Wisdom From Above – Sept. 23, 2018
Wisdom From Above
A Sermon by Rev. Karen A. Mendes
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
September 23, 2018
Main Idea: We are to live wisely together.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
For the month of September we are pondering the beautiful and challenging Letter of James. In the first week of our series James called us to be doers of the Word who understand that “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (1:27). In the second week he challenged us to recognize that “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (2:17). This week James shows us how to live a good life, something to which we all aspire. The secret to a good life is wisdom but James tells us that not all wisdom is the same.
The letter of James is a short collection of directives given to an early Christian community. Tradition holds that the author is James, the brother of Jesus, who was a leader of the early church in Jerusalem. In the book of Acts we can read about two occasions where James helped reconcile differences between Paul and the church in Jerusalem (Acts 15:12-21, 21:17-26). From this evidence and from the letter itself, we can affirm that James was a leader with great wisdom.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines wisdom as “The quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgement; the quality of being wise.” (oxforddictionaries.com). The Cambridge dictionary defines wisdom as “the ability to make good judgments based on what you have learned from your experience, or the knowledge and understanding that gives you this ability” (dictionary.cambridge.org). In general parlance, wisdom is about learning from your knowledge and experiences; good or bad.
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.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, FOTW, Year B, Vol 4, p. 91). Wisdom, like faith, requires both thought and action. And there are two kinds of wisdom that James sees evident in his community; wisdom from below and wisdom from above.
Now if you will remember from two weeks ago, James observed two understandings of life which are incompatible with each other; the way of the world and the way of God. The way of the world can be imagined as a vertical axis where life is about finding our spot on the ladder, looking up with respect, deference and envy at those above us, looking down with judgement, derision, and fear at those below us, and always striving to move up while blocking anyone from passing us.
In the same way, wisdom from below corresponds with the vertical axis of the way of the world. “For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.” (3:16) “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You 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. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.” (4:1-3) The wisdom that we learn from these experiences is that we must always be in competition with others. Even our prayers are to give us an advantage over others. In Bible study we called this the logic of envy. Those above us must be wiser and better than we are and those below must have nothing of value to share. Those with more power think they are more wise and all think that wisdom, like possessions, must be hoarded rather than shared. It is more than ironic that James identifies the wisdom which has us scrambling to put ourselves above others, as earthly, unspiritual, devilish, from below.
The way of God as described by James can be imagined as a horizontal axis where life is about recognizing the good gifts that God gives to all of creation; looking side to side and seeing that all are gifted, all are loved, and all deserve to have what they need.
Wisdom from above is given to all equally by God. James says “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.” (3:17-18) This definition of wisdom at first glance seems like milquetoast, especially when considered from the way of the world; “Oh Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, what a pushover.” But in reality, this wisdom requires courage and perseverance to reject the vertical axis, the logic of envy, to embrace a logic of love. Wisdom from above sees the power of love in community, the power of considering others beyond ourselves, the power of building bonds rather than animosities, the power of joy and peace. It is “works done with gentleness born of wisdom” that lead to a good life, a life lived in the fullness of God.
For James, only the wisdom from above is true wisdom. The other is based on a skewed perception of reality which can never bring peace, never bring joy, never bring life. The way of the world is not the ultimate reality, only the way of God. James tells us “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and [evil] will flee from you. Draw near to God, and [God] will draw near to you.” Instead of clawing our way up past others, we all have the opportunity and the ability to grow closer to God and to each other. Because God is always showering us with blessings, when we turn to God, God is ready to welcome and support us. It is interesting that James says “Resist the devil, and [evil] will flee from you.” That fits with the logic of envy where we have no value beyond what we have or can produce. If we aren’t easy pickings, then evil will look elsewhere.
Choosing the wisdom from above rather than from below is not a one time choice where we get in the club and never need to think about again. Growing in wisdom and understanding is a lifetime pursuit. This week I provided a case study for how to live both wisely and unwisely. (I was unwise first!) At a church meeting, I made a proposal using the wisdom from below (not intentionally of course, but I am humbled by the providence that this was the Scripture text for today.) I said we needed a particular program because all the other downtown churches have it. We needed it because we need more money. To be honest, we needed it because I wanted it and since I’m the pastor, they should do what I say!
Then I read today’s Scripture again, Bam! I was humbled and I was able to recognize my mistake. The way I made my proposal came from envy, fear, and ambition. Using the wisdom from above led me to recognize the great gifts we have right now, to listen to the needs of those who do the work, to lift up the bonds which connect us, and to trust God to lead us forward. The wisdom from below that I first used did not help anything. In fact, it made me and other people angry and unsettled. It did nothing to strengthen our community. The wisdom from above; “pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy” – this brings peace and positive energy.
In our life together it is so easy to become worried or stressed or annoyed or even angry when things don’t go our way. This happens in our families, at work, and even here in our church community. We cast blame and jump to conclusions. We become discouraged and closed to new ideas. But James [and Jesus!] lead us toward a life together filled with peace and mercy and good fruit. Maybe we should have this text hung on the wall of our new conference room or wherever we gather for meetings! We can strive to speak with peace and gentleness and, as James said in chapter 1, “to be quick to listen and slow to speak”. This doesn’t mean silent gatherings where we sit on our hands, afraid to share our ideas. It means that we listen to each other with openness and respect. We speak to one another with encouragement and hope. We grow in our relationships with each other so that we look forward to being together. We expect joy and humor and truth from each other. As we strengthen our practice of wisdom from above, we can use it throughout our lives; at work and at home as well as here. Think of how our political and wider world would change for the better if we all stepped off the vertical axis, the logic of envy, to embrace the logic of love. This wisdom from above is a gift that we can model for the bitterly divided society in which we live.
This week I began reading a new book by Brian McLaren entitled “The Great Spiritual Migration; How the World’s Largest Religion is Seeking a Better Way to Be Christian.” (His titles are always long.) In it, McLaren quotes the Letter of James as he describes moving from an understanding of church as a system of beliefs to church as a community of love. The wisdom from above is the key to this transformation and the vital part of how we can change the church and the world for the better.
James asks “Who is wise and understanding among you?” May we show by our good lives that our works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. May we always strive to live by the wisdom from above.
Let us pray,
Loving God, we thank you for your great grace and sustenance. Empower us to live by your wisdom. Encourage us to trust in your guidance. May our lives together be models and conduits of your love. In Jesus’ name, Amen.