God of the Details: A Sermon

**Originally preached for the 4:00 jazz Service at Fourth Presbyterian Church Chicago on September 20, 2015**

James 3:13 – 4:3, 7-8a
3:13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.

3:14 But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth.

3:15 Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish.

3:16 For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.

3:17 But 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.

3:18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

4:1 Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?

4:2 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. You do not have, because you do not ask.

4:3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.

4:7 Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.

4:8 Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.

—————————

Growing up, I was a part of a boisterous and close-knit youth group at my church. Most of us had grown up in the church together. Our parents were friends and the church building operated for many of us like a second home. In some ways, it felt like a giant extended family. These bonds were further cemented through weeks at church camp and mission trips all over the world. We loved each other, but our closeness also meant that sometimes we could be a little rough with one another. When energy levels got particularly high, insults would be lobbed and squabbles would break out. Energetic and excited could, at times, easily tip over into mean-spirited.

My youth pastor always seemed to take these outbursts in relative stride. Rather than yelling at us or dolling out punishment, her standard response in these moments was to softly break into song. Smirking, she would begin to sing, “And they’ll know we are Christians, by our love, by our love. And they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” The irony of it always made us laugh and broke the tension of whatever circumstance was threatening to escalate. It was a clever and humorous leadership strategy, but it also served as a reminder, time and again, that our Christian faith mattered not just in big, abstract ways—but also in how we treated each other. How we chose to act in small, daily, ordinary moments.

Our text for today is from the book of James. James is often recognized and even criticized for his emphasis on good works. Theologians will pit him against Paul in the great debate of salvation through works versus salvation through faith alone. This particular passage—from the third and fourth chapters—isn’t exempt from this emphasis on faithful works. However, it’s worth pointing out that here the author makes no explicit claim that good works are a prerequisite for faith or salvation. On the contrary, here the relationship is that spiritual focus on God leads one to a good life and works done with gentleness. Our faith cultivates our works, in other words.

In describing what constitutes good works, James draws a distinction between Godly wisdom and earthly wisdom. Earthly wisdom, he suggests, leads to bitter envy and selfish ambition. By contrast, wisdom that is from above—that is, from God—he says, “is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” The outcome, according to James, of yielding to wisdom from above is “a harvest of righteous sown in peace.”

James is believed to be written in Jerusalem sometime shortly after the death and resurrection of Christ. In fact, many scholars claim that it may well have been written by James, the brother of Jesus. If this is true, then the political and cultural context of that time says a great deal about what inspired James to appeal so emphatically to a reliance on spiritual wisdom. The latter half of the first century saw increasing violence and turmoil as the Jews resisted their oppression at the hands of the Roman Empire and grew increasingly upset about rampant poverty and injustice. Eventually, war would break out against Rome, which would ultimately lead to Jerusalem’s destruction and deliver a devastating blow to Jewish Christians.

James is writing to an embattled people. They are blocked in on all sides by oppression and violence and an uncertain future. He isn’t interested in comforting them through promises of divine intervention or an eternal peace—he is empowering them to be shaped by their faith so that they can live amidst the uncertainty and upheaval and find hope. On the whole, his letter promotes care for the impoverished and concern for those who struggle. It calls for justice and peace in this world.

But here in this passage, James is not describing major political moves or strategic revolution. He’s describing how the faithful Christians of his time should be transformed in their daily living. He is urging them to be defined primarily by God’s way and God’s wisdom even in a context driven by earthly priorities of violence and greed. His conviction, stated so clearly here is that a life rooted in God down to its small ways and tiny details,  can transform the world in incredible ways and lead to “a harvest of peace.”

A lot has changed in this world since those early church days in Jerusalem. But not enough. We, too, seem to live in an embattled time. We are not under threat from the Roman Empire, but we are plagued by violence and enmity, division and prejudice and oppression, and an uncertain future. We, too, look to God for hope. But what does that hope look like when we wake up in the morning to face the world with courage?

Here at Fourth, we’re rooted in the Presbyterian tradition which grows out of the writings and theology of 16th century reformer John Calvin. I won’t give you anymore of a history lesson, but suffice it to say that for Calvin there was no question that our salvation comes solely through God’s grace and not through any action that we might achieve.

Nevertheless, James has a point. Shouldn’t our faith shape our lives and our actions? If we root ourselves in God’s grace, absolutely that impacts how we interact with the world. In progressive Christian circles, this conviction is often embodied in a commitment to social justice work and inclusiveness and efforts to create just systems.

Critics of progressive Christianity propose that it is too abstract and system-oriented and doesn’t offer tangible claims about how one should live out their faith. But just as James suggests in this part of his letter and just as my youth pastor sought to help us understand growing up, it is often the small choices—the ordinary details—of how we choose to embody God’s grace and wisdom in our daily lives that ultimately lead to the big moments of God’s grace inbreaking in this world.

So how does our faith compel us to act in moments both large and small? How does God transform us right down to the details?

There is a story within our own church’s history, which has become so integral to our identity that it is told at every new member’s class.

More than 70 years ago in this very Fourth church community, a man made a simple choice about seemingly simple things. His name was Dr. Harrison Ray Anderson, and he was the pastor of Fourth Church from 1928 to 1961. During World War II, during the middle of his tenure here, Japanese American Christians approached him looking for help. They had been forced out of their spaces of worship because of prejudice and discrimination and they were hoping he might be able to provide them with a place to gather in worship.

For Anderson, it was a question of Christian duty and service—which is to say that for him, it wasn’t a question at all. He took it to the Session where it actually became a hugely controversial issue. Many were opposed, but he continued to argue in favor of allowing these Christians a space to worship, and several other key figures added their voices to the chorus and ultimately, the session approved the motion by one vote. These Japanese American Christians were allowed to worship in Stone Chapel and so they did. And for as long as they did, Harrison Ray Anderson, walked along Delaware St. in his collar and robes whenever they gathered to make sure than neither people outside the church nor his own church members harassed the worshippers.

Indeed Anderson’s whole life and ministry were wrapped up in his conviction that faith should impact all aspects of life. Because of the way he lived out his faith in response to the Japanese Americans, when they left Fourth, they gave a monetary gift directly to Anderson, saying only, “do something good with it.” During his travels in Europe sometime later, he commissioned two silver Celtic crosses. When he returned to the US, he gave one cross each to the moderators of the Northern Presbyterian denomination and the Southern Prebsyterian denomination (which had been divided since 1861). He urged the moderators to find a way to come together.

Eventually, the denomination did reunify in 1983, and the two crosses were riveted together into one, and it is now worn by each moderator—the elected head of the Presbyterian Church USA—as a reminder of their call and of the way our faith should impact our daily living.

What might we learn from such a legacy? How might we live out our faith in our daily lives in ways both big and small?

It’s worth noting that James doesn’t assume that we would be utterly unaffected by earthly wisdom and its impulses. On the contrary, he seems to acknowledge that the influence of human constructs of greed and ambition are unavoidable. But he urges his readers—and us—to recognize those broken human impulses for what they are and, in response, to draw close to God.

Much though this passage seems to focus on human action and works, it is also telling us something profoundly important about God. God is not off somewhere far away watching us from a safe distance. And God isn’t only with us in the big, pivotal moments. God is here with us, right in the midst of our daily lives. Right in the ordinary. Right in the details.

That is what Jesus was all about. God might have saved through grand gesture or divine power play. But instead God to be with us, to live among us. As a little baby. As a particular human man.  It is because of this miracle of grace—God with us—that we can, in the midst of our daily lives and this broken world, live differently. We can rise above the earthly brokenness that, at its worst, compels violence and vengeance, but on any given day might compel us to be cruel or dismissive or to choose not see and serve those whom God most wants us to.

Rooted as we are in God’s grace, gifted with the insight of God’s own incredible Christly wisdom, we can live differently. Our ordinary daily lives can become mirrors of grace, and the small details can transform the world. We can respond to all that is broken with gentleness and mercy and bring about a harvest of peace. Every moment is a chance to draw near to the God who has already drawn near to us.

All those years ago, as my youth pastor quietly sang the words to that hymn, she was choosing—in a small and simple way—to live out her faith. And she was reminding us too, that every moment was a chance to choose grace and draw near to God and be guided by wisdom from above.

That song, I learned this week, was written by a Catholic priest on the south-side of Chicago during the late 1960s. The Civil Rights movement was unfolding across the country, and he wanted a song for his youth to sing that would embody Christian principles in the midst of all that was happening. He couldn’t find one and so one afternoon, he reflected on his faith and he made a simple choice. He sat down at his desk and he wrote that song that has been—over the past 5 decades—both a gentle reminder to Christian youth and an extraordinary anthem of hope.

“And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, and they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

May it be so. This day and every day. Amen.

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