James 3: 13-16
Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But 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. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.
“How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.” Annie Dillard, novelist, poet, professor, wrote those words. Today, you rose and managed some sort of routine that may or may not have included shaving, a good (or even mediocre) cup of coffee, ironing your clothes, reading the paper, going for a run, politely suggesting your child get ready for church and he or she humbly and with utmost cooperation, did everything quietly upon being asked only once. Maybe, I noted, those were part of your routine. Or maybe the morning was a complete and total chaotic blur of the nth degree and truth be told, you can’t hardly remember how you landed in the seat that’s holding you up in this very moment. Someone condensed Dillard’s idea into a smaller category saying, “If how we spend our days is how we spend our lives, how we spend our mornings is how we spend our days.” So – how are you spending your life these days? If you could condense it all into an hour frame of time – maybe the hour proceeding your arrival at church this morning – as a core sample of your life, how are you feeling about things? And maybe less your circumstances but more about your attitude, your inner calm, your spiritual center – how are things going there?
A friend once sent me this amusing, but all too true, word about our failed intentions: “My goal in 2018 is to accomplish all the goals I set in 2017 which I should have done in 2016 because I made a promise in 2015 which I planned in 2012.” I seldom ask for an “Amen” or a plea for you to “raise your hand” if you resonate with what was just said but if you’ve ever struggled with failed, albeit good, intentions could you give me an “Amen?” How ‘bout a raised hand? Okay – so we’re not as different as we thought when you wondered about that person two rows in front of you and three seats over who seemed to be nailing their good intentions – you could tell just by the way they were sitting there. But nope. The struggle is real.
And someone in the house today, if prompted just the right way, would say to me, “We struggle to manage our lives because we only use 10% of our brains, AND… some of us aren’t choosing our best 10%.” I’ve always wondered how true that is. We only use 10% of our brains? Hollywood cashed in on this notion a few years ago when they landed Bradley Cooper to star in the movie Limitless. Cooper plays a writer who is struggling under the pressures we all face when he takes an experimental drug that opens the other 90% of his mind. Using 100% of his brain is a game changer. He becomes the perfect version of himself. He’s more creative than he’s ever been. He laser focused attention makes him keenly aware of everything that is happening around him. Everything he’s ever read or seen is instantly organized in his mind and available for him to use in whatever way he needs. When he takes these pills, he radiates and people are drawn to him. He navigates complex business situations and has an uncanny ability to outguess the stock market which, in turns, makes him quite the financial success. If that’s it, though, it makes for a boring movie, right? There’s a wrinkle! Bad guys want to get their hands on this magic drug and they’re taking out anybody who has it. It’s an action-thriller with a bit of a twist at the end. (Not necessariliy pastor-endorsed.) What if we all could use 100% of our brains? Would we be smarter? More perfect? Life more manageable? Perhaps. But, here we are, floating around the 10% mark… or so we thought. More and more scientists are leaving the 10% marker to the category of “old things we used to say.” Better technology continually reveals that any mentally complex activity uses many areas of the brain and over the course of a day – just about every part of our brain is getting a work out. But… we’re less interested in this sort of intelligence today.
We’re looking at the writing of James who challenges us to look for something beyond smarts… to be wise… something not simply earthbound but a spiritual wisdom. We’re considering such wisdom today in our Creationtide series because we believe that such wisdom not only pertains to our interactions with one another but also with every facet of creation. By any number of accounts, we see that our decisions and actions are having some detrimental effects on the world we call home. Called to live by the wisdom of God from above rather than by selfish ambition, how might we harvest peace on earth rather than that which comes from upsetting the balance of the environment?
Most scholars believe this James to be the brother of Jesus… which always makes his passion for the truth about Jesus more believable don’t you think? I mean, what would it take for you to believe your brother was the Messiah? Anyway, James becomes a significant leader in the Jesus movement in the early church. He was very concerned with Christian behavior, particularly in the way the faith community reflected the ways of Jesus in their lives. James seemed to identify a clear distinction between moments when the community seemed plugged into the wisdom of God and when they were caught up in their own selfish agendas. James called this being double-minded. Eugene Peterson puts this same passage in words that really make this clear in my estimation. He says it like this: 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 conniving. 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.” There’s an arrogance here that James is describing. The old comedian George Carlin (probably seldom quoted in church) once said, “Anybody who drives slower than you is an idiot. Anyone who drives faster than you is a maniac.” What is he saying? We tend to think this way because we are our own barometer as if we are the ones who get to make the measuring sticks for all people and for all things. Peterson’s translation continues: 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.
And in this season of Creationtide, we broaden this respect, this dignity, this humbling honor to all of creation. Because wisdom doesn’t isolate itself to one matter. Wisdom finds a way to broaden its horizons to a larger picture. Wisdom says, “If we can create a robust community that lives right with God only if we do the hard work of getting along with each other,” then could we not create a more vibrant and peace-filled world if we did the hard work of getting along with all of creation? If the Cosmic Christ, as we focused on last Sunday, is moving in and through all things, then isn’t it worth the hard work of honoring all things as beautiful, holy-designed, and intertwined with the peaceable kingdom of God?
Chief Seattle, the prophetic Native American voice of the nineteenth century, preached this better than most Christians of his day and of ours. The United Methodist Book of Worship includes a prayer inspired by his prophetic wisdom. Listen to his poetic inference into such wisdom…
Every part of this earth is sacred.
Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore,
Every mist in the dark woods,
Every clearing and humming insect is holy.
The rocky crest, the meadow, the beast and all the people,
All belong to the same family.
Teach your children that the earth is our mother.
Whatever befalls the earth befalls the children of the earth.
We are part of the earth, and the earth is a part of us.
The rivers are our brothers, they quench our thirst.
The perfumed flowers are our sisters, the air is precious,
For all of us share the same breath.
The wind that gave our grandparents breath also receives their last sigh.
The wind gave our children the spirit of life.
This we know, the earth does not belong to us,
We belong to the earth.
This we know, all things are connected.
Like the blood that unites one family, all things are connected.
Our God is the same God, whose compassion is equal for all.
For we did not weave the web of life.
We are merely a stranger in it.
Whatever we do to the web we do to ourselves.
If we truly long for peace, the peace that wisdom brings, the peace harvest that James refers to, we must grow to a place where we can heed that last word from Chief Seattle: “Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.” This is often where our views of peace skew the growth of the kingdom of God. James warns of this. “Where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.” Do any of us struggle with envy and selfish ambition? Do we not even promote it as a society much of the time? “Get yours!” we say. Claw your way to the top. And we all value a little drive, right? Passion! Determination! Grit! I am most pleased with my kids when they give their best effort. Before they play a game or prep for a recital or event of some kind, I ask them, “What is the only thing you control?” “My effort, Daddy.” We expect each other to work hard; to long to be our best. But earthly wisdom spoils this drive quickly into a tailspin of greed and me-first-living which is totally anti-kingdom of God. Perhaps a little self-check for you and me this morning revolves around our definition of peace.
Priest and theologian, Thomas Merton, cuts to the quick in this word about peace.
To some men peace merely means the liberty to exploit other people without fear of retaliation or interference. To others peace means the freedom to rob brothers without interruption. To still others it means the leisure to devour the goods of the earth without being compelled to interrupt their pleasures to feed those whom their greed is starving. And to practically everybody, peace simply means the absence of any physical violence that might cast a shadow over lives devoted to the satisfaction of their animal appetites for comfort and pleasure.
Many men like these have asked God for what they thought was “peace” and wondered why their prayer was not answered. They could not understand that it actually was answered. God left them with what they desired, for their idea of peace was only another form of war….
Yikes! What a convicting word. If my quest for peace is only for myself, I’ve missed the mark. And in fact, peace almost requires the “where two or three are gathered” notion of the presence of Christ. Living within a wisdom that brings about a peace harvest is an ongoing conversion. You cannot simply choose in this moment to operate out of such wisdom and assume it will guide your every moment. But I will say this. How you spend your moments is how you spend your life… just to narrow that Dillard thought a bit further. If your desired destination is the peaceable kingdom of God, then start moving in that direction. You cannot, I cannot, we cannot obtain that all at once. But we can commit together to move that way. And it will require movement, not simple intention. Intention never determines destination. Direction always determines destination. Taking steps toward the goal determines if you’ll get there far more than your good intentions concerning that same goal. You’ve got to move toward it.
This wisdom we seek does not come in a single moment of conversion. As Luke Timothy Johnson says, “It is slowly and painfully won through many conversions.” It’s worthy of inclusion in your morning prayers – “Convert me again today, O Lord.” It’s not easy to abandon the double-mindedness that highly influences us in the world every day. True story about a guy who called himself a “Bowery Bum.” He wandered ‘drunk as a skunk’ (again his words) into a downtown mission in the city he was living. We’ll call him Frank. He went to the mission for the free dinner but stayed for the service that followed. The preacher offered an altar call and Frank found himself going forward where a counselor prayed with him. Frank described the moment as the “big turnaround.” The short of the story is that he goes on to recover and lives a productive life. And while it seldom happens this immediately, Frank never had another drink of alcohol after that trip to the altar. But… and here’s what we’re after in the story, Frank said, “My conversion was only a start.” He felt that his sins had been forgiven, but in most ways, he was the same self-centered, profane, bigoted, uncaring person he’d been – except that now, he was attending worship services where he prayed and started listening for God. One by one, Frank was open to the Spirit’s wisdom and guidance that prompted him to give up or rethink or do differently or take on if he was going to continue following Jesus. A bit at a time he made those adjustments – more conversions if you will. He never said he had “arrived,” but he had a sense of where – and toward whom – he was headed. Direction was determining his destination, no longer his intention alone.
The appropriation of wisdom that is from above is a lifelong event. This should not discourage us but animate us in the effort forward. We begin to see we can improve. We can make a shift, if even a subtle one at first. Our church staff team inspired me this week as they always do as we gathered as a team to pray, discuss the direction of our shared ministry this week and discern this very scripture that would move us toward today. Their wisdom encouraged me to imagine steps forward. One teammate said, “I had to learn as a parent that it was important to say the words to my kids, “I was wrong,” when I was wrong.” Another noted the irony that we immediately call someone a flip flopper when they’ve changed their mind over time on something important. “Do we not want leaders who are still learning and growing?” he asked? Another teammate described the nature of wisdom James describes as one that reminds us to listen to those who are suffering or oppressed as Jesus so often did. My staffmate said, “The ones closest to the pain are often closest to the answer.” Another said, “Regardless of your take on global warming, how can we not desire to take greater care of the planet that is taking care of us?” We also laughed together when one staff member realized that the big box store for pets was not merely Pets Mart but in fact, Pet Smart. Mind blown. It was as enlightening a moment as any other we shared that morning!
We are all on the way, taking another step in the direction of Christ. The more steps we commit together to take in that direction, the more that ultimate destination of a peaceable kingdom will come into view. It’s not easy. It’s never easy. But it’s so worth the effort.
Heading into this series on Creationtide, I got to have lunch with a friend who had just returned from a once-in-a-lifetime adventure through the Grand Canyon – rafting and camping along the way. He’s been an ongoing processing partner the last few weeks as we’ve sifted through our relationship to the Creator and the Created Order. He sent me a word this week that he’s allowing me to share with you today for which I am most grateful. He wrote,
A final thought from the trip. Though our guide claimed he knew where we were, it was always approximately, and we never had much sense of our polar orientation or direction. There were occasional hints of East or West but they could, and often did swap places, creating a little confusion. Only when we were flying back to the starting point were we able to look down and realize where we had been and what was going on. So, it is with the trip of life. We are born, and then are carried in the stream of time to the end of our trip. It takes us, we do not change it. We can fight it, but it’s far better to learn from it, and enjoy the experience. Luckily there is a brief moment of an Overview, and having seen it you understand everything. I believe Jesus saw it.
And, he added, a sense that perhaps, we just might come to see it too. Wisdom.
Wisdom is harvesting peace. Close your eyes and hear clearly the characteristics James suggests will make us harvesters of such peace; that will begin to reveal to us the Great Overview of God. Wisdom is first pure. Wisdom is peaceable. Wisdom is gentle. Wisdom is willing to yield. Wisdom is full of mercy. Wisdom bears good fruit. Wisdom is without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. How we spend our days is how we spend our lives. It’s almost harvest time. Be a harvester of peace today, and tomorrow, and before you know it, you will have discovered the peace of Christ in your soul, in your family, your community, perhaps even among the entirety of Creation.
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 The United Methodist Book of Worship (Nashville: United Methodist Publishing House, 1992), 425-26.
 Thomas Merton, “The Power of Nonviolence”
 Johnson, Luke Timothy. “James 3:13–4:10,” The New Interpreter’s Bible. Vol. XII. Nashville: Abingdon, 1998, 212.
 Version as shared by Bob Kaylor, Senior Writer of Homiletics. “Two Kinds of Smart.” September 2012. This work influenced this message through the link to Johnson’s commentary and the connection to the movie, Limitless.