5 April 2020
Today would have been Palm Sunday. Actually, according to the calendar, it still is Palm Sunday. But because of the coronavirus, we have entered in to what I’m calling an extended period of Lent. When the time comes, and when we can once again all gather together in safety, we will walk with Jesus through Holy Week, and then we will celebrate Easter with all of the joy and the assurance of sins forgiven, and the healing and the wholeness that resurrection brings to us. I’m looking forward to that, and I’m hoping that all of you are too.
The first verse of our passage today struck me like a ton of bricks. “Who is wise and understanding among you?” Am I wise and understanding? Maybe. Am I afflicted with any of the evils that James discusses in this passage? Of course I am. Is there anyone listening to this, who is afflicted with any of these evils? Probably. So let’s hold hands by keeping our social distance, forget that I’m the preacher, and let’s journey down this path together, headed in the direction of becoming wiser and more understanding.
First off, what does it mean to be wise and understanding? This seems to be James’ goal for his readers and he seems to tie it very closely to something that he calls our “good life” which I suspect is something that is very different from the way that our culture defines “good life”. “Good life” seems to be on hold, these days, anyway.
The first thing that James encourages us to do, is to get friendly with the confession of sin. It is confession time, James implies, and what needs to be confessed is bitter envy and selfish ambition. Both bitter envy and selfish ambition are almost positive attributes in our world. Envy motivates, and ambition empowers. Those are good things, right? Maybe not so much.
So, what is bitter envy and selfish ambition? It is stuff that is all about me. It is me, myself and I. All three of me. It is me before you. It is me at the expense of you. Envy is jealousy, but it is subtle jealousy. It is covetousness. It is wanting what others have. It is hating others who have it better than I do. Selfish ambition is also me, myself and I. It is making sure that all three of me gets to be number one. It is self focus, it is unhealthy introspection. It is seeking the praise and the adoration of others, and dismissing them out of hand when I don’t get that praise and adoration. It is greed.
But the worst thing about bitter envy and selfish ambition is that they both work very hard at proving to us that they do not exist. They’re subtle, deceptive and demonic. Given the chance, they will destroy us and others before we even realize it. James says that “where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will be disorder and wickedness of every kind.” We know what wickedness is, but disorder is a fast spreading disease that breeds confusion and hatred and violence. Part of our prayers everyday ought to be that during this present crisis, that disorder will not prevail.
And so bitter envy and selfish ambition has got to go. We’ve got to get rid of them. But in order to get rid of them, we’ve got to find them first. Most of the time we’ve so cleverly hidden them from others that we can’t even see them in ourselves any more. It is confession time. It is self examination time. It is time to peel away the layers of self protection and self righteousness that so cleverly deceive us. As James says, it is time to be truthful to the truth.
But the most important reason that we need to root out the bitter envy and the selfish ambition is so that we can live in community again with our sisters and brothers in Christ. Bitter envy and selfish ambition puts us mostly in relationship with ourselves. It excludes others, and that can get terribly lonely. And quite frankly, when bitter envy and selfish ambition is buried within us, we don’t get along very well with ourselves, either.
So, the first step to being wise and understanding is to confess our sins of bitter envy and selfish ambition, and to seek forgiveness from our God. And then, very, very important, to forgive ourselves. Forgiving ourselves is always incredibly difficult, but we must learn to do it. Most spiritual malaise comes form our inability or unwillingness to forgive ourselves.
And then, having been forgiven, we’ve got to learn to live in true community with our brothers and sisters. The coronavirus has certainly altered the way in which we relate to one another. It has added another level of challenge. And so I encourage all of us to step up to that level, and perhaps we can do it by putting into practice much of what James mentions in this passage about maintaining our relationships with one another.
James says, “…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.” Okay, it’s a list, it is a list of good things, nice things, and it has some similarities to the Apostle Paul’s list of the fruits of the spirit, but creative people will ponder this list and discover ways to put these things into practice even though we are distanced from one another.
And so first off, we have pure. Pure is a lot of things, but mostly it means being undefiled by all of the crud that we wallow through on a daily basis. We have to live in this world, but we don’t have to be shaped and molded by it, and certainly not panicked by it. Living in panic is indeed a form of defilement. The Scriptures are found of repeating, do not be afraid, do not be afraid, over and over again to us, just so that we eventually get it.
After pure, there’s peaceableness. Peaceableness is often confused with passivity. The peaceable person is someone who actively encourages harmony. It is someone who works hard at creating unity. It is someone who can think objectively and creatively when disagreements surface. It is someone who is deeply committed to mutuality and respect for all persons in God’s family.
Then there’s gentleness. In this context, gentleness is forbearance and patience. It is avoiding placing unreasonable demands on someone else. It is avoiding harshness. It is being willing to walk alongside of someone who is lost or struggling, or distressed.
Next, and not far removed from gentleness, is a willingness to yield. This is not insisting that we get our own way. It is learning to pray, “nevertheless, not my will, but yours.” It is the ability to acknowledge that God has moved in the hearts of others, even when we disagree with them. It might even mean learning never to say, “I told you so.”
Next, we come to being full of mercy and good fruits. Mercy is the nature of God, but it can also be our nature. Mercy is the willingness to forgive. It is a willingness to reach out in love to those who have hurt us or upset us. It is a grappling with the solid and hard truth that we, ourselves, have hurt and offended God, and yet, even so, we have received mercy. A merciful person is a person who has a desire to restore broken and damaged relationships, and who is willing to take that first step of reconciliation.
The coronavirus has necessary separated us from one another physically. But in our time apart, during this extended period of Lent, let us focus on those things that draw us together, so that when we do come together, we will be closer to one another than we have ever been before.