Sometimes the Expanse…, Proper 20 (B) – 2009
September 20, 2009
Sometimes the expanse of centuries between when the scriptures were written and when we, in the twenty-first century, are reading them seems to disappear. The readings today that supposedly come from Wisdom and James couldnât possibly have been written that long ago. They must have been written in our time â in our generation, or at least only as far back as our parents or grandparents. Theyâre too current, too modern, too right between our eyes, donât you think?
This is true for James, especially. You donât often hear people say that the letter from James is their favorite. Maybe itâs not used often enough, or maybe it makes us uncomfortable, but we must admit that James is nothing if not practical. Jamesâ very practical outline of behaviors and exhortations on what one must do to live a Christian life is very, well, no nonsense. James really spoke out to his readers back then, but todayâs bit of James should still give us a lot to think about. In fact, if it doesnât, then the bumper sticker that should be speaking to us is the one that says, âIf youâre not outraged, youâre not paying attention.â
Listen again to what James says: âThose conflicts and disputes among you â¦ 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. You covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts.â
That almost hurts to read out loud because itâs so true. Look at the world we live in. Many of us continue to ask why, in this day and age, the only way we seem to be able to deal with problems among the countries of the world is to arm mostly the poor and kill until someone gives up or one side has no one left standing.
But even closer to home, look at our own congregations. âThose conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from?â James writes. Where indeed? What is it about us church folks that makes it so much easier to exclude than include, when we should know better. What Christian canât recite by heart the two great commandments: love God and love your neighbor as yourself. And the bumper sticker adds, âNo exceptions.â What donât we understand about what we can recite by heart?
And then, of course, we have to look at ourselves. It gets really uncomfortable when we read âAdulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.â Jesus says pretty much the same thing in the gospels â but âadulterersâ? That seems a little harsh.
And we can wonder whatâs so wrong with âthe world.â The world, after all, is beautiful â itâs a gift from God, not something that should put us at enmity with God. But thatâs not what Jesus and James were talking about when they used the word âworld.â They were referring instead to the âoperating system,â so to speak, of the world; the way we interact with each other, the systems we set up to run the world, our rules. Thatâs where we get into trouble. Thatâs where we let our conflicts and disputes, our cravings and selfish ambitions prevent us from truly living out those two great commandments that we all say we believe.
And then thereâs that rather scary reading from Wisdom. âThe ungodly by their words and deeds summoned death; considering him a friend, they made a covenant with him, because they are fit to belong to his company.â
Well, surely thatâs not any of us: âungodly â¦ summoning death â¦ belonging to his company.â Thatâs the stuff of a Stephen King novel, this personification of evil. So, we can comfortably read on until we get to verse 10:
âLet us oppress the poor man; let us not regard the grey hairs of the aged, let our might be our law of right, for what is weak proves itself to be useless.â
That should make us squirm, because we have to understand that as long as there is oppression, disregard for anyone, old or young, as long as there are laws that ensure only the powerful get ahead, as long as Godâs people are at enmity with Godâs people, weâre a part of that. We share in the life and behavior of all Godâs people.
This all sounds pretty negative â bordering on desperate perhaps. So whereâs the good news? Is there good news?
I think so. But we may need to turn off our TVs and put down our newspapers so we can better focus on the good that is in our âworld,â our âoperating system.â
There are innumerable good things being done by people in our country, in our church â there are good that each of us do. When James says, âWho is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdomâ â that says to us that he knows there are those who are wise and understanding among his hearers. We know the same about ourselves.
The connection of gentleness and peace and mercy with wisdom is lovely. Elizabeth Johnson, a Roman Catholic theologian, writes:
âThe world as a whole is shaped by Wisdomâs guidance. â¦ This ordering is a righteous one, inimical to exploitation and oppression. Sophia hates the ways of arrogance and evil but works to establish just governance on the earth.â
Like James, she talks about an orderliness in the world. She reminds us that Sophia (âWisdomâ) works to establish justice and righteousness.
Wisdom is a fascinating image. We use it to talk about the nature of God, we use it to describe the gift of understanding that we seek from God. Wisdom is personified as the most hospitable of women. Elizabeth Johnson describes this feminine aspect of wisdom:
âThe female figure of Wisdom is the most acutely developed personification of Godâs presence and activity in the Hebrew scriptures. … The biblical portrait of Wisdom is consistently female, casting her as sister, mother, female beloved, chef and hostess, teacher, preacher, maker of justice, and a host of other womenâs roles.â
Women canât leave the doing of justice and the spreading of the Good News to men, and vice versa. Weâre all expected to share that work. So there is good news in todayâs readings.
And of course, we only read one small bit of Wisdom this morning. If weâd read just a few more verses, we would have come to that most beautiful passage thatâs often read at funerals:
âThe souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace â their hope is full of immortality.â
That speaks of the dead, but it also speaks of us who still live in this world, especially if we believe in the communion of the saints as we say we do in the Creed. All of us â those who have gone before us and those of us still here â are connected. Weâre all kin, all a part of the people of God.
So, to play with this passage a little: âAll those who are righteous are in the hand of God. In the eyes of the foolish, the righteous may seem to be weak, to be useless; but they have peace. They have hope, and that hope is full of the promise of immortality.â
And isnât that Godâs promise? Isnât that what we hope for finally, for union with God? We can experience that here as well as in the hereafter, and part of our ministry is to make sure that we welcome all our brothers and sisters on that journey.
These readings give us a lot to think about. This is just a start, and thereâs good news all though it. Because even when weâre brought up short and challenged about how weâre living, and even when weâre at our most unlovable, thereâs always the promise of Godâs love for us.
Several chapters later in Wisdom we read: âBut you, our God, are kind and true, patient, and ruling all things in mercy. For even if we sin we are yours.â
Thanks be to God!
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