Sermon on James 4
The danger I have here with you, and James, and desires, and wisdom, is that I do not want to use this time to scream against capitalism or economics. I don’t want to stand up here and call down fire upon us because of our stuff. Talking about our desires breeding war and envy, or profit or prosperity being of the devil. In part because I like my job, but also because these texts are always taken to such extremes as to destroy the very context in which they were written. To have them become weapons and clubs of the neo-fundamentalist movement where all joy and happiness in the gifts of God are made evil, and despair becomes the goal. Despair at our livelihood. At all we have. A never ending spiral where we are made to hate so much of what is to give us delight.
That is not where I want to go this morning. What I do want to say is what I can of the Giver to you. We get so caught up in things. Gifts. Literally the mercies of God that come to us in tangible things, but how often do our desires or expectations cloud that? How often is our delight not in the Lord but in what has come from his hand? Where we become like Israel in Deuteronomy 8 where God has to warn them – Be careful that you don’t forget the Lord your God by failing to keep his commands, ordinances, and statutes that I am giving you today. When you eat and are full, and build beautiful houses to live in, and your herds and flocks grow large, and your silver and gold multiply, and everything else you have increases, be careful that your heart doesn’t become proud and you forget the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the place of slavery…You may say to yourself, ‘My power and my own ability have gained this wealth for me,’ but remember that the Lord your God gives you the power to gain wealth...
The danger for us, especially as James outlines it is where the desire for things, the passions, often the sin we have in us causes blindness. Blindness to what God has given us to enjoy and share. Blindness to how blessed so many of us are in all we have, whether it is something as simple as running water or an indoor toilet. Air conditioning. A car. Children. Spouse. Job. Retirement. Whatever it may be.
Where the wars come. Where the fights ensue are not in the things themselves but in the lack of focus. Eyes cast upon the gifts rather than the Giver. Where fear and despair rush in is when our trust, our very soul becomes attached to something like our position in society. Attached to our way of life. Trusting in our economic status, education, professional recognition, achievements. Those things becoming our god. Luther tells us that whatever we place our trust in is our god. That god becoming what we will fight to keep because it has become the bedrock of our soul. If a threat comes to take it away we begin to lose hope or lash out rather than wonder if life itself, our very being, rests in something, or someone, other than that thing.
James calls us out on the wrongful use of God and that of creation. He calls us out on the basis for most sins which is Godlessness. Idolatry. Where the true God, the God who has given himself to us is forgotten and we seek other things to take his place. We then see the lives of others or their stuff as more appealing than our own.
Or, and this is where it gets crazy, we look at our life as we know it, think it is the life all should have and then we project that back onto others who may not live as we do.
Let me introduce you to Othea Loggan. He has worked at Walker Bros. Original Pancake House in Wilmette, Illinois for 54 years. He is a busser. Busses tables for a living. When I read an article about him, the headline read, until it was corrected, Meet the table busser who’s worked at the same Wilmette pancake house for 54 years and still makes minimum wage. The article tells this man’s story about how he got the job and stayed in the job. How he rides a train and two buses to get to work. Lives in an apartment. Actually makes $3 more than minimum wage bussing tables, and he is happy. He has no desire to become a server or manager, even though it was offered to him multiple times. He didn’t want to work in the kitchen or own the place. He is happy bussing tables, and you find out that he is financially set because he doesn’t have all the stuff we think someone has to have in this world to be happy.
From the outside, many of us, including the author of the piece seemed to think that there was a justice issue here. Something that needed to be fixed or changed for him. But what if Mr. Loggan is the example for many of us of God’s call upon us? Having our needs met in the simplest of ways, we find solace and contentment in life given by God to work and serve in whatever way we do.
That word contentment has actually become part of my prayers for my kids. I used to pray that they would grow up to be happy. But happiness comes an goes like the tides. Contentment becomes the source of rest for us. Content with the gifts given. Content with the life God provides. Content in the thankfulness and joy brought by the One who is the source of all those things – Christ.
Psalm 1 is a wonderful Psalm for this. Don’t let yourself be carried away by the words sinners and wicked. That becomes a red herring to distract us from the true calling here – blessedness and happiness found in the revelation of God. The instruction of the Lord. Meditation on the Lord himself. Being planted by his hands by the streams of his mercy, fed by his grace poured out upon you. Dwelling in the knowledge that someday all we hold dear in this world will be gone. House and home. Family and property. All that competes with the position of Lord and Christ. But wherever that may go, our peace and solace dwells in the Lord. Our delight, our focus, our lifeblood dwelling there. Knowing that the goodness of God is to bring us life.
In Buddhism there is this teaching of the elimination of desire. Desires being the enemy to enlightenment. There is a lot of wisdom there, but that is not what I think we take from this. The wisdom we receive here, that is coming down from heaven as James calls it, is Christ in our midst as the one who takes us by hand and leads us to that stream of living water which flows from his hands, his side for us. To know that all we do desire and have of this world will be gone. It will either wear out, or we will. We will either need to replace a broken down car, or we will die and someone else will get the car. But Christ will not. He died once to destroy death. He died in order to rise, that death might be defeated. That all other things will one day be obsolete. Null and void. For you will close your eyes and fall asleep in Jesus one day, only to wait for that little whisper in your ear – “My child, arise.” And you will. Then everything the world values, everything we are given by God as gift, everything we have as the love of God handed to us will be nothing. Nothing. Not needed anymore. For Christ will be the ultimate gift. Is the ultimate gift. Cherished by you because of his mercy and grace showered upon you. Thanks be to God. Amen