Wisdom Wars

by susan on September 21, 2015

wisdomWisdom Wars
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Rev. Susan Rogers
Sunday, September 20th

What was the last decision you made and how did you make it? Maybe it was whether or not to get up and gather with us this morning.

What was the last big decision you made and how did you make it? Maybe it was choosing between job opportunities or schools or which car or home to purchase.

It is interesting to think about how we make the decisions we make. After all, how we spend our time, money, energy and days on this earth speaks loudly about what we value. It says something about who we are at the core.

According to New York Times columnist David Brooks, how we live is either geared toward our resumes or our eulogies.

Resumes highlight our achievements. They list the virtues that contribute to our external success. In a culture that is all about celebrating personal achievement and importance, resume building & living abounds. Brooks says we are living in the “culture of…the Big Me” (from The Road to Character).

Listen to this. In 1950 when a Gallup poll asked people if they considered themselves to be a very important person, 12 percent said yes. When the same question was asked in 2005, that number moved from 12 percent to 80 percent. There has been a BIG shift. We live in a culture that celebrates personal achievement and importance and that urges us to spend our days pursuing fame, wealth and satisfaction. That’s the way of resume-building.

Instead of our resumes, how often do we think about our eulogies? How often do we think about what others will say about us when we are no longer on this earth? It may be worth thinking about. After all, if Maya Angelou is right, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

Eulogies are about character and depth. They are about who we are, not our list of accomplishments.

After spending a few weeks in James, I get the sense that he would resonate with these two potential paths. He has been describing them to his readers all along. He has encouraged listening & yet warned against being hearers alone & not doers of the word. He has condemned acts of favoritism or treating some better than others because of their external successes.

In short, he has challenged shallow, self-centered living and has held up another, Jesus-centered way of being in the world.

Today’s passage puts a lot of what has already been shared together. Let’s begin where we left off last week, with verse 13 of chapter 3.

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.

James begins with the bad news first.

He encourages some self-evaluation. In our hurried pace, how often to we stop and reflect on where we are and how we got there. We are more prone to run faster than to slow down and search our souls. Maybe you are fortunate though and have some friends like James who force you to pause and take a good, long look in the mirror.

James asks: when you take a look at yourself, do you see envy (always trying to get what others have)? When you look in the mirror, do you see self-centered ambition? Do you spend your time boasting?

Because if so, you are not following divine wisdom. Instead, you’re on a different path. He calls it an earthly, unspiritual, devilish way. This way is disorderly and filled with foul practices (translated “wickedness” in our text).

That sounds so much like our resume-building tendency, doesn’t it?
It leads us to be frantic, scheming, self-centered and at times fills our lives with chaos. We are constantly trying to rearrange things to appear successful, or at the very least better off than everyone else.

The good news, though, is that there is another way. James calls this the way of “wisdom from above”:

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.

James calls the alternative “wisdom from above”. It’s wisdom from another place and if it’s from another place, another way, another kingdom, then it will not make sense here. It will not always add up. It may seem odd or uncomfortable. It will be unpopular. It will often be rejected or appear unsuccessful.

It will result in things like: peace, humility, mercy, good fruits and a harvest of righteousness – traits which are seldom rewarded, praised or promoted. You can’t exactly brag about how humble you are…

There will not be a trace of hypocrisy or partiality. We’ve heard that a few times already from James. Apparently, there were some who could fake right-living really well. They could talk a good game, but their day-to-day choices did not match their public show.

I imagine we are getting the idea. If we are to be learners of the Jesus way,
if we want to live as wise citizens of the kingdom of God, then we need some wisdom from above.

So, where do we begin? James tells us:

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.

There is a tension within us. Part of us knows that we need wisdom from above; another part is constantly lured into resume-centered living. We need help.

So, what are the practices that help us return? (several were named by those gathered: letting go of what you can’t control, reading scripture, social media fasting, and others)

It’s not surprising that no one named suffering. After all, none of us set out to suffer so that we can gain wisdom from it. Yet, one of the best teachers of wisdom is suffering.

On Thursday night, my daughter’s middle school vocal department hosted a WWII Remembrance Concert. There was a somewhat disconcerting and somber spirit throughout the night.

One song in particular has stuck with me. The lyrics of Inscription of Hope come from an inscription found on a cellar wall in Cologne, Germany during World War II. It is believed to have been scrawled by a Jewish child hiding from the Nazis. I can’t think of a place that reflects more anguish and suffering. Yet, here are the words that were found there:

I believe in the sun Even when it is not shining
And I believe in love
Even when there’s no one there
And I believe in GOD
Even when HE is silent
I believe through every trial
There is always a way….
But sometimes
In this suffering
And hopeless despair
My heart cries for shelter
To know someone’s there
But a voice rises
Within me
“Hold on my child
I’ll give you strength
I’ll give you hope
Just stay a little while”
May there someday be sunshine
May there someday be happiness
May there someday be love
May there someday
Be peace…

That is wisdom from above. It speaks in the darkness of utter defeat.
It invites us to be part of something much bigger than ourselves. It moves us out of self-centeredness & into a bigger, fuller picture of what life is all about.

A warning though: confronting suffering & failure will never be popular.
Neither will community, giving, service and sacrifice.

Wise living is often counter-cultural & counter-comfort.
So, we must stop. We must stop trying to prove ourselves and confront ourselves instead.

Are you working on your resume? Or your eulogy?
Are we trusting earthy wisdom or wisdom from above?

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