September 19, 2021
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli with Foundry UMC, September 19, 2021, the seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost. “New Day, New Way!” series.
Texts: Psalm 150, James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
The Gaines-Cirelli household continues our long trek through the zombie apocalypse that is The Walking Dead. Now in season 7 of the T.V. show, we’ve come to understand that somewhere along the way, the primary adversaries and threat shifted from being the zombie hordes to other humans. As the crisis drags on and on, food, medicine, and other resources grow thin. Hope in a positive future and trust in any stranger are also in short supply. Everyone is just trying to survive. “Kill or be killed,” “survival of the fittest,” and “look out for #1” are ongoing themes. Increasingly, the narrative is exploring questions about what a person is willing to do to survive, whether simply staying alive is worth losing your sense of “self” or basic humanity.
This came to mind as I pondered our text from James for today: “where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.” James goes on to point out how we pit ourselves against others and how, when we want something and can’t obtain it, we get into disputes and conflicts and are even willing to kill to get our way or what we want.
Perhaps I’m making James’ teaching bigger than what it’s meant to convey. After all, none of us are living in a zombie apocalypse. But we are living in a moment of profound upheaval and suffering. Right now grief is pervasive, trust is small, and fear is big. Violence and vulnerability are ever present. Supply lines are a mess and medicine, well… Everyone is trying to survive. These realities don’t necessarily bring out the best in people. Conflicts and disputes abound.
A couple of days ago, I had an interesting conversation with a couple of folk I know who work at our local pub. They said that behavior in the restaurant has been really challenging as people have “come back.” The manager said she’d been yelled and cursed at more in the last two months than she has in the past 5 years. People are upset that some things aren’t available (hello supply line issues!) or that they simply can’t get whatever it is they want. I can’t imagine this is an isolated incident. Our collective patience and emotional resources are worn pretty thin.
And we don’t even need all the extra stuff that is stressing and straining us right now to get caught in what James is talking about. Our whole culture encourages competition and keeping up with the Joneses, it advocates self-help and self-serve and selfies and self-promotion and…self obsession. Of course, there’s a healthy way to practice self care and self-improvement. But in popular culture, the food dished out daily for our consumption is selfishness with a side of envy.
Cultural religion, popular “wisdom” with its materialism, ruthlessness in pursuit of power, and the drive to win at all costs is pervasive and we have to be very careful to not worship at its altar. We can so easily get turned in on ourselves, on our own needs, on the things others have that we want—whether those things are possessions, relationships, jobs, positions, or whatever. I’ve said for years that the tagline for current cultural religion is a quote not from the Prince of Peace but from the Burger King: “Have it your way, right away!” For over 40 years we’ve been told that’s what we should expect. My way! Right away! And if we’re not careful, that message settles in until we don’t even realize we’re worshiping at the altar of idols. And if we’re not wise, we can make choices, act, and speak in ways that are hurtful both toward others and ourselves.
James contrasts this “earthly, unspiritual, devilish” wisdom with the “wisdom from above” that “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) The community for whom this was written appears to be a congregation of Jesus followers in the first century CE. And the point at its most basic is that selfishness and envy lead to conflict in community while “works done with gentleness born of wisdom” bear good fruits that “make for peace.” James is clear about what Jesus followers should strive for.
In our present moment, it is difficult to live up to the call as followers of Jesus, to consistently act with gentleness born of wisdom. Though, as a collective, we are not only seeing selfishness. There are also extraordinary stories of human selflessness, generosity, and peacemaking in the current context of pandemics. We do have choices.
All of this conjured for me a nature vs. nurture question: do humans come into the world prone to selfishness or does it depend upon our upbringing? I found an interesting short essay responding to this very question. Here’s the set up:
“There has long been a general assumption that human beings are essentially selfish. We’re apparently ruthless, with strong impulses to compete against each other for resources and to accumulate power and possessions. If we are kind to one another, it’s usually because we have ulterior motives. If we are good, it’s only because we have managed to control and transcend our innate selfishness and brutality.
This bleak view of human nature is closely associated with the science writer Richard Dawkins, whose book The Selfish Gene became popular because it fitted so well with (and helped to justify) the competitive and individualistic ethos of late 20th-century societies. Like many others, Dawkins justifies his views with reference to the field of evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary psychology theorises that present-day human traits developed in prehistoric times…a period of intense competition, when life was a kind of Roman gladiatorial battle in which only the traits that gave people a survival advantage were selected and all others fell by the wayside. And because people’s survival depended on access to resources – think rivers, forests and animals – there was bound to be competition and conflict between rival groups, which led to the development of traits like racism and warfare.
This seems logical. But in fact the assumption it’s based on — that prehistoric life was a desperate struggle for survival — is false.”
The author, a professor of psychology, goes on to highlight that the relatively small population of humans, the abundance of environmental resources, and hunter/gatherer cultures prevalent in the prehistoric period give no evidence or reason for competition or conflict. Both ancient and modern evidence of hunter/gatherer cultures reveals a tendency toward egalitarianism, cooperation, altruism, and peacefulness. The suggestion is that much of the selfishness we experience today—those cultural religion idols that tend toward unhealthy competition and violence—have grown out of shifts in our “natural habitat” as human beings. And the final assessment of this particular psychologist is that human “goodness” is more deeply rooted than human “evil.”
You can agree or disagree with that. The essay is not an exhaustive study, for sure. But within it is a claim that humankind is created to live in a certain kind of way. That way tends toward mutuality and peace through selflessness, sharing, and working together. And that way of living can be—and has been—disrupted by radical shifts across centuries in how we live together with one another and the planet. The disruptions give rise to suffering, conflict, injustice, greed, and violence. That seems in line with the biblical story of God’s relationship with us and all creation. You know how the story starts: God makes a good creation and a garden that provides for all human needs, for abundance and for peace. There’s only one boundary. One thing that the human creature is denied. And the human creature wants that thing, wants what isn’t theirs, wants more than they need, and chooses to disrupt things to get it. Hiding, shame, and lies follow and then disappointment, betrayal, and disconnection. Not long after, brother kills brother. The rest of the whole book is in one way or another the story of God’s love calling us and waiting for us, like the prodigal child, to come to ourselves, relinquish our selfish ways, and return home.
When I first contemplated the message for today, I thought it would be about how the Jesus way of life together is a “new way.” But what I’d forgotten is that James simply calls us back to the original way—the really old way—that we are all created to be. It’s our original “operating system,” the one made in the image of God and imprinted on every single one of us. We are created to share in God’s way of life together that is marked not by selfishness and envy but by thoughtful self-giving love, compassion, gentleness, and mutual support. That original operating system has gotten all sorts of bugs and hacks and viruses over the years but it is still viable. As we turn this corner, we can choose how to be together. Will selfish concerns and bitter envy get carried into the new season ahead? Why not do a scrub of the system, push the reset button, start fresh? What is it we’re supposed to do when something’s not working the way it’s supposed to? Unplug it! Reboot! //
What is one thing you can admit, shift, release, confess, forgive, or take on that will allow you to buck the trend and be patient, kind, and merciful? By God’s grace, we can choose to make the old way new again, and maybe we’ll remember that God created us not just to “survive” at any cost, but to live with and for God and others. We may not re-enter the Garden of Eden, but we are promised that as we plant seeds of peace God will draw near and give us a harvest of peaceful community and right relationship. And I don’t know about you, but that’s exactly what I need… and for that promise I say, thanks be to God!