Scripture: James 3:13-4:3
There are two types of people in the world: Morning people and normal people. I personally, do not understand people who want to wake up early. I tend to get up much earlier than I want to because I have to, but in my perfect world morning does not start until double digits. Statistically half of us are morning larks and the other half are night owls. Also, statistically we change throughout out our lives. We are more likely to be night owls in our teens, twenties and thirties, and then transition to rising early as we get older. Even though half of us prefer to stay up late and rise late, there is a clear preference in the world for early risers. The conventional wisdom from Benjamin Franklin is “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” That is the conventional wisdom, and there are no shortage of advice articles that state the wisdom of this old proverb. However, multiple scientific studies have found that this saying is not entirely true. Studies have confirmed that the amount of sleep one gets, not when they fall asleep or get up, is important to health. Rising earlier is not necessarily healthier. When it comes to wealth and wisdom, multiple studies have also found that night owls tend to perform slightly better on cognitive reasoning test than earlier risers, and high scores on these kind of tests are often correlated with higher paying jobs. In high schools it has been found that a later start time dramatically increases academic performance. A three year study by the University of Minnesota found that starting school one hour later (between 8 and 9am instead of 7 and 8 am) had a noticeable impact in academic performance. This was true for every subject and across socio-economic lines. It also found that making this changes decreased tardiness, substance abuse, consumption of caffeinated drinks, and a 70% drop in teenage traffic accidents. There is nothing wrong with being a morning person, but it clearly is not for everyone. The conventional wisdom about early to bed and early to rise being the best, is not entirely accurate. This morning scripture from James is all about wisdom. This scripture leads us to question “what does true wisdom look like?” When we come to really apply this scripture to our lives we find that true wisdom does not always line up with what our culture considers wise. Wisdom is not always common, so perhaps what this morning’s scripture leads us to is uncommon sense.
Wisdom is a shockingly hard concept to define. Wisdom is more than just being smart. There are plenty of intelligent people who are not wise, and there are many people of moderate intelligence who are full of wisdom. Wisdom is sometimes defined as being able to apply intelligence, but that falls short of a perfect definition. Usually the dictionary is clinical, unimaginative, and boring in how it defines words. However, the dictionary definition of wisdom is almost poetic. It defines wisdom as the ability to know what is true, right, or lasting. Wisdom is to know what is truth. The bible has a ton to say about wisdom, in fact it has an entire book devoted to the subject. Proverbs 9:10 states “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Solomon is described in the bible as the wisest person to ever live, and Jesus is described in Mark 6:2 as being full of wisdom. Still there is not a perfect definition of wisdom in the bible. This morning’s scripture does not explicit define wisdom, but it does give us handy checklists. It tells us what wisdom is and what wisdom is not. We can apply these lists to some of the more common wisdom of our current day and age to see what is truly wise.
There are two very common pieces of advice given that are often passed off as wisdom. They sound inspiring, empowering, and wise. However the motivations behind these sayings can be the opposite of wisdom. The first is “follow your heart”. Following this piece of advice can sometimes lead to disaster. If you have watched any TV in the past fifteen years, you have probably seen these tragic results play out. We have had numerous talent contest shows over the past fifteen years after American Idol jump started the genre. It is not secret that part of the huge success of these shows are the failed auditions that feature people who are spectacularly terrible at their talent. Watching these is like watching a train wreck, it is horrible but we cannot look away. It is uncomfortable and awful to watch these failed auditions, as people who thought they were good at something are told they are not. Often the people who have these disastrous auditions are people who are following their heart, and usually after being told they cannot sing or they cannot dance, they don’t take no for an answer and continue to pursue an impossible goal.
“Follow your heart” sounds like such good advice, and it sounds so wise. The problem with this advice is sometimes what is in our heart is not always something worth following. Many of the people who followed their heart to try out for shows like American Idol did it because the desire and our even envious of fame. This morning’s scripture states, “But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. . . For where you have envy and selfish ambition there you find disorder and every evil practice.” We should only follow our hearts, if what is in our hearts is worth following. Whatever goals we have in our life, whatever desires we wish to follow, are they truly worth following? Just because it is something we desire does not make it inherently good. We need to regularly test our motivations. Following our hearts is only wise, when our hearts-our inner most being- is wise. This morning’s scripture defines what that kind of wisdom looks like in verse 17 “Wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, and full of mercy.” When what is in our heart is pure it is motivated by selflessness not selfishness. It brings together, builds up, facilitates reconciliation, increases partnership, and is overflowing with love. If that is what is in our hearts, then by all means we should follow our hearts. If what is in our hearts begins with me and ends with me glorified, then it is not worth following. If it begins with God and ends with God glorified, then follow your heart. Follow it with reckless abandon. Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, because God is truth. The wise thing to do, the truest thing to do, is seek to align our hearts with God. Proverbs 3:5 states “Trust in the LORD with your whole heart and lean not on your own understanding.” Our culture’s common sense wisdom is to “follow your heart.” Perhaps the more true uncommon sense is “Seek God’s heart and follow him.”
The second common piece of advice that is often presented as wisdom by our culture is “you only live once”, which often gets hastagged as YOLO. You only live once is often used as a justification for, well anything. The idea is that since you only live once, you should do whatever. YOLO is used as a rationale for the most irrational of behavior, for the must indulgent choices, and as a coverall for selfish decisions. The primary motivation behind the concept is doing what is right for you in the moment, with no consideration for anyone else. In this morning scripture James ask “What causes fight and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?” When we live life with a “you only live once: philosophy, we are centered on ourselves, and our own sinful desires lead to all matters of fights, hardships, and quarrels. This is truer than we want to admit. Think back on the different times that you have had true disagreements, fights, and quarrels in your own life. Chances are they were born out of selfishness. Someone acted on what was best for them, to get the most out of their life, with no concern for anyone else. Of course the true wisdom that comes from hindsight, is that in some of those fights we were the selfish ones.
We live in an impulsive, narcissistic culture that elevates a “you only live once” attitude as a virtue. However, it is not wisdom. Doing what subjectively feels right without any care for anyone else does not pass the test of being peace-loving, considerate, or full of mercy. This is unfortunate, because there is a kernel of truth, a bit of wisdom in the idea of you only live once. Because it is true. We have one life on this earth and an eternity elsewhere, so because of that what we do this one life matters. It matters a great deal. You only live once should not be an excuse for reckless and selfish behavior, it should be a call to great action. You only live once should not motivate us to indulge, but it should motivate us to make a profound difference. A man who displayed a great deal of wisdom put it like this. Mahatma Gandhi once said “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” The common sense wisdom of our culture is you only live once, so do what you want. The uncommon sense that perhaps we should follow is “you only live once, so be the change.”
This morning’s scripture begins by asking “who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.” Elsewhere in the Bible, as people of faith, we are encouraged to live as wise, not unwise. As a community of faith, how do we do that? How do we collectively show a good life full of good deeds done in humility and wisdom? We do that by being the change. We do that by seeing a need, and meeting a need with a little uncommon sense. There is a small, but good example of that happening right here in Indiana. Way up north by Fort Wayne is the small little town of Petroleum, IN, which holds the small church of Petroleum UMC. This United Methodist Church, with only 68 members, found a way to be peace-loving, considerate, and fully of mercy. They did so by being wise and meeting needs. The church installed a high capacity washer and dryer in their church building, and then they made it publically available for free. They even went the extra step in hospitality by providing keys to the laundry facility to all who had need. They went the extra step and opened up the kitchen as well, so busy parents could multitask and cook dinner in the oven while doing the laundry. This is a bit of an unconventional ministry, but Petroleum UMC used uncommon sense to wisely serve their community. They saw a need, they met a need, and they performed good deeds in humility.
Laundry may not be the most pressing need in Edinburgh, but our community has needs. More importantly there are needs, which we can meet. We may not be the biggest church in town, and we do not have unlimited resources. However, we can find ways to be peace makers, we can find ways to be considerate, and we can find ways to be full of mercy to all of our neighbors. Earlier in James, in James 1:5 he writes “If any of you lacks wisdom you should ask God.” May we as a church, ask for wisdom. May we seek God, so that our will lines up with God’s will. May the desires of hearts, line up with the desires of God’s heart. Who is wise and understanding among you? By the grace of God, may the answer be all of us, and may we follow God to make and nurture disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of our world.