Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | September 20, 2009

2009.09.20 “Want to Be Wise? Lessons in Practical Christianity”

Central United Methodist Church

“Want to Be Wise?

Lessons in Practical Christianity”

James 3: 13 – 4: 3, 7 – 8

Pastor David L. Haley

September 20th, 2009

 

       I found myself anxious and apprehensive this week; here’s why: I am deeply concerned over the level of anger erupting around our country, amplified and echoed by the media.

 

        It is one thing, of course, to disagree in political philosophy and national policy; it’s likely all of us do that.  It’s another thing when civil discourse becomes impossible, and anger irrational, unable even to be reasoned with. My fear is that once anger reaches a certain level, for whatever reasons, it is only a matter of time before someone uses it as a rationale for violence.  It’s not that great a leap to say, (1) “Those people are bad;” (2) “Those people are bad, someone should do something about them;” to (3) “Those people are bad, someone should do something about them, and I will do it.”

 

        For example, are you aware that according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, right-wing militias, ideologically driven tax defiers and sovereign citizens are gaining in numbers around the country? One law enforcement agency has found 50 new militia training groups — one of them made up of present and former police officers and soldiers, stirred up by such internet rumors as that our country is preparing to use the military against our own population, or that FEMA is readying concentration camps for our own citizens. Authorities around the country are reporting a worrying uptick in Patriot activities and propaganda. “This is the most significant growth we’ve seen in 10 to 12 years,” says one. “All it’s lacking is a spark. I think it’s only a matter of time before you see threats and violence.”

Do you know that as CNN anchor Rick Sanchez reported, when President Obama visited Phoenix, Ariz. on August 17, local minister Steven Anderson of the Faithful World Baptist Church, who expresses hatred for Obama in many of his sermons, told his congregation that he wished him dead? And, in a disturbing twist, it was discovered that Chris Broughton, the man who brought an AR 15 assault rifle to the Phoenix rally where Obama spoke, had attended Anderson’s sermon.

Do you know that President Obama receives 30 death threats a day, up 400% from George Bush?

As commentator David Gergen pointed out this week on Anderson Cooper’s 360, “When you look at all the names President Obama is called and the images he is portrayed, you only have to remember how during the Civil War, Lincoln was called such names and portrayed in such images, and remember what happened to him.” According to NY Times columnist Bob Herbert, “On Nov. 22, 1963, as they were preparing to fly to Dallas, a hotbed of political insanity, President Kennedy said to Mrs. Kennedy: “We’re heading into nut country today.” (NY Times, “The Scourge Persists,” September 18th, 2009.)

 

        No one in their right mind would ever wish this for President Obama or his family, not for any of our elected leaders, not for the well-being of our nation. Those of us old enough to have lived through the ‘60’s, and the assassinations of President Kennedy, Senator Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, don’t ever want to go through anything like that again.  It would be not only tragic, but unbearable.

 

        The truth is, for most of us, our encounter with irrational anger is not new.  While the levels of anger appear more widespread than we have seen in awhile, most of us have encountered irrational anger before, even in unlikely places, such as church.

 

        I have not – thankfully – encountered it here, but I have had churches where people banged on tables and stormed out of meetings; and yes, once at a Trustee meeting, a fight almost broke out. Which led me to an appreciation of the statement, “There are those who are born again, and those who are born AGAINST.” (It doesn’t matter what the issue is.) In such episodes it is rarely the logic of a particular issue, but the cumulative level on anger present in a congregation or individual. 

 

        And, if the truth be known, many of us – particularly men – have encountered an almost irrational anger in our lives, a deep-seated frustration that we’re not like we used to be and can’t do what we used to do, and people don’t act like we’d like them to act and the world isn’t like it used to be.  As psychologists point out, in men, anger is sometimes the opposite side of depression, so, as we age, and there are so many things we are frustrated by and can’t do anything about, we become perpetually angry, rather than depressed, as women tend more to do. One day, around something completely unrelated or disproportionate, it erupts.   

 

What does this anger come from?  Well, across the country, within churches, and within each of our lives, the causes are multiple, but in today’s reading from the Letter of James, we are pointed to a spiritual source of anger common to us all, from within ourselves.

This is my third sermon from the New Testament Letter of James, written late in the 1st Christian century to address serious concerns that were damaging congregations and Christians. 

 

So far, we have heard of James’ alarm at favoritism and indifference in the church; his warnings about Christian communication, about what we say and how we speak to and about one another.  Whatever had happened, it must have been nasty, and got James quite riled up.  (I think he must have pastored some of the same churches I did)

 

This week, he goes to the root of the problem, where such behavior comes from:

 

“Where do you think all these appalling wars and quarrels come from? Do you think they just happen? Think again. They come about because you want your own way, and fight for it deep inside yourselves. You lust for what you don’t have and are willing to kill to get it. You want what isn’t yours and will risk violence to get your hands on it.”

 

         Let me try to put it in clear, simple terms. If there is a universal spiritual theme, found not only in Christianity and the Bible but also in most of the world’s great religions, it is this:  there are two attitudes available to us in life: one revolves around self; the other focuses outside of self, upon others, including God.

 

As children, we may have seen this illustrated in cartoons by the image of a devil sitting on one shoulder, an angel on the other, each whispering into an ear to get you to do the right thing or the wrong thing.

 

        But really, it has to do less with angels and devils than it does with us, with the angels and demons of our own nature.  Whenever we focus upon self – even as a form of religion – our outlook will always be skewed:  at best, we will be engaged in a form of narcissism and self-importance; at worst, we will be blind and selfish, unobservant and callous – even hurtful – to others. Given this, the biggest indicator of the state of our spiritual life may be how often we use the words, “I” and “me.”

 

        On the other hand, when we put ourself into proper perspective, submit to God, and open our eyes and ears and hearts and focus upon others, we will find our proper place in the universe and the true meaning of life.

 

        Think of it this way: in each of our lives there are two great sources of water upon which we may draw. One has no outlet or inlet, it is brackish and polluted and fouled; it represents self, our perspective, our interests. If you only dip into that one, it’s like drinking salt water, your thirst only gets worse.

 

        But the other source in our life is like a clear mountain lake, with water flowing in but also out.  The water is pure and clear and the surface is calm; perfectly reflected in it are the mountains and sky and the moon above, such that you can’t distinguish the real thing from the reflection.  When you draw upon that source for your life, life is good, as God intends it to be.

 

In this particular passage, James elaborates on this using the concept not of faith, but of wisdom. “Do you want to be counted wise, to build a reputation for wisdom?”   

 

But, as with his definition of faith, for James wisdom is not merely a matter of the head, but of how you actually live. To paraphrase Forrest Gump, “Wisdom is as wisdom does.”  Says James:

       

“Do you want to be counted wise, to build a reputation for wisdom? Here’s what you do: Live well, live wisely, live humbly. It’s the way you live, not the way you talk, that counts. Mean-spirited ambition isn’t wisdom. Boasting that you are wise isn’t wisdom. Twisting the truth to make yourselves sound wise isn’t wisdom. It’s the furthest thing from wisdom — it’s animal cunning, devilish conniving. Whenever you’re trying to look better than others or get the better of others, things fall apart and everyone ends up at the others’ throats.

 

        And then James goes on to say, that just as there are two attitudes about self, like the two sources of water, there is another kind of wisdom, not devilish, but divine:

 

“Real wisdom, God’s wisdom, begins with a holy life and is characterized by getting along with others. It is gentle and reasonable, overflowing with mercy and blessings, not hot one day and cold the next, not two-faced. You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God and enjoy its results only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honor.”

 

Can we hear that last sentence again? “You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God and enjoy its results only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honor.”

Isn’t it interesting how close James comes to the same characteristics of love elaborated by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 13, often read at weddings:

 

“Love never gives up.

                Love cares more for others than for self.

                Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.

                Love doesn’t strut,

                Doesn’t have a swelled head,

                Doesn’t force itself on others,

                Isn’t always “me first,”

                Doesn’t fly off the handle,

                Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,

                Doesn’t revel when others grovel,

                Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,

                Puts up with anything,

                Trusts God always,

                Always looks for the best,

                Never looks back,

But keeps going to the end.”

(1 Corinthians 13: 4 – 7, The Message)

 

So if you’re saying, “Boy, I wish that was me!”, remember it is rarely us, rarely very much of the human race, not even Jesus’ own disciples.

 

Because, as it turns out, it would be hard to find a better illustration of this than today’s reading from The Gospel of Mark.  In a story that is positively Zen-like, Jesus asks his disciples what they have been talking about?  I love the way Eugene Peterson renders their answer in The Message:  “The silence was deafening — they had been arguing with one another over who among them was greatest.”  In other words, thinking only about themselves.  So,

 

“Jesus sat down and summoned the Twelve. “So you want first place? Then take the last place. Be the servant of all.  He put a child in the middle of the room. Then, cradling the little one in his arms, he said, “Whoever embraces one of these children as I do embraces me, and far more than me — God who sent me.”

 

Want a better illustration of the two attitudes about life?  The two sources from which you can draw upon, the source of “self”, or the source of “selflessness”, more concerned about others, even when the other is a powerless, insignificant, child?

 

        And what about that anger?  That irrational, mind-clogging anger which clouds all perspective and transforms us into sputtering monsters of rage and violence, striking out to cause irreparable harm and disaster?  Better take a deep breath, and a big step back, away from the brink of violence. 

 

In regard to anger management, we can all take James’ advice:

 

“Let God work his will in you. Yell a loud no to the Devil and watch him scamper. Say a quiet yes to God and he’ll be there in no time.”

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