This question from the letter of James, stands at the heart of his letter about our works and our faith. The last couple of weeks the letter of James has been talking about practical Christianity, living the Word of God in our lives. We are called not to be just armchair Christians, who watch from our seats, for James tells us that our faith if it has no works, no life, is dead; instead we are called to be in the game, living our faith through our lives… It is Practical Christianity 101.
Who is wise and understanding among you?
James talks about such wisdom shown by our good life born out of gentleness, the wisdom that gives us peace, mercy, good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. The true wisdom that connects our faith & our lives to the world around us. He challenges Christians then and now who are filled with envy and who get into quarrels:
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....James wants us to focus on those in need instead of ourselves and our petty conflicts, to remember our God, who yearns jealously for the spirit that he has made to dwell in each and every one of us. Our God wants to be with us, and James wants us to put away those desires and disputes in ourselves that get in the way of our connection. These do not matter – it is our connection with God that does - Submit yourselves therefore to God, says James. And then he says… Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.
We have witnessed just the opposite in our society the last few years, where we have not resisted the devil, in fact the cravings, pettiness, and the focus on our own pleasures has caused greed, corruption and debt to run rampant. And we have paid the price for such excess, for such envy and selfish ambition has lead to disorder and wickedness and our current recession. As one author put it,
“Those who are wise and understanding exhibit a good life filled with works done out of gentleness. However, those who have bitterness and selfish ambition in their hearts cannot exhibit such works. To this second group James commands, "Do not be boastful and false to the truth." Speaking out of bitterness and selfish ambition denies the truth of the gospel and James wants none of it.” (Rev. Dr. LeAnn Snow Flesher)Such bitterness and ambition leads to a life that is full of me and forgets about the we. It loses all sense of balance and hope, and thinks only of the now. Who is wise and understanding among you? The answer, according to James, is the one who gives him or herself to selfless service and honor, reaching out to those in need.
As someone who loves football, there are plenty of stories every year of players who are arrogant, prideful, who do horrible things, or can’t seem to retire, whose antics on and off the field make me wonder why I love the game. But there are stories too, when I hear Good News…
This past week, St. Paul’s Christian Academy in TN had their "Dear Dads Breakfast" and Steve McNair’s two youngest children, Trenton & Tyler, were wondering what was going to happen with them. Their father, Steve McNair, a retired All Pro QB, was murdered in July. Vince Young, a QB for the Tennessee Titans, someone who has had his own troubles but who continues to try to improve his life, surprised the children when he showed up at their house and took them to the breakfast. The kids were thrilled. When asked why he had done it, Vince Young said, “it was just out of love. Steve would do it for me. He pretty much did it for me when I was growing up. I have a history with the boys and I want to do anything I can. I am their big brother.” (You can read about it here.)
It was a wonderful gesture and reminds me of what Jesus asks of us… Then Jesus took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me."
And just like Vince Young did with Trenton & Tyler, when we act out of love, out of those good fruits, it is then that we find that we are welcoming not only children and neighbors, but we are also welcoming God. The key to being a Christian is how we live that love and wisdom out in service to others…
In our first reading from Proverbs, using the image of a capable wife, Proverbs praises her, for She opens her hand to the poor, and reaches out her hands to the needy. She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. And we are called to do likewise, to open our hands and our hearts, to speak with kindness and generosity, for it is then wisdom and understanding flows. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Jesus said.
Christ calls us to embrace our faith as we seek to teach our children and live our lives: to love God and one another with honesty and faithfulness, without condition or expectation, putting aside our disputes, our cravings, our envy and selfish ambitions. For when we open our hearts to Jesus' Gospel of love and service, kindness and compassion, generosity and forgiveness, we can help our sons and daughters become authentic followers of the Jesus of selflessness and compassion. And that is both wise and understanding. Amen.