September 20, 2015

The Source of The Strife


Text: James 4:1 (RSV): “What causes wars, and what causes fightings among you? Is it not your passions that are at war in your members?”

It is hard to overlook the sorrow and strife that seems to engulf the headlines these days. It ranges from the intensely personal to the catastrophically international. It is shootings in the streets of Boston and bombings in the streets of Baghdad. It is the bloodthirsty violence of radicalism and the verbal violence of our political discourse. It is the masses of desperate people putting out to sea from Syria, and it is the hundreds of desperate addicts dying in the forgotten shadows of our own neighborhoods.

It seems as though we cannot escape the sense that human misery is only becoming deeper, heavier, and louder.

There is a paradox here, no matter what your world view might be. If you’re a scientist, there’s the argument that as a species we are becoming less violent and adapting to become more willing to negotiate, to compromise, to compete in non-violent ways. That, at least, is the position of evolutionary biologists. But it certainly doesn’t seem that way.

It may be that we are not fighting global wars, as we did twice in the last century. But it is not entirely clear that where we have arrived is much of an improvement.

For those of us in the church, the problem seems just as acute. After all, we have been in business for just a little less than two thousand years. We proclaim a gospel of forgiveness and reconciliation being the path to peace and justice. But peace seems a fleeting hope these days, and forgiveness hard to come by. Most of our criminal justice seems animated by a desire for retribution and revenge, not reconciliation and restoration. 

Weren’t we supposed to make the world a better place? Isn’t our claim that by bringing people to God, as we have been given to understand God, we’d somehow change all this?

That is often the charge laid at the feet of the church, of all religion, by those who see in all this violence a kind of failure of the faith. But to make that charge is to misunderstand what the faith is really about.

Whoever wrote the Epistle of James understood clearly that the fact of Jesus—the life, the teaching, the healing, the betrayal, the death, the resurrection, the ascension—changed everything about God’s relationship to us; but it changed nothing about us. God had acted not to somehow edit or limit our free will, but to give us a new means of finding grace despite the uses to which we put it.

Jesus coming into the world has not changed the unruliness and messiness of our own desires. Jesus dying on the cross has not made us any less likely to fall into the traps of our own temptations. Jesus revealed as the very person of God through his resurrection does not make us any less susceptible to our own capacity for sin.

What is supposed to change because of all this is not human nature. It is our awareness of both how powerful that nature is, and how far God has reached to save us despite how weak and wilful we are. What is supposed to change about all this is not human nature, but human consciousness.

What James is describing is how God has chosen to bring us to our senses—to make us truly awake to ourselves. Perhaps it is possible that God might have acted to save us by changing our nature somehow—by re-engineering us into something different from Humans 1.0. But to do that would have deprived us of our freedom. What God most deeply desires in us is that we would come to act out of that freedom to choose God, rather than that we be made less than ourselves in order to have no choice.

As always its in the verses that the editors of the lectionary cut out that I find the most powerful language to get to the point. If you look at the scripture insert this morning you’ll see from the title that there has been a bit of surgery performed on what we heard of the Epistle of James this morning. But here are some verses that were cut out of chapter 4: “Do you suppose that it is for nothing that the scripture says, ‘God yearns jealously for the spirit that he has made to dwell in us’? But he gives all the more grace; therefore it says, ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’”

There is the key to the mystery. There is the answer to the why in all of this. Why does God come to us in the person of Jesus? Is it to change us—to make us better? No; God has already planted something sacred in each one of us. What needs to change is our awareness of how deeply, how eagerly, how profoundly God wants us to see that in ourselves—to make the connection between the sacrifice Jesus is willing to make and the treasure God has planted in us.

If we really stop to consider how far away from God it is possible for us to wander and how much God does again and again to chase after us—if we really bother to think through the stakes God is playing for in reaching us—all we can do is stop in amazement at all of it. And then, James says, all we can do, all we should do, is live lives of gratitude, live our lives in the constant, conscious awareness of God’s loving acts toward us.

Doing that doesn’t take magic; it takes discipline. It takes practicing the patterns of life that can help us shed our pride and live more humbly, that can help bring us back to ourselves again and again. Because it’s not our nature that is going to change. It can only be the strength of our own discipline to shape our freedom in the ways God wants us to live.

You know that old refrain we often hear from our friends when we tell them that we go to church. Well, I’m spiritual but not religious, they say. I believe in God, or I believe in something, but I don’t believe I want to be part of something that makes me feel as though I’m limiting my freedom somehow.

My first boss in ministry used to respond to this sort of thing by saying, “Well, I’m religious—but not spiritual.” He was only half joking. What he meant was that he accepted the idea that part of what it means to live as God wants us to live is to accept the idea that we need a discipline; we need to recognize that it’s exactly our freedom that gets us in trouble, and that the gift of religion is exactly that it gives us a rule of life, a way of aligning ourselves—not just when it is easy, but especially when it is hard.

The source of strife is the human heart. But God has not redesigned our hearts; God has not updated our software to make us less free. God has acted to make us see ourselves more clearly, more accurately, as we really are. And God is trusting that having seen this we will accept the grace God has offered us, the grace of living by the rule-—the gentle but real rule—of love. Amen.