Saturday, September 30, 2006

“Shades of Grey”

James 3:13-18[1]

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of movies. And, of course, one of my favorite genres of movie is the Western. One of the reasons why I like Westerns is that they present an interesting case study in the development of our culture. For some reason, Westerns have a way of taking on all the cultural values of the time in which they were made.

If you watch a classic like “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” you see the culture of the 50’s reflected—the good guys are good and they all wear white hats, the bad guys are bad and they wear black hats. All the lines are clear and there’s no mistaking who’s good and who’s bad. But if you move forward a few years, you see how much things changed. In “Once Upon a Time in the West,” you begin to see the lines blur. It’s hard to tell who’s good and who’s bad—you can no longer rely on the color of their hats! By the time you get to the early 70’s, movies like “The Outlaw Josie Wales” or “High Plains Drifter” seem to revel in mixing things up—you have the bad “good guys” versus the good “bad guy”

Keeping Up Appearances. I suppose the lesson of those genre-bending Westerns from the late 60’s and early 70’s is that we live in a world where appearances can be deceiving. I think that was what fueled the sweeping cultural changes of that era—an awareness that the good guys weren’t always all that good, and the bad guys weren’t always all bad. The effort to “keep up appearances” in our culture did a poor job of concealing the reality that lay underneath—prejudice, hypocrisy, dishonesty, greed, selfishness. Just ask African Americans about how good the “good old days” were. Or people who embraced a socialist political agenda. Or people who grew up in alcoholic homes. Or homosexual people. Or women who had to suffer abuse in silence. The cultural upheaval that came in those days was so forceful because so much injustice had been covered over by “appearances.”

Unfortunately, all too often those who are so worried about “keeping up appearances” are the very ones whose hearts and lives betray their falsehood. James says that they are the ones who undermine peace through jealousy, selfishness, arrogant pride, and backbiting. As Gene Peterson translates it, “Whenever you’re trying to look better than others or get the better of others, things fall apart and everyone ends up at the others’ throats”! (Jas. 3:16, The Message).

Making Faith Real. It should come as no surprise that James has no use for “keeping up appearances.” I think he was following his brother in that. In fact, they were both following the wisdom tradition of the Old Testament. I think we tend to get confused about that. When we think “wisdom” we go to Proverbs and get lost in all the details. It is all too easy to think that “wisdom” in the Old Testament concerns picky details that are just as trivial and useless as the purity laws!

But in reality, “wisdom” is about taking faith and making it real in daily life.[2] That may not be your first impression after scanning the book of Proverbs. I would suggest you read it with a note pad by your side and just jot down themes as you come to them. You’ll soon begin to notice a pattern—wisdom is about living in trust and reverence for the Lord, heeding God’s word, practicing humility, integrity, kindness, patience, gentleness, peace, and justice. Sounds to me like, “By their fruits you will know them”!

So we really should not be surprised when James insists that we take our faith and make it real in everyday life. He’s following his brother, his Lord, and his Savior. He’s following the heart of the Old Testament wisdom tradition. The life of faith is not about “keeping up appearances,” but about practicing meekness, humility, integrity, mercy, peace, and justice. James puts it this way: “the 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” (Jas. 3:17).

Seeds of Peace. The Christian gospel is that we don’t have to work to earn God’s grace. But that doesn’t mean that the Christian life doesn’t involve work. It takes a great deal of concerted effort to make our faith real in everyday living. It happens over the course of months and years of embracing the teachings of Scripture, opening our hearts to God’s Spirit, and submitting ourselves to God. That was one of the things Jesus consistently stressed—delighting in God’s word to such an extent that it redefines how you live (Luke 11:28; cf. Psalm 1:2). [3]

As James knew very well, a life that is characterized by delighting in God’s word is one that produces good fruit. The wisdom that comes from God produces peace that lasts.[4] Or as Gene Peterson translates it, “You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God … only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honor” (Jas. 3:18, The Message).[5] May it be so among us.

[1] A sermon preached 9/24/06 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] Paul Tillich, “On Wisdom,” in The Eternal Now, 167-72.

[3] J. L. Mays, Psalms, 41-42: “It is from [Scripture] that wisdom for the living of life can be gained. It is the medium from which one can learn the way and will of the Lord and store up that learning in one’s heart so that it shapes the structure of consciousness. This is the reason why torah is the cause of delight, not because it is an available instrument of self-righteousness … but because the Lord reaches, touches, and shapes the human soul through it.”

[4] Cf. J. Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 289, 291-92, where he describes the church as the sign of Christ’s increasing lordship in this realm, which means that the church is a fellowship of peace, freedom, and service.

[5] See Henri Nouwen, Here and Now, 124-125, where he talks about how difficult human relationships are. Cf. his Reaching Out, 46-78, where he describes the process of moving from hostitility to becoming open to others in hospitality.

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