In the Classroom with Wisdom and The Teacher – 9/13/09 – James 3:1-12, Ecclesiastes 1:1-18

On this first day of the Sunday school year, after much work has gone into recruiting teachers, planning for the year ahead, and teachers have begun their work, I guess it’s OK if we finally break out the fine print.  The New Testament reading for the day just so happens to be James chapter three, whose opening words are most likely not a part of any pitch that Christian Education committees around the world give for potential teachers.  “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”  For those who have already signed the dotted line, we thank you sincerely.  But there’s no going back now.

A little further down in the fine print are the words from the Hebrew Wisdom tradition which open the book of Ecclesiastes.  In contrast to the exalted form of Woman Wisdom that we find in Proverbs, the Teacher, as he calls himself, of Ecclesiastes, is not taken by the mystical union with God that learning and the pursuit of Wisdom can bring about.  “I, the Teacher, applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with.  I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.  What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted….  For in much wisdom is much vexation, and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow.”  Inspirational words from “The Teacher.” 

Who still wants to teach?  These readings are full of warnings and caution signs, putting doubt on the value of wisdom, and calling into question the work of teaching.  Reading further in James chapter three, about the destructive power of the tongue, one could get the sense that any kind of speech, whether it be from a teacher to a student or a friend to a friend, is risky business.  Reading further in Ecclesiastes one can get the impression that after all of his life studies, the one thing that this Teacher has learned to pass on to students would go something like this: Life is hard, and then you die.  Sounds like a short class.

When we decided to carry this Wisdom theme for the month I hadn’t been planning on going in this direction today, but I want to talk some about the connections and tensions between Wisdom and teaching.  Wisdom being this ever present, active and engaged teacher who, as Proverbs says, calls out from the streets and the gates of the city, and who is present in the little things of creation.  And teaching being our difficult work of trying to listen to Wisdom, and passing along what we hear to others.

Those of you who have done this for a living know better than the rest of us the challenges and rewards of attempting to teach.  I imagine you’ve experienced James’ words of being “judged with greater strictness” by parents or students who aren’t all that excited about how you are going about your work.  And that you also judge yourselves with a fair amount of strictness in trying to figure out how to do your work well.  And I imagine that there are time when you can sympathize with the words of The Teacher whose opening words are “Vanity of vanity, all is vanity.…A generation goes, and a generation comes.”        

There is a fairly simple diagram that I have found helpful that illustrates the elements of the life of the church.  It’s a Venn Diagram, and there are three circles.  One circle is worship – the ways that we express awe and wonder and lament and praise with God.  Another circle is Community – the ways that we share life together.  And the other circle is Mission – how we reach beyond ourselves with good news.  Worship, Community, Mission.  And the center point, where all these circles intersect, is Formation/Transformation.  All of these things working together for this central reality of the church.  Forming and Transforming people and communities is the central activity of the church.  And the act of teaching, education, that we do, is right at that center.  This is a key place where formation happens.  Teaching is a great gift, and one of the titles of Jesus was the Great Teacher.  We are formed by those who teach us. 

For those who have ever found themselves in a teaching role, whether formally or informally, I’m going to offer that in the act of teaching, we always have two companions with us who don’t exactly see eye to eye, but who help us mature as teachers.  One companion is Wisdom, this personified presence that speaks of that which is good and true and beautiful in the world.  The other is The Teacher, the voice behind the book of Ecclesiastes, who through a lifetime of observation and reflection on all the facets of life, often reverts to a single word that seems to characterize the whole blasted thing: Vanity, Meaningless.  Hevel, in Hebrew, which literally means a vapor, a mist, something without real substance.  The Hebrew Wisdom tradition itself contains both of these voices, and they both continue to speak to those of us who have the gumption to put ourselves in the position of teachers.      

Last week I tried to introduce the first of these companions.  Wisdom has a life of its own and is imagined to be like a woman who has built a house and invites all who wish to enter to come in and learn.  Proverbs 8:22 is the voice of Wisdom speaking and it says, “The Lord created me at the beginning of God’s work, the first of God’s acts of long ago.”  She was the first of all God’s creations, there before anything else existed, and everything that follows in creation, every creative act of God, we could say every cluster of energy that exploded out of the Big Bang, has in it some form of wisdom.             

 The Wisdom of Solomon is one of these books that make up the apocrypha – not a part of the Hebrew Old Testament or the Greek New Testament but still considered to represent the biblical tradition in many ways.  It’s one of the books of Wisdom Literature and has the beautiful poem to wisdom in chapter 7 – “For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of God’s goodness.  Although she is but one, she can do all things, and while remaining in herself, she renews all things; in every generation she passes into holy souls, and makes them friends of God, and prophets, for God loves nothing so much as the person who lives with wisdom.” 

So Wisdom is this wonderful companion for the teacher.  Or a better way of putting it would probably be that we are Wisdom’s companion.  Wisdom is the great Teacher, already present in all things – already present in the creativity of our children, already present in the subject matter that we try and present, ready to bring us along in becoming friends of God and prophets.  And we as the teacher are the ones who get to help this process along and be a partner with Wisdom. 

That’s one companion, Wisdom, and then the other companion is this tricky booger that Ecclesiastes, also a part of the Wisdom tradition, calls The Teacher.  Because The Teacher has been looking for Wisdom his whole life, been trying to pay attention and be observant and be one of those holy souls that Wisdom passes through, and he’s just not feeling it.  It’s not coming together for him and he’s not going to pretend that he can understand any of this or that creation fits together in one beautiful cosmic work of art.  So The Teacher says things like “I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly.  I perceived that this also is but a chasing after wind.  For in much wisdom is much vexation, and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow.”  And he says things like “When  I applied my mind to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how one’s eyes see sleep neither day nor night, then I saw all the work of God, that no one can find out what is happening under the sun.  However much they may toil in seeking, they will not find it out; even though those who are wise claim to know, they cannot find it out.”   In an attempt to know deeply, and to pass on what he has learned to others, The Teacher confronts his own limitations, and often becomes bogged down in frustration, even, at times, despair.  Some of the most constructive teaching he can offer is named in chapter 9, verses 7-10, where he basically says, that we should enjoy life while we can — eat, drink, wear nice clothes, and work hard at what you enjoy, because that’s about the best we can do in life.

One of the teachers I’ve had who reminds me of The Teacher of Ecclesiastes was a history professor at Eastern University.  He was a brilliant guy, knew all sorts of things about history and had been teaching for quite a while, but it was pretty clear that at some point in his career he had become fairly disinterested in his subject.  Somewhere along the way he seemed to have concluded that the more you know about history, the more bleak the future looks.  One of the ways this showed up in the classroom was that he taught with a cynical, although rather humorous tone throughout all the lectures.  Another way this showed up was that he was easily diverted from talking about history to talking about his favorite subject: cheeseburgers.  He loved cheeseburgers and would describe in detail different cheeseburgers he had eaten at different places.  He also had a way of connecting the telling of history with cheeseburgers.  For example, in the 16th century Martin Luther and the Catholic Bishops could have gotten along a lot better together if they just could have sat down and talked things through while eating cheeseburgers.  They both would have been a lot happier.  Cheeseburgers, and the pleasure that they bring, were the bright light of hope in an otherwise tragic story.

There’s more nuance to Ecclesiastes, but it points toward something that Parker Palmer emphasizes.  He’s a teacher himself, and works to train other teachers, and one of his books is called “The Courage to Teach.”  And he says that every teacher must confront the tangles they run into with 1) their subject matter, and 2) their students.  Both of these containing more complexity and challenges than any teacher can every completely figure out.  He says, ““We must enter, not evade, the tangles of teaching so we can understand them better and negotiate them with more grace, not only to guard our own spirits but also to serve our students well” (p. 2)

And then he goes on to say, which is really his main point and then what the rest of the book is about, that the third tangle confronting teachers is really themselves.  The self of teacher.  That teachers, ultimately, are offering themselves to their students and their subject matter, and that the journey of the teacher is really an inward journey, to maintain one’s interest in teaching, and ultimately, to nurture love.  To let love triumph in us so that our love for our students and our love for our subjects, and, we could say, our love for God, becomes what we teach.  He doesn’t put it this way, but we could say that these two companions of Wisdom and The Teacher also are about our own soul work.  Our desire to become wise people, and the way that we deal with our limitations.

I want to come back to something that I think holds all these different pieces together and close with this – and that is this picture of Wisdom being present at the beginning of creation.  As God creates, Wisdom is there.  This place of creation is also the place where the one who teachers finds herself.  It’s this Genesis One picture of hovering over the unformed stuff of the world, and then being there when formation begins to happen.  Confronting the chaos of the deep waters, and partnering with God as the subject matter begins to take shape.  And using language, the creative instrument of God, Let there be light, as a tool in this creative process.  James three warns that language can be destructive, but we also know it can be constructive and a teacher looks for ways to communicate constructively, in a way that brings to life.  And teaching becomes a partnership with God, a partnership with Wisdom in the ongoing process of creation.

We are grateful for those with the courage to teach.  Here, and in the schools in our city, and a few that teach at home.  We believe this is a great gift you are giving to us and an important way that you are letting God move through you.  May you find companionship with Wisdom and The Teacher, and may you know God’s grace, extended to you, in your own formation.

The House That Wisdom Built – 9/6/09 – Proverbs 9:1-12, James 2:1-17

Proverbs 30:24-25 says: “(There are) things on earth (that) are small, yet they are exceedingly wise: the ants are a people without strength, yet they provide their food in the summer.”

I have to admit I’ve never really paid much attention to ants.  I haven’t studied their living patterns as an adult and I wasn’t one of those kids who went out looking for ant hills to poke around at or try and fry one with a magnifying glass held up to the sun.  One of my more recent experiences with ants came when we were having a problem with some ants coming in our house through the side door.  We got a spray that we sprayed across the threshold that has pretty much kept them out ever since.  Usually they keep to their world and I keep to mine.  In the last few weeks I’ve come across a couple different statements about ants that have caught my attention. 

One of them came from the book Cradle to Cradle.  It’s a book about how we can shift our focus in how we design everything from buildings to cars to shoes in a way that imitates the rest of nature where waste always equals food, a nutrient to help other things live, rather than waste equals toxic garbage dumps.  The authors give the example of the ant as a creature that is well adapted to its local environment.  Wherever ants show up, in all their 8 thousand different kinds, they enrich their environment and adapt to its peculiar features.  Their food economy allows them to store food them themselves, even as they recycle nutrients and by taking them deeper into the soil so plants and microorganisms can process them.  In their transportation economy they aerate soil around plant roots which lets water better penetrate the ground, helping plant life and reducing erosion.  To the argument that ants are too small to make a negative impact on the planet while humans are a massive, industrial species, the authors point out that it is estimated that all of the ants on the planet are equal to the body mass of all the humans on the planet, and yet they not only do no harm, but improve the systems they live in.  (Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, McDonough and Braungart, 2002)

The other statement I heard included ants but was about all insects.  If all insects were to die, or disappear, within 50 years, all the rest of life would die.  Or, at least, life as we know it, the complex life of plants and animals, would utterly collapse.

And if humans were to disappear, within 50 years, all of the rest of life would flourish.  Kind of sobering. 

The Proverb says that there are things on earth that are small, yet exceedingly wise.  Among these things being the ant.

This is not a sermon about ants.  I’ve already mentioned pretty much everything I know about them.  This is a message about wisdom, and the month of September will keep this common theme.  Wisdom as the art of living well.  Wisdom in action.  Wisdom in speech.  Wisdom in thought.  Wisdom as involving, at least in its most basic form, the reality of living a balanced life in this created order, one of the most urgent issues of our time.  But also, in its exalted form, Wisdom as something that exists for itself, something that is a direct emanation of God, the first of all God’s creations as Proverbs says (8:22).  Wisdom as the radiance of God that shines in every feature of creation, if we would just pay attention and look closer.  The practical and the mystical dimensions of wisdom.  So we’ll be dwelling on some Wisdom texts and pondering Wisdom together. 

Wisdom is actually a category of biblical literature.  It includes the book of Proverbs, but also includes Ecclesiastes, and Job and the apocryphal books of Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon.  One reason for the designation of these books is that – surprise – they use the word wisdom a lot.  Of the 318 times that the Hebrew root for wisdom mkx (chakam) shows up in the Hebrew Bible, over half are in the Wisdom books.  Proverbs and Ecclesiastes and the Wisdom of Solomon are associated with Solomon, the king who, when given the choice to ask God for anything in the world, chose wisdom and a discerning mind.  Solomon would not have written all of these himself, but the wisdom tradition connects itself to this one, who, at that one point in his life, chose the highest good of all, the most beautiful of God’s creations, Wisdom.                

Proverbs 9 is one of several texts where Wisdom is personified as this dynamic woman who calls out to people.  “Wisdom has built her house, she has hewn her seven pillars.  She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine, she has also set her table.  She has sent out her servant girls, she calls from the highest places in the town, ‘You that are simple, turn in here!’  To those without sense she says, ‘Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.  Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.” 

I like here how Wisdom is portrayed as an active recruiter for her cause.  Wisdom is not just something for which we must search high and low, turn over rocks, and sniff out.  Wisdom has built a house, she has set this luxurious table of food and drink, a meal fit for a king and a queen, and she is the one who has the search party going out and searching for people who will come and feast.  Her servant girls are going to the most public, most visible areas, the highest places in the town, and are calling out multiple times, repeatedly, for people to come and sit down with Wisdom.  To learn her ways.  To make her house our house.  It sounds to me kind of like the parable that Jesus told in Luke where the master of the house has set out this great banquet, but nobody comes, so the master sends the servants out to “the highways and the hedges”, as the King James translates it, to bring in the poor and anyone, anyone who will come to this feast to fill the house of the master. 

Scholars propose that the reference to Wisdom having built her house and hewn her seven pillars is a reference to the ancient understanding of the pillars of creation that held up the universe.  Wisdom is closely linked to creation in Proverbs 8. “The Lord created me at the beginning of God’s work, the first of the acts of long ago.  Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth.  When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs about with water.  Before the mountains has been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth – when God had not yet made earth and fields, or the world’s first bits of soil.  When God established the heavens, I was there…then I was beside God, like a master worker; and I was daily God’s delight, rejoicing before God always, rejoicing in the inhabited world and delighting in the human race.” (8:22-27a, 30-31)

Wisdom has built her house, with its pillars, and it is the entire cosmos.  We’re already inside the house, and yet she calls us to wake up and take a look around and eat the feast.

Along with mentioning Wisdom a lot, there’s another feature of Wisdom literature that I find particularly interesting for what it doesn’t mention.  Unlike so much of the rest of the Bible, the books of Wisdom do not speak much of the typical salvation history of the people of Israel.  The patriarchs and matriarchs of Abraham and Sara, Isaac, and Jacob aren’t prominent.  Moses isn’t featured.  The history of the kings isn’t held up.  Covenant isn’t as prominent, or following the particular parts of the law.  The temple and the ritual system of worship isn’t there.  All of those features that we usually think of making up the religion of the Hebrew Bible, the story of the people of Israel, aren’t center stage.  Instead, Wisdom comes from a different place.  Wisdom is just out there; it’s what we get when we pay attention to things.  It even has a secular nature.  It is completely accessible to everyone, those inside the covenant, those outside the covenant, those who know the faith stories, those who don’t.  The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, Proverbs 9 goes on to say.  So anyone who begins to have a sense of awe and wonder with Being, with that which is, has already cracked the door of the house of wisdom.  Like Jesus’ parables, which were these secular fictions, non-religious stories that pointed to a deep spiritual truth, Wisdom presents itself in all arenas of life.  In the farmer’s field.  In the marketplace.   In the business office.  In the seed of the plant.  In the classrooms of the academy, the streets of the city, the domestic chores of the home.  It’s all in the house of Wisdom.             

If we look deeply into something, whatever it may be, there is wisdom there.  We are following the trail of the tracings of the finger of God.  This is Wisdom as the mystical invitation into awe and wonder that calls out to us from everywhere.

James helps bring us back around to the practical, to the ants.  James is the closest thing we have to New Testament wisdom literature.  Like the older Wisdom texts, James doesn’t give much space to typical religious topics.  He doesn’t theologize about the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  He doesn’t talk about communion.  He only mentions the church once, right at the end.  James knows that religion and the practice and language of religion can become a self-justifying system.  The sacred shell that religion can create for us can just as easily cut us off from wisdom as connect us to wisdom.  This sacred shell can sometimes have us locked up in a closet in the house of wisdom rather than free to walk around.  More blind to God’s beauty than enlightened by it.  So James is pretty direct about these sort of things.  For James, Wisdom is wisdom in action.  Wisdom in how we speak and how we live.  1:26 says, “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.” Ouch.  “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”  He also connects this to the relationship between faith and works.  “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith, but do not have works?  So faith, by itself, if it has not works, is dead.”    

If I knew more about ants, this is the place where I would tell another story or two about how they are an example of wisdom.  About how, by the very way they order their lives, by the way they relate to their own kind and their neighboring environment, they are an example of wisdom in action.  And how much we can learn from that.  And how our religion is always subject to this kind of scrutiny.  About how this helps us see that religion is in the house of wisdom, not the other way around.  Wisdom is not contained within the house of religion.  Our religious expressions are our attempt, the attempt of our tradition, to live faithfully in the house of Wisdom.  To play joyfully with all the other creatures in God’s playhouse.     

An important function of healthy religion is to unplug our ears so that we can hear the call of Wisdom coming from the little creatures and big creatures and the creation that is our home. 

But since I don’t know any more ant stories, I’ll just add this observation.  Wisdom has built her house, and unlike us and our anti-ant spray over our threshold, she apparently is totally cool with ants and bees and birds and trees and oceans and religions and all sorts of people living inside.  If fact, she’s doing all she can to convince us all to come in through her doors.  To settle in to the architecture of her ways.  To learn to live at peace with all the others she’s invited, feasting around that table.

James on Wisdom – 9,24,06

There is a short parable from the American Indians that goes something like this: A grandmother was sitting with her grandson who was starting to come of age.  The grandson said, “I feel as if I have two wolves fighting in my heart.  One wolf is the angry, violent, and vengeful one. The other wolf is the loving, compassionate, forgiving one.”  The grandmother looked at him and said, “I know which wolf will win.”  The grandson was quiet for a while.  Then he asked, “Which one will win?”  The grandmother replied, “The one that you feed.” 

 

I think these two wolves show up today in this passage from James.  He says there are two kinds of wisdom at work within us.

 

Now, if there’s one writer in the New Testament that we could make an honorary Mennonite, it would probably be James.  I remember when I was young my mom telling me that James was one of the most important books of the Bible.  We like the guy because he’s practical, all about living out your faith.  One verse from James that I heard growing up was “Be doers of the word, not just hearers.”  James isn’t really impressed with God-talk that spins the wheels without going anywhere.  This is the book that says “faith without works is dead” (2:26).  He’s the one who repeats the central commandment “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” and calls it “the royal law” (2:8)  James says “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to care for the orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (1:27).  This down to earth, hands on, approach to what it means to be a people of faith is a large part of what I value in the Mennonite tradition, a tradition very much rooted in the spirit of the book of James. 

James might best be classified as wisdom literature.  This would put it in the same genre as Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Wisdom of Solomon.  James only mentions the name of Jesus twice.  A lot of the New Testament letters talk frequently of Jesus and about faith in Jesus.  James reads more like something that could come right out of the mouth of Jesus, like an extended version of the Sermon on the Mount, like a wise rabbi urging faithful living to the one God.  James helps us expand the conversation of what it means to have faith.  His goal isn’t to dazzle you with his deep theology, but to instruct you in how to live well.

The reading from today picks up right where last week leaves off.  James has just told us that the tongue is a small but dangerous thing.  You sort of get the feeling that if he could have his way we would all put duct tape over our mouths the rest of our lives, shut up, and just focus on living a good life.  He starts the passage today by saying “Who is wise and understanding among you?  Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.”  And then this word wisdom begins a new theme.  What follows is a commentary on just what James means when he talks about wisdom.   

James is concerned not only with what we do, with our ethics, but with what is behind our actions.  What drives us?  What is it that causes us to act violently or to act compassionately?  Where do these desires within us come from?

            His answer to these questions is ‘wisdom.’  Everyone operates out of some kind of wisdom.  We can look at the world through two kinds of wisdom, he says, and he uses spatial metaphors to speak of the differences.   One is from above, one from below. 

We find ourselves in the middle, with both of these wisdoms available to us and pressing in on us. 

            People aren’t just a collection of isolated actions, but we operate from within one of these wisdoms.  We buy into a package deal that teaches us where to channel our desires.    

V. 14. “But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts,” he says, “such wisdom is from below.”

The wisdom from below is based on a perception of scarcity.

If there is a scarce amount of power, then I must grab as much as I can in order not to be overpowered.  If there is a scarce amount of love, then I must do whatever it takes for others to love me so I won’t be isolated and alone.  If there is a scarce amount of wealth, then I have to hold on to everything I have in order not to lose out on having enough.  All of these are behaviors based on a certain kind of logic or wisdom.  If you buy into the wisdom that there is a scarce amount of power then it makes a certain kind of sense to beat down the enemy, or the competition, to keep as much power as you can.

            The wisdom from below looks out at the world with envy.  Envy identifies being with having and getting.  It’s an identity based in what you acquire and possess. 

            Now James takes all of this very seriously.  He says in 4:1 and 2, “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from?  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.”  The whole cycle of social unrest, murder, and wars is based in this wisdom from below.  We’re always fearful of losing what little we think we have, so we’re always setting ourselves up into rivalries with others. 

            This kind of wisdom even treats God as an object to be manipulated.  James goes on to say, “you do not have, because you do not ask.  You ask and do not receive because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.”  We approach God as the one who can help us possess what we want.  We want God on our side.  In this wisdom even God’s grace is scarce and limited and we want to secure as much as we can for ourselves. 

 

The wisdom from above comes at us from a completely different direction.

Listen to how it is described in v. 17.  “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” 

This verse reminds me of the list Paul gives us in Galatians that we call the fruits of the Spirit.  How do you know its wisdom from above?  How do you know its really the Holy Spirit at work and not some other spirit?  Well, Paul says, you look at what the tree produces and if the fruit is good, like love, joy, peace, patience, self-control, then that’s the Spirit.  James also uses a metaphor from the natural world.  “And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.”   

 

This pure wisdom, the logic of God, identifies being with abundance, with receiving and sharing in this free flow of mercy and compassion.  

 

If you think power can be shared and multiplied, then it begins to make sense to seek to heal a broken relationship, to reconcile with an enemy, to empower those who are weak. 

If you have let go of the need to possess and grasp onto things, then it makes sense to begin sharing your resources with others.  The feeding of the 5000 and 4000 actually make sense under this logic.  One act of sharing from someone’s small meal gets blessed and multiplies out so that everyone is found to be with enough.  Sharing leads to blessing which leads to more sharing. 

If you think love is in abundance and actually multiplies, then you become free to love those who may not love you back.  You become free to enjoy the love that is in your life knowing that you are not taking away from a limited store of love, but helping love increase.  Now this may sound a little strange to you, but there was a time in my life when I actually felt guilty for having such a loving family.  I knew other people who had terrible family lives and for some reason my mind figured that if I was part of a loving family I was somehow depleting the reserves available to everyone else.  It has been freeing for me personally to come to better understand this kind of wisdom of abundance.  James 4:6 says “God gives all the more grace.”  It’s gift.  It’s all the more.

   I love the passage that was read from the Wisdom of Solomon.  It has to be one of the most beautiful descriptions of wisdom ever written.  “For wisdom is more mobile than any motion; because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all things.  For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of God’s goodness.  Although she is but one, she can do all things, and while remaining in herself, she renews all things; in every generation she passes into holy souls, and makes them friends of God and prophets.”

 

It is becoming a little too clear that the wisdom from below leads to destruction.  Our desire to have and possess and dominate is coming to have profound effects on the non-human world.  It’s becoming more clear that this is not a path we can continue to follow if we wish to survive.  The wisdom from below is based in death, smells like death, looks like death.

 

Life isn’t about dominating and accumulating.  It’s about receiving the free flow of grace and being a channel of that grace.  This is the spiritual life founded in the living God.  It is the way of being human that is true to who we have been created to be.  It is the only way we will ever live at peace with each other and with creation. 

 

So, sisters and brothers, which wolf are you feeding?  I think James calls us to a task that involves a daily decision.  Daily choosing the kind of wisdom that informs our actions.  Daily nurturing the creature within us that lives out of the abundance of compassion and grace.

James wants us to live well.  To act out of our faith in all areas of life.  May we daily allow the wisdom from above to shape our heart and our will.   Amen.

  

Prayer of Confession

 

Words of Assurance

“God is indeed near, giving us grace daily.” 

 

Response Song

STJ #36 “Long before my journey’s start”

The Tongues Two Trajectories: Blessing and Cursing – 9,17,06

I have a pretty high regard for the power of speech.  Throughout my time at seminary I experienced the ability of words to shape my thoughts and my faith in wonderful ways.  These were wise words, thoughtful words, challenging words.  This past week our nation remembered the attacks of September 11, 2001.  The days after that event five years ago are a perfect example of the power of the spoken word.  In the midst of the chaos and the silence, everyone was looking for words to make sense of things and to provide a direction.  The words that were spoken by many in our government in the following months provided a certain meaning and a certain direction that in many ways still holds strong today.  The words were carefully constructed to produce a unifying effect and take the nation down a militant path.  They were powerful and there are many in our country still captivated by their simplistic reduction of the world into black and white, us and them, good and evil.     

 

The Hebrews held such a high regard for the spoken word, that when they pictured the way the world was created, they envisioned the words spoken by God, forming the earth out of the chaos.  They knew that’s what words do.  Speech is a creative act.  Words have the ability to create light out of darkness.  Words have the ability to separate night from day, to call out life where there was no life before.  All this is given to us at the very beginning of Scripture, Genesis 1.  In the beginning, God created, and God spoke the world into being.  Words shaping and giving structure to our world. 

 

James knows words are powerful.  So powerful, that we should be extremely cautious with how we use them.  Sure, words can be creative, but they can also be quite destructive.  God’s words may form beauty out of dust, but our words usually aren’t quite so lovely.  The tongue isn’t always a friendly thing.  It’s small, but according to James, dangerous things come in small packages.

 

I’m going to try something out this morning.  Occasionally I want to let the sermon be shaped by the experiences represented in this fellowship.  My hope is that by hearing from each other’s reflections and stories, we can have a deeper understanding of how the teaching from Scripture works in our lives.  So this week I sent out notes to several of you asking about how the power of the tongue, the spoken word, has been both destructive and constructive in your lives or in the lives of people you know.  And this morning I will share these responses with you all as they were written, often in the first person.  I invite you to think of these as living sermon illustrations, alive within this congregation.   

 

So listen now, as we hear again from James and as we hear from each other.

Read James 3:1-5

——-


            I once worked for a person who employed harmful speech as something akin to one of the basic food groups (he seemed to need it to survive). His skill was so polished (as in brutal, unmistakeable, and exquisitely honed) that some people would literally go home sick rather than subject themselves to even the potential of being the target of his vitriolic rantings. Some of these people’s careers/reputations suffered as a consequence. His justification for his actions was that he wasn’t crucifying the person, he was trying to improve the situation. His “proof” was that, in his opinion at least, he and [whoever] had a very good social relationship.

Then again, there’s the other approach to harmful speech – backstabbing (that is to say, doing the equivalent of the above but only in the absence of the “recipient”). I’ve seen that too. All smiles to your face, but an enemy to your back. These people tend to rationalize their behavior as “being kind to the victim, yet doing what needs to be done for the organization”.

———-

Regarding destructive speech, I don’t have to think more than a moment for “high school!” to pop into mind.  It seemed as though harmful speech reigned there – gossip, and putting people down maliciously or in the guise of a joke.  I was often wounded by careless or barbed words from schoolmates.  Looking back, I can see that the worst offenders were kids who were hurting deeply and tried to feel better by making others lower than themselves.  At the time, I didn’t have that perspective at all.  (They just seemed really mean.)

Read James 3:5b-8

Imagine an angry, unhappy parent saying to their child, “What are you stupid or something?, Use that head for something more than a hat rack, you kids don’t have the brains you were born with, Don’t you understand?!!!?  “It’s as plain as the nose on your face.” These words are spewed out of a person filled with rage and accompanied by a slap on the back of the head, or a lash with a leather belt.  Imagine the other parent as the most passive person on earth, not repeating this kind of destructive speech, but ignoring the words, never recognizing the pain on a child’s face, rarely offering an affirmation to offset the damage being done.  These parents, and those angry, critical, rage filled words produced this family: one child suffers from mental instability;, another child – a walking skeleton, unable to demonstrate any emotion; another child who is angry and critical – who repeats the same words to his child, has high blood pressure and a temper which sometimes erupts with internalized rage;  Several others have the “I have to please all people and be perfect” disease, accompanied by major depression and no self esteem. Still another commits suicide at age 40, by his own parent’s gun, and the last child, who is estranged from all the siblings, thinks, “this family causes me too much pain”.   ———

 I was in the midst of my 4th parent conference at the end of a long evening after teaching all day, when I suggested to the parent with whom I was speaking that her 2nd grade child was having anger management problems. She immediately screamed at me saying, “Anger management problems!! What do you mean he has anger management problems?!” 

Her son coped with frustration the way he had learned from his mother. He would push over desks and cry and scream whenever he was frustrated, which often happened. It took all of us: my assistant, the school counselor, the principal, his classmates, and myself the rest of the school year to help him find other ways of coping with anger and frustration. He needed a different example to follow. Modeling and patience was the answer.

——

Up through verse 8 James is completely negative about the role of the tongue and the spoken word.  It’s just plain dangerous – it’s a deadly poison, its untamable, its on fire, its from hell. 

At verse 9 we begin to see a shift.  The tongue can be destructive, but also constructive, it can be a source of cursing, but also blessing.  So I’ll read on in James, but this time give some responses from CMF members of ways they have experienced speech as a blessing, able to turn a difficult situation in a healthier direction.

Read James 3:9-10

——

 

             I remember once when a timely word came from a parent in the hospital where I was working.  The child had relapsed.  Did we miss it?  We always ask ourselves this when it happens… we review the MRIs until we dream in black and white and gray tones.  I felt wholly responsible, though others reassured that this was destined to be (a bad prognosis to begin with).  Still, I avoided going to see her in the hospital.  Why?  Still don’t know fully.  But eventually I went.  I sheepishly walked into her room and said hi.  The father immediately said, “Don’t be coming in here all mopey and sad, we just wanted to see you!  Stop dragging your feet, pick your head up.  We did the best we could.  Mopey is a dwarf in Snow White and isn’t allowed here in this room”  What I thought was going to be a “are you sure we did everything possible” inquisition, turned into a celebration of the child’s life, who died later that year…

—–

I find it very interesting that I could not think of ONE example where a thoughtful word has helped to move a potential conflict towards reconciliation.  The best examples I can come up with are “Let’s agree that we disagree” and “You are entitled to your opinion, and I am entitled to mine.”——-A number of years ago, I was working with inner-city kids, and not really prepared for it.  One of my co-workers, in particular, had a very gentle of way of speaking with the children and calming down fairly intense situations.  It was a good opportunity for me to try to model my speech and behavior to be more like hers.Read James 3:11-12 and v. 10.   

I often find that simply asking the question “What do you think will help the situation?” can be very helpful.  In certain settings, I might also ask, “What has God said to you about this?”

 

—————-

 

Regrettably, the circles that I have been in have never offered any examples I can think of how I timely word brought healing into a situation. I personally have tried to counsel, after the fact, what I considered to be a balanced opinion, but that seems to be like holding the hand of the crash victim. The damage has been done, and there may be no surgeon who can fix it.

—————-

 

It was really gratifying to work with young children on problem solving techniques. Whenever there was a conflict, each person was given a voice, (They got to explain their side of the story without interruption.) and then an ear. (We listened to each other’s perceptions of what happened and how each person felt.) Then they would problem solve from there. At first they needed my help, and as time went on, the children usually did it on their own. It was always amazing to observe how well this worked! They were given tools, the process was modeled for them, and eventually it became their own.

-----------

This passage from James doesn’t need a whole lot of explaining.  It is clear to me from these voices among you that the power of the tongue has left its mark, both for harm and for good.  Each of us lives with some kind of legacy of how words have been used in our lives as weapons inflicting pain, as medicine offering healing.

I find it interesting that James eludes to humanity as being made in the likeness of God.  This means that we are to respect everyone, even as we respect God, but it also points to our gift of speech.  What makes us human is our ability to communicate with one another in ways that no other animal in creation can do.  Just as God spoke the world into being, we also speak our world into being.  The good news here is that we have a God who offers us healing for harmful words spoken to us, forgiveness for destructive words we have spoken, and the gift of the Spirit for speaking words that create life. 

In many ways this reading from James ties in with what the adults are looking at for Sunday school for this quarter.    Too bad destructive speech doesn’t end after high school.  It’s something we’re always working at.  As people of peace, we receive healing, and offer our own speech to a world in need of healing.  


 

I would like to close this time with a period of silence.  No words.  Simply ourselves, before our God.  Maybe reflecting on what has just been said, a particular story that spoke to you, or a particular line from James that seems pertinent.  Maybe listening for a gentle word from God.  Maybe just finding a sacred space of quietness in the midst of a world where we are bombarded with words.  Please have your bulletins open to the prayer of confession.  I’ll allow this silence to continue for several minutes, and then we’ll pray this prayer together. 

 Silence……….

 

Prayer of Confession

God of the spoken word, God of the silence. 

We confess that our mouths are often like confused fountains,

sending out fresh water and salt water, blessing and cursing.

Forgive us for this.

Give us your words,

which create light out of darkness, hope out of fear, life out of death.

Amen

 

Words of Assurance

God hears and forgives, and gives us the Spirit that we may have new life.  Amen.

Response Song

Let’s sing together now from Sing the Journey #67 “Let there be light, Lord God”