Grace Presbyterian Church
September 23, 2018, Pentecost 18B
Wisdom From Above
We have a funny image in our society that attaches itself to the word “wisdom.” You’ve probably seen some variation of it: a mountain; a man (somehow it’s always a man) perched at or near the summit, typically with a long or prominent white or grey beard and some kind of robe, typically sitting cross-legged, maybe in front of a campfire; and, possibly seated in front of the guru or possibly still struggling over that last ledge to get to the guru’s little plateau, a wisdom-seeker (or possibly two), most likely male also, burdened with a mountain climber’s pack and gear. It’s an image that maybe owes its existence to old movies, and that nowadays seems to pop up most regularly in comic strips, in which some sort of humorous spin is put on the “wisdom” offered by the guru. (Such an image actually turns up in today’s comics, in the strip Frank and Ernest, where the guru ends up behind an airline ticket counter! It doesn’t go well. Believe me, I don’t have the kind of influence to pull that off.)
As much as the image may be played for humor nowadays, it does say at least a little something about how we view wisdom. For one thing, it suggests wisdom is hidden. You can’t just pull it down off the shelf; you have to go on an arduous journey to “find” it. Also, the image of the guru up on that mountain suggests that wisdom is restricted to a few enlightened souls who have to be sought out, possibly paid homage, and then solicited for their “wisdom.”
You can see these implications played out in more than a few ways in our society. For one thing, the word “guru” has become a sort of cottage industry unto itself; you can find, if you seek hard enough, people (who don’t look very guru-like) referred to as a “PR guru,” a “media guru” (or more precisely, a “social media guru”), a “tech guru,” a “love guru,” a “parenting guru,” or even, yes, a “church growth guru.”
For another, these modern “gurus” can get quite a bit of adulation paid to them for the presumed wisdom they dispense, as well as a great deal of cash money. It pays to be a guru; you get a lot of attention, your face can get on TV quite a bit, you can land million-dollar book deals…life is good, you know?
We mere mortals, on the other hand, are left with the burden of “seeking out” or “searching for” this wisdom. This can take the form of buying the pricey books these gurus publish, or turning on the Sunday news shows, or attending one of their lectures or (egad!) TED talks. It’s hard work seeking wisdom in this world.
By now, I hope you’ve stacked up all these images against the reading for the day from the epistle of James, and found them wanting. Clearly James is seeking to get his followers to think differently – more wisely, one might even say – about wisdom.
From the very first reading of this passage we see that James is about something else altogether. To speak of “gentleness born of wisdom” as this author does is to be clearly in another place where wisdom is concerned, a not-at-all worldly wisdom that we find sadly lacking in our lives. There’s a reason, for example, that the late Mister Rogers is, as they say, “having a moment” at this point in our culture; at a time when coarseness and hatred seem to run rampant in our public and private lives, the “gentleness born of wisdom” that was exemplified in his way with children seems sadly and sorely missing from our world, and all to our detriment.
And we would be remiss not to notice that, once again, this epistle is driving us towards a life that expresses wisdom, as well as faith, in the deeds we do and the ways we act in the world around us as well as the community of Christ-followers we call the church. If it doesn’t show, if it isn’t visible in our everyday moving and being, does it even count?
Now it isn’t as if James is unaware of the more typical wisdom we were thinking about earlier; he’s aware of it, and he doesn’t have kind things to say about it. “Earthly” is one thing; “unspiritual” is harsh enough; but “devilish”? That’s about as harsh as you can get. The harshness seems a little more understandable, I guess, when you consider what James is calling out as identifying as the fruits of this worldly “wisdom,” and the effects that they have on the community of God’s people. When the community lives with “bitter envy and selfish ambition” in the hearts of its members, when “disorder and wickedness of every kind” becomes the observable characteristic of the community, then it certainly is not showing any wisdom in its deeds; its faith is clearly not showing in its works; and frankly, God is not to be seen; its witness is ruined if not outright destructive to God’s work in the world. We fail to do the thing we’re here to do.
Some commentators find it funny or odd that after such seemingly intemperate language, James pivots wildly to the encouragement that wisdom shows itself in being “peaceable”! Of course, that list of characteristics of “wisdom from above” does start with “pure” before going on to “peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” Perhaps it isn’t really right, just possibly, to be “peaceable” when the world you confront demands that injustice be named and called out, when the world or the community is not “pure” in the way that does show our faith in our deeds.
But look at these traits. Not many of them – none of them, if we’re honest about it – look anything like our stereotypical image of “wisdom.” Not many of our modern gurus concern themselves with those characteristics.
“Willing to yield”? Try “do whatever it takes to get what you want.”
“Full of mercy and good fruits”? You gonna run a cost benefit analysis on those good fruits before you just start giving them out all over the place?
“Gentle”? The word is “bold,” or “aggressive,” or “determined.” “Gentle”? Hah.
“Peaceable”? You gotta fight for it.
“Pure”? You gotta compromise.
So no, worldly wisdom just doesn’t intersect with this “wisdom from above,” wisdom from God; the kind of wisdom that cries out in the streets in Proverbs and sees the world as it is in Ecclesiastes demands here in James (the closest New Testament counterpart to those Old Testament books of wisdom) a life lived with humility and grace. It looks like welcoming the one who comes to us as a child, as in our story from the gospel of Mark, and that feels demeaning to us when we’re busy arguing about who’s gonna take over the movement when Jesus is gone.
That rankles. It goes against everything we’re taught by the world around us. It feels limiting, like we’re somehow cutting ourselves off from the good things in life.
Of course, that begs the question of what exactly we consider to be the good things in life. And perhaps we learn to re-evaluate that if we truly partake of that wisdom from above, wisdom from God.
It’s not what we’re accustomed to, and it’s not what we’ve always thought it is. But maybe, we just might find it is exactly what we need.
For wisdom, the real stuff, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #4, Holy God, We Praise Your Name; #839, Blessed Assurance, Jesus Is Mine!; #175, Seek Ye First; #702, Christ Be Beside Me