Sunday, September 23, 2012

With Gentle Good Works

With Gentle Good Works
25th Sunday in Ordinary Time 
Robert J. Elder, Pastor           
September 23, 2012            

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

Who is wise and understanding among you?
Show by your good life
that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.

What do you suppose would characterize gentle good works? James suggests that they are works that are “born of wisdom.” But how is one to know when the good we do is “born of wisdom”? James suggests that there is one kind of wisdom that is earthbound, and another kind of wisdom that is “from above.” He knows that our spirits are at war within us because we have a desire for the things of the world, and the wisdom of the world teaches us to want – even to crave – these things. Yet it is through gentle works on behalf of others – works that set self aside in favor of the good of others – it is by this that we can live lives characterized by a different sort of wisdom, a wisdom from above.
James identifies two kinds of wisdom. We know what they both are, if we just stop for a moment to think about it. The first kind of wisdom is the kind with which we are entirely too familiar. It is what James thinks of as earthly wisdom, worldly wisdom. This is not a philosopher’s “straw man” wisdom, some obviously phony wisdom that James sets up for a fall from the beginning, like someone who is the obvious, scripted villain at a professional wrestling match, someone we know to jeer from the beginning. This is not something about which we can all nod our heads knowingly, having long since grown beyond it into fully mature Christian wisdom. James knows the reality of life in the world is never that simple and straightforward. He knows that conversion to the way of Christ requires conversion, turning, over and over again, time and again. It requires hundreds of little conversions from an earthbound existence which seems entirely too normal for us to see it unless we are given new, gospel glasses to see it for what it is. And even then, we often fail to see it. James knows this, and we do too.
James knows there is double-mindedness even among those who long to be the friends of God, followers of Christ. The wisdom of the world is not easy to avoid, much less abandon. A friend of mine once said that in today’s world, it is as if the radio station virtually everyone listens to has these for its call letters WIFM – “What’s In It for Me?” The percentage of Americans who consider themselves to be happy peaked somewhere in the 1950s, and has been decreasing ever since. In an era less threatened by nuclear destruction than in the 1950s, and more wealthy by anyone’s material measure, why is this so?
I grew up in Oklahoma, was just there July for a High School reunion after having been away for probably 25 years, and I had almost forgotten the reverence with which Will Rogers is still held there. Remember his brief thought on the self-justifying mental gymnastics we can do when it comes to the amount of money we think we need to be happy? He said, in his characteristically concise way, “Whenever someone says, ‘It’s not the money, it’s the principle of the thing,’ it’s the money!” We can be self-serving even when we try to fool ourselves into thinking we are not. About a dozen years ago, the late Meg Greenfield wrote in a Newsweek article that the most dangerous people in our world are not the ones who lust for money or sex, but the ones who lust for “greatness,” for power and influence, for notice by “history.” Some such people will subvert democracy, will destroy other people, and often are so singlemindedly dedicated to their cause that they cannot regard as truth anything that did not come from their own mouths.
This is “What’s in it for me” raised to a level that passes for worldly wisdom. It confronts us every day, and is seductive in part because it is so familiar, seems to be so true in its context. It is inscribed not only in the things we read, see on TV, and hear in conversation in the surrounding culture, but also because it is in our very hearts.[1] When we feel ambiguous about our faith, when some of the basic tenets of our faith strike us as “not realistic,” or “too lofty,” we can be sure we are being seduced by worldly wisdom, and James knows it is not easy to sluff it off. We must be converted to the wisdom of the ways of Christ over and over again, because there are so many times when we fail to see it as wisdom at all, and fall back on a more familiar, more earth-bound wisdom instead.
James declared that most of the difficulties within the fellowship of Christ, not to mention in the world at large, come from the conflict between our own internal cravings for things we do not have, and our higher, more altruistic, better nature. When our cravings for the material things of the world take over, we look into our spirits, sense an emptiness there, and presume that we can fill it with the goods we can obtain. James called this adultery, not in a sexual but in its theological sense, as a primary love for something other than God is always described in the Old and New Testaments, a love for other than the One to whom we have promised our devotion. The only way to fill our hearts by our own power is first to forsake the power and presence of God.
 “Complete consistency in life is not given by a first commitment. It is slowly and painfully won through many conversions.” This helps us better to understand “what James means by faith being tested through many trials (1:2-3), and why it should be counted as all joy when such trials occur. Each...test is a possibility for growth and new conversion from the measure of the world to the measure” of the kingdom.[2]
James demonstrates that envy leads directly toward murder, as, earlier, he had said that desire gives birth to sin; and when sin comes to full term it brings forth death (1:15). Modern American advertising culture is virtually chained to the logic of envy, by which you buy cottage cheese because you want slim legs like the model in the commercial, or a new Lexus because you want the girl in the commercial talking on the phone with her friend about her blind date to gaze, slack-jawed at you, as you step from the car. We live in a time in which “to be” seems almost synonymous with “to have,” and to have more means to be more, guaranteed to generate a “certain sorrow” when someone else has something that we do not, accompanied by the desire to do whatever is necessary to acquire what is not possessed. When children murder each other for a pair of athletic shoes or a team logo jacket, we see James words about envy leading to murder coming true with a vengeance, all in a culture of manufactured need to which we are blind most of the time.
The antidote to all this worldly wisdom is a wisdom that comes from above, and we begin to acquire this wisdom as we move toward doing works which give evidence of the things we say we believe. Gentle good works, the kind that do not require trumpet fanfares or award ceremonies or any notice at all. Gentle good works will never win the Nobel Prize, but they are the stuff of wisdom that comes from above.
The Martyred Salvadoran Archbishop, Oscar Romero, placed it in perspective for me in a prayer he wrote before he was murdered in his church by those who sought a more earthbound submission from him:
A Prayer of Archbishop Romero[3]
It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view.
    The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
    it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of
the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete,
    which is another way of saying that
    the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that should be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection,
    no pastoral visit brings wholeness,
No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water the seeds already planted,
    knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything.
    and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something,
    and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete,
    but it is a beginning,
    a step along the way,
    an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter 
       and to do the rest.
We may never see the end results,
    but that is the difference
    between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
    ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future that is not our own.

Copyright © 2012 Robert J. Elder

[1] New Interpreters’ Bible, Abingdon, p. 212.
[2] New Interpreters’ Bible, Abingdon, p. 212-213.
[3] Source: Bottom Drawer meeting Note 3242 by Max Glenn on