James 3:13 – 4:3, 7-8a
Greetings and welcome to all! This last couple of weeks we have seen the start up of another school year. My own inner annual calendar has never been able to shake the orientation developed early in childhood toward Fall as the beginning of the year rather than the end. School played a large part in all of that. The beginning of the school year meant knew cloths; tablets that had not yet been written upon and brand new pencils with clean erasers. The first day of class was truly a new start. My teachers did not know me well enough to form an impression of me, good or bad. I did not have any poor grades, missed assignments or bad conduct to make up for. The coming year was a blank slate waiting for my imprint.
Yet that sensation of newness was also a little deceptive. Some things do not change from year to year. The learning difficulties I experienced throughout elementary and middle school did not go away over the summer. I still had my place in the pecking order of school social life-and it was nowhere near the top. The bullies from last year would be on the playground and lurking about the neighborhood this year as well. I remember that school was often a ruthless, dangerous and carnivorous environment. It is a wonder anyone ever managed to learn anything there.
In fact, however, I did learn a lot at school-and not only from the stated curriculum. School was the place in my early life where I began to wrestle with the big questions: Who am I? What is important to me? What am I willing to take risks for? How much risk am I willing to take? Where does God fit into all of this? I am still not through with those questions, by the way. I don’t believe we ever stop pondering them. The texts for this coming Sunday plunge us into the heart of these big issues. Jeremiah discovers that his prophetic ministry is placing his life in danger. The psalmist faces ruthless enemies. James discusses the true meaning of wisdom and Jesus describes what true greatness is. For those of us returning to the battles fought in school and for those of us who have never managed to escape those battles, these texts offer us some valuable insights into our struggles.
The time is somewhere between 609 and 587 B.C.E. Jeremiah had spoken forcefully against the leadership of Judah accusing the royal establishment of idolatry, injustice and oppression. Moreover, as war loomed on the horizon for Judah against Babylon, Jeremiah prophesied the victory of Babylon. Such preaching, especially during a time when the nation faced imminent attack, was thought to be subversive and perhaps even treasonous. Jeremiah was seen as undermining the morale of the people, failing to support the troops and giving aid and comfort to the enemy. Jeremiah was a national security risk. That explains the assassination plot against him. We are not told whether the assassins are agents of the royal establishment or some ultra patriotic group of rival prophets. In either case, it is clear that Jeremiah is in danger and that this danger will only increase if he continues his preaching.
We seldom experience persecution in this country as a result of preaching and witnessing to Jesus Christ. In some parts of the world persecution goes right along with being a disciple of Jesus and living out your baptism. Such was the case for the New Testament church. Of course, I would like to think that the freedom from persecution we enjoy flows from our constitutional right of free speech and free exercise of religion. Yet sometimes I wonder whether our lack of persecution is due rather to a lack of faithful witness. Perhaps our society and culture is content to leave the church alone because the church has become so compliant with cultural values and societal norms. Though it is quite uncommon, people still are getting arrested in this country simply for doing what Jesus calls them to do. I refer you to a remarkable message delivered by Shane Claiborne at the recent ELCA Youth Gathering in New Orleans that I had the opportunity to attend with our youth ministry leaders and five of our young people. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vaOzKDRF0D4&feature=related Perhaps our preaching and our discipleship are too tame and domesticated.
The price of faithfulness required of Jeremiah harkens back to last week’s gospel in which Jesus calls all who would follow him to take up the cross. The cross, persecution and opposition, is the shape the Kingdom of God takes in our sinful world. Yet the joy of knowing that by faith we are already living in God’s future outweighs the burden of suffering which that entails.
This psalm is a lament; a cry for help to God. The psalmist is threatened by enemies. We don’t know who these enemies are or why they are attacking the psalmist, but they are described as “ruthless” and they are seeking the psalmist’s life. These enemies are not merely political rivals in a hotly contested election or contenders for professional advancement in the ruthless world of office politics. These enemies are threatening actual violence. They mean business. No wonder the psalmist wants to see them punished with evil and put to an end.
At first blush, this psalm might seem not to reflect the attitude toward enemies we learn from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus taught us to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors. Yet while this is surely the ultimate objective, it often takes us human beings time to get there. When we have been hurt, we need to cry. We need to express that hurt and anger in language that sometimes isn’t very nice. Nothing is gained by putting on a false front, suppressing our anger and pretending it isn’t there. The issue is not whether to express our anger and hurt, but how and to whom we express it. That is important for two reasons. First, we learn that God is always open to hearing our prayers-not only when we are filled with praise and thanksgiving, but also when we are filled with anger, hurt and hatred. I don’t know about you, but my religious education did not make that very clear to me. Consequently, there were times when I felt too angry to pray, too hurt to worship and too filled with unworthy emotions to approach God. Through reading the psalms I learned that we are never too unclean, too mean, to petty or too sinful to come before God in prayer.
Second, this psalm teaches us where to direct our anger. The psalmist is not screaming at his enemies “I wish you were dead!” Rather, he is expressing these dark thoughts to God. The psalmist knows that s/he is not in a position to judge the situation. As strongly as s/he may feel that s/he is in the right and the enemies are entirely in the wrong, the psalmist also knows that “human anger does not work the righteousness of God.” James 1:20. In fact, anger has a way of distorting our vision. It is then that we are most prone to see everything in terms of black and white. It is when we are angry that we forget how there is always two sides to every dispute and resort to retribution before even trying to figure out what the other side might be. It is for this reason that the psalmist leaves the business of punishing the wicked and executing justice to God. God and God alone can be trusted to punish the wicked-or show mercy. Knowing that makes it possible to let go of anger and the desire for revenge. That is the first step toward seeing our enemy in a different light and learning eventually to love him or her.
James 3:13 – 4:3, 7-8a http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=214910244
Once again, I find inscrutable the minds of the lectionary police who feel the need to censor the biblical writers. I find it impossible to believe that these few verses 4:4-6 and the second half of verse 8 were omitted merely to save space. Yet for the life of me, I cannot figure out what it is that they are trying to hide from us. In any event, I have chosen to give you the entire unedited and uncensored passage. Perhaps you will have more success than me in discovering that deep, dark secret.
James begins by asking the question, “Who is wise and understanding among you?” Perhaps we need to pause here and ask ourselves what wisdom and understanding is. If wisdom is nothing more than the accumulation of knowledge, then our generation is surely the wisest yet. Never in the history of the world has so much knowledge been available to so many people. But it should be clear to us that knowledge does not equate with wisdom. As knowledgeable as we are, nations still cannot seem to settle their disputes without resort to warfare. Our agricultural ability has grown exponentially over the last several decades-yet so has starvation and the growing gap between the few very rich and the many poor. I think James is onto something here when he warns us that all the knowledge, understanding and wisdom in the world is useless where hearts are driven by jealousy and selfish ambition. Such wisdom, James points out, is actually demonic.
James goes on to point out that wisdom is shaped not so much by what you know as by what you desire. “What causes wars, and what causes fightings among you? Is it not your passions that are at war in your members?” James 4:1. If your desires are selfish, knowledge will only make your selfish ambitions more deadly and destructive. If your desires are for God and for God’s kingdom, your knowledge will be placed in the service of peacemaking, mercy and reasonableness. James 3:17. So James urges us to “draw near to God” because you are shaped by what you love.
You cannot possibly miss the irony here. Jesus has been teaching the disciples that he must soon be handed over to the powers of Rome that will kill him. And this is not just a passing remark. It is clear from the context that Jesus has been making this point with his disciples throughout his journey through Galilee. In fact, that was the point of the journey: to avoid public attention and the distraction it brings so that Jesus could focus with his disciples on the meaning of his mission. At the end of this day of heavy instruction, Jesus asks his disciples what they had been discussing among themselves along the way. If I had been in Jesus’ place, I might have expected the disciples to respond that they had been discussing all that they had heard him say that day. I would have expected the disciples to ask Jesus why he was going to Jerusalem, what he expected to accomplish by getting himself arrested, what purpose his death would serve and what did he mean by “rising again.” But the disciples have been reflecting on something else altogether. They have been arguing over who is to be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. This is rather like the teacher who spends the morning painstakingly explaining long division to her class, asks them for their questions and receives only one response: “Is it time for recess yet?”
Jesus responds with far more patience than I think I would have had under the circumstances. He takes a child in his arms and says, “You want to be great? I will show you great.” Now it is critical not to confuse this passage with others where Jesus uses the child as an example of faithfulness and urges his disciples to become as children. That is not the point here. Greatness is demonstrated by receiving the child. Understand that child care was considered women’s work then much as it is today in most quarters, despite the trend toward greater shared responsibility between spouses. Even today, greatness is seldom demonstrated through babysitting. Yet Jesus seems to place a high priority on children. In one of the very few instances where Jesus threatens hell fire, he directs his admonition against persons who cause one of his “little ones” to stumble. Despite his handlers’ efforts to keep Jesus on message with the crowds, Jesus insists on taking time to bless infants. Children are a priority for Jesus. There is no greater task than to care for a child.
It strikes me that our culture’s attitude toward children is ambivalent to say the least. Their parents frequently shower children with money or spend money for them. Not surprisingly, then, billions of dollars are spent on marketing to children. In what I can only characterize as a wildly neurotic and delusional belief in parental ability to ensure a child’s success (however that might be defined), parents in Manhattan compete for limited spots in prestigious pre-school programs that promise to put toddlers on a track to the Ivy League. At the other end of the extreme, there are 1.6 million homeless children in the United States according to the National Center on Family Homelessness. These are kids that get shuffled with their families from homeless shelters, to hotel rooms, to group homes or foster care-or simply live on the street. They suffer from poor nutrition, lack of proper medical care and education that is inadequate to non-existent. Some of these children are undocumented and, in the view of many people, that makes these little urchins worthy of even the sad little scraps that fall from our tables. I have a feeling Jesus would take a different view. Not surprisingly, deep cuts in the federal budget depriving these kids of the paltry benefits they now receive has not created anywhere near the stir made by mere rumors of cuts to Medicare. Unlike senior citizens, children do not vote. Neither do they have super pacs to lobby for them.
The welfare of children has always been a high priority of the church. The first orphanages were established by the church in the first century. Before that time, orphaned children without responsible relatives were doomed to a life of begging, thievery or prostitution. In the year 1886, eleven Lutheran congregations in the metropolitan New York area created the Bethlehem Orphan and Half-Orphan Asylum, to take care of children who were orphaned due to a severe outbreak of influenza within the German communities of New York City. Dedicated on May 30, 1888, the asylum’s mission was to care for and educate orphans and half-orphans to be Christians and useful members of society. http://www.lssny.org/site/history/. Lutheran Social Ministries of New Jersey (LSM/NJ) began with the establishment of an orphanage in Jersey City in 1904. The LSM/NJ Adoption Program has been a licensed adoption agency since 1948 and offers a multi-faceted statewide adoption program focused on building healthy families and supporting all those touched by adoption. http://www.lsmnj.org/programs-services/community-outreach-services/adoption-program/. These activities are significant insofar as the lives they touch and the values of God’s kingdom to which they bear witness. But they cannot address the magnitude of our children’s needs throughout the country. Only when all hearts are drawn to love the kingdom Jesus proclaims and recognize the greatness of embracing a child can we hope to see a transformation in the treatment of all children.
Finally, as school begins, I am reminded once again that between fifty and seventy children walk past our church twice each day going to and from school. Those of you who have served with me on the council know that I view this as an opportunity for ministry and mission. Thus far, I have failed to generate much interest or discussion on this point. So I would urge all of you to think more deeply about our responsibility to the children in our community, the opportunities we have to minister to them and what resources we might bring to such a ministry.