Proverbs 31:10-31 and Psalm 1 OR
Wisdom of Solomon 1:16-2:1, 12-22 or Jeremiah 11:18-20 and
James 3:13 - 4:3, 7-8a
Thoughts On The Word:
I am travelling this week and haven't had a chance to write a sermon for you, so I have provided below a sermon by Lutheran Pastor Gregory P. Fryer, which I sourced HERE. The formatting isn't ideal, as I have had to do this using less than ideal technology. I shall fix it when I return home.
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy
My opening text for this morning's sermon is not the text I mean to focus on.
It is simply the text that expresses most perfectly the subject of this sermon.
So, let me begin by lifting up Jeremiah's cry to the LORD. Jeremiah's preaching
has earned him the wrath of his townsfolk. They mean to do him in. But the Lord
reveals their plan to Jeremiah, who then cries out to his Lord, to the God who
"triest the heart":
20But, O LORD of hosts, who judgest
righteously, who triest the heart and the mind, let me see thy vengeance upon
them, for to thee have I committed my cause. (Jeremiah 11:20, RSV)
I do not want to speak now about Jeremiah's cry for vengeance or even his
committing his cause to the Lord. I simply want to pick up Jeremiah's conviction
that the Lord cares about the human heart. He tries it, weighs it, seeks for
purity in it. Naturally the Lord cares about our conduct and about those
offenses that can land us in jail. But also the Lord cares about the human
heart, about the wellspring from which flows our conduct, both for the good and
for the bad.
Today's Epistle Lesson especially treats the question of the human heart, and
that will be my main text. But let me approach that text by taking a glance at
this morning's Gospel Lesson. The disciples are caught abashed:
33And they came to Capernaum; and when he
was in the house he asked them, "What were you discussing on the way?"
34But they were silent; for on the way they had
discussed with one another who was the greatest. (Mark 9:33-34, RSV)
This is not the kind of discussion that is likely to promote peace among the
disciples. Our reading is from Mark 9. In the very next chapter - Mark 10 -
there is a similar discussion, and there it becomes articulate that such
discussions are disrupting the apostolic fellowship:
35And James and John, the sons of Zebedee,
came forward to him, and said to him, "Teacher, we want you to do for us
whatever we ask of you." 36And he said to them,
"What do you want me to do for you?" 37And they
said to him, "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in
your glory." (Mark 10:35-36, RSV)
Jesus deals wisely, as always, with James and John and their desire for seats
of glory. He uses their request as an occasion for teaching his disciples
something important about the connection between greatness and humility in the
kingdom. So, that is good. But still, some damage has been done along the
And when the ten heard it, they began to be much displeased with James and
John. (Mark 10:41, KJV)
These discussions about greatness in the kingdom of Christ prove divisive and
harm the fellowship.
But what interests me is the perspective of James and John on this matter of
greatness. From their point of view, what might have been at stake was nothing
less than the truth. They seem to be practical men, planning for the future,
planning for the organizational efficiency of Christ's kingdom, thinking that it
was high time to sort out who among them was to be the greatest in that kingdom.
Who was to be President and who Vice President? Oh, and by the way, did we
mention that we, James and John, are part of the inner circle with Jesus, along
with Peter? We are the ones who just a little while ago, at the start
of Mark 9, were witnesses to the Transfiguration of our Lord up on the mountain,
again, along with Peter. We are the ones with an authoritative insight to the
nature of Christ - we and Peter. To us has been vouchsafed an insight that had
not been granted to the other nine disciples. And so, isn't it the way of
truth to acknowledge that and to start making plans for us to be high
rulers in the coming kingdom?
I can imagine James and John reasoning in this way. And I do not accuse them
of insincerity or of covetousness for power. Their motives might have been pure.
St. Paul often did a similar sort of thing. He claimed apostolic authority. He
explained it, defended it, and asserted it. But you never get the impression
that he claims such authority for the sake of his own ego, but rather for his
surpassing devotion to Jesus and to the proclamation of the gospel.
It is this matter of motives that interests me. It is this matter of the
heart. Paul's motives for his claim seem pure and innocent. The motives of James
and John might likewise have been pure and innocent. Motives, ambitions, and the
desires of the heart are hard for outsiders to sort out. Sometimes they are even
hard for the person himself or herself to sort out. But that Christians should
seek purity of heart is pretty clear from the Bible. Jesus called for such
purity. And the letter of James does the same thing. So, let's turn now to this
morning's Epistle Lesson, James Chapters Three and Four.
By the way, this James is not the James of the inner three disciples, Peter,
James, and John - at least according to the traditional picture. Rather, this
James is the pastor of the congregation in Jerusalem. He is the one who presided
over the Jerusalem Council that sorted out the mission of the early church, with
Peter preaching to the Jews and Paul to the Gentiles. This James is the one who
addresses the scattered church through his letter.
You have probably heard that Martin Luther did not much like the Epistle of
James... called it an "epistle of straw."1 Luther doubted the apostolic nature of
James because he felt that it did not sufficiently proclaim either the cross or
the resurrection of Jesus. And you have to respect Luther's passion here. But
perhaps a more charitable interpretation of James is to think of it as a sermon
from the dear old man, James. In fact, we could picture it as one of those
transcribed sermons, like those of St. Augustine or St. Chrysostom, in which
scribes sat in the congregation and wrote down the words of the sermon - words
that were originally simply oral discourse that would have been lost to the ages
except that faithful witnesses recorded the words. Likewise with James. Think of
it as a sermon from the apostle, but then remember the limitations of a sermon.
I mean, I am keenly aware that any particular sermon I preach is incomplete. I
just can't fit everything into one sermon. Don't have the talent for it. So I
have to trust you folks to come back next Sunday and to hear some more of the
old, old faith of the church.
Likewise, with the Epistle of James. Luther is right that it is weak on
proclaiming the cross and resurrection of Jesus. On the other hand, it is strong
- very strong - in carrying on the preaching of Jesus. Especially James is
strong on lifting up the concern of Jesus for the human heart. To remind you of
a single example of such preaching of our Lord, remember the Sermon on the
Mount, where Jesus asks that not only should the hand drop the stone about to
execute some wrath in this world against the enemy, but also that the heart
itself should become more pure and gentle:
43Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou
shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. 44But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that
curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully
use you, and persecute you. (Matthew 5:43-44, KJV)
James does a similar thing in this morning's Epistle Lesson when it comes to
the matter of how we talk with one another and how we deal one with another.
James speaks of a false kind of wisdom. It might be speaking the truth - the
very Gospel truth, like James and John bragging that they had been with Jesus
upon the Mount of Transfiguration. But it is a false wisdom because it is so
contentious. It might be the truth, but is spoken from envy and bitterness and
selfish ambition. So, here is St. James' description of this bad kind of
15Such wisdom does not come down from above,
but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16For
where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and
wickedness of every kind.
The thing that ails this bad kind of wisdom is not that it is deceitful. It
cannot be accused of departing from the truth. Rather, its motives are wrong. It
falls short of the apostolic ideal of "speaking the truth with love" (Ephesians
And next we hear St. James' description of true wisdom:
17But 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. (James 3:15-17, NRSV)
I am drawn to this matter of the heart that is pure and peaceable and gentle
because it seems to me that some of the most intense human relationships
sometimes flounder over the question of how to say the truth. The issue is not
deceit, but simply how to say something, with what spirit to say it.
Let me give you a recent example from the movies. There is a movie playing
these days in our neighborhood called "Hope Springs." It stars Meryl Streep and
Tommy Lee Jones. They play a longtime married couple named Kay and Arnold
Soames. They live in Omaha, Nebraska, where Arnold is an accountant and Kay
works at a Coldwater Creek store.
Arnold is a grouchy old guy in this movie, played well by Tommy Lee Jones,
with his craggy face. Arnold is married to... well, goodness, he's married to
Meryl Streep! She's beautiful and patient and saintly. And as the movie goes by,
you begin to see that Arnold is devoted to his wife. He still deeply loves her
after their thirty years of marriage. And she deeply loves him. But their
marriage has lost its romance. They sleep in separate bedrooms. They do not
really kiss anymore. They follow their routines, but life is dry. For her
birthday, Arnold buys her a hot water heater. Well, they need one, don't they?
Arnold seems content with this manner of life, but Kay is not. So, Kay pays for
them to go away for a week of intense couples counseling at a quaint seacoast
town in Maine.
Arnold puts up a fuss the whole way. At first he refuses to go, but she says
that she is going with him or without him, and so at the last moment, he comes
too. He murmurs and complains all the time. They arrive in this picturesque
town, and all he talks about is how expensive everything is and how cut off they
are from their normal routines. "Look at this. I can't get but one bar on my
The counselor is named Dr. Bernie Feld, played by Steve Carell - not as a
comedian this time, but rather as a gentle, but relentlessly probing
For me, one of the most poignant scenes is one in the office where Arnold is
becoming more and more angry with Dr. Feld. He warns Dr. Feld that Dr. Feld is
trying to get Arnold to do something dangerous. He is trying to get Arnold to
say things that once said, cannot be unsaid.
And Dr. Feld replies, "What's so bad about that." And Kay agrees. She says it
would be better to know, much better to know the truth.
So, Arnold does speak. And it turns out that he has some sorrows of his own
in their marriage. He has his own disappointments. He says that he has tried to
do the right things. He has never been unfaithful to Kay. He works hard, takes
care of Kay and the kids. But he has his sorrows too.
Well, you could say that his speaking of his sorrows is the thing
that begins the process of healing and that sets Kay and Arnold on the comeback
trail. And the movie does have a happy ending.
But it is not quite true that it is the mere speaking of the sorrows
that does the trick. It is also the spirit with which Arnold and Kay
speak the truth to one another.
What Arnold and Kay manage to do is to avoid the bitterness and envy of which
St. James writes. They manage to speak in such a way that their words do not
betray their love for one another. They have good hearts. They have the kind of
hearts St. James speak of: pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of
mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. Their words
might be heavy, and they might fear hurting the feelings of their beloved, but
they manage to speak the truth with love.
That is the ideal St. James is lifting up. He is concerned that Christians
should seek purity in every part of the chain of communication, lest our tongues
start a forest fire of destruction in our lives and in our relationships. He
urges us to strive for purity and peace in each link of our reaching out to one
another - in our hearts, our ambitions, and the words we choose when speaking
with one another.
In a recent wedding sermon here at Immanuel, the preacher noted that when
people talk about love, they sometimes say "We fell in love" or "We were
overcome by love," as if love is something that randomly happens to some lucky
people. But real love is not such a fragile thing. It is not something that
simply happens to us. It is also something that we nurture and try to get better
at all the time. St. James urges us on in that effort.
The good news is that our Triune God not only fell in love with our human
race, but never once fell into bitterness or resentfulness with us, though I
fear that we too often prove a disappointment to him. The Bible does not shy
away from picturing the holy disciples as letting Jesus down. The culmination of
their holy walk with him is that one of them betrayed our Lord, one denied him,
and all fled and abandoned him. But notice the constancy of spirit of Jesus, so
that even on the cross he was able to pray, Father, forgive. St. James would
have us seek such Christ-like purity and constancy in our own hearts, words, and
deeds, to the benefit of those who deal with us and depend on us, and to the
glory of him whose name we bear, even Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom belongs the
glory, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.