a good and gentle wisdom
september 20, 2009
James 3:13-18; Mark 9:30-37
Winnie the Pooh Bear once said, If you stand on the bottom rail of a bridge and lean over to watch the river slipping away beneath you, you will suddenly know everything there is to be known. Wisdom, it seems, comes in many guises, none more eloquent than what the writer of James has to say about it. James as we know is consistent in suggesting that things such as faith and wisdom are not just something we think but also what we do. According to the reading for this day wisdom is evidenced by what our life is and does. His words: Who is wise and understanding? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness and wisdom.
A good and gentle wisdom is not merely a contemplative enlightenment, it is in fact a good and gentle life actually lived wisely in peace and with love. It is striking to me at least the similarity in this word from James and the more famous one in Paul's letter to the Corinthians about love. James writes, But 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. Remember how Paul put it, Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. According to Stephen Fowl, a professor of Theology at Loyola University in Baltimore writing in the Christian Century this week on this very subject, Both love in Corinthians and wisdom in James are marked by practices that restore and deepen relationships. As it turns out if you were to read on in James' letter you discover that James makes this point for a very practical reason. He is dealing with conflict and he realizes that the wisdom that is needed in the human community is not just the wisdom of the individual mind, as lovely as that might be, but the wisdom that keeps us from tearing each other to bits in what appears to be the inevitable and never ending struggle of human beings to live in peace together.
As such it is a practical wisdom and one that is needed no less today. It also becomes clear if we are paying attention to this good and gentle wisdom that values mercy and peacemaking and humility that there may be alternative views of what is wise in this world we know. This reality is especially evident in the reading from Mark where the wisdom of the cross, what the Scriptures themselves have called the foolishness of God (see 1 Cor 1) and the wisdom of the world collide. Jesus explains what is going to happen to him; that his gospel of love is to be tortured and killed but will overcome and rise again. His disciples who are still deeply rooted in the wisdom of the world do not understand what he is talking about. In their world the strong rule and the winners don't give anything away and honor is for the winners and certainly not the losers. No wonder they were confused if not completely terrified when Jesus told them that if they were to be first in his kingdom they would have to lose everything. It didn't help to hear that to gain God, all else must be lost. The first will be last and the last first and that pretty much sums up the difference between the wisdom of the world and the wisdom of the cross that comes from God.
Now we have heard this many times, those of us who have been on this journey a while, and still I wonder if we really hear this word or, like the disciples, simply do not understand it yet. We are steeped in the wisdom of the world, also, and such a radical break from the values we have come to trust as reliable such as independence, competence and security in our strength and abilities is, if we let it penetrate our defenses, frightening at best, because we are faced with the reality of our vulnerability and our dependence upon the unseen, the not yet fully known, that which is beyond our control, the promise of a loving and gracious God. We are helpless in our own strength against the blows of the universe and the passage of time and we do not want to go there. I wonder if Winnie the Poohs' wisdom about the passing of the river under the bridge has anything to say about the truth of our temporary, fragile, and therefore sacred and precious existence.
When Jesus draws the children to him to illustrate this reality, we are confronted with the child in ourselves. If there is anything that all children have in common it is that they are dependent, vulnerable, powerless, and must trust someone to care for them. As adults we exhaust ourselves so that we can pretend we will not be any of these things anymore. We struggle as did the first disciples about how we find in our weakness, the very thing we would deny, the strength we need to trust God. Jesus gathered the children to teach us: the small and weak are first in the kingdom, those who need the most help are those who will come first, the powerless rather than those who are the greatest and the powerful, and what of you, are you really any less helpless against the blows of the universe than these children? When will you have trust and hope like the trust and hope of a child who still looks forward with expectation to what the future holds?
We have been offered an opening into this good and gentle wisdom by this word and also by the Three Simple Rules that will guide us in this new season of our life together. Do no harm. Do good. Stay in love with God. For one year we will intentionally relate everything we do together to the three rules. In the first we learn how to live together in peace as we practice peace, how to care for one another in the community of the beloved, the true meaning of humility, how to yield, to not insist on our own way. In the second we learn how to serve as we practice service, how to reach out and meet the needs of a broken and hurting world with an impartiality and sincerity and intentionality that is bold, creative, and generous In the third we learn how we find the strength to do the first two and many things too numerous to describe in this moment but one of which is that there is joy in these practices far more abundant that we could have imagined and that it is there that we will find the life and power that will lift us up and carry us to a new day, a new way of being, for when we love God we are changed and we see (the trees and rocks are breathing, every life is sacred) and do (blessed are the merciful for they shall know mercy, the only love you get to keep is the love you give away) things differently and we are blessed with the wisdom of God, the wisdom of the cross that overcomes what we fear and gives us the strength from God in our weakness, to live good and gentle lives, an oasis of peace in a violent and frightening world.
Office hours at 421 Common Street in Belmont (phone: 617-489-0730) are:
Monday through Friday
9:00 AM to 3:00 PM
Office hours at 80 Mt. Auburn Street in Watertown (phone: 617-926-2931):are
Tuesday and Thursday
4:00 - 6:30 PM
The United Methodist Church