Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, December 11, 2016
Taken from James 3:13-18
Words are only squiggles and lines on paper or pixels on a screen if we’ve got no life experiences that we associate with those squiggles and lines. Just open a book written in a foreign language we’ve never studied. We assume they’re words on the page that mean something, but they could just be gibberish for all we know.
Theological words are especially like this. Theological words must somehow find root in our life experiences if they’re to grow meaningful for us. Did you hear what I just did there? I used a metaphor. “Root”. “Grow”.
You and I understand from experience things “rooting” and “growing”. That’s in contrast to things that are static and lifeless. A rock, for example. A slab of concrete. A chunk of metal. Definitions written in theological dictionaries: very static, unmoving, lifeless.
But, if you accept my “rooting and growing” assertion, then you understand that theological words are meant to become dynamic, life-bearing quantities defined in our living rather than static and inert dead weight.
Thankfully, Jesus, and then James after him, used metaphors of garden and field to teach us the meaning of theological words such as “righteousness”.
“And the harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace,” writes James in verse 18 of our reading this morning. Peacemakers, sowing peace, yield harvests of righteousness.
Whether the ground we work is a farm or a garden or a flower box, the whole point is that we are applying ourselves towards growing something that we fully intend to harvest. It may be a dozen acres of corn or an eight-foot row of tomato plants or a gallon pot containing a single flower bulb: we want to see something coming up out of that ground that corresponds to what we planted and that we know will yield the end-product that’s inspires our work.
There is a “wisdom from above”, writes James, “a wisdom from God”, which God offers all God’s children. Who are God’s children? Jesus told us in what we call “the Sermon on the Mount”: “blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be known as the children of God” (Matthew 5:9) This “wisdom from above” God entrusts to those who make peace, who sow peace: they are the people who reap the harvest of God’s righteousness.
A harvest of righteousness…what images do those words bring to your mind? For me, my well-entrenched image is negative. That word, “righteousness”, wraps around my mind and heart like a straightjacket and weights down my soul as though challenging me to swim with a concrete block around my waist.
“A harvest of righteousness” brings to my mind that famous painting by Grant Wood entitled, “American Gothic”. You’ve seen it: the dour-faced farmer standing there holding a pitchfork with his equally dour-faced wife next to him, both looking for all the world like they’d rather be anywhere else than standing next to each other posing for their portrait.
“A harvest of righteousness” brings to my mind Jonathan Edwards, the early American Puritan preacher. Edwards terrified his parishioners with horrifying images of their eternal souls hanging as if by a spider’s thread, the flames of hell leaping up to grab them, with God holding that single, thin strand as if hoping they’ll give God just any excuse, any excuse at all, to let go of them, so every last miserable and ungrateful soul that they are will drop like spiders cast off into a fire, there to burn forever in the flames they so truly deserve to suffer.
Am I the only one here today that’s got such a messed-up version of righteousness playing in their heads. Is that righteousness sown in peace by a peacemaker?
My mother grew up on a tobacco farm down in Pittsylvania County, as did my father. They were high-school sweethearts, though actually Mom was the one in high school; dad got fed up with public education after the tenth grade and dropped out and starting bagging groceries.
Dad managed to save enough money to buy a roadster off a couple of brothers who lived there in the county. The brothers ran moonshine and the state police had come to recognize their little roadster all too well, so I suppose that’s why they sold it at a price my 17-year old dad could afford.
Dad came by the farmhouse one day to give my mom a ride in his car. But, her father, my grandfather, had given my mom a bag of seed-corn earlier that morning to plant in a garden patch he’d gotten ready to supply food for the family table. So, mom took that bag of seed-corn out to the garden, held it by the bottom of the bag, and slung it out, scattering the seed every-which-a-way, tossed the bag, and off she went with my dad.
When mom got back to the farmhouse later, my grandfather was standing on the porch waiting for her. In his hand, he held that little paper bag she’d balled up and tossed on the ground. He gave her the bag and told her she could come in the house once she’d pick up every last kernel of seed-corn and planted it the way she should have the first time.
That’s a tricky illustration to use in the context of these verses about sowing to bear a harvest of righteousness. You would correctly infer that I am using my mom’s petulance and her disregard for my grandfather’s instructions to illustrate how in our own petulance and disregard for God, we fail to grow what God seeks to plant within us.
As with my teenaged mom being enticed by my teenaged dad to go off on a joy ride, we may give only the most superficial appearance of obeying God, while running off to pursue our own desires. “There! I’ve done what God’s demanded of me; now I can go do what I really want to do.”
Well, that’s a correct though partial hearing of this illustration. My mom’s self-serving and self-justifying behavior would not yield the crop of corn my grandfather was hoping to see harvested for their family table.
The Scripture here in James chapter 3, verses 14 through 16, describe in vivid terms just this kind of behavior my mom was portraying that day. Verses 14 through 16 describe an attitude of appearing to be wise, or clever, but it is a superficial wisdom that cloaked at its heart bitterness and divisiveness and selfish ambition. Such false wisdom, says verse 15, “is not such as comes down from above [from God].” If left unaddressed and unchecked, verse 16 goes on to say this kind of so-called wisdom produces “disorder and every vile practice”.
The tricky part of this illustration comes, in where we see God in my little family story. If we assume that in this story, my grandfather, stands in for God, we will have steered ourselves off in a wrong direction as much as my mother ran off in her own wrong direction.
My grandfather was a stern man who evoked fear in his children. He was a man to be gotten around and avoided. The wisdom my
grandfather exercised over his family worked in the short-run.
Yes, you can meet your daughter out on the porch and banish her from the house until she’s picked up what she has scattered and planted it to your demanding satisfaction. You will get that crop of corn, but it will be a crop sown in bitterness and the fruit of bitterness lasts long and does not serve well for making a healthy family.
So, make no mistake, my grandfather’s wisdom in this illustration does not stand in for God’s wisdom. God’s wisdom, says verse 17, “the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits.”
No, the only difference between my grandfather’s wisdom and the wisdom of my teenaged mom on that day long ago, was the difference found in their positions of power relative to one another. He had the power to force her compliance on threat of being shut out of the house.
The Book of James is for the family of God. It is for the household of faith gathered together in Christ Jesus. This message of righteousness sown in peace by peacemakers is not about Christians relating to a secular, unbelieving world torn in conflict and blinded by false wisdom. This message was for the congregation, for their life together within the family of God.
James was writing to confront them with this question: what harvest are you cultivating among yourselves? What fruit will you bear as a church family?
James wrote to these first century Christians the message that God’s people always need: we must take hold of God’s wisdom for us. Verse 17 parses out the details of this wisdom from God, but then verse 18 brings it all back together under this rubric of peace: “the harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who are peacemakers”.
Righteous fruit which is of God is not Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” and it’s not Jonathan Edwards’ fiery sermons. Mash all that up together, and all the church has gotten for itself is an “American Gothic Horror Story” getting passed off as Gospel. So much of the American church lives today eating the fruit of that bitter harvest.
Righteous wisdom which is from above is not the stern fathers of the church, the stern mothers of the church, demanding their children go gather up their resources and plant the garden as they, the mothers and fathers, have prepared it to be sown.
Nor is righteous wisdom is not the daughters and sons of the church throwing aside the seed entrusted to them, appearing to follow through as their elders have so carefully prepared and instructed them, while really only seeking what pleases them.
My mother enjoyed a good ear of buttered corn-on-cob just as much as my grandfather did. In the same way, righteous wisdom knows that the sacred harvest which parent and child alike delight in is a harvest sown in peace because they are themselves, as with their Savior, are makers of peace.
We in this Christmas Season celebrate the coming of the Prince of Peace. Peacemaking is hard, sacrificial work for everybody concerned. We remind ourselves of that truth at least once a month here in our fellowship, as we are about to do now.
I invite you to look upon this table prepared before us. Behold the bread and the cup of our Lord’s Last Supper. Remember the Body and the Blood of the Prince of Peacemakers. Behold the Wisdom that is from above, sown in flesh and blood, to yield peace with God on earth among all who claim this wisdom for themselves.
Behold, the meaning of God’s righteousness.