Sunday, September 23, 2018

Phil Kniss: Pure and peaceable passion

“Gentleness born of wisdom”

James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Mark 9:30-37

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I appreciate the lectionary pairing up 
the book of James and the Gospel of Mark during this season.
This is the second time in a couple weeks,
that we’ve been able to experience James and Jesus
as conversation partners so to speak.

We have on the one hand the deeply practical book of James,
laying a moral foundation for our relationships with one another,
and on the other, we see Jesus
at his most powerful and provocative moments,
laying out before the crowds
an alternative way of looking at the world.
And two go together like hand in glove.

Now who exactly was the author of James is disputed by scholars.
But I like to imagine it being James the brother of Jesus,
since James and the Gospels go together so well.
Sounds like the good give and take
of brothers who respect each other,
who have the same ultimate goals,
but each have a unique angle,
unique personality,
unique way of putting things

Now, since both James and Jesus focus on
how we live in real-world conflict and turmoil,
I think we do best reading these texts,
while also reading our own current social climate.

So before we jump into their words and world,
let’s take a moment to remind us of our own.

The social climate today is about as antagonistic and hostile
as it ever has been.
Opinion polls confirm what we already feel in our gut—
that we are a people divided,
with intense emotions around what divides us.
Extreme views are gaining ground.
Voices of reason and rationality are fading into silence.
The willingness to listen, learn, collaborate,
or (God forbid!) compromise
is a rare animal, in danger of becoming extinct.

If we hate some point of view,
or hate some public figure representing that view,
then we hate with a passion and a vengeance,
and it’s not a big leap to start dehumanizing people
who don’t hate the same people we hate.
So our righteous hatred, the causes that get us fired up,
those deeply motivating passions,
which are good in themselves,
can start leading us toward a pretty dark place within us,
if we’re not careful, and make it
harder to think,
harder to breathe,
harder to open up to our neighbors,
harder to be real at family reunions,
harder to be a good conversation partner.
Anger and anxiety go through the roof.

It’s a good thing to be passionate on social and political issues,
and to be action-oriented,
and to be vocal,
and even to fight for what is right,
whether the issue at hand is
immigration, race, sexism, inequality, poverty,
sex abuse scandals, a broken criminal justice system,
climate change, the refugee crisis,
and the list goes on of things about which
we should be fired up,
be passionate for the right,
and resist the wrong.

Sometimes, in this broken world, people need a rude awakening,
to see how far we have fallen.
Sometimes we need a jolt of bold action and pointed words.

That’s all right and good.
But something else is starting to enter our social psyche, I fear.
There is something more than
courage and activism and righteous struggle going on here.
There is something here that feels like
the words of James, in ch. 3, v. 15.
It is something that “does not come down from above,
but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish.”

Whether on the political right or the political left,
the common denominator
is greater extremism and uglier partisanship.
Once we establish two clear sides in the struggle—
the right side and the wrong side
(no nuance or complexity allowed)—
then we are free to condemn wholesale everything the other side says,
and never question the rationale for positions held by our side.

The whole point is to identify which side of the fence you are on,
and declare it,
not to carefully examine the truth claims
that created the fence to begin with.
We are expert at creating
vicious cartoon characters out of our opponents.
We’ve gotten to where
it’s more important to oppose and vilify the other side
than to consider their essential humanity and dignity.

We end up in an accidental conversation
with someone flying a banner or sporting a bumper sticker
that makes our blood boil,
and they turn out to be remarkably polite and considerate.
And we’re surprised! Why?
And would we ever dare to consider
there may be a grain of truth in what they stand for?

So . . . with that pessimistic picture
of our contemporary social context in our minds,
one steeped in class conflict and political unrest
let’s go to the Bible,
and listen carefully to the words of James and Jesus.

“Who is wise and understanding among you?
Show by your good life that your works
are done with gentleness born of wisdom . . .
Do not be boastful and false to the truth.
Such wisdom does not come down from above,
but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish . . .
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.
And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace
for those who make peace.

That was James 3.
Now listen to his big brother, in Mark chapter 9.

Jesus and his disciples were living in a pressure cooker.
Conflict was rising, life was getting more dangerous.
Jesus started talking about death.
“The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands,
and they will kill him,
and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”
That was nonsense to the disciples . . .
so they ignored it and went back to what they were good at:
arguing with each other about who was the greatest.
Jesus called them on it, and said this:
“Whoever wants to be first
must be last of all and servant of all.”
Then he pointed out a child, and said, “Here, be like that one.”

So do you think, in our contemporary context,
James and Jesus might have something profound to say to us?
Or is their kind of wisdom quaint and naïve?

James calls for our actions to be shaped by gentleness born of wisdom.
He says if we are discerning our attitude and actions
will be pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield,
full of mercy, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.
In other words, the quintessential American politician. Or not!

Oh, but see how easy it was to point fingers at politicians?
or to scapegoat Wall Street and corporate America?
But look in the mirror again.
Can’t we see our own reflection?
If we can’t, we should get a soft cloth and wipe it off.
It’s getting fogged up with our hot air.

Yes, James is speaking to you and to me.
Us ordinary Christians.

And if he were here today, living in our social climate,
where, more often than not, the end justifies the means,
I think he would say it again, and a little louder this time.
And maybe especially to us Christ-followers,
who supposedly have a moral framework
that says means and methods matter, as well as the end goal.
Choosing how we go about living our lives,
and living consistently with our stated values,
is morally on an equal basis, with the end goals we choose.

Increasingly, that moral principle is being sidelined.
There are those around us who say that
as long as our righteous cause is advanced,
the moral compromises we make along the way are worth it.
And if they don’t say it quite that boldly,
they often act as if they believe it.

If truth has to be sacrificed,
in order to achieve a victory for our righteous cause,
well, then that’s part of the price of victory.
If we have to stoop to the same evil tactics of our enemy,
in order to defeat that evil enemy, so be it.
If we have to injure, maim, or kill
a few innocent lives along the way,
in order to secure a win for our good cause,
sorry, but that’s life in the real hard world.

On some level, that sounds reasonable.
Wouldn’t logic tell us there is a cost for moral victory?
that sometimes the greater good outweighs the lesser good?

And actually, I can think of certain situations,
where we might choose a small sacrifice for a great gain.
We have heroic stories of people sometimes hiding the truth,
or even telling an untruth,
in order to prevent greater evil or violence.
Think Underground Railroad,
or our early Anabaptist forebears
being hunted down by persecutors.

If I knew I could save a human life in a particular circumstance,
by choosing to withhold certain information,
say “I don’t know” when I do know,
or give misleading information
to send them down the wrong trail,
yes, I believe I would do that.

That’s not what I’m talking about.
I mean when the end justifies the means on a broad social scale,
when it defines how we live as a society,
when we are willing to pay any cost to win.

I’m thinking of many of our Christian brothers and sisters,
including white evangelicals in large numbers,
who have consciously chosen to turn a blind eye
to gross immorality in our political leaders,
because they believe those leaders might deliver
on certain legislation or Supreme Court nominations.
Or, Christians on the other side of the aisle
who have done the same thing to help their side win.

Author and Methodist bishop Will Willimon wrote an article this week
entitled “Court Preachers.”
He noted clergy throughout history who sidled up to power—
from 17th-century Bishop Jean-Baptiste Massillon
who preached for King Louis XIV at Versailles,
to Hitler’s pastor Ludwig Müller,
to pretty much every king and president and prime minister since.

Billy Graham was in the Oval Office
with a whole succession of U.S. presidents.
His son Franklin is now one of President Trump’s
most ardent supporters.

Franklin Graham and a roomful of evangelical leaders
were at an elegant White House dinner four weeks ago,
for the president to thank them for their unwavering support.
Will Willimon tells how Graham sidesteps questions about
the president’s marital infidelity, lying, or sexual misconduct,
or brushes off some of his more offensive language
aimed at immigrants or people of color.
Ed Stetzer, another—more critical—evangelical pastor,
recently wrote that
we have gained political advantage with this president
but in the process have “lost our morality.”
An interviewer asked Graham what he thought of that statement.
He laughed and dismissed it, saying “Some people think too much.”

Will Willimon, in his provocative way, writes,
“I suppose we preachers ought to be flattered
that even powerful tyrants who never care much for Jesus Christ,
still require the blessing of willing preachers.
And in every age, there are willing preachers.”

So if preachers through the ages have modeled
this expedient way of thinking the ends justify the means,
we should not be surprised it’s becoming commonplace thinking
even for devout Christians.

Sorry, church!
James and Jesus don’t let us get off that easy.
What part of “unspiritual and devilish” don’t we understand?

Truth matters. All the time.
Human kindness matters. All the time.
Gentleness matters. Dignity matters. All the time.
Treating others as you would want to be treated
in similar circumstances matters. All the time.

I just think it makes sense for me,
as someone who claims to follow Jesus,
that I ought to pattern my way of life after Jesus.
Jesus ate and drank with sinners,
and was iron-tough on the powerful elite.

Yes, Jesus used harsh metaphors against the scribes and Pharisees,
comparing them to
blind guides, snakes, dirty cups, and whitewashed tombs.
But he did not dismiss or dehumanize them.
He still spoke to them eye-to-eye and face-to-face.
He was willing to eat and drink at their tables, in their homes, too,
and engage them as human beings.

Now, speaking truth to power
cannot always be done in a quiet tone of voice.
I get that.
But practicing “gentleness born of wisdom”
does imply a deep human dignity at the core.
“Gentleness born of wisdom”
refuses to sacrifice our core moral framework.
It always assumes that in the other,
in the one to whom we speak,
is a reflection of the divine.
The image of God resides in every human being,
no matter how misguided,
no matter how entrenched in evil
that human being may have become.

As followers of Jesus, we dare not
dehumanize others to score a political or theological point, or
dismiss or debase others to ensure our side wins, or
create a false narrative in order to get to a true one.
This is the case, no matter what the venue—
whether I’m on a march, or on social media,
whether I’m at a family reunion, or at a meeting in Town Hall,
whether I’m in the ballot box, or in a coffeeshop.
I can be kind and candid at the same time.
I can grant human dignity and oppose evil ideas, at the same time.
I can be pure and peaceable and passionate, at the same.

Whenever there is a good cause,
and an opportunity to speak or to act boldly,
I have moral choices to make.
As a discerning follower of Jesus representing Christ in this world,
I don’t have to link arms with those who use methods
that are inconsistent with my values.
And I don’t need to dehumanize them, either.
It’s okay to stand aside sometimes,
and use our voice in other ways.

The point here, which both James and Jesus seem to be making,
in their own way,
is that we who claim to represent
the way of Jesus Christ in this world,
are called to moral consistency.
If we are rooted in Christ, we will bear fruit that looks like Christ.

Even the outspoken apostle Paul seems to agree with James.
It’s no accident that James’ description of wisdom from above,
sounds a lot like the fruit of the Spirit.
Here is James’ list again:
pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield,
full of mercy and good fruits
without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy
And here is Paul’s:
love, joy, peace, forbearance,
kindness, goodness, faithfulness,
gentleness and self-control

That’s evidence enough that we should care
not just about our destination, but the path that gets us there.
Do we want to find God?
For over a thousand years, Christians have been singing the hymn
Ubi Caritas.
“Where charity and love prevail, there God is ever found.”
Let’s sing it now, HWB 305

—Phil Kniss, September 23, 2018

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