-Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston on September 27, 2009; 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Monday, September 28, 2009
Monday, September 21, 2009
The Epistle of James (3:13-4:10) bears witness to two kinds of wisdom: The wisdom from above and the wisdom from below. The wisdom from above bears the fruit of the Spirit: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. The wisdom from below is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. It is the wisdom of the arrogant and the proud. The wisdom from below is human wisdom and it bears the fruit of envy.
Envy is a vicious, stubborn, Hydra-headed monster. For envy, Cain murdered Abel. For envy, Saul tried to kill David. For envy, the Pharisees railroaded Jesus to the cross. (Wallace Fisher, Stand Fast in Faith, p. 98)
Aesop had a fable about two eagles, one envious of the other because the other could soar higher and more elegantly than he could. So the envious eagle would pluck his strongest feathers from his own body and shoot them as arrows, trying to wound or kill the other eagle. It was his own undoing, however. He could not hit the high flying eagle, and he was eventually grounded by his lack of feathers. Envy destroyed the eagle.
There's an ancient Greek legend that illustrates beautifully the destructive power of envy. In one of the important races, a certain athlete ran well, but he still placed second. The crowd applauded the winner noisily, and after a time a statue was erected in his honor. But the one who had placed second came to think of himself as a loser. Corrosive envy ate away at him physically and emotionally, filling his body with stress. He could think of nothing else but his defeat and his lust to be number one, and he decided he had to destroy the statue that was a daily reminder of his lost glory.
A plan took shape in his mind, which he began cautiously to implement. Late each night, when everyone was sleeping, he went to the statue and chiseled at the base hoping to so weaken the foundation that eventually it would topple. One night, as he was chiseling the sculpture in violent and envious anger, he went too far. The heavy marble statue teetered on its fragile base and crashed down on the disgruntled athlete. He died beneath the crushing weight of the marble replica of the one he had grown to hate. But in reality he had been dying long before, inch by inch, chisel blow by chisel blow. He was the victim of his own stressful, competitive envy. (Lloyd J. Ogilvie, Making Stress Work For You, Waco, Texas: Word Books, Publisher, 1984, pp. 101-102. Copyright 1984, Word Inc., Dallas, Texas.)
Jame's negative view of envy was a widespread belief in his day and among the great philosophers of the age. Socrates described envy as "the ulcer of the soul." Aristotle referred to envy as "a certain sorrow" that is experienced because someone has something that we do not.
Once Jesus caught his disciples arguing among themselves about who was greatest. The disciples do not understand this wisdom from God because the disciples are operating under human wisdom. Peter envies John because he is the beloved disciple. Thomas envies Peter because he thinks Peter has more faith. And round and round they go as each disciple envies the other. Jesus responds to his disciples envy contest with a dramatic gesture. He took a child and put it in the middle of the room in the house where they were gathered. Then cradling the little one in his arms, Jesus said, "Whoever embraces one of these children as I do embraces me, and far more than me—God who sent me." The humble child was too young to know the ways of the world — the ways of human wisdom. The meek little child was better equipped to choose the wisdom of God over the wisdom of the world.
The disciples were full of envy and it led to arguments and discord among them. Show me a church that is full of arguments and strife and I will show you a church with disciples that are suffering from the ulcer of the soul: envy. Both James and his brother Jesus claim that we must choose between the wisdom from above and the wisdom from below. It may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you're gonna have to serve somebody.
Augustine, a man in the 5th century who became Bishop of the church and a saint in history, originally lead a life of sin giving himself over to whatever pleasures presented themselves. His mother had earnestly prayed for him his entire life that he would give his life to the service of Christ, but Augustine persisted in his sins until one day he sat with a friend on a bench weeping over the state of his life. It was at this moment that he heard a boy or girl--he says he does not know which it was--singing a song. The sound was coming from a neighboring house. The child was chanting over and over: "Pick it up, read it; pick it up; read it."
Augustine stopped crying and wondered what kind of children's game would produce such a song. He could not remember ever having heard the like. So, holding back the tears, he got to his feet, thinking he had heard a divine command to open the Bible and read the first passage he came to. So he quickly returned to the bench where Alypius was sitting, for that is where had put down the apostle's book. He snatched it up, opened it, and in silence read the paragraph on which his eyes first fell: "Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lust thereof." He wanted to read no further, nor did he need to. For instantly, as the sentence ended, there was infused in his heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away. This is how Augustine was converted from following the wisdom from below to following the wisdom from above.
James claims we need conversion every day from the wisdom from below to the wisdom from above. The wisdom from below is not easy to abandon or avoid because it saturates the environment in which we live. The wisdom from below is what we see in TV commercials. It is the basis for business decisions. Even after our conversion to Christ we continue to live in the world and every day we must face the wisdom from below and we make comprises and we make excuses even after our initial conversion to faith. Conversion is an ongoing process, for we are all a work in progress.
A grapevine is a most productive plant. Spreading out its branches, each is intended to bring forth fruit. No vine grower is foolish enough to invest his time and effort in cultivating vines merely for the foliage on its branches. He looks for results. Fruits! As the branches of Christ in the Kingdom of God, we are expected to produce the fruits of spiritual life. And we're not speaking of spiritual apples, grapes, pears, or peaches this morning. We're talking of what's going on in the orchard of your life. What are you producing?
The Apostle Paul lists the fruits of the spirit. He says, "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control." How's that for a fruit basket? A good list for the cultivation of life's orchard. With these fruits in mind, what's going on in your orchard? The wisdom that comes from above produces the fruit of the spirit.
James puts it like this: "Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. 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." (James 3:13, 4:7-8)
-Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B on September 20, 2009 at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston, TX