Sermon for Proper 20, Year B
September 19, 2021
Jeremiah 11:18-20 Psalm 54 James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a Mark 99:30-37
Last Sunday I talked about James teaching us that words and actions matter. In today’s letter from James, he says “Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.” In March, I heard a Razorback basketball player interviewed after a big victory. Wrong session, I know – but today’s issues and the lesson from James reminded me of this interview. The player said “coach says to focus on we, not me.” Works born of wisdom focus on “we.” Words and actions born of divine wisdom unite, they do not divide. They build people up; they do not tear them down.
James says this wisdom comes from above and that it differs from earthly wisdom which, he says creates disorder. James is writing to a church in conflict. The wisdom that comes from God is “first pure,” he says, “then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” Then he says, “And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.”
James wrote this letter to a church that was in conflict a couple of thousand years ago, and it applies to the world in which we live where conflict and disputes abound on issues of health, safety, public policy, individual freedoms, and corporate responsibly. I long for the civility that James is seeking for people he is writing to – civility that is born from the wisdom that enables us to be “willing to yield” to others. It is not about me, it is about we.
As I read the news, I see very little yielding to others and a great deal of partiality and hypocrisy. Of course, conflict is considered newsworthy. It provides us ample opportunity to judge others as right or wrong, intelligent or ignorant, and good or evil. We label rather than yield. James would, I believe, say we are using earthly wisdom – which is to say wisdom rooted in our selfish nature – or me not we. There is no middle ground, or room for compromise that will bring us together. It seems there is no one “making peace.”
In the midst of conflict, James reminds us this self-serving wisdom only perpetuates the conflict. I like to think I’m among those who actions are born of the wisdom from above – but I know that I am just as susceptible to putting myself first as anyone else. I struggle with patience and I’m tired of listening to people fight over individual rights verses yielding to the common good – as if one negates the other.
Yet, even the disciples in today’s gospel struggle with the temptation to put themselves first. They argue amongst themselves as to who is the greatest. Afterwards, Jesus calls the twelve and says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
Still, throughout history and today, we can find people whose actions reflect the wisdom from above. For over a year now, health care workers have been making sacrifice after sacrifice to care for us in the midst of a pandemic.
On the last day of my trip, I stayed in Springfield. There were over a dozen ambulances parked in front of the hotel with FEMA placards in the windshields. As we were leaving the next morning, we got on the elevator with one of the paramedics and I asked if they were on their way back from somewhere. I was thinking of Louisiana and Hurricane Ida. He said simply, “no, we’ve been asked to help here.” Of course, I thought, the pandemic has overrun hospitals in various parts of our country and Missouri is a state where hospitals are struggling. I thanked him for his service.
It is not just healthcare workers who are making a difference. The pandemic has taught us now important every worker is for goods and services to be available. Parts are in short supply and delays in shipping make matter worse. COVID outbreaks result in work shutdowns, and the lack of personnel is slowing down production and service everywhere. People make a difference by simply showing up for work. My new, very old car has been in the shop for three weeks now, in part due to shipping delays.
Patience is not one of my strong suits, but I know it to be an attribute of the wisdom that comes from above. This wisdom is available to us all. James says, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.”
The choice before us, then, is to submit to God, to draw near to God so that our strength will come from above – or to turn our attention inward and focus our energy on achieving what we want for ourselves. Jesus uses the innocence of child to teach a similar lesson to what James is saying. Jesus takes a child into his arms and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Children have a way of drawing out our better nature. We understand that they need to be loved and protected. Parents, teachers and school employees are struggling with this in ways they never imagined before the pandemic. There is little to life that has not been impacted by the Corona virus.
Jesus holds a child to remind us of our call to serve “the least” amount us – the most vulnerable. The scriptures remind us of this over and over again. The prophets talk of our responsibility to care for the poor, for widows and orphans. Farmers are taught not to harvest all their crops, but to leave some in the fields for other to harvest – the poor, widows and children, and people who are traveling.
Today’s scriptures are yet another example of the importance of seeing ourselves as being responsible for the welfare of others. When we welcome a child, any child of God, we welcome Jesus. We are all vulnerable to becoming selfish, so we need to seek wisdom from above. And, when we draw near to God we will seek peace on earth – even among those with whom we disagree.
Let us pray.
Loving God, help us seek the wisdom that you offer and then work to heal this broken world. Help us yield to others and close the divides that separate us from the peace you offer. We offer our prayers in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.