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Pentecost 17B Sermon
James 3: 13-4: 3, 7-8a
September 19, 2021


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James 3:13-18, 4:1-3, 7-8

13Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. 14But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. 15Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. 18And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.
4Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? 2You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. 3You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. 7Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.

May the grace, mercy and peace of God be with us in the name of our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ; Amen.

I get really nervous when I hear dualistic language. Dualistic language is used to describe or label things as one or another - good or evil, friend of the world or friend of God, of the spirit or of the flesh. We like this kind of language because it makes it easy to say what is right and what is not. Unfortunately, it is not always as simple as that. Dualistic labels or adjectives do not always accurately capture the essence of something. I mention this because there is a lot about the passage from James this morning that makes me nervous, especially as it deals with wisdom from above and wisdom from below, two very dualistic terms. A person is sometimes led to believe that anything that comes from human based sciences or ingenuity are bad, and we strictly rely upon the spiritual for our livelihood. For example - there is a little story that has never been more appropriate than it is now, with what we are experiencing in our society. I am sure you have heard some version of it - the man in his home where the flood waters rise prays fervently to God to save him. As the water is just beginning to rise a truck stops in front of his house and tells him to jump in. The man replies, “No thanks - the Lord is going to save me!” A few hours later he is on the second floor of his house looking out the window for signs of his savior when a boat motors up. When the man in the boat encourages him to come aboard, he again declares his belief that the Lord will save him. Finally, the waters force him onto his roof and a helicopter lowers a rope ladder to haul him aboard. He yells up “No thank you - the Lord will save me.” Well, that man died, and when he got to the pearly gates his Lord met him there.
Disappointed, the man exclaimed, “I thought you were going to save me from that flood!” The Lord put his hand on his shoulder and said, “Sir, I sent a truck, a boat and a helicopter …”

According to our reading, wisdom from below is earthly, unspiritual and devilish; wisdom from above is pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. Since there are a lot more adjectives connected to the wisdom from above, we can be certain that James is encouraging us to see it as the preferred wisdom with which to live our lives. The problem is, people, events, powers, causes … are not always able to be classified as one or the other of these two wisdoms. It is not that black and white, and to be honest, much earthly wisdom has led to increased joy and healing for all of God’s creation. Some have been said to be so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good!

Each one of us are made up of both of these wisdoms. Not only does this go hand-in-hand with our essence as simultaneously saints and sinners, but it describes how we are able to use our wisdom and knowledge both from above and below in order to experience God’s presence in this earthly life. We do live in this world, and this world is good, as God created it good. We also, as Christians, know the importance of connecting with wisdom from above, sometimes called a spirituality which encourages us to develop and use the gifts that James mentioned - purity, peace, gentleness, willingness to yield, mercy and bearing good fruits. Christian life is about discerning the good and the bad within each person, place, event or entity of any kind - including ourselves - so that we can experience God’s good gifts in everything. Everything and everyone have the capability of exhibiting wisdom from above and wisdom from below in all of its forms. We pray to connect with the one from above in order to be filled with that desirable wisdom which James lifts up so well in our second reading.

Nicholas and Brianna, you have experienced a lot in your lives, especially in the last year. You know that good and bad can come from all sorts of different and sometimes unexpected sources. You have both experienced loss and disappointment in your lives, and you have experienced love and encouragement from your families, friends, and your church. As you seek to be guided by God’s “wisdom from above”, remember what James has told you about it:

1. It is gentle - it does not coerce, manipulate, or bully.

2. It is willing to yield. Remember the words of that fictional character Ted Lasso who said, “In the words of the great Walt Whitman, ‘Be curious, and not judgmental.’”

3. Be full of mercy and good fruits - mercy allows people to be fruitful in their lives.

4. Don’t show any trace of partiality or hypocrisy. This is a tough one because people all around us show us partiality and hypocrisy all the time. That where being gentle, curious and showing mercy comes in.

One commentator said that the entire letter of James reveals an author that sees the world as a dangerous place to be the church. I have to agree with that. As a called and gathered group of people who are formed by the values of wisdom from above, we are vulnerable to those who lean more toward the values of wisdom from below - the selfish ambition, disorder and wickedness of every kind. Living in this world, we know also that we are susceptible to adopt those values as our own as well. But it is possible to remain faithful as a part of the church because you are not an individual in this venture called faith and life - you are part of a church, a family, a gathering of like-valued people who root you on from our earthly lives and who root you on from the great cloud of witnesses above.

At a recent Bible Study with the women of the church, we read about how Martin Luther, when he felt particularly tormented by the Devil, would pause and say out loud, “I am baptized!” This was not only a defense against the one tormenting him, but also a reminder of the promises that were made by God at Martin’s baptism. They are like the promises God made to you at your baptisms on January 13, 2008, Brianna, and April 27, 2008, Nicholas. We will remember those promises today - That God called you to himself, promising to enlighten you with gifts of the spirit and nourish you in the community of faith. Shortly we will sing words to a song which speak God’s words to all of us, how God was there from the time of our borning cry and will be there when we close our eyes for the last time - and for everything in between including wandering off on our own to find where demons dwell, finding someone to share our lives and guiding us through the night. I encourage you, Brianna, Nicholas and everyone here, when you feel particularly tormented by the powers that value selfish ambition over gentleness, judgment over curiosity and envy over mercy - say out loud, “I am baptized!” That is the reminder that we all need that God travels with us in this world of wisdom from above and below to encourage us to seek that holy path. And not only that, but that we are not alone in this journey. We are part of The Church - the called & gathered people of God who are enlightened by God’s word, made holy to share God’s holiness and kept secure in the promises of everlasting life. Today we give thanks for these two young people who experience this milestone in their faith, and we promise to love and support them as they continue to grow. We also give thanks for each other, wise in ways that take in both heaven and earth, discerning together how we may love each other and our neighbors as Jesus first loved us. Amen.