The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 20—Year B; Jeremiah 11:18-20; Psalm 54; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37
James just keeps coming at us. First, he lays out some criteria for being wise and understanding. It’s not enough for James just to live a good life—the works that make up that good life have to be done with gentleness born of wisdom. Oh man. James notes that bitter envy and selfish ambition can lead to being boastful and false to the truth—not good things in his book. And if people claim these things under the rubric of wisdom, well, for James, it isn’t a wisdom that’s coming from God.
James then goes on to teach us the physics of magnetism—envy and selfish ambition, these attract disorder and wickedness of every kind. The wisdom from above—it’s going to put out a clean energy; it’s going to put out an energy that is peaceable and gentle; it’s going to have a capacity to yield; it’s going to be full of mercy and good fruits with no traces of partiality or hypocrisy; and it’s going to spin off a harvest of righteousness, an abundance of right relationships.
Envy and selfish ambition—these will invariably attract conflicts and disputes. James asks, “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts.”
Okay, our translation isn’t doing justice to the greek in this passage. Let’s unpack some words. The word translated as envy is actually jealousy, and it means “zeal…the kind of zeal where you will defend anything;” this jealousy is “the fierceness of indignation, punitive zeal,” and it comes from the root “to boil with heat, to be hot,” as in “zeal with a good dose of boiling hot anger.” Got the picture?
And selfish ambition. Oh, you’re going to like this one; I promise that I’m not making this up. The greek means “electioneering, intriguing for office, partisanship, fractiousness.” Thank you, James.
When James drills down into the source of the conflicts and disputes among us, our translation says that James points to the cravings that are at war within us. I like the word cravings; I think it captures that insatiable appetite that we have, but that’s not quite what the greek word means. The greek word is hedone—“pleasure, the desire for pleasure”—think hedonist. For James, it is all these desires that are often at war within us that are the source of the conflicts and disputes that can engulf us. Now, desire in and of itself isn’t a bad thing—in fact, it’s a very good thing; it’s the source of passion and energy and new life. However, desire only focused on pleasure divorced from the wisdom from above and mercy and peace and gentleness and right relationship, that’s a problem. Think desire run amok, and maybe we are getting closer to the sense in which James is using hedone.
Then the translation has James saying, “You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder.” Okay, it’s a little stronger than that; this wanting is again rooted in desire and longing. It’s not just a little wanting; it’s a whole lot of wanting; it’s wanting enough that you’ll murder for it—and use your imagination, you can kill someone in a whole lot of ways, starting with destroying their character. And the translation talks about coveting, but the greek is back to that good old fierce, zealous, defensive, indignant, burning hot anger, jealous stew; whatever it is that we’re after, we can’t get it, and so we engage in all manner of disputes and conflicts.
Do you ever get fixated on something you desire, something you don’t have, something you want, and you hit a barrier—you can’t obtain it, you can’t get it, you can’t make it happen, and this red hot lava-ish fierce, defensive, burning, indignant anger starts to rise in you, and all the sudden you are in a fight with your partner or your child or your teacher or your boss or your sibling or your friend? Selfish ambitions, partisanship, fractiousness—these spawn disorder and wickedness of every kind. James is so amazingly contemporary.
Conflicts and disputes, they’re just a waiting for us when our desires are not in conversation with the wisdom from above that also resides deep within if we can quiet ourselves long enough to listen to what’s beneath all our desires.
And it is so, so easy to get there. James says, “You do not have, because you do not ask. You do not ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly…” Quite simply, we don’t ask for what we need or want, or we ask in sideway ways, fearing that what we have asked will be rejected, and we’ll be rebuffed if we just ask for it clearly and directly. But part of the problem with asking clearly and directly is being clear about our need or want in the first place. For James, this discernment begins first and foremost with God—“Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, the one who throws things apart, who sets things up in perpetual opposition, resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.”
Are we willing to submit to God, to place ourselves under that wisdom from above? In our culture, we struggle to submit to anything. And to hear that wisdom, to touch that wisdom, to receive that wisdom, are we willing to take the time and energy necessary to draw near to God? Are we willing to resist the forces that drive us apart from each other, that would throw us apart from God, that throw our insides apart and get us at war with ourselves? All of this conflict, it’s not of God—God’s deepest desire, huge big whopping desire, God’s deepest longing and wanting (okay, did you catch that desire is not de facto “bad”)—God’s deepest longing and wanting is for us to be at union with God and one another and our own self. But it will take some resistance on our part against the forces that seek to throw us apart, and it takes some yielding on our part to submit to God, and frankly, it takes some plain old sweat equity to spend the time necessary drawing near to God—the church-word for that is “prayer.”
The other thing that gets us off in the weeds of conflicts and disputes is striving to be first borne of anxiety. So the disciples are getting a good dose of reality from Jesus as he teaches that his path follows the way of death and resurrection. The disciples like the rising part—resurrection is way cool—the dying part, not so much. All they know is dying sounds like, well, dying, and most of us don’t want to die—whether that is a physical death or a metaphorical one. Loss is loss is loss. They don’t understand what Jesus is saying, and like a lot of us in school, they are afraid to ask the teacher.
So, when we are anxious and fearful, we compare ourselves to others; we strive for the top, thinking that death and loss won’t hurt so much from there.
But Jesus gets what’s going on, and he calls them on it. He asks what they’re arguing about, and they go silent. Are you going to fess up to the guy who has just told you that he’s going to die in service to this mission, are you going to tell that guy that you were just pulling a Muhammed Ali arguing over who’s the greatest?
Jesus sits the twelve down. Time for a little object lesson. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Why the child? What is it about the child? What does this child do to us? (pause)
The child slows us down. The child draws us in. The child brings out our curiosity, our sense of wonder. Older children may know what that comparative-striving-borne-of-anxiety is all about, but a child that you can pick up in your arms—they’re not striving; they’re present; they’re in the flow of love—receiving it, igniting it in others’ hearts. The child stops business as usual. Republicans and Democrats can equally melt and be putty in the presence of a child. The child doesn’t have a sense of my precious agenda, my holy and not so holy desires. There’s no ambition here, no ego. All the child wants is to be held in the arms of the one who is holding him or her.
“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” Could it be that Jesus longs to be in our arms, curious, full of wonder, giving and receiving love in that way that makes us melt? Could it be that Jesus longs for us to be in his arms in the same way? If we are bent on being the best, there is no room, no space, no time to lay back and float in the arms of the Lord.
When my daughter was a tiny baby and she would lay on my chest, I called it “Baby Valium”—it was the most exquisite, peaceful, all-is-right-with-the-world feeling I had ever known. That’s what union is like.
That’s what Jesus is getting at. This is the wisdom that is from above, gentle, peaceful, willing to yield, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy—just resting with one another totally AT ONE.
When you taste that sweetness, then it doesn’t matter— whether you are dying or whether you are rising—you are AT ONE with God, and no status, no achievement, no position can compare with that. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
September 20, 2015