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A Sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on September 20, 2015.

17th Sunday after Pentecost: Proverbs 31:10-31; Ps. 1; James 3:13-4:3,7-8a; Mark 9:30-37

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts,

be always acceptable, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer.  Amen.

       From today's reading from James:  “For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.”
           Much of my work experience prior to seminary and ordained ministry here at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill came while working at Visa U.S.A., the bank card company between August 1979 and March 2006.  I began part-time work while taking college classes.  With plenty of opportunities to do new and different things, I began to see Visa less as a job and more as a career.  I pursued full-time positions in various customer services departments supporting the banks and merchants using Visa's products, services and network.  And as I learned and experienced more, I was given both formal and informal responsibilities to expand my knowledge as well as to train and mentor new staff.  My development and interests included several lateral moves that provided me new challenges and opportunities.

Over the years, I became a Subject Matter Expert (SME) on many topics.  Due to my experience, I often counseled individuals in changing their track of employment, emphasizing ways to gain knowledge and apply it in their existing roles.  Later, I was tapped by management to create a new team, providing critical support functions for other customer service areas.  After helping brainstorm regarding the role, responsibilities and staff requirements for this new group, I was promoted to director to manage the newly crafted team.  Individual coaching of staff and carefully molding thorough, constructive, and fair performance reviews were traits of my management career.

A few years later, I was offered an opportunity to become director of another, larger department. I had long aspired to that particular role because I had served in every capacity or level within that office, except as its director.  My on-the-spot acceptance, without the benefit of contemplation  and prayer, consultation with my wife, and any form of discernment, turned out to be a poor choice and threatened to end my relationship with the company.  I realized the error of my ways shortly after I changed positions. I had to work to overcome feelings of failure and embarrassment to surrender that post and seek a different role.

It was then that I had to admit, to myself and others, including my wife Chrissie, that envy possibly, and more certainly, selfish ambition, had gotten the better of me in that moment.

“The greatest good is wisdom,” according to St. Augustine.  Those words would be a fitting summary for this New Testament teaching on the vital subject of the wisdom from above.  James contends that this wisdom is not merely something which is intellectually understandable; it must be demonstrated practically in our Christian lifestyle.  This “wisdom” is sophia, which we might characterize as "practical knowledge": the stuff we learn and know and carry around in our gut.   

This letter from James is one of a number of letters addressed to Christians in general rather than to any specific church in Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, or elsewhere.  James is extremely practical about the Christian life.  Christian freedom can be a heady thing for people who were previously bound by a strict legal code of conduct.  If God’s grace is free, what does it matter how we live?  There's no question in James’ mind that it matters immensely.

     Earlier in his letter, James gives us guidance in how to ask for wisdom from God.  He assures us that as we ask, we shall receive (1:3).  Now he helps us to understand what wisdom from above is and how it should be used.  But first, we need to recognize the wisdom which is earthly as opposed to that which is Godly.

We know little about how this letter came to be written, or who it was sent to.  We aren’t even sure who the author was.  But the most likely candidate is the James who was Jesus’ brother.  We know James became a follower when he saw the risen Christ and later went on to become the leader in the church at Jerusalem.

Good and evil are contrasted throughout Scripture.  As we have heard, James is involved in this comparison repeatedly as he presents the practical examples of Christian lifestyle.  Within the context of his consideration of wisdom, he shares a very vivid description of the wisdom which comes from below:  1) Bitter envy, or jealousy or zeal; 2) selfish ambition, which can be self-seeking, causing factions or strife; 3) boastfulness against the truth, being led astray from the guiding of the Spirit; and 4) falsehood or lying.

     As James concludes his description of these ‘bad fruits’ of this wisdom from below, he focuses upon three sources: 1) Earthly; that which comes from worldly systems and is not heavenly; 2) Sensual or unspiritual; that originates from the natural, the animal, or the flesh rather than from the spiritual realm; and 3) Demonic, the devil himself; we are tempted and deceived.

     After identifying characteristics and sources of this wisdom from below, James identifies two results that are manifested when this kind of wisdom is present.  First, where there is envy and self-seeking, confusion is present, causing a commotion or some form of tumult.  It is unstable and out of order.  If we believe Godly wisdom brings peace, then we sadly learn that most times, earthly wisdom brings only uncertainty.  Second, James contends that every evil thing will be present as a result of wisdom from below.  Rather than lay out a long, specific list, James summarizes by saying righteousness will be absent, and every evil thing will be there!  [Sometimes leaving this open to our imaginations is more effective because who knows better than each of you or me myself what constitutes evil in our own lives.]

     Thankfully, James is more specific in detailing the wisdom which is from above.  He provides us the most comprehensive and helpful definition of wisdom found in all of literature.  Of course, this is the quality of wisdom from above; that is, Godly wisdom.

      Godly Wisdom is 1) Pure, which we may also understand as chaste, clean, innocent or perfect; it is 2) Peaceable, that which we know in quietness or rest; it is also 3) Gentle, which we see, hear, and feel as patient or considerate, like the very spirit of Jesus Christ; 4) it is also Willing to Yield, perhaps staying open to reason, is conciliatory, easily persuaded or even ready to be convinced; 5) it is Full of Mercy, which is part of the very nature of God; 6) and Full of Good Fruits – Jesus said that only as we abide in Him can we bring forth much fruit (John 15:4-5); Paul describes fruits of the Spirit in his epistles to the Galatians (5:22-23) – “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”; and to the Ephesians (5:9) “for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.”  James continues wisdom from on high is 7) Without Partiality or favoritism; 8) Without Hypocrisy, which Jesus spoke out against loudly and clearly, especially in the lives of the supposedly religious scribes and Pharisees.  Godly Wisdom is without pretense or hypocrisy.  Since it flows from God, it manifests itself in truth and sincerity.  Finally (8), James makes a concluding statement which we might summarize under the heading of True or Godly Justice.  As this wisdom is sown in peace by those who make peace, true justice is manifest.

Genuine faith in Christ always spills over into the rest of life.  It affects our basic attitude to ourselves, to others, and to life in general.  There should be no discrepancy between belief and action.  James reminds us of the need for genuinely Christian standards and values in every area of life.  It is so easy to let things slip; so easy for the world around to squeeze us into its own mold, to convince us that there are no absolutes, no black and white, but only grey.  The early Christians needed the letter of James, and so do we.

I have two examples from just this past week for you.  One is from the Republican presidential debate.  If you watched or read about it, you know that the format allowed the candidates to respond directly to each other.  It was a free-wheeling event, full of accusations and innuendos.  Yet towards the end, one candidate was invited to directly debunk another's position.  The first candidate (I'm avoiding names & subject matters deliberately!) was a subject matter expert on the issue.  He (yes, both were male) chose to lay out facts in a reasonable, calm manner.  Even when asked outright if he wanted to 'tell the other candidate he was wrong,' the first stayed, dare I suggest, pure, gentle, peaceful, even full of mercy in his further response.  It was striking to watch.

The second example is a bit different. A clergy friend posted the following on Facebook:  “Just received an email from an angry woman.  She had been cut off and flipped-off by another woman while driving to work this morning.  She took a picture of the back of the woman's car and it was proudly displaying (our) church magnet.  The letter writer suggested I teach my flock how to act like Christians.  I'm rethinking this whole car magnet promotion!"  Perhaps this is something for all of us to consider when we get our church magnets.  James is telling us, 'People, our words and actions matter!'

Christian wisdom is a very different thing from being worldly-wise. God reckons us as wise when we put selfishness aside and show interested concern for others.  This kind of wisdom is seen in our personality and behavior, not in mere intellectual abilities.

Christians can sell out to the world; the hostile, unChristian, anti-God world, and not even realize it.  It happens every time we let things we want from life overpower our judgment and Christian principles.  This is the stuff wars are made of.  It happens when we try to use prayer to further only our own ends.  It happens when we set ourselves up as judges of other people in place of God.  It happens when we plan our lives without reference to or regard for God.  It happens when wealth and pleasure become an end in themselves and justice flies out the window.  It happens when we want to be exalted over others.

Even the disciples were subject to the same kind of desire to be exalted.  Yet in today's Gospel, Jesus tells us, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all."  By being as a child.  By welcoming all, and thus welcoming God, into our lives.  Like James' epistle, Jesus’ teaching and action in today's text are directed to the church and to the world whenever it is seduced by the world’s definition of greatness: prestige, power, influence, and money.  The antidote to such a concern for greatness is servanthood.

I will tell you that this takes prayer, and by prayer, I mean the right kind of prayer.  By continually resisting the things we know are wrong.  By seeking out God.  Through active discernment, with guidance, perhaps with a spiritual director helping us to see where God is at work in our lives.  This may help us, by seeing ourselves as we really are, and by humbly submitting ourselves whole-heartedly to God.

You may be wondering what happened at Visa after selfish ambition got the better of me.  I experienced a time of depression and self-doubt, weathering both the disappointment of not discussing this decision beforehand with my wife and the uncertainty of continued employment.  I was aided through physical exertion by demolishing the lower level of our home in preparation for a already-planned renovation project.  But I also spent time in conversation with God and a trusted spiritual friend. After after relinquishing my director position, I managed another unorthodox move, convincing management that my subject matter expertise could be put to good use in a completely new role.  That transition placed me on a special project team with world-wide implications for productivity and efficiency between all international offices.  Ultimately it was a good fit of corporate needs and personal skills.  It was an exciting opportunity which I fondly remember as one of the most satisfying contributions I made during my entire career at Visa.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, each of us must battle the pull of envy and the deceit of self-ambition, because this world expects us to always strive.  In order to honor our call to follow Jesus in this sinful and broken world, we Christians should be wary of wickedness - and I repeat, "For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind."

Instead, we should be peaceable, pure, gentle, and full of mercy.  We are challenged and encouraged to realize that we can count on nothing in this life, not even tomorrow, and that our full dependence should always be upon God alone.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.