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Wise Living

Sermon - 9/20/09
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

James 3:13-18

We are continuing in the letter to James, the 3rd chapter.  Last week we looked at the first half of the chapter, and now the second half, beginning with verse 13:

Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. 14But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. 15Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17But 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. 18And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.


In that text from last Sunday, we talked about the importance of our speech.  The text refers to a tongue that is so powerful, so small but yet so might, and can get us into a lot of trouble (as we all know).

I used the example last Sunday from Duck football of LaGarette Blount who made some unwise comments about the opposing team prior to the game, and that caused the other team to get all fired up, resulting in a lousy game for him and a fight after the game that resulted in his suspension from the team.  And it all began with that poor choice of words.

Afterward, someone told me another story that I had missed from the previous day from tennis.  Serena Williams, start tennis player, who cussed out a line judge and because of it was penalized 1 point.  Just 1 point!  It was match point -- she lost the match because of it, because she could not control her tongue.

And so I suggested this is basic Christianity 101 -- the importance of our speech.

Well, this morning, we have basic Christianity 102 -- the importance of our actions.  The old adage (that is certainly true) -- "Actions speak louder than words" -- or, in the words of my favorite quote from St. Francis of Assisi:  "Preach Christ always.  If necessary, use words".  If necessary.

So, where am I going to find any example to illustrate this point?  Well, there's of course sports.  But this time not football, but baseball.  Not the Ducks, but the Phillies.  Some of you may have seen this on the news and already know where I'm going.

Imagine your whole life, you're a big baseball fan.  You have season tickets right in the front of the balcony in the outfield, just inside the foul line.  What is your hope, what is your dream when you go every day?  Yeah, to catch a foul ball, right?  To have that prized possession, that ball that you catch, and all the better if it's on national T.V. 

Well, watch what happens when this gentleman indeed has his moment of glory, and shares it with his 3 year-old daughter:

Click Here to view the video clip


Isn't that precious?  Don't feel too sorry for the Dad, because he was on all the national talk shows the next morning.  And the Phillies gave him (you know, this new home-town hero, to give everyone something good to feel about) 4 team jerseys (for each member of the family) and a CASE of baseballs signed by the player who hit that foul ball that his daughter threw away.

But what I want to leave you with is not that image of the little girl throwing away his newly gained prized possession, but rather the picture of the Dad -- in that moment, looking in his daughter's eyes and seeing her shocked and startled by the reaction of the crowd.  She's just doing what her Dad taught her to do -- you get the ball and you throw it back, right?!  He told someone on the news, he looked in her eyes and immediately realized that something was wrong.  And that reaction -- almost instantaneous (not quick enough to save the baseball J) -- was quick enough to know that action was needed to assure his daughter that she did the right thing:

Years from now, no one will remember who won that game (the Phillies won, by the way), but they will remember that little girl and the response of a loving father.

"Show by your good life", writes James, "that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom". 

And then he names two things to counter such gentleness:  envy and self-ambition.  Putting oneself first, before all others.

Greek philosophers taught much the same.  Socrates said that envy is the ulcer of the soul.  And philosophers like Diogenes chose a life of asceticism as the answer to personal ambition, rejecting all wealth and possessions.  And today, we glorify ambition and personal achievement as if the value of a life was determined solely by one's accomplishments and accumulations.  No longer living wisely, but richly.  Grabbing all the gusto one can in life, for oneself.

Such wisdom does not come from above, says James, but is worldly, unspiritual, perhaps even devilish.

Asking "what ever happened to humility?", New York Times columnist David Brooks (in his column on Thursday) found a stark contrast between the self-promotions and ego-centric star personalities of our current era, and those of what Tom Brokaw called 'the greatest generation', who fought through the Great Depression and a world war to global victory.  But instead of triumphant chest-beating proclaiming our greatness as the victorious warriors, Brooks writes that the mood of the nation was captured by Bing Crosby on that V-J day in 1945 at the end of the war, who proclaimed on national radio:

“All anybody can do is thank God it’s over,” Bing Crosby, the show’s host, said. “Today our deep down feeling is one of humility,” he added.


And reading a piece from the famed war correspondent Ernie Pyle (who was killed in the war a few months earlier), Burgess Meredith said (on that very same show, to commemorate the end of the war):

"We won this war because our men are brave and because of many things — because of Russia, England and China and the passage of time and the gift of nature’s material. We did not win it because destiny created us better than all other peoples.  I hope that in victory we are more grateful than we are proud."


President Truman called upon the nation to treat victory as a solemn occasion.  The Dallas Morning News editorialized, “Its momentousness and its gravity are past human comprehension.”

And so Brooks concluded:

"It’s funny how the nation’s mood was at its most humble when its actual achievements were at their most extraordinary."


And today, with the news filled with people interrupting the President, shouting at referees, fighting over trivial disputes, grabbing the microphone (as in the case with Kanye West this week) stealing the spotlight from a new, young performer on the MTV music awards, all to impress upon the unenlightened and ignorant how right their cause, how important their voice, how correct their view.

So it's no wonder why we're touched by a tender moment of a father and a daughter caught unawares on national T.V. in that tender moment.

Wisdom from above, says James, is pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits.  "Living for Jesus", as the old hymn sang, "a life that is true, striving to please him in all that we do".

It's about integrity.  Living in a way that is consistent with what we say and believe.  Which is why Jesus says not 'where your heart is there your treasure is' -- no, the quote is:  "Where your treasure is, there your heart is".  Because where we put our treasure reveals what we truly value, what we care about most.  Our actions reveal our hearts.

I had an opportunity to participate in the interviews in the process of choosing a new police chief for our city.  One of the candidates (not the one that was ultimately chosen) said something that struck me as incredibly wise.  He said that officers will make two mistakes -- they will make mental mistakes, and they will make mistakes of the heart.  He says mental mistakes he can correct, he can work with, they can change that.  Mistakes of the heart (what we might call sins of the heart) are much, much harder.  It's so true. 

We heard some wonderful stories yesterday in this place about a woman who truly lived that kind of life.  The good life, whose actions were true to her heart, consistent with her beliefs.  A woman of whom James could have written this line:  "A harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace".

Leslie Brockelbank was not a member of this church, but many of our members knew her, had worked with her on many wonderful efforts and causes -- from the Maude Kerns Art Center to nuclear disarmament.  The Eugene Weekly featured her on the cover a week ago Thursday.  Perennial activist, very well-known in our community, working on social justice, peace, human rights, the environment, the arts, and so much more.  Her son, in speaking to this crowd (a full house, a number of prominent folk you'd recognize) thanked them for coming to her service.  But he said when he came into this space and he saw the banners in our alcove:



He said he immediately felt at peace and knew he was in the right place, because as he looked at the banners he said "That's Mom, that's mother, she lived that life.  Her actions followed her heart, she was true to herself, to her values, to her beliefs, to her God".

A friend from later years shared after the service at the fellowship time downstairs a story on herself.  She said she had just remodeled her kitchen, and was quite proud of it, so she invited some friends over for some event, some cause that Leslie was involved in.  Leslie came in and saw the kitchen and she said there was a confused look on her face, knowing this woman was of modest means.  And she told Leslie "Well, it came from an inheritance".  And Leslie said:  "Well, that's one way you could spend it".

What the friend did not now (she found out later as she got to know her better) was that years ago Leslie and her husband at the time (Charles Gray) gave an inheritance of $500,000 to establish the McKenzie River Gathering Foundation.  Today, they have given over $10 million dollars around the state for a variety of causes and good things that have literally changed many things in our state.  Because of that initial gift that kicked it off.

And not to overstate Leslie's accomplishments, but if you believe Janet Anderson who shared one of the stories, Leslie was single-handedly responsible for ending the Cold War J.  She can tell you that story.

She was a woman who showed by her good life works, done with gentleness born of wisdom, and made this world a better place for it.

Who is wise and understanding in this world?  I think of the Mahatma Gandhi's and Martin Luther King's, of the Nelson Mandela's and the Abraham Lincoln's of the Mother Teresa's and the Eleanor Roosevelt's.  But mostly I think of the Leslie Brockelbank's, and the 3 year-old baseball fans who throw away their prized possession, who give away their wealth.

Perhaps in the innocence of not knowing any better, perhaps in the shame of knowing all too well, but in such acts of self-lessness and Christ's fullness, reveal to us the wisdom of God.


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