“Waging Wisdom” James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a 9/23/2018
I’m sure you have heard about how we use only around 10 percent of our brains at any given time? The 2011 movie Limitless took that idea and ran with it, spinning a story about a writer who takes a secret experimental drug that allows him to use 100 percent of his mind. This causes him, until the drug wears off, to be the perfect version of himself, incredibly creative and attentive.
Everything he’s ever read or seen is instantly organized in his mind and available for him to use in whatever way he needs. While he’s taking the pills, he’s such a radiant and appealing person that people are immediately drawn to him. And with his entire mind focused like a laser, he’s able to grasp the details of complex business situations and outguess the stock market, a skill he uses to great financial success. Of course, there’s a wrinkle in the story – there are of course bad guys in the movie who want to get their hands on this drug and kill anyone else who has it.
The movie is an action-thriller that keeps you engaged until its surprising end. If nothing else, the movie presents one vision of what any of us might be able to do and how more dazzling we’d be if only we could use 100 percent of our brains. But here’s the problem: Turns out, we’re already using most of our brain! The old assertion that we are using only 10 percent is a myth.
Now that we have better technology — like PET scans and MRIs — for studying brain activity, researchers have found that any mentally complex activity uses many areas of the brain, and over a day, just about every part of our brain gets a workout. Other evidence that the entire brain is operating most of the time is the devastating impact even a small amount of brain damage has on a person.
But using all of our brain doesn’t necessarily make us smarter or wiser. Our text from James this morning says, however, that even if we’re brain-smart, we might still be dumb — we might still do really stupid things. In our reading, James talks of wisdom that is from above and wisdom that is earthbound, and he makes his remarks to Christian believers.
In verse 16, James speaks of “disorder,” which is a reference to the kind of schizophrenic situation in which Christians who are double-minded find themselves. They claim possession of wisdom from above on the one hand, while on the other hand they display the fruits of a so called wisdom from below. Earthbound, human smart isn’t always very smart.
James, who was very concerned about how Christians behaved with one another in the faith community, saw that the community was fit and vigorous only when it was connected to divine wisdom. His distinction between the two kinds of smart – earthly wisdom and heavenly wisdom is seen in this way:
- It’s the way you live, not the way you talk, that counts when talking about wisdom.
- Being mean-spirited isn’t wisdom. Boasting that you are wise isn’t wisdom.
- Twisting the truth to make yourself sound wise isn’t wisdom.
- Real wisdom, God’s wisdom, begins with a holy life and is characterized by getting along with others. It is gentle and reasonable, overflowing with forgiveness, compassions and blessings, not hot one day and cold the next, and not two-faced.
- You can develop a healthy, robust faith community that lives right with God, and enjoy its results only if you do the hard work of treating each other with dignity and honor.
What we get from our text from James today is that Christians don’t automatically get a dose of heavenly smarts. It takes some work.
Now in the time of Jesus, wisdom was seen as a normative, integral part of a compassionate person’s mind and spirit. Jewish wisdom, after all, stressed realism. This realism asked point-blank, as does James in today’s reading, “How can we live so as not to displease God but continue in God’s favor?”
The advice of Jewish wisdom was not any mumbo-jumbo chanting of cryptic sayings, or some secret knowledge of spiritual truths. It was suggestions on how to run an effective household, how to work with others, and how to get along in this world.
Jewish wisdom on occasion taught that even wisdom itself need be tempered by wisdom. “Do not be too righteous, and do not act too wise; why should you destroy yourself? For the one who fears God shall succeed with both” (Ecclesiastes 7:16, 18). This vision of wisdom shaped Jesus’ advice to his disciples that they should be “as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10: 16).
Wisdom is not the clever, self-righteous sayings of old folk. It is the informed, inspired, yet humble movement of God’s Spirit and insight within the human heart and mind.
When James urges Christians to act wisely in their community of faith, he is differentiating between those who know more and those who know better.
Owls are our classic symbols of wisdom. Perhaps it is their quiet ways, their wide-eyed, taking-it-all-in stare or the fact that they can swivel their necks 180 degrees and so keep as sharp a lookout behind them as they can in front of them, that gives them this reputation for being wise.
Crows and ravens, on the other hand, are known to be very smart birds and not necessarily wise. Like parrots, crows & ravens can be taught to talk and can figure out fairly complex logistical problems. However, crows and ravens are also compulsive collectors. They will fill their nests with odd bits of shiny metal, gleaming buttons, bright string –anything glitzy and gaudy that catches their eye is dragged home.
In today’s text, James calls Christians to embody wisdom, that is, to be the owls of this world — a world where there is the paradox of more and more information, and less and less wisdom. Too many of us have become like crows – we are smart to the ways of the world, but easily get suckered in to any bright new idea, or any slick appealing gimmick.
The greedy way of crows leads to loud squabbles and long battles over particularly prized bits of debris and junk. For all their smarts, crows will spend the better part of a day pursuing another member of the flock who has picked up an especially appealing piece of junk. You can listen to them scream and screech as they wage war against the crow with the coveted prize.
Christian owls, James reminds us, are called not to wage war, but to wage wisdom on this world. Waging wisdom takes an entirely different type of agenda than the secular world is used to dealing with. James calls his Christian brothers and sisters to outfit themselves with purity, peace, gentleness, reasonableness (a yielding spirit), mercy, good fruits and sincerity (v.17).
The author and founder of the Sojourners Community in Washington, D.C., Jim Wallis, gives one of the best examples I believe of what it means to wage wisdom that I have ever come across. Wallis tells of being mugged right outside his home by four kids.
“They rushed me, slashed my face, and then yelled ‘Keep him down! Get his wallet!’ I popped up quickly, which seemed to surprise them. Seeing no weapons flashed, I squared to face my attackers. This was the first chance we had to really see each other face to face.
I saw that my assailants were just children — three about 15, and one little one who couldn’t have been more than 13 . . . The boys backed up a little when they saw I was bigger than they had expected.
I’m a strong believer in nonviolence, but have learned that being a weight lifter often helps in these potential conflict situations! The one who had hit me moved into a boxing stance while the others circled. The little guy began attempting some ineffectual karate kicks, which I assumed he had seen on television.
I decided to confront them, not intending to hurt them, but only to fend them off. Instinctively, I began to scold these lost young souls. I told them just to stop it, to stop terrorizing people, to stop such violent behavior in our neighborhood.
Finally, I shouted at them, ‘I’m a pastor!’ And I told them if they wanted to try to beat up and rob a pastor, they should come ahead and take their best shot. I knew that invoking the authority of the church in the street is hardly a sure thing these days, when our churches often have such little involvement there.
Whatever it was that changed their minds, the youthful muggers turned and ran. ‘Get back here,’ I shouted after them — then instantly realized it probably wasn’t a good thing to say at that moment. But then something unusual happened.
The littlest kid, who couldn’t have been more than 4 1/2 feet tall, stopped, turned around and looked at me as he ran away. With a sad face and voice the young karate kicker said, ‘Pastor, ask God for a blessing for me.’
He and his friends had just assaulted me. The little one had tried so hard to be one of the big tough guys. Yet he knew he needed a blessing. The young boy knew he was in trouble. I think they all did.”
And when Christians wage wisdom on this world, even tough guys & gals become touch guys & gals who respond to the touch of God, that touch of grace. If current brain research is correct, we’re already using most of our brains each day. Let us all strive to wage a little more wisdom in our lives on a daily basis.
@Rev. Tim Wolbrecht, September, 2018
Here’s the audio recording of the sermon. TO LISTEN, in the SoundCloud window below, CLICK (or double-Click) the red button with the white arrow pointing to the right. If that does not work, then click on the “Sermon 9-23-18” name of the sermon.