[Sermon preached on September 30, 2012, at the First United Methodist Church of Adrian.]
Before there were global positioning satellites (GPS), when people traveled they were guided by the stars. If they journeyed by day, the sun in the sky would guide them. And if they traveled by ship at night, they’d look up into the sky and orient themselves by the constellations they saw: Orion, the Big Dipper, etc. I want you to imagine you are in a ship right now, and we are journeying by night. Look up into the night sky for a constellation to guide you. There is a special one I want to point out, the constellation of wisdom. In our scripture today, James (the brother of Jesus) gives us a description of wisdom; he tells us eight things about wisdom. I am likening these eight qualities to eight starts that make up the shape (or constellation) of wisdom.
“The wisdom from above,” he says, “is pure first of all; it is also peaceful, gentle and friendly; it is full of compassion and produces a harvest of good deeds; it is free from prejudice and hypocrisy.” (James 3:17)
Now if I were John Wesley, we’d look at all eight of these characteristics, and we’d be here till lunch time. But I am not, and so we will looking only at three of them, three stars that make up the constellation of wisdom.
First, wisdom is peaceful. Or it is peaceable. Wisdom pursues its goals in a peaceful way. Wisdom is not argumentative or belligerent. It does not get angry and insist on its own way. Wisdom promotes peace in a peaceful way. Here James is echoing his brother Jesus who said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called God’s children.” Let me give you an example of this peacefulness.
Susan Cain graduated from Harvard Law School and took a job at a Wall Street law firm. She spent her days in their research department, studying the issues and cases the firm had to handle. Susan was an introvert, and so this suited her personality well. Extroverts are energized by large crowds and lots of people; introverts are energized by solitude and small groups of intimate friends. Introverts love to study, and so Susan was happy doing her legal research.
One day, though, a change was needed. One of the senior attorneys was sick, and Susan had to take his place in a negotiation. Her firm was representing a South American manufacturing company about to default on its loans. She needed to help renegotiate the loan. She found herself sitting at a large conference table with her clients on one side, and on the other side were the bankers and their lawyers. The other side started first and spoke loudly: “These are our terms, and we believe they are magnanimous. Your side should be grateful we are being so generous.” Silence. Everyone waited for Susan to respond. She just wanted to disappear into a hole because she was so scared. But then she began to draw on what she would later call “The Power of Quiet.” She did what she did best. She began quietly to ask questions. “What are your numbers based on?” “What if we restructure the loan in this way?” And so on. Through her quiet, persistent questioning she was able to take control of the room and bend the conversation in a way that favored her clients. When one of the bankers became angry and stormed out of the room, Susan ignored him. She simply kept asking questions and making suggestions. Finally she was able to negotiate a new loan favorable to her clients and fair to the lenders. She went home, kicked off her shoes and read a book (that’s what introverts do!). The next day the lead attorney for the other side called her and offered her a job. “I need someone like you who can get things done in a quiet way.”
Susan eventually left the law firm and started her own consulting business to help other introverts to discover the power of quiet. And she has a wide audience since introverts make up a third to a half of the population. She just published a book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts In a World That Can’t Stop Talking. I share her story with you because it is a good illustration of the peacefulness of wisdom. Wisdom is quiet and peaceful, but it can also move the world.
Second, wisdom is compassionate. Wisdom is ‘full of compassion,’ James says. It is motivated by compassion in all that it does. The Russian writer Dostoyevsky says, “The only law of human life is compassion.” Compassion is what matters most in our interaction with one another.
In the Sisters Sunday school class last week the discussion was about compassion. Shirley Ehnis had the class look up different Bible verses dealing with compassion. The main image we discussed was the father in the prodigal son story. The prodigal son demands his inheritance and then goes away and spends it all; months later he returns home, tattered and hungry. His father sees him coming because he was looking for him every day. Rather than wait for him to come home, the honorable thing for the father, he leaps off the porch, hikes up his robe (no decorum here!) and runs to embrace and kiss his son. He does this because he is ‘moved with compassion.’ Compassion is not a head thing; it is deep in our hearts, our gut. It is an ache, a yearning, a painful vulnerability. The Bible word for compassion is related to the word for internal organs in the body. It comes from deep within. And at the right time, compassion springs into action, as the father did when he ran to his son. Even if the action is a small thing, it can have big consequences. The ‘Butterfly Effect’ says that a butterfly fluttering its wings on one side of the world can influence global weather patterns. This is true; it was demonstrated years about by a MIT meteorologist named Edward Lorenz. Which means that even small acts, when they are motivated by compassion, can change the patterns of the world.
Third, wisdom is free of prejudice. The word is adiakritos, and it means impartial, not judgmental. You have your convictions about things, but you do not pass judgement on those who believe differently than you do. Often it is possible for us to be prejudiced without even realizing it. Prejudice is like a pair of glasses we wear. Have you ever asked, “Where are by glasses?” and someone tells you they are on your face? It happens! So it is with prejudice, which is someone we look through rather than look at, and because we grow so accustomed to having it, we do not even realize it is there.
Over the summer there was a Better Angels Summit sponsored by the Faith & Politics Institute. Dozens of religious leaders gathered: Protestant and Catholic, liberal and Conservative, including a bishop of the United Methodist Church. They gathered to talk about how people of faith can engage in political discourse in an election season without demonizing people on the other side of where they are. Participants included the head of the Episcopal Church and the head of the Family Research Council, which are on opposite sides of most issues. Eventually they signed a Better Angels Statement, pledging themselves to engage in political discourse that is respectful of differences. They would not resort to cliches or stereotypes. They could hold their convictions without condemning others who believed differently. The phrase ‘Better Angels’ comes from Abraham Lincoln, who urged us to live by the ‘better angels’ of our nature.
How do you know if you are free of prejudice? You don’t. But here is a way to help. If you can say four little words, then prejudice will have less of a hold on you. Here are the words: I Could Be Wrong. That’s all. “Here is what I think needs to happen with health care policy (or insert issue here). I could be wrong. What do you think?” Somehow just being able to say ‘I could be wrong’ helps us take off the glasses of prejudice and see more clearly.
James mentions five other stars in the wisdom constellation. I commend them to you. You could write this verse on an index card and tape it to the bathroom mirror so that you saw it each morning. One last thing: James says this wisdom is ‘from above.’ Thank you! It does not depend on my ability. It comes from above, from God. Which reminds me that those ships that were guided by the stars did not move by their own power. They depended on the wind to move.
So also, the wind of God’s Spirit blows through us and moves us forward. And if we orient ourselves by this constellation of wisdom, we can know that we are traveling in the right direction.