Over the last few weeks, our Old and New Testament lessons together have invited us to reconsider a life of wisdom. Last week, wisdom, personified as a wealthy woman, called out to us in the streets of our lives, she called to us in the places where we live and work, where we hope and dream. She called us to pursue her and the goods she offered. My way, she said, leads to the good life; the way of foolishness on the other hand leads to calamity.
Well, what is this wise way? What does it look like?
We began to flesh that out two weeks ago with the Proverb writer. The wise way of life, the route to the good life, begins with remembering the God who makes both rich and poor alike and continues by taking the side of the poor in their cause, for it is God’s own cause. Our NT reading from James fleshed that out further by casting this very issue as one that happens within our communities. When you draw distinctions based on wealth—when you say to a wealthy member, have this seat of honor but to a poor member, go sit by the door—you have left the way to which wisdom calls us. Wisdom calls us to a life of faithful remembrance. Wisdom calls us to a life of generosity.
Wisdom also calls us to a life of prudent speech. Last week, James used wonderfully accessible language to describe our tongues. Your tongue is like a bridle that, though small, can steer a horse. Your tongue is like a rudder that, with the push of a pilot’s finger can direct a huge ship. Your tongue—here he is most graphic—is like a small flame that can grow to consume a forest. It is a fire lit by hell. The tongue, says James, will always get us into trouble. We all stumble when it comes to our speech, he says. And so wisdom calls us to recognize the power of our words, to cultivate habits of good and prudent speech. The wise way of life, Padre Ray reminded us in last week’s sermon, is one in which our words are carefully weighed.
Today, James steps back from the specifics of a wise way of life to give us a glimpse of the big picture. What difference does the way of wisdom make? What difference in our lives is the result of pursuing her call?
Well, first, wisdom’s call is practical. Show by your works the gentleness born of wisdom! Be pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. Wisdom is not the mastery of an esoteric field of knowledge. Wisdom is not the amassing of biblical trivia with which to amaze and astound friends at dinner parties. Wisdom is a lived way of life. It is pure—that is uncontaminated. It is gentle—it is willing to yield. It is merciful, and is so with all people and integrally. Its mercy, in other words, is not a mask for another motive, but flows straight from the heart. All that wrapped up in one word. James Boyce puts it well when he writes that wisdom “is a summation all that common sense would identify as the marks of wholeness in human relationships, as the very best of God’s gifts in creation.”
Second, wisdom’s call is to peace. “Where do those conflicts among you come from?” James asks the community to which he writes. Certainly James was writing to a particular community or set of communities, but it or they are not named. James is one of the traditionally called “general epistles,” meaning that his words apply to all Christians everywhere. Unlike Paul’s letters, directed to specific churches, and with advice for those churches from which we then extrapolate, the words of the general epistles are immediately for us. All this to say, it won’t do to wonder to whom James writes. It won’t do to ask “I wonder what they were fighting about back then.”
No, James’s question is to us. Immediate and this morning. Where do those conflicts among you come from? And James answers his own question: they come from your inner cravings at war with each other. And whether in the first century or the 21st, that remains true. When we see conflict in our midst, it is a sure sign that we, collectively, have forsaken wisdom. But we have a promise, too: a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace. The wise person in the midst of conflict is the one who, through gentleness, purity, equanimity and integrity seeks to restore peace in the community.
This past week, I watched a podcast roundtable on church unity. The participants were Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, Evangelical, and Anglican. There were two points in that podcast that help illumine my point here. The first was the response of the Evangelical participant to a young woman who asked this question: “What would you say to a young Christian who refuses to join a local church because of the church’s history of divisions?” His answer? “Join that local church and let it break your heart.” There is no church, or any other human institution, where conflict can be avoided. Where wisdom is forsaken and foolishness embraced. But we are not called to forsake our gathering together when conflict erupts, but to work toward peace as we pursue peace in our own lives. That’s where the harvest of righteousness is.
The second point expands on the first. The Anglican participant, Rev Dr Ephraim Radner of Wycliffe College, was asked what true unity looked like. His answer was straightforward. We do not yet know for we live in division at all levels. We will have true unity, he went on, when Christians live out the call of Ephesians 5. The call of Paul that points to Christ who loved the Church and gave himself for her. We will have unity, Radner said, when Christians give themselves utterly to each other even to the point of dying for them. The way of peace that leads to a harvest of righteousness is not the easy way. The way of wisdom, which is at one level so immediately obvious and applicable, is at another the costly way of the cross. The Christian way, as G.K Chesteron wrote, has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.
My friends the way of wisdom is easily understood; the way of wisdom, whether we are talking about generosity, prudent speech, or making peace, is hard to practice. It is the narrow way that few find. But it is the way that leads to life. Wisdom’s call is to peace.
Third, Wisdom’s call is to prayer. James goes on contrast foolish and wise prayers. The selfish desires that lead to conflict also lead us to ask for things we shouldn’t in prayer, or to ask for good things out of wrong motives. You do not have because you do not ask, James says, and when you ask, you ask wrongly. Don’t ask God for worldly things! To do so, says James bluntly, is spiritual adultery. It is breaking covenant with God. You simply cannot expect God to cultivate the conditions through which you make friends with the world. It’s oil and water. They don’t mix. God yearns jealously for you! And if you pray wisely, if you in humility and confidence, pray to receive wisdom’s gifts, then, James says, god will exalt you.
Fourth, wisdom’s goal is nearness to God. Simply, to pray rightly is to imagine a “friendship” (James 4:4) with the very creator of “every good gift” God’s gifts have the ability to center our lives in good works that flow from God’s indwelling Spirit. In our human relationships it is much easier to walk the daily journey amid the sometimes difficult decisions and choices we are called to make when a close friend or a broader community of encouragers and supporters surrounds us. So the same is true when we live in a relationship of nearness and trust in a God who continues to supply us with wisdom and every good gift of creation. In the presence of One whose Spirit yearns over us we can imagine that we will not be left to drift in a state of “double-minded” incapacity (James 4:8; see also James 1:5-8). Instead we will be inspired to the exercise of wisdom in humility — in making the fine choices that are “born of wisdom” (James 3:13) and which lead to the kind of “harvest of righteousness” (James 3:18) seen in peaceful human relationships.
I hope finally the relevance to the sacrament of baptism. Nathan and Maggie, you have brought Georgia to the font. Just what are you doing? You’re not only dressing Georgia in a nice dress and having some sort of religious rite of passage to honour her birth, and then going out to lunch afterwards. Far more so, you are giving Georgia to God. You are surrendering your hopes and dreams for her, whatever they may be. You are drowning those hopes and dreams in the font. You are promising instead to raise her in the way of wisdom. Maggie, you will make those promises during the examination, and as you renew your own baptismal covenant with the all of us. Are you sure you want to do this? Are you sure you want, insofar as it is in your power, to raise Georgia in this practical, peaceful, prayerful life that is the way of the cross? This way is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to shoe who are being saved, it is the wisdom of God.