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Wisdom in Action -- James 1:17-27 (Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost)




It has been 16 years now since Jeff and I moved from Alabama to California. I still remember a bit of culture shock. It didn’t take me long to notice that the San Francisco Bay Area wasn’t like Alabama. Folks ate different things – no grits, instead polenta. Folks talked different here. They said things like, “No worries” and “It’s all good.” And folks even dressed differently. I noticed that people wore jeans everywhere. I rode the ferry into the City some days to have lunch with Jeff. People even wore jeans to work – and not just any jeans, but nice jeans, jeans with a little wash – jeans that I jokingly started to call Big City Jeans.


So as we settled in, I decided that– because I now lived in the San Francisco Bay Area – I was going to go out and get me some Big City Jeans. I found some on sale – I think they were Lucky Brand jeans. And when our first Alabama friend came to visit, I put on those Big City Jeans and headed into San Francisco to meet her. I drove to Larkspur and I got on the ferry in my Big City Jeans – just convinced that I looked like I belonged there. The ferry went by Alcatraz, and we could see the Golden Gate Bridge, and we pulled up in the City. And I got off the ferry, and I walked through the Ferry Terminal in those Big City Jeans, and I walked down Market Street in my Big City Jeans, with all those other people in their Big City Jeans.


Y’all, I was so proud.


And I went to Union Square, and I met my friend, Laura. Laura gave me a big hug, and she stood back and looked me up and down.


And then Laura reached down, and she pulled the Big City Label off of my Big City Jeans. And it wasn’t just a small label. It was one of those labels, with my waist size on it, that ran the entire length of my thigh, from my hip down to my knee. I had walked onto that ferry with that label going all the way up and down my leg. I’d walked through the Ferry terminal and strutted down Market Street – all with a label prominently announcing my waist size to the world. Look folks, this boy has some new jeans.

My friend Laura reached down, and pulled off that label – and handed it to me and smiled. Because, you see, she could let me know with just a look and a smile, as only a good friend can, that she loved me... and that I wasn’t all that.


Oh, if only I had stopped on my way out the door and looked in the mirror – really looked in the mirror. Because if I had looked in that mirror, I might have seen that label. If I’d looked in the mirror, I might have seen someone who was more than a little silly. I might have seen someone who was more than a little vain. I might have seen what was real. If only I had taken a moment and really looked in that mirror.


The writer of James says this:


The person who isn’t aware of the faith at work in their life

is like someone who glances at themselves in a mirror,

and when they walk away, they forget who they are.


James is writing to a community he loves and encouraging them to live out what they have come to believe – to live out the wisdom they have come to know in Jesus Christ. He is urging them to look in the mirror and to remember who they are – children of God – God’s Word implanted in them. He’s urging them to be aware of the grace that is at work in their life through Jesus Christ – and to live it out.

We don’t know much about the community to which James wrote, but we can piece together some things.[1] From what James says, we can tell that this community is persevering through hard times. They live in a world of economic disruption and injustice – a world where there is a huge gap between the rich and the poor, between the haves and the have nots – and this divide has seeped into their own community. Those who have more are being treated better than those who have less. There is disagreement within the community, and they are speaking harsh words to each other. They are struggling.


AND, at the same time, James lets us know that they are a community that has experienced and been claimed by God’s Word of love for us in Jesus Christ. James says to them, the Word has been planted in you. God’s word of life – Jesus Christ – is alive in you. They have been given new life and a word of truth.


But somehow – James notices – this great gift hasn’t yet connected with the life they live together. It’s as if they have glanced in the mirror, walked away, and forgotten who they are. So James writes: Remember who you are. Be aware of the life of faith at work in your life. Embody the Word you have been given. Be Doers of the Word and not Hearers only.


Now, it’s not just doing for the sake of doing. For James – it’s about living out the gift of grace we have been given – to bless the world. The writer is clear: All good gifts come from God – God gives us birth, and a Word of truth, a Word of truth planted in our hearts. And that implanted Word is a first-fruit for the blessing of the whole world. The Word– what James calls the law of liberty or the law of love - is implanted in us. The Word is implanted in us so that the Word will make a difference in our lives – so that the Word in us through faith will make a difference in the world – our lives in Christ, Christ alive in us – generating in the world more love, more justice, more freedom.


And so James says: Take a look. Take a look at who you are. Take a look at the Word implanted in you. Take a look at your life. Remember who you are, and then do something. Live out who you are in Jesus. Live ways of life that lead to more life – wisdom ways – for yourself and for the whole world.


In education circles, we would call this an action-reflection model for learning. Learning by doing. Think of the classic internship experience. The student goes on the job – does the job – and then reflects on what they have done – and incorporates their learning into what they do next. Action—reflection – leading to the next action – and on to learning.


In spirituality circles, we would say it this way: This text invites us to take a long, loving look at the real. In the headlong rush of life, this text invites us to stop. Take a long look – a long, loving look. What do you see? Who are you? Do you remember? Who are you in relationship with God – and the world? What does that mean for the life that you live – that we live – every moment of every day? How will we embody the Word of life that we have been given? What are we going to do?


Howard Thurman says it plain: He calls it “a hard and searching look” – “a hard and searching look at [our life and] the environment, the context in which we are functioning,” – the political, economic, and social systems – a hard, searching look as we “tutor the human spirit.”[2] Dr. Thurman says that this “inward journey” issues forth in what he calls “our working papers” – what you’ve heard me call “the work that is ours to do in the world.”


Take a long, loving look at the real.

Reflection – that then leads to action.


Now, Wisdom is practical – and so is the writer of James – so we should ask: “How?” In the rush of the life, with information coming at us from every angle – how do we stop and take this long loving look at the real? Here are a few thoughts.


There’s journaling. Stopping at the end of the day, or the beginning, or anywhere in between – and noticing – writing down what’s going on around you – and in you. Paying attention.


There are all sorts of mindfulness practices across wisdom traditions – practices that invite us to pay attention – to notice.[3]


There’s a prayer practice we use in our Thursday group sometimes that flows out of Christian traditions – called the Prayer of Examen. It’s a simple prayer for the end of the day – to look back at your day, and notice. You look back at your day – the life you’ve lived, the things you’ve done, the people you’ve encountered – and you ask variations of two balanced questions:


o Where did you feel close to God? Where did you feel distant?

OR

o Where did you feel energy flowing? Where did you feel energy draining away?


And then you thank God for the whole of your day. That’s it. Just a time of noticing. Looking in the mirror of your day. Each day. And noticing patterns over time. Things and people that give you life. And things that don’t.[4]

And, we’re not in this alone. In that story I told, I got a long, loving look – in the clarity of a good friend. In Celtic spirituality, they have a name for this – an Anam Cara – a spirit friend – someone with whom you can share the daily, real things – in complete honesty.[5] There are folks with life-giving professional competencies: Therapists. Counsellors. Spiritual directors – who can help guide, support, and challenge us in this long, loving look at the real.

Now, there may have been things in that list that grabbed your attention – there may be some that made you clench up – pay attention to both reactions. They might be inviting or challenging you to try out something new. I’m happy to help you think through any of those.

The writer of James is inviting us to stop and take a look in the mirror – the mirror of our life, the mirror of what he calls “the perfect law of liberty,” the mirror of the life of Christ alive in us.

But it’s not just a passing glance. Remember the person in the scripture – they took a look in the mirror, but then they walked away and forgot who they were. It’s not justreflection. It’s action/reflection. We stop and pay attention to our life and the life of Christ, and then at some point we have to translate what we see there into action.


We might even have to do some re-thinking. We might have to change our mind. Organizational psychologist Adam Grant has written this book – Think Again – and you know I just love his subtitle: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know.[6] Adam Grant notes that there have been a lot of books written about how to think better, but he argues that what we really need to learn is how to rethink.


And we don’t do that well, because it’s not easy. It’s easier to see things the way we’ve always seen them – what we expect to see; what we want to see – and we stay stuck in our old thoughts. Too often our opinions are caught up in our sense of identity – who we think we are – so that any challenge to our opinions registers as a challenge to our perceived identity. And we shut down, and defend.

Think about the vaccine. There are folks in the world who are steadfast in their refusal to take the vaccine, no matter what the evidence. For some, that opinion has become so wrapped up in identity – political identity – that they won’t move off of it – no matter how much evidence is around them – even when folks are dying around them.

But let’s be clear – it’s not just “them.”


Our anti-racism work has at its core a hard and worthy practice of rethinking – not at all easy – a rethinking that most of us white folks have avoided most of our lives – because it was easier, for us, to avoid it. An anti-racist commitment requires that we look at our whiteness – the ways that systems benefit us and harm others – and that compels us to rethink. And to change. To the point of dismantling the systems around us when they need to go.

We all continue on the path of climate catastrophe, in large part, due to a failure to rethink – our collective failure to give a long, loving look at the real – at our life in relationship to all creation – and to say “we might be wrong in the ways we live” – we might need to change.

Adam Grant says that we need to spend more time in every part of life considering how we might be wrong, instead of grasping on to any confirmation, regardless of evidence, that we are right.

Do you remember back a few weeks ago, when we embraced the affirmation: “I know not,” or “I don’t know.” The beginning of wisdom. Here’s a corollary affirmation that is at the beginning of rethinking, saying, with appropriate humility: “Then again, I might be wrong.”


The writer of James offers a path toward wisdom:

Reflect. Rethink. And then do.


Rethinking and changing our ways may be difficult, but it’s not impossible. We have been working that muscle for 18 months now. On March 12, 2020, the Session voted to suspend in-person worship and meetings. We thought we’d do that for a few months. And by May, we had to consider that we might be wrong – that this pandemic thing was probably going through to last through the summer of 2020.


Again and again, we had to rethink so much of what we were doing – and then rethink our rethinking. One of the things we celebrate today – is the gift of leadership that the folks who have served on the Moving Forward Together team have given us. Rethinking: our life of worship, creating an entirely new Zoom online experience; our life of music, alive in so many modalities; our life of Deacon care and connection; our life of serving in a world that we couldn’t, for a time, engage in-person; our protocols for being in-person together as safel