13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. 14 But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. 15 Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.
17 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. 18 Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.
4:1 What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? 2 You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. 3 When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.
There was an interesting court case here in the city of Staunton, Virginia this week. Apparently a woman was angry at her husband, who is a musician, for spending too much time with the band and not enough time with her. So when he came home late one night after a gig, she took one of his guitars and hit him with it, destroying the guitar. The very next night he had another gig, and when he came home in the wee hours of the night, she took his other guitar and hit him with it, destroying that guitar as well.
So this woman came before the judge on two charges of battery and the judge asked her, “First time offender?”
She replied, “No, your honor. The first time was with a Gibson. The second time was with a Fender.”
We have been working through the book of James for several weeks now and today we come to a very Mennonite passage. And since it is a very Mennonite passage, which I will explain to you shortly, I’ll start today by using a less than normal Mennonite metaphor. In this passage James seems to be all over the place. He is talking about wisdom, envy, selfishness, peacemaking, submissiveness, mercy and prayer (to name a few). It seems like James is using a theological shotgun. If you are unfamiliar with shotguns, shotguns shoot a bunch of little bb’s at a time. So you don’t have to be a perfect shot when you take aim at something. The gun shoots all of these little bb’s at once and they scatter to hit your target and anything else within a certain radius. A regular gun shoots a single bullet, so you can only hit one thing the size of a single bullet, which is less than an inch wide.
So is James using his theological shot gun here, trying to hit wisdom, envy, selfishness, peacemaking, submissiveness, mercy, and prayer all with one pull of the trigger, or is this more of a bullet, where James is trying to hit one specific target and all of these things are a part of that target? I’m going to argue today that these things are all a part of one target. This isn’t James attempting to hit a bunch of targets all at once, but him really trying to hone in on one specific concern.
This is a very Mennonite sermon because of James’ focus. I’m calling this sermon “PB&J Christianity” for two reasons. The first reason will require that I give you an alternative understanding of the letters PB&J: peace building and justice. The second reason uses the more commonly-held understanding of PB&J, which is of course peanut butter and jelly. Peanut butter and jelly is a favorite meal for my children, and I plan to draw a lot from the behavior of children to understand peace building and justice today.
James starts today’s passage by asking who among us is wise. I think that this is a bit of a trap! When someone asks a question in this way, they are expecting that everyone is going to identify accordingly. Who is going to respond to “Who among us is wise,” by saying, “Not me! I’m a dummy.” No, when James says “Who among us is wise?” people are going to perk up. I’m wise!
James now has their attention and he can tell them what all wise people do and do not do. Wise people perform good works and they do so humbly. Wise people are not envious and they are not selfish. Envy and selfishness, he goes on to say, are not from heaven, but they are unspiritual and even demonic.
So right away, James had people divided into two groups: the wise and the not-so-wise. Wise people are people who humbly do good work. Not-so-wise people are envious, selfish, and a little demonic. Is there any question as to which group you would like to belong? If you are wise, don’t be selfish and envious!
All of this seems to be setting up verses 17-18, “But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.” When James says that wisdom from heaven is pure, the word he uses is “hagnos,” which is related to the word “hagias.” Hagias means “holy.” This wisdom from above is not corrupted by selfish ambition and envy, it is set aside as something special. And it leads to peacemaking.
Every September 21st, since 2001, has been set aside by the United Nations and designated as the International Day of Peace. This is the day when “The United Nations invites all nations and people to honour a cessation of hostilities during the Day, and to otherwise commemorate the Day through education and public awareness on issues related to peace.” The Sunday before September 21, which is today, has been observed as an “International Day of Prayer for Peace.”
We talk a lot about being people of peace in the Mennonite church, but I believe we don’t take it far enough. We say things like “blessed are the peacemakers” and leave it at that, without really exploring what it means to be a peacemaker. And I think that we actually fail to consider what Jesus and James were talking about when they used this word. Because when I think about Mennonites being people of peace, I think about our historical position against violence. And I would like to differentiate between being a peacekeeper and being a peacemaker. You can slap me, and I won’t slap you back. This is an important aspect of being peacekeeper, but not returning violence for violence is very passive. To be a peacemaker requires that we be actively engaging others to bring about peace.
Let us consider my role in parenting. My children are ages five and three. They are good kids, but they are kids. And kids fight.
There is a major difference in size between a five year old and three year old, and that difference is even greater in our family as Paxton is a big five year old and Hadley is a small three year old. So even though Paxton is just having fun at times, he can very easily push Hadley to the ground. Even some of us grownups who have experienced the full-on run/hug of Paxton know that it can be hard to stay on your feet when you get hit with a 65-pound embrace!
One of my jobs as a parent is to keep my children from killing one another. I know, I set the bar pretty low some days! So when they get to pushing and shoving, throwing stuff, and screaming, what am I as a good Mennonite father to do? I choose to not fight them.
No, that isn’t right! What kind of parent would I be if I said, “Ah, they’ll eventually figure it all out and the last one standing will win.”? That would be bad parenting in any situation, especially ours where Paxton is literally twice Hadley’s size. I can be a peacekeeper and not get involved, but being a peacemaker means that I step in the middle of altercations and do something about it.
Being a peacemaker also means that I don’t go to Paxton and try to convince him to stop pushing around his sister by issuing physical threats against him. I don’t say things like, “Hey you, tough guy. You like pushing around people who are smaller than you? I enjoy it, too. How about I push you around a bit and give you a taste of your own medicine?” No, we “threaten” our children with appropriate punishments, like taking away privileges and putting them into timeout.
I’m reminded of Dr. King’s famous quote, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Simply removing ourselves from violence isn’t the answer, but neither is responding with violence. Instead, I think that we are called to actively engage violence and get to the root of the problem.
When we think of Mennonites historically removing themselves from violent situations, we need to both applaud their witness, but also criticize their lack of involvement. Let’s consider chapter 4, verses 1-2a, “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight.”
We can start to see that James is not just doing this shotgun approach to theology, but that the things that he has mentioned are connected. Envy and jealousy lead to violence. Humility, mercy, and sacrifice lead to peace. Being willing to share is a foundational attribute of a peacebuilder.
One of the things that my children often find themselves fighting over is toys. It is a strange phenomenon. We can have a toy sitting on the shelf for months without being touched, and as soon as one of the children picks it up, immediately that previously-ignored toy becomes everyone’s favorite. “Hey, that’s my toy truck!” “You weren’t using it!”
We have more than enough toys for everyone to have something to play with. So I usually have to try to convince one child that another toy will be just as much fun to play with for a while. It is what I call a “two toy solution.” But what often happens is that one child tries to gather all of the toys and keep them for his or her self.
This is when I like to break out in our little offertory song, “There’s enough for all, if we will learn to share it!”
What does James say causes so many fights and quarrels? Jealousy, coveting what others have, simply wanting something because someone else has it. Now notice that James does not come right out and condemn wanting things. There are things that we need and there is nothing wrong with wanting things that we need. I want clean air to breathe and water to drink. I want food, clothes, and shelter. The problem is how people go about hording resources and goods that other people need.
1 John 3:17 gives us a helpful reminder here: “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?”
If you have all of the toys and your little sister wants to play with one, but you don’t share, is that really showing the love of God? Absolutely not! That is selfishness and greed. And like James said and I’ve seen a million times, it leads to quarrels and fighting!
This is just as true when we move from looking at children to considering adults, and even nations. One country has something that another country wants and they aren’t sharing well, what usually happens? We take it by force. Oil, diamonds, resources and even food supplies have led to countless wars throughout history.
As not only peacekeepers but peacemakers, we must lead the way in radical generosity. We need to be sharing our wealth and our goods because they were never really ours to start with.
This one hits home for me right now because it is time for me to upgrade my cell phone. My battery needs charging several times a day and it freezes up on me at inopportune times. My cell phone provider allows me to upgrade phones at a reduced rate every couple of years if I sign an extension on my contract.
You better believe that I have been watching the news the last few weeks as the newest iPhones have been revealed and will be released next month. I can preorder the very best phone and have it the day it hits the stores! And I can afford it as well. I have a job, my wife has a job. We pay our bills on time. So why shouldn’t I have the very best if I can afford it?
Because I can get a really good phone for significantly less.
I can save $100 by getting last year’s model. And I’m just pretty sure that I won’t notice the difference between the two.
Notice that I’m not saying that we Christians have to live in a gutter with nothing but the most basic of things. I’m trying to be practical and say that maybe we would do well if we found a happy medium. Somewhere between the gutter and the very best available should be okay. Can we live a little cheaper, a little simpler, and make a difference in the world around us? Because that money we save may actually help us to move from peacekeepers to peacemakers.
One of the passages that we often refer to when we talk about peacemaking is Micah 4:3b: “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” What a great image! Tools of war intended to take life are transformed into life-giving tools. Things meant to destroy and kill are transformed to cultivate and grow.
But again we quit reading too soon. Notice what Micah says in the next verse: “Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the Lord Almighty has spoken.”
This vision of peace is only possible when everyone has their own vine or their own fig tree. These symbols represent sustenance. They represent ownership. They represent “enough.”
The idea that the prophet Micah is trying to get across is that there will never be peace as long as there are people who are hungry, naked, thirsty, or otherwise without their basic needs being met. That is why peacebuilding and justice are so closely connected.
We have all heard the catchy phrases, “The world has enough for our need, but not for our greed.” and “We must live simply so that others might simply live.” Though these phrases are not found in our Bible, I believe that they echo both what Micah and James had to say. Jealousy, envy, greed, these are the not the tools of the wise, nor are they the attributes of the peacemaker. I believe that one day Micah’s vision of beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks will become a reality. It may not happen until Jesus comes back again, but it will happen. Our job until then is to manifest the kingdom of God in everything that we do. Our job is to follow King Jesus every day.
So when I go to buy that new cell phone this week, I’ll be honest and just tell you that buying the year-old model won’t be hard for me. I’m a cheapskate, and everyone here knows it! What is hard for me is using the money that I saved to reveal God’s kingdom, to overcome greed, jealousy, and envy. But I believe that we are called to be peacemakers, not just peacekeepers. And one of the ways that we do that is by making sure everyone has a vine or a fig tree of their own.