Back to Basics with James: Who is Wise?
This is our fourth Sunday in the company of St. James, who has been walking us through some of the basics of Christian life. We started at the beginning of the month with the most basic questions: "Who is God? Who are we?" And really, everything else flows from how we answer those questions. It wouldn't be a bad idea to show up every week, just to think about these things again. The answer that James leads us towards is that God is generous, relational, and faithful. From the first, God gives. God gives lavishly, abundantly: all creation sings the extravagant generosity of our God, if we're paying attention.
God is intimate, not vague and indifferent. James, like Jesus, calls God Father--which is not because God is a man in the sky, but because God is intimate and personal, concerned for the details of our lives. God is not like our parents just a bit, or even quite a bit better; God is the One who cares for us beyond measure, and who gathers us up, like a mother hen gathers her chicks, into the household of his love.
And God is faithful to the end. In Scripture, in prayer, in worship, in Jesus we come to know that there is no length to which God won't go to be with us and for us, and to make all things new.
And these three things, if we get them into our hearts and minds, into our bodies and lives, reveal who we truly are, who we're meant to be. James says that we're meant to be "first fruits" of God's new season. Our changes lives are to be a sign of the newness that God will work for all things. Our lives are meant to be a reminder of who and how God is. How we live is meant to be a hint at the way that the world will be when God gets the world God wants--when God's kingdom, God's will and way is on earth as in heaven.
Teaching us how to live that way is really what James' letter is about. His shorthand for this kingdom of God shaped life is wisdom. Wisdom isn't about being smart, or savvy. Wisdom is the complete integration of what we believe with how we live. It's about letting who God says we are, and who we say God is have its full effect in every moment, everywhere. It's about becoming more and more like Jesus, who is the Word made flesh: faith-full word and action, perfectly in one.
In Christian-speak, we're meant to be disciples of Jesus, and disciples are apprentices learning to do what the Master does. In the presence of Jesus we learn to integrate what we say and hear and sing, with how we live. James, for his part, refuses to let us do the things we do in here, and then forget them when we get out there. If he has anything to do with it, we won't be able to live lives that are divided into neat and tidy and completely separate categories. We can't live as though sometimes we deal with God, and the rest of the time we get to make it up as we see fit.
So, when James asks at the beginning of today's passage, "Who is wise among you?" that's what he's talking about. He's asking who understands what God is really like. Not, of course, "who has God figured out and nicely packaged, ready to be pulled out whenever it's convenient, or we're feeling spiritual?" But, "who is learning to live life in God's generosity, intimacy, and faithfulness?" Who is learning what it means to be the first fruits of God's new season, the evidence in the world of the hope, peace, joy, and love of Jesus, for us and for all things?
I think that one of the reasons that James is not a terribly popular letter in the Church is that he's kind of relentless in asking these types of questions--questions that demand some self-reflection. Martin Luther famously called James "an epistle of straw" which is both evidence that really smart people can say really stupid things, and a reminder that James isn't afraid to cause us some problems. Luther's life was changed when he discovered St. Paul's vision of salvation by grace. And so he felt like James was a bit too heavy on the works side of things, a bit too legalistic. And James is demanding, sometimes almost harsh--Faith without works is dead, he says! But nowhere is he suggesting that we are not saved by God's grace in Christ. He just wants to see that grace come to life. James actually believes that what we say about God can really and truly come to life in us. He takes us really seriously.
James wants us to go deep. When James speaks, what becomes clear is that it's both insufficient and unsatisfying (it's boring!) to have a kind of surface-level faith. Doctrine and belief is great, but not if it stays in our heads, or never gets much further than the tip of our tongues. Earlier in the letter he says that it's great to believe the right things. The trouble is even the demons believe the right things! Believing rightly is only half the deal. We actually get to live the things we believe.
It's not a threat, it's a promise! We don't have to have divided lives! We don't have to keep the world-changing good news of the gospel in a private and appropriate corner; we don't have to keep what we've come to know of God in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus to ourselves. That we do is a lie that's been around since the beginning of the Church. It just isn't true. James wants us to let our lives sing the gospel. Or as St. Paul puts it, "Whatever you do, in word or deed, do it in the name of Jesus, to the glory of God." We can do that. We have divine authority to do that and nothing less. We are daughters and sons of God's household of love--we bear that name.
Let your good life show the wisdom of God. Let your good life be the evidence of the things we know and say.
Which, of course, is easier preached than practiced. James knows that's going to make us weird. He knows it could cost us just about anything and maybe everything. He knows that if we choose to live in the will and way of God, if we choose to let the gospel come to life in our lives, it's going to put us in conflict with what he calls the ways of the world. He's pretty black and white about this, and though most of us tend to prefer a little gray, it's worth paying attention here. There are two kinds of wisdom he says. There are two ways that can come to life in us. The first is a kind of earthly wisdom. And given that this is 2000 or so years old, it's startlingly familiar. This first kind of wisdom is characterized by envy and selfish ambition.
Goodness, we know about these things, don't we? I mean, there's an entire and very lucrative advertising industry built on making us envious. Capitalism--our culture's most precious religious commitment--more or less works on the notion that we could have, even should have more than we currently do. In fact, it might be irresponsible not to get more than we already have. And when we do get more, we can do exactly what James tells us is completely backwards: we can spend it on our own pleasures. No wonder we don't really like James. An awful lot of folks have been happily converted to the belief that envy is somehow virtuous; that we should want what others have (and more); and that when we get more, it will satisfy our heart's desire when we finally get it.
One of the odd things about living in an apartment building is that lots of other people have lived in the same space before. Which means that our mailbox has been used by lots of other people, who don't always change their addresses--at least for things that aren't important. This week a promotional magazine for a men's clothing store showed up in our box. I'm pretty confident that the person who requested it isn't coming back for it, and it was free anyways, so I had a look through. And I have to say, it was rather eye-opening. I don't know if anybody actually buys these clothes, but I have to assume so. The prices were breathtaking. Did you can buy a vest that costs more than a month's rent in Vancouver? A vest! It doesn't even keep your arms warm! One shirt is more expensive than my entire wardrobe. There were shoes that I wouldn't wear because I'd be afraid to get dirt on the soles. Most people don't go into ministry for the money, but I had my eyes open to the fact that I may be in the wrong profession. I didn't know such luxury actually existed in the real world.
And of course I know that what I was reading and seeing in that magazine is not the "real world" by most metrics. But there's part of me that starts thinking that I might actually kind of like to have a $7000 jacket. Looked pretty good on the model. And the materials must be magical. I assume it's woven from unicorn manes or something. And suddenly I find that I'm envious--maybe not quite bitterly envious, as James has it, but the seed's been planted. Because it's fairly clear from the articles and headlines in this magazine, that this is something I'm supposed to aspire to, that any thinking person would want. Apparently there is a sort of self-evident wisdom. At the heart of it is the glorification of selfish ambition, envy's terribly attractive cousin.
I shudder to think what James would have to say about a culture in which such a magazine is even possible. And my point is not to divert attention from ourselves by casting judgment on people who happen to like expensive clothes. I don't think even James is fundamentally against pleasure (though the jury might be still out on that). But Scripture makes pretty clear that pleasure can be good or bad, an idol or a blessing for us and our neighbors. Still I think that this starts to confirm James' point: that when envy and selfish ambition are our motivation, things get disordered and sometimes downright wicked.
For most of us, I expect that that idea of "disorder" is more helpful than wickedness. I assume that most of us are not willing to kill for what we don't have, as James says. I don't think my life is marked by a lot of "wickedness," but there's undoubtedly some disorder. If we just manage to keep ourselves from murdering someone for something we want, that's good, but it's not the whole point. The point is what's in our hearts. The image of disorder can help us remember that if we're not attentive, we can be easily seduced into putting our energy and resources into things that aren't actually worth it, in the end. Jesus warns against storing up stuff that moth and rust destroy. A several thousand dollar vest is just a really fancy moth buffet. Envy and selfish ambition get our priorities out of whack. They have us surrender ourselves to things that don't last, to idols that can't save, desiring things that don't satisfy. And worse, they cause conflicts and disputes in us and among us. They separate and divide. They set whole nations against each other, and neighbor against neighbor. They have us valuing things over people, gifts over the Giver.
James wants us to take a good look, to do some discernment, and pay attention to the places in our lives where our motivations are disordered, where we're letting envy and selfish ambition hold sway in sometimes awfully subtle ways. Where does the bitter taste of envy seep into our words and actions? Where are we striving not just to use our good gifts, our skills and talents, in ways that prosper, but trying to justify ourselves, to earn and prove our value, get ahead of others? James wants us to consider our relationships, our work, how we spend our time. This won't be just about money and fancy clothes--I've taken a bit of a cheap shot there. The reality is that we can be envious and selfish about all kinds of things, even apparently good things (families, work, skills, even faith).
James wants us to notice where we're envious and selfishly ambitious, and then to trade those attitudes in for a different kind of wisdom altogether. It's a wisdom that comes from the presence of God in our midst, from eyes and hearts trained the One who is the true source and sustainer of all that we are; it's our desires oriented to the One who can truly satisfy our deepest longings. James wants us to trade our disorderedness for the way of purity and peace, ambitiously gentle, self-giving, and merciful. James wants us to walk a path lined with good fruits! It's a way that learns to see clearly where God's image is and where it isn't. It's a way that doesn't collect dead things, but reaps a living harvest of righteousness, the fruit of peace in abundance beyond imagining.
The truth is: this isn't earth shattering stuff. By worldly standards, it's not particularly interesting at all. There's a simplicity to it all, compared with the sparkling towers of envy and selfish ambition. These are insignificant seeds we're called to plant, easily overlooked. But, in the strange way of the gospel--and this happens over and over again, in the company of Jesus--what seems insignificant is the very stuff that grows into a life of abundance, a life that is really worth living.
That's what James wants for us. That's what Jesus calls us into. And it's possible. It's not easy, but it's possible, not by our own feats of will and effort, but by the grace of God at work in us. "Submit yourselves to God," the old pastor says. As a people who don't generally like to be told what to do, we may not like the ring of that. But I'm convinced that what James means is that we are free to bring our whole selves into God's presence: all of the best of us, our strengths and our beauty, and even the stuff in our lives that is disordered. Even the stuff that is wicked. And when we do that, when we take the risk of letting God have God's way in our lives, we find ourselves in the presence of the One who makes order out of chaos, who turns darkness to light, who makes the dead live. When we bring our whole selves into God's presence, even the stuff we'd keep hidden from each other, we offer it to the One who can take what is messed up and make it new, what is broken and make it whole.
Listen to what James says: "Resist the devil and he will flee. Draw near to God and God will draw near to you." Evil is cowardly. The stuff that masquerades as power is, in the end, weakness. It's fleeting. The disordered ways of envy and selfishness make us the center of the world, and we just don't have that kind of staying power. But when we offer our lives back to God, the way first fruits are meant to be offered, we don't lose our lives, we gain them. When we bring ourselves to God and let God do what God does, we find who we are bound up with who God is, our gifts, our selves joined with the One who can do abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine.
When we bring ourselves joyfully and willingly to God we learn just how seriously God takes us. We learn the wild and wonderful truth that God is quite prepared to see heaven's odd and beautiful kingdom come to life among us, whoever we are and wherever we go.
May it be so. Amen.