Deep Living Wisdom
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; September 19, 2021
17th Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 1; James 3:14-4:3, 7-8a
Today we continue examining the letter of James. James is not often preached in the church, and it is to our detriment because James invites us to we examine our behavior, locate what needs attention, and then work on it, diligently. In its 108 verses, there are 54 imperatives, which may explain why it is not a popular letter. After all, we don’t generally like being told what to do. While the letter does have a lot of “Do this,” “Don’t do that,” it is still an excellent example of one pastor’s effort to address bad behavior or to at least “cut it off at the pass” as they say. But the real focus of the letter is actually less about works (what we do) and more about wisdom (how we do it). As Eugene Peterson notes:
Deep and living wisdom is on display here, wisdom both rare and essential. Wisdom is not primarily knowing the truth, although it certainly includes that; it is skill in living. For, what good is a truth if we don’t know how to live it?
James does not provide an extensive list of what we must do as Christians. Instead, he instructs that everything we do is part and parcel of our life of faith. And if we can keep Christ at the center, our lives will be simpler and more focused. The type of advice James has to offer might be compared to advice given by a loving mother: Be careful who you hang out with. Watch what you say. It’s not rocket science; it’s not earthshattering. But it is advice that parallels James’s perspective that Christian wisdom is expressed in the everyday happenings of everyday life. He offers such wisdom as: Faith without works is dead; A harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace; Draw near to God and he will draw near to you; The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. (This last one comes across even stronger in The Message translation: The prayer of a person living right with God is something powerful to reckon with.)
When I started preparing this sermon, it occurred to me that it might be fun to reach out to my Facebook friends with a query about wisdom, so I went online and posted the following, “Hi Facebook friends. I’m preaching on wisdom this Sunday and would love your help. Could you post a nugget of wisdom you received from someone, perhaps a parent or grandparent?” The response was wonderful, with some being incredibly funny while others were quite profound. Here are a few:
Pretty is as pretty does. (I am sure you will agree this is much more appealing than the words of the great theologian Forrest Gump—Stupid is as stupid does.) Nothing good happens away from home after midnight; It’s knowledge to know that a tomato is fruit but it’s wisdom to not place it in a fruit salad; If you want to catch fish you have to hold your mouth just right; Eat good food, be kind, tell the truth; In the words of Winnie the Pooh, the things that make me different are the things that make me; If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right; If you can’t say something nice don’t say anything at all; Don’t air your dirty laundry in public; Birds of a feather flock together; You never know what goes on behind closed doors; Life becomes easier when you learn to accept the apology you never got; It doesn’t cost anything to be nice to people; It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness, that is life; Never leave the house without clean underwear; If the person next to me can do it—so can I; You can’t wait until life isn’t hard anymore to be happy; Change is the only constant in life. One’s ability to adapt to change will determine their success; Life is not fair; Exactly what your future holds, only time will tell, but whatever you choose to do, be sure to do it well; Treat others the way you want to be treated; If you don’t have anything to give, give a smile; Every choice has a consequence—make sure you can live with it; A dear clergy friend shared: Always bring home the same girl you take to a party; and finally, Doing the right thing isn’t always easy but it is always right.
What a great variety of wise words. Thanks to everyone who shared them!
About our reading from James, Barbara Brown Taylor has this to say:
Those who truly love God cannot fail to live in peace with one another. The only wisdom that interests James is the wisdom from above, which has nothing to do with having good ideas and everything to do with living good lives. For James wisdom is not in the head but in the behavior. It is a way of life, not a way of thinking or believing.[i]
James contrasts two kinds of wisdom. He understands earthly wisdom as coming from a place of greed, self-absorption, and ultimate destruction. Just what does earthly wisdom look like? We know it well. We see it when school children want brand-name clothing because they have bought into the lie of what it takes to be popular. We observe it when young people want the latest technology so they can promote themselves 24-7 on social media platforms. We recognize it when adults work long hours to accumulate a bigger house, a fancier car, and mountains of things in pursuit of happiness. Of course, marketing capitalizes on these pursuits. Day in and day out we are told to buy A, B, or C, so we can really be somebody!
But for James, this kind of wisdom just won’t do. Instead, to see the world rightly, to see that there are always cosmic forces at work in the world that are not visible to the naked eye, another kind of wisdom is needed—a wisdom that is hard won—in a battle that goes on within each of us—a battle for self-awareness and self-control—a battle, in short, for heavenly wisdom.[ii] So, what does this heavenly wisdom look like? It looks like what God wants for us. God yearns for us to be who we are created to be—mirrors of God’s own image. And how might we accomplish this? Well, it begins with making a choice to draw near to God. Every time we do, earthly wisdom takes a hike. And drawing near to God, begins in prayer. Christian tradition tells us that James’ nickname was “Old Camel Knees” because of thick calluses built up on his knees from many years of fervent prayer. Prayer is foundational to wisdom. Prayer is always foundational to wisdom.[iii]
So, we have compared earthly wisdom to heavenly wisdom. How might this play out in the Christian community—a community built on God’s wisdom? Here are some of the marks of a wise church: In a wise church, church members are not asked to serve on Session because a warm body is needed but because the person being asked has demonstrated spiritual giftedness and spiritual maturity. The church is led—not just by paid staff—but by people of all ages who have gifts for leadership. When conflicts arise—they are not ignored but are handled with love, mercy, and grace. Stewardship is not a season, but a spiritual discipline lived throughout the year by the whole community. Ministries of peacemaking and justice allow the church to reach beyond their doors to bless the world. Lastly, the church does not get its identity from the height of the building or the depth of the endowment, but from nearness to God.
I invite you to hear our text again but this time from The Message:
Do you want to be counted wise, to build a reputation for wisdom? Here’s what you do: Live well, live wisely, live humbly. It’s the way you live, not the way you talk, that counts. Mean-spirited ambition isn’t wisdom. Boasting that you are wise isn’t wisdom. Twisting the truth to make yourselves sound wise isn’t wisdom. It’s the furthest thing from wisdom—it’s animal cunning, devilish plotting. Whenever you’re trying to look better than others or get the better of others, things fall apart and everyone ends up at the others’ throats. Real wisdom, God’s wisdom, begins with a holy life and is characterized by getting along with others. It is gentle and reasonable, overflowing with mercy and blessings, not hot one day and cold the next, not two-faced. You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God and enjoy its results only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honor.
Where do you think all these appalling wars and quarrels come from? Do you think they just happen? Think again. They come about because you want your own way, and fight for it deep inside yourselves. You lust for what you don’t have and are willing to kill to get it. You want what isn’t yours and will risk violence to get your hands on it. You wouldn’t think of just asking God for it, would you? And why not? Because you know you’d be asking for what you have no right to…So let God work his will in you. Yell a loud no to the Devil and watch him make himself scarce. Say a quiet yes to God and he’ll be there in no time.
James urges us to apply godly wisdom to our common life—from personal to professional. By drawing near to God, we are promised the gift of God’s presence. By making God’s desires a model for our own desires, we can live a meaningful life. The Letter of James offers a framework on which to build a life of prayer, wisdom, and action. It is a statement to believers on how to live responsibly in the Church and in the world. Let us now and forever more be doers of the word and not hearers only! In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[i] Feasting on the Word, Barbara Brown Taylor.
[iii] Eugene Peterson, The Message Bible Commentary on James
*Cover art “Bear Fruit” by Ira Thomas, used by permission