James 3:13-4:3, 7-10
Remember when we used to have to type on our cellphones in order to connect? Well, sometimes we still do. But Steve Jobs made sure that most of the time we can simply touch an icon and we connect. That is called “user interface”. It’s the way most of us relate to our smartphones. Every few months I get a message that says I need to update the operating system. I never think of the operating system except when I get that message.
St. Athanasius is in the midst of updating our operating system. We’re looking at our core mission, vision and values. As the facilitators of the listening sessions reflected on what we heard at those sessions, we realized that most of the time we focus on the user interface. We prepare worship bulletins; we have planning meetings for special events; we attend dinners and dances and beach trips and even worship services. Those are the ways we relate to the church.
But what is it that drives us a church? What is it that deeply satisfies? What’s the real reason we do everything? In other words, what is our Operating System? The facilitators reported that for many who participated in listening sessions, the opportunity to tell their story and have others listen came close to the core of what matters to them. It tapped into a space inside that needs to be heard by others and wants to listen to others.
Last Sunday another core value shone through a moment in the life of the church. A group of members who have attended a Cursillo Retreat gathered because the trailer that stored all the materials had been stolen, and the next retreat was less than 3 weeks away. Some were overwhelmed and saddened by that theft; it was like the last straw for a project that has had a lot of ups and downs. When those folks allowed the tears to come and the sadness to be expressed, others responded with both emotional and volunteer support. By the end many were crying, and people who had been at odds with each other were giving support. Maybe this will help us understand an otherwise rather strange saying in the passage from James today: “Lament and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection.” Laughter can be a way of avoiding what’s really going on. When tears come, they call us to pay attention. A theft became a blessing in disguise.
The listening sessions also revealed a discrepancy between our values and our practice, between the operating system and user interface. When people spoke of their best experience at St. Athanasius, it was often their first time here. They described being welcomed, accepted, ushered into the community, not judged, listened to, and other positive qualities. One of the most frequently repeated words used to describe us was tolerance. It’s obviously an important part of St. A’s values. But people also described experiences of conflict, gossip and rejection. Thank God our best intentions shine through when we reach out to newcomers. The challenge is to continue to treat each other with those same qualities; to reboot our operating system.
And, of course, as we think about our mission, our eyes need to be lifted beyond the walls of the church. According to James, wars between nations come from the same place as wars between church members, family members, and in our own lives. It comes from warring desires. The world is full of cravings and conflicts, and the church must heal the world even as it heals itself. The world still stereotype enemies, even as migration around the world brings people, who at best knew of each other through books, to live in the same neighborhood, and as satellite television, the Internet, and web casting make it virtually impossible not to know something about people in other parts of the world. We saw evidence last week that we have not healed enough, when Ahmed Mohamed, a Muslim school boy in Texas, was arrested because he brought a clock to school to impress his teacher and they thought it was a bomb.
This is the world in which we have to hear James’ words about ‘conflicts and disputes among you.’ “These conflicts and disputes – where do they come from?” In a world in which conflict is the coin of the realm; at a time in history like ours, and in a neighborhood like Echo Park, James’ question takes on great urgency. Fr. Lorenzo is in Israel during these High Holy days of the Jewish people. Muslims, Jews and Christians share common real estate in the Dome of the Rock, where Abraham is believed to have offered Isaac, and where the Jewish Temple stood. The sad truth, which would have come as no surprise to James, is that religious traditions prefer to fight each other rather than claim peace, and try to fix it with war
It turns out that today’s whole passage from James is dealing with the church’s Operating System. He describes it in terms of the wisdom that truly drives our life: show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. When something is going wrong in our church, it’s because of our cravings that work against our natural wisdom. Where does war come from? James asks. He answers his own question: Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. When conflict rages, it means we need to reboot our operating system. We need to restore gentleness to our core understanding of God, our relationship with each other, and our common faith; because gentleness is willing to yield when my envy and ambition don’t want me to yield. Frederick Buechner described envy as “the consuming desire to have everybody else as unsuccessful as you are.”
What drives people to be divisive and to write others off? What drives this need to put other people down, whether in physical acts of violence or through the kind of abuse we observe when people attack each other in all kinds of subtle ways, with and without words? Why is it that some Christians seem happy to hate, even though they will dress it up with some kind of justification? Where does this come from, that some people can sustain their identity only by destroying or diminishing the identity and worth of others? Do we notice how some people delight in seeing God like that and counting themselves among the elect and others among the damned?
Our beliefs about God often generate such attitudes without our even knowing it is happening. And with the rise of communication technology these attitudes are strengthened as we are bombarded with messages about what we should desire. It’s a subtle & often not so subtle hijacking of what God values in us. It is idolatry. James suggests that divisiveness arises out of people's pursuit of those desires, especially those that depend for their fulfillment on someone else either missing out or being put down.
James says the alternative is humility–the art of being genuine and finding you don’t have to establish your sense of worth by making others smaller than yourself. When we start believing that our worth doesn’t depend on building up our merits by competing with others, but by being genuinely ourselves, then we are free to relate openly and generously towards others. When we do that, we’re never far from God (4:8a), because that is God's very nature: self-giving, choosing not to take up the whole space, giving space for others to be, to evolve, and to grow.
We’re constantly faced with the challenge of choosing the wisdom from above. James identifies certain spiritual practices that help us develop a spirit of gentle wisdom:
• Submit to God and resist the evil one
• Draw near to God
• Cleanse your hands, clarify your hearts, move beyond moral indecisiveness
• Don’t let the world numb you to pain. Practice lamenting, mourning & weeping.
• Humble yourselves before God, be genuine and don’t establish your self worth by making others smaller than yourself.
We could do worse than practicing those disciplines. In fact, the world desperately needs people who overcome their fears of the other by strengthening themselves with these practices.