James 3:13-18 Common English Bible
13 Are any of you wise and understanding? Show that your actions are good with a humble lifestyle that comes from wisdom. 14 However, if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, then stop bragging and living in ways that deny the truth. 15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above. Instead, it is from the earth, natural and demonic.16 Wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there is disorder and everything that is evil.17 What of the wisdom from above? First, it is pure, and then peaceful, gentle, obedient, filled with mercy and good actions, fair, and genuine. 18 Those who make peace sow the seeds of justice by their peaceful acts.
On Wednesday a man shot and killed 5 others and himself in Bakersfield. When I read the first article, it kind of looked like there was a personal issue involved, but the police weren’t for sure just yet. Later, I learned that Javier and Petra were about to finalize their divorce, just getting all the details about the children and such ironed out, when they went to the trucking company where Javier worked. Javier shot a co-worker and he shot Petra, then he chased another guy at the trucking company and shot him, and then he went to someone else’s house, where he shot and killed a man and his daughter. Then he hijacked a car, letting the woman driver and her child get out en route to a parking lot where he shot himself. As it turns out, Javier thought his wife Petra was having an affair with one of his co-workers. No idea what the other three people had to do with that, unless he suspected all three of those men of being with his wife, but that’s the story so far as I know it.
I am sorry for the people who lost their lives, and for their families, and especially for the children of Javier and Petra. I am sorry for Javier, whose heart was filled with jealousy and bitterness, which drove him to these terrible acts. But the thing that struck me hardest in the whole story was a quote from the Kern County Sheriff. “Six people lost their lives in a very short amount of time,” Sheriff Youngblood said. “This is the new normal.”
This should not be any kind of normal!
James says, “if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, . . . this is not the wisdom that comes down from above. Instead, it is from the earth, natural and demonic. 16 Wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there is disorder and everything that is evil.” Clearly, jealousy was at work in Javier’s heart.
We know a lot about the jealousy and ambition and selfishness that causes people to treat one another badly. We see it in places of employment, where co-workers stab each other in the back to get a raise or promotion. We see it in families, especially around funerals, when siblings fight bitterly over who gets their mother’s dishes or jewelry or dad’s car. We see it in corporations, where the highest ranking officers give themselves bonuses even as they lay off people who can barely afford to pay rent so that they themselves can make even more profit and reap even larger bonuses. We see it in organizations that are founded to work toward preventing some from achieving what the people in that organization already have. And in case that last reference seems too obscure, I’m talking about organizations like the one my brother joined in college in the 1960s - SPONGE, the Society for the Prevention of Negroes Getting Everything. We see it in individuals who, not knowing any other way to cope, deal with their jealousy and bitterness and anger by taking a gun and killing 6 people, or taking a car and running it into a crowd of protesters . . .
I’m not saying a word about guns and who should have them, or what kind or any of that. Because the point in this passage is not the weapon. The point is how is it that people go straight to violence? How is it that we are not teaching them that guns or fists or knives or drone strikes or boots on the ground are not the preferred first response? How is it that the followers of the Prince of Peace do not or maybe even cannot teach the kind of wisdom that brings peace?
What is that wisdom? According to James, “it is pure, and then peaceful, gentle, obedient, filled with mercy and good actions, fair, and genuine.”
You know, preachers get frustrated sometimes. It seems as if we say the same things over and over, in as many different ways as we can think to say them, hoping that somebody is going to get it. And not just preachers. I sit in 12 Step meetings, hearing and saying the same things week after week, year after year, and still there are some who simply don’t get it, who continue to return to the streets, who keep going back to jail, who eventually die because they simply cannot believe it’s as simple as we say it is. School teachers and counselors, social workers and mediators, all know this frustration. But every so often, there is that encounter in the grocery store, where a person you remember as being a real problem comes up and says, Thank you. You may not remember, but you said this thing that one time, and it changed my life.
Jeff Gill is a friend and colleague, pastor of a Disciples congregation in Ohio, Boy Scout leader, and mediator for the court system working with juveniles. This week a woman came up and said to him, “You probably don’t remember us, but 8 years ago you mediated for me and my daughter in middle school. She didn’t cooperate much, and ended up in detention the next week. But she never stopped thinking about what you said, we kept talking about what you suggested, and after four trips to detention, she got ahold of herself, graduated high school, and is in college doing great. I thought you’d like to know.”” And he was grateful to hear that. Kinda wishing it had happened faster - I mean, she did go back to Detention four more times - but still, eventually she heard what he said.
It is hard to hear the quiet words of wisdom over the loud clamor of the world. It is hard to do the peaceful thing to achieve justice when the world insists that might makes right.
I watched the movie Black Panther this week. If you like action films, this is awesome! Stan Lee’s in it! Car chases, aerial combat, giant rhinoceroses! Cool technology! But the story was important. I will not tell the story, because you might not have seen the movie. But there were three options available to the nation of Wakanda. They could continue to hide away, protecting themselves from the dangers of the outside world, while watching so much suffering in the world and knowing that they had the wherewithal to end it. Or they could take their advanced technology, kill all the oppressors and re-make the world in their image - thus becoming the oppressor. Or they could share their wealth, knowledge, and technology in order to improve the lives of the poor and oppressed everywhere, even though that would taking a huge risk, exposing themselves to a world filled with greedy, violent people who would seek to take it all away from them by any means possible. Hard choices.
As Christians, we also have hard choices. We can keep our faith to ourselves, watching the world suffer, when we have the answers to ease the pain and hunger we see all around us. We can allow the world to continue to loudly proclaim that Might is Right, that violence is the answer, and that we must get everything we can from everyone we can, because there simply isn’t enough to go around. Or we can risk ridicule and anger from others when we say what we know to be true - that in God’s kingdom there is always enough. That there is always more to share, if we can turn away from greed. That there is always a peaceful solution, when we renounce violence and seek to find God’s wisdom for a way forward. That justice, real justice, is achievable through a desire for healing, not through anger and vengefulness. That oppression can be ended when the hearts of the oppressors are turned from fear and greed to love and a giving spirit. That God’s kingdom exists, here and now, when we choose to live in it. Because it is our choices that will make the difference, between love and hate, peace and violence, justice and vengeance, the way of the world and the wisdom of God.
When we turn to wisdom, we are the peacemakers. For as James said, “Those who make peace sow the seeds of justice by their peaceful acts.” We can be the peacemakers, if we seek God’s wisdom and do what God calls us to do in the world, rejecting the world’s loud clamor and embracing that which "is pure, and peaceful, gentle, obedient, filled with mercy and good actions, fair, and genuine.”
My brothers and sisters, when we go from this place today, let us choose God’s wisdom as our guide. Let us make the choice to turn from violence and seek the better solution, to put away our anger and seek healing, to put aside the soul death that comes from sin and embrace the joy of obedience to God’s will. Let us live in the love filled order of God’s kingdom, and not in the angry disorder of the world. Let us carry the peace of Christ out into the world.