Sunday, September 6, 2015

Haves and Have-Nots





James 3:13 - 4:3, 7-8a (CEB)
September 6, 2015
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

This week wraps up our short series on the letter of James. We are not all the way through the book, and we’ll revisit it in a couple of weeks, but next week is RALLY SUNDAY! and we start a new series called “Jesus, Outside the Lines.”

For the last few weeks we’ve been thinking about the importance of words and works in our Christian life. In a way, this scripture wraps that conversation up and ties a bow on it, because it addresses the source and motivation of our actions and words. James does that, in part, by contrasting the wisdom of God with the wisdom of humans – divine wisdom and earthly wisdom. Let’s listen for God’s word today in James 3:13 - 4:3, 7-8a as we contemplate desiring God’s wisdom in our daily lives:

Are any of you wise and understanding?
Show that your actions are good with a humble lifestyle that comes from wisdom.
However, if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart,
then stop bragging and living in ways that deny the truth.
This is not the wisdom that comes down from above.
Instead, it is from the earth, natural and demonic.
Wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition,
there is disorder and everything that is evil.
What of the wisdom from above?
First, it is pure, and then peaceful, gentle, obedient,
filled with mercy and good actions, fair, and genuine.
Those who make peace sow the seeds of justice by their peaceful acts.
What is the source of conflict among you?
What is the source of your disputes?
Don't they come from your cravings that are at war in your own lives?
You long for something you don't have, so you commit murder.
You are jealous for something you can't get, so you struggle and fight.
You don't have because you don't ask.
You ask and don't have because you ask with evil intentions,
to waste it on your own cravings.
Therefore, submit to God.
Resist the devil, and he will run away from you.
Come near to God, and he will come near to you.

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

It’s Labor Day tomorrow, when we think about work, maybe,
if we aren’t busy with cookouts or a weekend at the lake,
or whatever retail sales are happening.
We owe a nod as we relax tomorrow to the American labor movement.
Whatever you might say about unions, the labor movement gave us weekends,
established the eight hour day as a standard, ended child labor,
and at their high point in the middle of last century,
were correlated with the lowest level of income inequality
in the history of this country.
We owe a lot to unions, including Labor Day.[1]

Most of us have spent the great majority of our adult lives working,
either in our occupations or in our homes.
We think of our work history as central to our identity,
and for many of us, the amount of money we make or made
was a significant mark of our success.
We take our work very seriously, although when I went looking for Labor Day one-liners,
I didn’t have to search very hard.

Listen to this “work history”:
My first job was working in an orange juice factory,
but I got canned...couldn't concentrate.
Next I tried working in a muffler factory but that was too exhausting.
I attempted to be a deli worker, but any way I sliced it,
I couldn't cut the mustard.
My best job was being a musician, but eventually I found I wasn't noteworthy.
…want me to stop now? …okay – a few more…
Next was a job in a shoe factory; I tried but it just wasn’t a good fit.
I became a professional fisherman,
but discovered that I couldn't live on the net income.
After many years of trying to find steady work I finally got a job as a historian
until I realized there was no future in it.

Of course, this scripture doesn’t address our work,
or how we make a living, directly.
But it does speak to how we make a life,
and it addresses some of the dangers
of a life that is focused on ambition, acquisition, and always wanting more.
In a way, this text challenges some of our closely held American ideals.
After all, who thinks ambition is a bad thing?
Who wants to live a humble lifestyle?

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to get ahead,
nothing wrong with wanting a comfortable life,
a nice home, beautiful clothes, some of life’s luxuries.
Nothing inherently wrong with ambition, right?

James would disagree with that.
In the fifth chapter of this book he addresses the rich
who exploit the poor with very strong language.
In his world, being a have-not is infinitely preferable to being a have.
Here’s what he says: Weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you, rich folks!
All your wealth is going to rot and rust,
and that rust will “eat your flesh like fire.”
Then he really gets going:
“Listen! The wages of the labourers who mowed your fields,
which you kept back by fraud, cry out,
and the cries of the harvesters
have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.”

James takes a dim view of worldly success, and worldly wisdom.
He would take a very dim view of the fact that last year,
corporate profits were at their highest in 85 years,
and employee compensation was at its lowest in 65 years.[2]

But James is not primarily interested in GDP and the stock market,
nor is he particularly interested in our personal monetary wealth.
He takes a very dim view of our greed and ambition ,
of our cravings, our appetite for pleasure,
our working and working and working for more, more, more.
Instead, he points us to God’s ambition for us – to crave righteousness,
thirst for wisdom, and hunger for justice.

If we are to be ambitious, James says, let us be ambitious for God’s kingdom.
If we are greedy for more, let it be for more opportunities to love our neighbor.
If we are to be wise, let it be God’s wisdom, and not our own.
It is true that human ambition may get us material success,
but it is also true that ambitious people are no happier than others, nor do they live longer.[3]
The American dream may be to work hard and climb to the top,
but the haves are no happier than the have-nots.

Unless we look at God’s economy and God’s labor market.
In the Bible, the happy ones are not the one percent.
The blessed ones are not the millionaires.
The honored ones are not the ones with social prestige.
The mighty ones are not the ones with political power.
Wisdom is not equated with the Ivy League, or even with the shrewd investor.

In God’s economy, the happy ones are those who are righteous.
The blessed ones are those who are poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God.
The honored are those who are insulted and reviled and excluded
and persecuted for the sake of Jesus.
The mighty are those who are strong in faith.
The wise are those who seek after God.

In God’s labor market, the haves are those who walk in the way of Jesus.
They may look foolish to the rest of the world. In fact, they almost certainly do.
The Apostle Paul said “the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:18)

But the haves have something that the have-nots have not got.
The have-nots are jealous, struggling, fighting, craving,
and they do not see that God offers them grace.
The haves are ambitious to do good, to love God and love neighbor.
Our progress will be measured by our acts of mercy.
Our success will be compensated by satisfaction.
Our wealth cannot be added up on a spreadsheet,
but will be accrued in hearts overflowing with love.
Our performance evaluations will say one thing – grace
and our annual strategic goals will always be the same –
to draw near to God,
and to sow the seeds of justice by our acts of peace.
May God bless the workers with a harvest of joy. 

Amen.






[1]http://www.aflcio.org/About/Our-History/Labor-History-Timeline
[2] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/05/business/economy/corporate-profits-grow-ever-larger-as-slice-of-economy-as-wages-slide.html
[3] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-3002718/Being-ambitious-power-hungry-send-early-grave-increasing-risk-heart-problems.html

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