James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
September 23, 2018
How many of you remember the three-point sermon of the good old days? In many ways, this scripture lends itself to that model. The author, James, identifies himself as a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. Within the historical context, James is writing to the twelve tribes scattered abroad, and the letter is traditionally attributed to James, the brother of Jesus, and the audience is generally considered to be Jewish Christians, who were dispersed outside Palestine.
James encourages believers to humbly live by Godly rather than worldly wisdom and to pray in all situations. Within the New Testament, the Epistle of James is noteworthy because it makes no reference to the death, resurrection, or divine sonship of Jesus. (Wikipedia.org)
According to Barbara Brown Taylor (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol 4.) James’ letter centers on God instead of Christ and his letter is theocentric, not Christocentric. She writes: “Good Jew that he was, James did not build his argument on the mystery of his brother’s death and resurrection but on the elemental faith in God that allowed his brother to live and die the way he did. In Jesus, wisdom from above met wisdom from below, so that everyone could see which one was which.”
Within this text there are three questions James offers for the early Christian community to consider:
- 1. Who is wise and understanding among you?
- 2. From what do conflicts and disputes arise?
- 3. What does God want? (Kathy L. Dawson, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol 4.)
These three questions were significant for the early Christian church to ask itself in its years of formation. These questions are important for every Christian church to ask itself today from time to time – a somewhat on-going self-evaluation. And perhaps more important, these are significant questions for First Christian Church to ask during this transitional period of time within the life of this congregation.
The first point: So, who is wise and understanding among you? Well, one would hope that clergy and church leaders would be. Are your leaders chosen because of their wisdom and maturity of faith – or just a body to fill a vacancy? We all know, however, that chronological age has little to do with being wise. That is often reflected in the statement: “out of the mouths of babes.” Wisdom and understanding is not a gift only for the aged. And we are all aware that not all who achieve elderhood have gifts of wisdom or understanding. Does this describe anyone that you know?
According to commentator, Kathy Dawson, “James lifts up a number of markers of the evidence of God-given wisdom in the life of individuals. These include the following characteristics: gentle or humble, pure, peaceable, willing to yield, full of mercy, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” Does this describe anyone that you know?
When I read the passage a few times in preparation for today’s sermon, the characteristic of willing to yielding kept returning to my mind. Our bulletin cover today reflects that concept of yielding. Often yielding is seen as being weak in our culture – a giving in to another is often viewed as a weakness rather than a strength of what it means to be wise.
As a former state park ranger in Arizona I became familiar with signs like the one on our cover informing hikers of the etiquette of the trail. Common sense does not always prevail. The wisdom in knowing this etiquette is the desire to keep all people on the trail safe and out of harm’s way. The biker yields to the hiker and horse rider. The hiker yields to the horse rider. And often out of necessity the hiker yields to the bike rider.
The words surrounding the sign are new to me and I really like them as they reflect the reason for the yielding: share, communicate, respect. One of the signs of being wise is knowing that – I am not the center of the world – and these words reflect that understanding: share, communicate, respect.
Some hiking experiences have been less than ideal when all of a sudden bikers are approaching behind me without a sound until I hear their tires on the path and I have to jump out of their way. They pass without a word and I have no clue how many more to expect. Certainly this feels not so respectful or safe. The best experience was a biker who wore a small bell on his backpack that let me know someone was approaching and as he did, he let me know five bikers were behind him. Very helpful information – share, communicate, respect.
These words from James about willingness to yield, also reminded me a bit of 1 Corinthians 13 passage about love, especially the line – love does not insist on its own way. Knowing when to yield is a mark of wisdom, not weakness.
Dawson notes that: “These are difficult traits to live into. They speak of a life that is not ego-driven, not grasping or envious. In a society that is centered on self-gratification, often at the expense of others, these words sound alien and countercultural.” Who do you know that embodies these traits? How do they reflect these traits in their lives on a daily basis? Dawson asks: “what practices or habits help them to live into God’s wisdom?” To recognize within ourselves the desire to want some of that is a mark of wisdom.
The second point: From what do conflicts and disputes arise? Conflicts and disputes – who relishes those things? I do know some people who thrive on them and often, perhaps unconsciously, go about causing conflicts and disputes, then jump out of the way and watch the mayhem. I know people who will never confront a conflict or dispute. These are the conflict averse and conflict avoiders among us.
I have been doing church work for over 30 years now. It would be nice to think that conflicts and disputes don’t happen in the church, but the reality is that there is no fight quite like a church fight. How many splinter groups have conflicts and disputes caused over the centuries? The congregation in Sedona – Church of the Red Rock, was formed in 1960 because of a massive church fight within the original, worshiping congregation. The conservative thinkers verses the more liberal thinkers. Both congregations continue within the Sedona community today and both congregations reflect their beliefs.
The reality is that disagreements and conflicts arise in all walks of life – family life and church life alike. According to the commentator, “James looks at these conflicts and sees at their core the attitude or sin of envy. When we look at our society we see this ‘earthly, unspiritual devilish’ wisdom all around us. Children desire brand-name clothing, because they see others who wear that clothing as popular and happy. Youth crave the latest in tech toys so they can communicate and promote the self. Adults look for the greatest car, house, and job that will promote the lifestyle that they believe will bring them fulfillment. Sometimes family members are objectified in this way, looking for the ‘best provider,’ ‘show wife,’ or the ‘genius children’ as a measure of self-worth and achievement. Marketing capitalized on these attitudes.” When we start Jonesing for something we are coveting whatever marketing is selling us.
I’m not so sure I agree that the sin of envy is the cause of disagreements and conflict in the church, but rather an unmovable stand that one group believes their way is the true and only way or one group believes that their religion is the true and only religion – my way or the highway type of thinking. No room for yielding. No matter the cause we are not immune to conflict. Rather than avoiding these things, they are opportunities for honest conversation and understanding. A willingness to yield – share, communicate, respect.
The third point: What Does God Want? What a great question – what does God want? Not that we should presume to know the mind of God, but . . . Sometimes we need to be reminded that it’s not what we want from God, but to ask, what does God want? I firmly believe that God is not seeking perfection from us, but faithfulness. What does that mean?
Do we think that God is “yearning and searching for the human spirit that mirrors God’s own image? If we choose to draw near to God, we are throwing off the power that earthly wisdom has over us. Dawson reflects: “Wisdom from above focuses on the needs of others, not on its own self-establishment. What then does life look like in the church community that lives by God’s wisdom? Here are some of the marks of a wise church that this passage provokes:
- Church officers are chosen on the criteria of Godly wisdom, rather than how much money they give to the church.
- Worship leadership is not just handled by the paid staff, but is shared among the church membership of all ages and stations.
- Disputes are handled with mercy and love, seeking peace above selfish ambition.
- Stewardship becomes not just a season of pledge collection, but a yearlong spiritual discipline taught and lived by the community.
- Prayer is not selfish, asking for what will feed individual desires, but seeks the good fruits that will meet the needs of all.
- Peacemaking and social justice ministries become ways of addressing the earthly wisdom that surrounds us.
- Our primary identity is measured by our closeness to God rather than the possessions we accumulate.” “Draw near to God and God will draw near to you,” James wrote.
A three-point sermon often ends by repeating the major points:
- Who is wise and understanding among you?
- From what do conflicts and disputes arise?
- What does God want?
I hope today’s sermon will give you enough to chew on for the week as you continue to focus on, not only your own lives, but the life and direction of First Christian Church in this place called Las Cruces. Amen