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August 2 lesson: Faith and Wisdom

July 19, 2020
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Faith and Wisdom

Summer Quarter: Many Faces of Wisdom
Unit 3: Faith and Wisdom in James

Sunday school lesson for the week of August 2, 2020
By Rev.
Ashley Randall

Lesson Scripture: James 1:1–11
Key Verse: James 1:5

Purpose: To acknowledge God as the source of wisdom that leads to life

Trials and Sufferings

My daughters were (and still are) avid readers. They happened to be about the same age as the title character in J. K. Rowling’s novel, “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” when it was published in 1997. We never stood in line to be one of the first to purchase a copy of the subsequent six installments of the chronicle of this young wizard’s education at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, but they did read each of them within a month or two of their release.

When the first movie was released in November 2001, we went to the theater as a family to experience the magic – and it was magical. As each of the movies were released, we arranged a time to see them in the theater. These days it seems that nearly every month there is at least one “Harry Potter Weekend” with the movies running back to back on one cable channel or another.

For the few who are unfamiliar with Harry’s story, he in an orphan who survived the murder of his parents by the power-obsessed dark wizard, Lord Voldemort, but not without receiving a distinctive lightning-bolt shaped scar on his forehead. The infant Harry is delivered to his aunt and uncle, the Dursleys, who live in the outskirts of London, to keep him safe, but they treat him more like a servant than a family member. In fact, when we meet the 10-year-old Harry a few days before his 11th birthday, he is living in the cupboard under the stairs in the Dursley’s home. Indeed, that detail is included in the address of the letter Harry receives informing him that he has been accepted as a student at Hogwarts.

J. K. Rowling does a remarkable job of introducing her readers to the characters and locations that Harry and his friends occupy. Basically, each of the novels (and each of the movies on which they are based) describes the events of each of the years that Harry attends the school. In the course of the telling of Harry’s story, she addresses a variety of themes including the nature of friendship; the use and abuse of power; the importance of free choice; the corrupting influence of prejudice, hatred, and violence; and the redeeming power of love. Throughout the books she has created a moral universe, which she admits deals explicitly with religious themes and questions.

One of those themes is the role of suffering in our lives. There is a scene in the third novel (and included in the movie), “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” that explicitly deals with this theme. We find Harry and his friends in class with Professor Trelawney. She has the responsibility of introducing her students to “the noble art of divination.” In this first class they are focusing on tessomancy, the art of reading tea leaves to predict events in the future.

The students are sharing a desk with each other. There is tea, and Professor Trelawney instructs her students to exchange cups with the person sitting opposite them. Harry is sharing a desk with his best friend, Ronald Weasley. Professor Trelawney tells Ron to look at Harry’s cup and tell her what he sees.

“Well,” Ron says as he gazes into the cup. “Harry’s got a wonky sort of cross.” Ron pauses to refer to their book, ‘Unfogging the Future.’ “That’s trials and suffering. And that there could be the sun.” He consults the text again. “That’s happiness. So... you're going to suffer, but you’re going to be happy about it.”

Neither Ron nor Harry seem to appreciate the significance of this insight at the time, but throughout the remainder of the story, it is clear that it is only by confronting the ordeals with which he is presented that Harry develops the depth of character and the strength of relationship with his allies that are necessary to defeat the dark forces that are present in his world and that threaten to overwhelm it.

Going on to Perfection

For the remainder of the quarter, we turn to the Letter of James to see what this early leader of the church has to teach us about wisdom and faith. While there are at least a couple of people named James identified in the gospels, most scholars agree that the writer of this letter was James, the brother of Jesus, not James the apostle. He is listed as one of the brothers of Jesus by both Mark (6:3) and Matthew (13:55). All four gospels relate the story of Jesus’ mother and his brothers showing up where he is teaching in an attempt to dissuade him from continuing his public ministry and urge him to return home with them (Matthew 12:46-50, Mark 3:31-35, Luke 8:19-21, and John 7:3-5).

Apparently following Jesus’ death and resurrection, James has a change of heart and becomes a leader of the congregation of new converts in Jerusalem. Peter instructs the believers he finds at John Mark’s mother’s house to go tell James and the others about his miraculous escape from prison (Acts 12:12-17). When the first church council meets to consider the matter of the conversion of Gentiles, it is James who issues the ruling statement on how they will proceed (Acts 15:1-21). Whether James acquires this position of authority because of his familial relationship with Jesus or not, it is worth noting than when he introduces himself at the opening of his letter, he makes no mention of this relationship. He refers to himself as a “servant” – or more literally, a “slave” –  “of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:1).

He addresses this letter rather cryptically, “to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion.” It is unclear whether he means this figuratively or not. The 12 tribes of Israel had been scattered outside the original boundaries of Israel for centuries, going back at least to the Babylonian exile. Succeeding empires had further dispersed those who worshipped the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. So, there were certainly Jews scattered outside the land of Israel.

On the other hand, some had already begun to interpret Jesus’ calling of the 12 to be his disciples as the restoration of the covenant people. In the first few years, that community of believers in Jerusalem dispersed, particularly following the execution of Stephen (Acts 8:1). In addition, Peter, Phillip, Barnabas, and later Paul were all fanning out across the countryside proclaiming the good news and establishing communities of faith throughout the Roman Empire. In any case, James moves quickly to raising his concerns and sharing his counsel.

The first issue is how to deal with the opposition, challenges, difficulties, and trials facing believers. It is interesting to note that James says “when” you face trials, not “if.” A quick review of the book of the Acts of the Apostles makes it obvious why James assumes that his readers are facing trials of all kinds.

James’ advice: “Consider it an opportunity for great joy” (1:2b, NLT). While it may sound surprising, his guidance aligns with that of his brother: Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11-12).

Like Jesus, James calls on believers to take a broader perspective on the trials they face. There is a bigger context than their own immediate circumstances or situation. There is more in store for them than what they can see in the present moment. Like exercising a muscle to exhaustion, testing produces greater strength. In this case, the strength to endure, persevere, stand fast, overcome. James is confident that developing this kind of endurance leads to maturity, “lacking in nothing.”

This is an indication that James took seriously Jesus's invitation to “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48). John Wesley also took this invitation seriously. Wesley believed we could become perfect in love in this life. He didn't mean we would be free from mistakes, temptation, or failure. Rather, Wesley believed that through God’s sanctifying grace, a person could have a heart “habitually filled with the love of God and neighbor,” and as “having the mind of Christ and walking as he walked” – having a mind guided by the wisdom of God.

So, if you haven’t settled the connection between spiritual maturity and wisdom, it may seem rather abrupt that James pivots to “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God” (1:5a). Wisdom is the recognition that there is more to this life than satisfying our physical appetites. Wisdom leads one to walk blamelessly.” And when a person is walking blamelessly – in a way that honors Gods will and purpose – that path leads to righteousness, justice, and equity.

As we learned in the book of Proverbs, God’s wisdom is offered as guidance for our daily lives. It is a gift meant to enrich the quality of our relationships and the strength of our communities. The enduring value of wisdom is that it carries with it the understanding that my relationship with God and my neighbor are more important than any pleasures that might tempt me to do any less than love God with all my heart, soul, strength, and mind and to love my neighbor as myself (see Luke 10:27).

James affirms God’s generosity in giving wisdom to those who ask, even as Woman Wisdom promised free access to this good gift of God. But even as Woman Wisdom warned about the temptation of attending to the call of Folly, James warns his readers about being double-minded. “Ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind” (1:6a).

I wonder if James had in mind the story of Jesus walking on the water (Matthew 14:22-33). Recall Jesus had just fed the crowds, and he sent his disciples on ahead to the other shore while he dismissed the people. But it was tough going for the disciples, “battered by the waves, … far from the land, for the wind was against them.” When they see Jesus, they are alarmed; but then Peter says Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus says, “Come!” Peter gets out of the boat, starts walking on the water toward Jesus; “but when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Richard Rohr has written about the consequences of being double-minded: “Dualistic or divided people, however, live in a split and fragmented world. They cannot accept that God objectively dwells within them or others (See 1 Corinthians 3:16-17). They cannot accept or forgive certain parts of themselves. This lack of forgiveness takes the forms of a tortured mind, a closed heart, or an inability to live calmly and humbly inside their own body. The fragmented mind sees parts, not wholes, and invariably it creates antagonism, fear, and resistance.”

There are also echoes of Jesus’ declaration, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matthew 6:24, Luke 16:13). In each of these instances, the warning is about trying to hedge our bets, to spilt loyalties, play both sides at once, rely on God and figure it out for ourselves. James wants his readers to know that the way through difficult times is to place their trust in God. “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand, all other ground is sinking sand.”

When James turns his attention to the “rich,” he makes the same connection to being double-minded as his brother. Those who acquire wealth are tempted to believe that they are able to care for themselves, insulate themselves from the difficulties that plague others. But as Isaiah attests, “The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever” (40:7-8).

There are also echoes of the parable of the rich fool in these verses. Recall Jesus introduces that parable with this warning: Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for ones life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15). When we have all we need and more, there is a real temptation to become more focused on keeping what we have than in ways we can use what we have to bless others. We can begin to see others as competitors rather than as fellow citizens of the kingdom God sent his son to establish. We fail to accept the way of wisdom and begin to follow the way of the world.

Made to Glow in the Dark

“There is a crack in everything… That's how the light gets in.” Jason Gray says the first time he heard this lyric by the late Leonard Cohen, it changed the way he understood every wound and imperfection in his life. That lyric was on his mind when he and his friend, Ben Glover, wrote the song, Glow in the Dark.

Sometimes the world feels like a mess
Full of drama, full of stress
And life puts a fist right in your ribs
You can hide if you choose to
And no one would even blame you
Or you can let them see how you deal with it

That even in the darkest place
His love can make you radiate

Doesn't matter how deep, how dark the night is
Keep hoping, keep on shining
And they'll see His light burning in your heart
And if the road gets rough, just keep your head up
Let the world see what you're made of
That His love's alive in your deepest parts
Like a flame, like a burning star you can shine right where you are
He made you to glow in the dark

Most of Jason’s songs emphasize how strength is the new weakness.” By being willing to reveal who he really is and what God has done in his life, Jason has connected with others who relate to his reflections on Gods goodness and grace.

When Im willing to work out of my weakness, there are more chances for God to show up and for the unexpected to happen,” Jason explains. My strengths – which are really quite modest – are limited to me, but with my weaknesses the possibilities are boundless.”

Don't be ashamed of your past
If you're shattered like a piece of glass
The more broke you are the more the light gets through
Show your wounds and your flaws
Show them why you still need the cross
Let them see the work He's doing in you

That even in the darkest place
His love can make you radiate

“When we are in the midst of being shattered, there can be so much anxiety. I hope to write songs that help assure people that everything is going to be alright and that even now all things are working ‘together for the good’ of those who love God. Sometimes my own fear tempts me to prejudge my circumstances as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ But the ‘worst’ circumstances have often produced the best things in my life.”

Jason gives credit to Richard Rohr for expanding this understanding for him: The word change normally refers to new beginnings. But transformation more often happens not when something new begins but when something old falls apart. The pain of something old falling apart – chaos – invites the soul to listen at a deeper level. It invites and sometimes forces the soul to go to a new place because the old place is falling apart. Otherwise, most of us would never go to new places.”

Discussion Questions
  • How has confronting the trials in your life helped you develop the depth of character and the strength of relationship with others that sustains you?
  • What are some other ways that double-mindedness is expressed in the lives of people?
  • Who have you seen “glow in the dark?”
Ashley Randall is pastor of the Garden City UMC in Garden City, Ga. He is struggling to keep up with his endurance training this summer. The pool is closed. Social distancing has disrupted his running group. The heat makes it difficult to get in the miles on the bike. Races have been canceled or postponed. He is thankful to have friends who continue to encourage him and hold him accountable.

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