worldly cleverness can lead to pride and self-promotion, this heavenly wisdom leads, James says, to humility. While worldly craftiness greases the skids for “disorder and evil works,” James’ heavenly wisdom shows itself in “a good life” and “good fruits.” Worldly, devilish craftiness is driven by fear, but this heavenly wisdom is driven by love. It is, in effect, the way of love. That heavenly wisdom is the second kind in question two of the outline.
As for that third question, What does James want us to do about these two kinds of wisdom? First of all, we must learn to recognize and distinguish the two kinds of wisdom, so-called. One way to distinguish them is by whether or not they are driven by fear, or by love. Not necessarily feelings or emotions of fear or love. But which reasons and motives are most behind our calculations? When politicians generate fear of other countries, or of other cultures, or when they pander to our fear of losing wealth or status or power, or when commercials play to our fear of missing out on something or being seen as behind the times, that is that divisive, destructive and devilish wisdom at work.
As an example of love at work, consider the partnership between two Mennonite churches in the Indiana-Michigan Conference a few years back, an African-American church in the east side of Detroit, Michigan, Community Christian Fellowship, the other, Shore Mennonite Church in the heavily Amish area around Shipshewana, Indiana. Many of their members had been Amish, or their parents were. When Community Christian Fellowship got started in Detroit in the early 1990’s, it was paired up with Shore Mennonite for things like visits to each other’s worship services and homes, pulpit exchanges, sharing prayer requests, doing service projects, and getting their youth groups together.
I got to know their story because we were living in the Detroit suburbs back then. I heard people from both churches talk about how scary these visits to each other’s homes and churches could be. If you were from Detroit, it was scary visiting in rural LaGrange County, Indiana, where in some towns black motorists with Michigan license plates were regularly followed and pulled over for DWB’s: “Driving While Black.” It was just as scary to be a rural white Hoosier in Detroit’s lower East Side, especially if you’re hearing gun shots, and it’s not hunting season.
But the people of both Community Christian Fellowship and Shore Mennonite Church overcame their fears and grew in that love-driven wisdom, not because they at first felt so warm about each other in their hearts. That came later, after they had taken those first risky steps toward each other. It was because they embraced the heavenly wisdom that is driven by love, and embarked upon a journey of growth in love.
Which is the second thing that James calls us to do. Knowing and recognizing the difference between the two ways of wisdom, so-called, we reject the divisive, destructive cleverness and craftiness of the world and do what we can to embrace, embody and embark upon the way of humble, heavenly wisdom, the way of love.
Taking stock of Zion’s members and ministries, I see us already engaged in “seeking the peace of the city to which God has carried us in exile.” There are many Daniels among us, seeking the peace of the place in which we have been carried by God in exile, in our jobs, our homes, and in ministries and partnerships.. Remember the school supplies we collected and brought last month Canby Center? There’s our partnership with Bridging Cultures. Or Habitat for Humanity. The Jubilee Food Pantry. English as a Second Language classes. The Mennonite Central Committee Relief Sale coming up in a few weeks. And the Vacation Bible School we have celebrated today. There we not only exhibited this peacemaking wisdom of love, we taught about it. Among us also are people who have sought the peace of the world by serving sacrificially in mission and service assignments, and in voluntary service assignments, as alternatives to war. I encourage the young people among us to get to know their stories.
Which brings me to the third thing we must do: as much as we do and have done in the way of this humble, heavenly wisdom, we never arrive at perfection. Nor are we ever done with the temptations and enticements of that divisive and destructive wisdom, so called. So we must continually “seek peace and pursue it,” as the rare treasure it is. Let’s be lifelong students of the divine, heavenly wisdom that unites. For there are plenty of geniuses already in the ways and “wisdom” so-called of division and destruction. Most of the stories we tell ourselves and each other, in movies, books and TV, are about violence, terror, conquest and winner-takes-all competition. Entertainment and politics feel more and more like feeding an addiction to adrenaline.
The one main alternative story to all this fear-mongering and the drumbeat of division, is the gospel of Jesus Christ. And I’m happy to say that, under the influence of the gospel, training, resources and insight into this heavenly wisdom are available to us, especially through many Mennonite connections, such as the Summer Peacebuilding Institute at Eastern Mennonite University, Mennonite Central Committee, and our Peace and Justice Network. In the two classes I took at the Summer Peacebuilding Institute in 2011, I saw how hungry people all over the world are for this wisdom, and how many people had come from so many different places and backgrounds to learn practical things about that heavenly, peaceable wisdom. Like a Protestant pastor who was going back to his native Northern Ireland to work on peacemaking with Roman Catholics. There were even two Shiite Muslim clerics from Iran. And no, they weren’t spies.
Today, more than ever, we need to develop James’ heavenly, peacemaking, love-driven, love-directed wisdom to a degree that approaches our over-developed wisdom, so-called, in the arts and sciences of death, division and destruction. As I have sought it, over the years, to the little that I have learned, and certainly not mastered, I have learned that the peace of God is not something we build or create, it is not just a technique nor a bundle of good practices, important as they are. True peace is something already within the nature of God, something that God has already accomplished, which God offers to us. God has already made peace with us through Jesus Christ. Christ is our peace. Christ is the wisdom of God. When we seek the peace of God, we find that the God of peace is already and always seeking us in the person of Jesus. And he never gives up on us.