September 19, 2021 homily on Psalm 1; James 3:13 – 4:8a by Pastor Galen
“And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.”
Dealing with Weeds
I am sort of a “wannabe” gardener. I really enjoy two aspects of gardening – planting and harvesting. I love going to the garden store with my daughters and picking out plants or seeds. I love digging the holes in the ground and planting the seeds and little plants in the ground. I love that feeling of being connected to the earth. And I love harvesting. Mostly I’ve been successful at growing herbs – and it’s really fun to be able to pluck the basil or oregano right off the plant and add it to dishes that I’m cooking.
But what I don’t love is probably one of the most important parts of gardening – and that’s pulling out the weeds. Weeding feels like an endless, ongoing task, because unless you’re able to pull out the weeds at the roots, they will just keep growing back.
“Full of Mercy and Good Fruits”
At the end of James chapter 3, James uses images of planting and harvesting, and he imagines our lives and our relationships as a lush garden. James has been talking about living lives that are marked by gentleness and wisdom and good works. In verse 17, he says, “But 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 3:17). And then in verse 18 he says, “And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace” (James 3:18).
Isn’t that beautiful? “A harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.” In other words, if we plant seeds of peace – or kindness, which we talked about last week – then we’ll have a harvest of righteousness. Keep in mind here that “righteousness” in the Bible is the same word as “justice.” It’s a state of “rightness.” We often talk about righteousness in regards to our relationship with God, and we usually think of justice more in terms of society, but in reality they go hand in hand. And James says that if we sow seeds of peace – or in other words, if we pray and work for the things that create peace in our world, then we will reap a beautiful harvest of righteousness and justice.
Here James is drawing from the imagery of Psalm 1, where the Psalmist talked about those who delight in the LORD, and how “They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper” (Psalm 1:3).
The Roots of Conflict
But before we can have this harvest of righteousness or justice, we have to deal with weeds – the conflicts that arise naturally in our relationships with one another. And just like weeds need to be pulled out at the roots, James would suggest that the best way to deal with conflict is to get at the root – the underlying causes. Rather than just sort of trying to manage conflict, James would have us deal with the underlying heart motivations that created the conflict in the first place.
James says in chapter 3 verse 16, “For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.” And he goes on to say in chapter 4 verse 1, “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?” (James 4:1).
In other words, if we don’t have peace with ourselves, when we’re not satisfied with the things we have, and when we allow envy and selfish ambition to grow and fester in our hearts, it’s going to sprout up into full-blown weeds – full-blown conflict. James goes on to use even more harsh language, saying “You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts” (James 4:2)
Selfishness, envy, and selfish ambition create conflicts that if left to grow will eventually kill our relationships.
The Heart of the Matter
17 years ago, when my wife and I were preparing to be married, we met with our pastors Matt and Elita for premarital counseling. Matt and Elita are a wonderful couple who were a bit older than us and had quite a few years of marital experience. And as we met with them in the months leading up to our wedding, one of the main things we talked about was how we would engage in the natural conflicts that would arise in our marriage. And I remember them saying that we didn’t need to try to avoid conflicts, but rather that we needed to pay attention to the root causes of our conflicts. We needed to deal with the heart of the matter.
One practical piece of advice they gave us was that when we had a disagreement or a fight, we needed to talk about how what the other person said made us feel. And so they had us practice saying things like, “When you said _________, it made me feel __________.”
Early on in our marriage we had conflict, because when I would get home from work, I thought it would be great if my wife came and met me at the door to welcome me home and ask me how my day was. We had a big argument about that. But later one we came back and dealt with how what we had each said made the other person feel. I acknowledged that I felt like my wife didn’t really care about me that deeply, since it seemed to me that she barely looked up from her computer to acknowledge my presence. My wife, on the other hand, felt like I didn’t acknowledge the value and validity of her work, since she was often right in the middle of working on her computer when I got home, and she was indeed trying to finish up her work as quickly as possible so that we could spend more quality time together later on.
Admitting how we each felt, and getting to more of the root causes underlying our conflicts has gone a long way in helping us not only deal with conflict, but even more so to grow together as individuals and as a couple. Whether in our relationships with our spouses, or children or friends, or family members, we need to try to get to the root of our conflicts.
A Church Torn Apart
But of course when James was writing this letter, he wasn’t only talking about those conflicts that arise between husbands and wives, or between friends or family members. He was also talking about the conflicts that arise within congregations and churches and denominations. If we allow selfish ambition and envy and covetousness take root in these structures, and remain and grow, it can cause wide devastation and hurt and harm.
Remember that James was writing this letter to Jewish Christians who were scattered throughout the known world at the time. And remember that James, who was the younger half-brother of Jesus, had gained a level of prominence in the church in Jerusalem after Jesus had died and resurrected and ascended into heaven.
During James’s leadership, the Church was embroiled in a bitter dispute that was threatening to split the Church right down the middle. And this dispute was an incredibly significant conflict that would forever change the history of the Christian Church as we know it. And the conflict had to do with who identity, and inclusion — namely who was “in” and who was “out.” The conflict at that time centered around whether Gentiles – or in other words, anyone who wasn’t ethnically Jewish – could be included as full members and leaders of the body of Christ, or did they have to become Jewish first? And although this might seem like a nonsensical question to us today since probably most of us do not have Jewish backgrounds, this was a bitter conflict that was threatening to tear the church apart.
If all of this sounds familiar, you might remember that we talked about this same conflict in our previous sermon series on the book of Ephesians – where the Apostle Paul was writing to the Gentiles who were being marginalized and excluded, and told that they were not “chosen” by God because they weren’t Jewish. There we saw Paul reassure them that they had indeed been chosen by God before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4) and that they were fully members of God’s family.
But here James is writing to those who were in the majority group – those Jewish Christians who were the ones doing the excluding by nature of making it difficult for Gentiles to become members of the Church, by asking them to adopt all of the Jewish laws and customs – including the most obscure cultural customs, which the Jewish believers weren’t even following as the the Apostle Peter acknowledges in Acts chapter 15.
James was chosen to lead the church in Jerusalem, not only because of his relationship to Jesus, but even more so because he was known for his wisdom and deep and profound life of prayer. And James knew that it wasn’t enough to pretend that cultural differences between Jews and Gentiles didn’t exist. He knew it wasn’t wise to just say “let’s put aside our differences and move on.” Instead James wanted to get at the source of the conflict, and to pull it out by the roots.
In Acts 15, where all of this conflict comes to a head, James and the other apostles spend time listening to testimonies of how God’s spirit was moving among the Gentiles. And after much prayer and discernment, James delivers the official proclamation on behalf of the Apostles, saying that they “should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God” (Acts 15:19). He writes to the Gentile believers acknowledging the pain they had undergone from those who tried to impose unnecessary burdens on them. James reassures them of their full inclusion in the Body of Christ, humbly asking only that they keep the very basic tenants of the Mosaic law that were deemed universal to everyone in the world.
And then to the Jewish Christians, James writes this letter, the one we’re currently reading, in which calls on those who were causing the conflict or who were benefiting from the marginalization of Gentile believers, and he challenges them to take a deep look at their internal heart motivations, to confess their sinfulness and wickedness, pulling out those weeds at the root. In chapter 4:4-6, James uses even more harsh language towards those who had been letting envy and rivalry grow and fester in their hearts, saying “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God” (James 4:4). And he exhorts them and all of us, saying, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you” (James 4:7-8).
Only then – when we’ve submitted ourselves fully to God, when we’ve drawn near to God – can we bear fruit that will last. Only when we truly work for the things that make for peace and root out the causes of conflict in our midst, only then can we reap a harvest of righteousness and justice.
The Example of Jesus
How did James become so wise? How did he know that to deal with conflicts you have to get at the root? How did he know that you have to look beyond the external conflicts and deal with the internal motivations of envy, and covetousness, and selfish motivations? He learned it from his older brother, Jesus!
During his time here on this earth, Jesus didn’t just teach us to be nice to each other. He didn’t just teach us to get along and pretend like everything is fine. Jesus spent his time here on this earth attacking the weeds. He addresses internal heart motivations. He criticized the Pharisees and other religious leaders who put up a facade of righteousness, but inside they were filled with anger and malice and greed. And ultimately Jesus died on the cross to deal with the root causes of sin. Jesus literally gave his life for us – dying in our place – taking the punishment that should have been ours – in order to defeat sin and death once and for all.
James saw the example that Jesus set, how he humbled himself and gave his life. How Jesus dealt with the root causes of conflict – selfishness and envy and selfish ambition. And James’s letter challenges and encourages us to do the same.
Drawn Near to God
It’s no secret that the Church today is embroiled with bitter conflicts, not too different from the conflict in James’s day. Today Gentiles (such as me and probably most of you) are fully included in the Church because of the landmark decision made by James and the other apostles. But today we’re still wrestling with different questions over identity and inclusion. Whether or not LGBTQ individuals can be fully included in the life of the church – including in positions of leadership. And we’re embroiled in debates around race and culture and ethnicity and politics and justice. The conflicts and divisions within the Church often fall along the same lines as those within the society at large. We’re divided between Red and Blue states, urban and rural churches and areas, Left and Right, Democrats and Republicans.
But whereas our society often preaches a message of tolerance -saying, “why can’t we all just get along?” here in the Church we are called to deal with root causes and motivations. James, following the pattern of Jesus, would teach us to take a look at our internal motivations and to deal with the root causes of those divisions. Only then – only when we deal with the heart of the matter, can we bear fruit that will last. And when we pull out the weeds can we bring forth a harvest of righteousness and justice. Amen.