S. LeAnn Hodges, Saint Mark Presbyterian Church
North Bethesda, Maryland
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
There once was a young man who was chosen to be the leader of his people. The night before his inauguration it is said that he offered up a prayer. In prayer he humbly acknowledged his youth, inexperience, and inadequacy for the job before him. And he asked God to grant him “an understanding mind to govern the people, able to discern between good and evil.” (1 Kings 3:9) That young man was to become King Solomon, son of King David. Because Solomon was not selfish in his request, didn’t ask for things like a long life, great riches, illustrious power; because Solomon asked for understanding and wisdom for the benefit of God’s people, God granted his request.
And thus, Solomon ruled for many successful years and was known far and near for his wisdom.
It is my hope that our elected officials might offer prayers such as this before assuming office. That their most fervent desire would be to lead with “an understanding mind to govern the people, able to discern between good and evil.” Wouldn’t that be a good thing?
James lifts up this sort of wisdom in his open letter to the church. God’s wisdom is known by upright behavior, displaying one’s works with humility. It is pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. Since when are any of these characteristics in the forefront of any political debate, or for that matter, lifted up by the pundits as traits we might consider valuable in our leaders?
According to James, people who embrace God’s wisdom are those who remember that God is the source of such wisdom, and they invest the gifts they are given into the betterment of the community, not merely for individual gain.
In contrast, James understands the wisdom of this world as being characterized by bitter envy and selfish ambition, boasting and falsehood, resulting in disorder and wickedness of every kind because it causes us to be jealous of what others have, tempting us to resort to violence to acquire what we want and don’t have. Again, it is as if James were writing to us today. Which of these descriptions does our society tend to lean toward? While I can stand back and say that I desire a world where God’s wisdom reigns, I am chagrined to admit that I tend to embrace earthly wisdom much more readily than Godly wisdom. Ti’s just easier in the moment to do, and it’s my default mode. We pretty it up and disguise it behind valued traits such as strength, ambition, self-reliance, independence, drive, success.
While none of these traits are in themselves problematic, when combined with a society that is so focused on the self-gratification of the individual, often to the detriment of the community, well, let’s just say that James might just have a thing or two to teach us. In fact, renown preacher Barbara Brown Taylor responded to this passage in our current context saying that “we are as dependent on envy and ambition as heavily as we depend upon fossil fuels.” Wisdom from above focuses on the needs of others, not on one’s own self-establishment. Focusing in God’s wisdom takes constant attention and focus, and prayer, and I dare say a trusted community to hold us accountable.
Take the disciples, our great cloud of witnesses, the pillars of the church who were taught at the Master’s feet! If anyone could get it right it would be them, right? Riiiight…. Did you year the reading from Mark? Here they were, walking along with Jesus as he taught them. They are not new to this, he had been at it for quite some time now. Long enough that he is finally sharing with them what this has all been about, that he, their friend and teacher, was soon going to be executed, but not to worry, he would then be raised form the dead. Not a light conversation intended to merely pass the time. This is big stuff! They continue walking, and the disciples got themselves into a kerfuffle. Jesus asked them what all the arguing was about. I would have hated to have to be the one to admit it was about who among them was the greatest. Honestly! Jesus, being fully human and all, I imagine him like one of those cartoon characters that have steam coming out their ears and eyes bug out from so much frustration. Have they heard ANYTHING he has said?
But no, instead Jesus takes this opportunity to once again try to get through those thick skulls of theirs. “No,” he says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
The disciples struggled with this stuff just like we do. You see, this paradox of greatness is true not because Jesus said it, rather Jesus said it because it is true. Jesus teaches truth that lies at the heart of the created order, the same that James is proclaiming. In Jesus, wisdom from above met wisdom from below. Godly, transcendent wisdom lived out in a flesh and blood human. In Mark, Jesus calls this servanthood. James calls it wisdom. When we focus our hearts in this direction, it determines our priorities. It is not a renunciation of all worldly things, but rather an invitation to change where the accent is, when we are living out our true callings, the accent is upon God, not upon us. It comes down, really, to whom we serve – God or the world.
Let’s return to King Solomon. He had a great start. At such a young age, he recognized his own limitations and turned to God for guidance, that he might be a wise and discerning leader. And he was. For a time. Until his success gave him cause to gradually begin to believe that he had outgrown his need for God. His wealth grew, as did his appetite. He was given a divine mandate to build the first Temple. And so he did, and it was grand! But he couldn’t stop there. He ignored the sage advice of his elder advisors, and pushed ahead to build himself a grand palace, and he did it at the expense of the people, financing it by implementing a new tax, and drafting the people into forced labor to complete his masterpiece of luxury for the benefit of the individual, not the community. Solomon was given much that was intended to benefit the people, and he lost his way, investing his riches into self-indulgent coffers.
I have noticed in my own life that when I hold tight to what I am given, I seem to have less and less, I grow increasingly anxious and fearful, and I live too small in this world. But when I am able to see what I have as gift intended for the community, not just for my own pleasure, the paradox tends to play out, that in sharing what I have, trusting that I will have enough, that is exactly what tends to happen. I have what I need, and I realize that what I thought I wanted was really not all that important after all. If only I could remember that and trust in what I have learned in my life. But unfortunately, I am all too much like those dim-whited disciples. The minute something shiny comes into view, I am distracted like a crow, and the accent shifts from God and the glorious things our powerful Creator is doing in our lives and our world and the accent rests upon me, and I become the subject of my own narrative. And it is all downhill from there.
Like that classic, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Remember young Edward? He was so envious of his older brother Peter. He resented being told what to do, and he SO wanted to be in charge. His jealousy left a gaping hole within him, which made him an easy target for the White Queen. The minute she offered him a mere promise of greatness, he was hooked. That was all it took for him to sell out those whom he dearly loved, and it cost him and his siblings a lot, nearly their very lives, before they were able to overcome the evil that took root in the fertile soil of Edward’s bitter envy.
Likewise, the world is prepared to fill our voids with all sorts of glam and glitter, and we will be assured that it’s really okay. Just this one time, just for a bit. And anyone who has been held in the grips of addiction knows that this never ends well. The world will give us many messages about who we are, and it will feel good. That is why every week we pour the water into the font, to remind us that in the waters of baptism we are marked and claimed by God. Our core identity and primary calling is as children of God. And God is loving, merciful, and forgiving, and for our sakes is also jealous and relentless. God loves us enough to allow us to fall to rock bottom in order for us to realize that being at the top was never the goal in the first place.
Franciscan priest Richard Rohr proposes, in fact, that the only way anyone ever reached a place of wisdom was as a result of some sort of failure or humiliation. For some it may be one major crash and burn, for others a series of tiny humiliations. Regardless, he suggests that no one ever gained wisdom from a life filled with success, at least not in the way we tend to define success. And so, he suggests that we pray for one good humiliation a day. I gotta say, I am looking forward to the day when I am at a point when I actually have to ask for a humiliation! I tend to be pretty good at finding them on my own. But I get what he is saying.
As long as we are coasting along, doing well with no bumps in the road, the temptation to grab up more shares of the pie and rely on our selves becomes irresistible. We distance ourselves from true community, and we move further and further from God. Then when the bottom falls out, and trust me, it will, we are left alone and far from God.
James comes across in this passage as being a bit finger wagging, and we didn’t even read his more caustic passages, that the lectionary omitted from the reading this morning. But maybe this isn’t just a bone breaking lecture that rails against the ways of this world, but rather a pastoral truth telling about the way it is. When we trust in the wisdom of this world, seeking to satiate our own desires and wants, the result is truly damning, in that we build for us our own personal hells without even realizing it. Yet when we trust in the wisdom from above, naming the messages of envy, gluttony and lust as destructive forces in our lives and in our world, seeking instead to embrace the way of humility and patience, investing in community, and placing our faith and trust in God, then we begin to catch glimpses of the beloved community. And the more we practice this way of life here, as the church, the community of faith, then the more likely we are to be catalysts for change out in the world, agents of God’s radical and transforming love. Remember whose you are, beloved children of God. Remember that and remind each other of that glorious truth. In our baptism we are marked and claimed by God. And that is the Good News. Believe it and live it.