A More Excellent Way

“Oops, I shouldn’t have said that.”  How many times have the words gotten out of our mouths before we wish we could take them back?

In the heat of argument, the insult, the half-truth, the jibe at another’s expense – those words come back to haunt us.

As a political pugilist I confess I have called those on the opposite side of an argument things one wouldn’t want to print in a sermon.  Definitely not flattering, life-enhancing descriptors.  So, I write this sermon to myself as much to anyone else.

The counsel from the book of James is a corrective.  James urges a more excellent way: “Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth…Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from?  Do they not come from cravings that are at war within you?”[1]

Envy, ego, malice – they rear their ugly heads at one time or another in most any congregation, making a most foul-tasting broth.  The author of the book of James was very aware of social and disordered spiritual dynamics of his flock. 

Every bit as much as much as St. Paul.  See first and second Corinthians.  Things get said that would have been better off left unsaid.

As a newly arrived pastor on one congregation, I was soon met by several women on the altar guild.  They were tired, they complained.  They had been doing this forever.  Couldn’t some of the younger folks take this over.

I spent several weeks talking with some of those younger folks about how they could assume their responsibilities for our common life.  Eventually a couple or so agreed to join the altar guild.

Things seemingly went fine – for a couple of weeks.  Then I encountered one of these women who told me she was needing to quit.  When I asked what was the matter, she said that what the existing members really wanted was newcomers who would do things exactly as they had done them – done them for years! 

They wanted clones of themselves with no new ideas and were somewhat rude in letting the newcomers know their place.  Definitely, not a more excellent way.  My way or the highway!

One of my associates was always fond of quoting Luke 6:5, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.”  And fisticuffs fly.  And feelings are bent out of shape.

Avarice, competition, envy, guilt – they are so often reflected in our lame excuses.  Even to the point that the coverup become ludicrous. 

One day, as young students were walking up the hill from their elementary school there was a very loud explosion.  Then yells and screams.  When one of the teachers arrived on the scene, she discovered a boy with some badly burned fingers.  It turned out that he had brought a packet of gunpowder he had taken from his father’s reloading operation to school.  As he was bragging about it and what he could do with it, it went off.

Caught red-handed, or black-handed in this case, he told the teacher, “I don’t know where it came from.  It just dropped down out of the sky and I picked it up.”  That’s certainly much more inventive than, “The dog ate my homework.” 

Is this any more risible than the Wells Fargo’s lie to cover up bilking thousands of customers out of millions and millions of fake fees for opening bogus accounts in their names?  “The branch employees did it.”  Oh, really?  In branches all across the nation – all at once?   Hmmmmm.

Such lies and half-truths may bring forth a chuckle.  But repeated in full blossom, they can wreak havoc in any church, in society.  Did I tell you about the January 6th damage inflicted on our nation by the BIG LIE?

Jesus is said to have brought forth a little child, suggesting that his career- climbing disciples should be as selfless as that young one.  If so, I don’t think Jesus knew much about children.  We learn deceit and treachery at a very young age. 

Taking the child into his arms, he said that whoever welcomes such a one, welcomes me and the One who sent me.  But be under no illusions.  We are born for trouble as the sparks fly upward – Job 5:7.

I remember rushing to the aid of our youngest one day, who was crying his eyes out.  It turns out that his brother had bit him.  Hard enough to leave teeth marks.

As I attempted to reason with our oldest, that it was much better to use words if you didn’t like what someone said or did, his response was, “Well, if they don’t agree with you, you just have to bite them.”  Here we are just at second grade and ready to wage war World War III.  Out of the abundance of the heart comes all sorts of vile and nasty stuff.  Teeth marks included.

“Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom” – it takes a lifetime to absorb this advice. 

Yes, take that young person into your arms, and train her up in the way she should go and she shall not depart from it.   The beginnings of that “excellent way.”

Definitely, there is a more excellent way.  The purpose of James advice is to preserve the gift of community.  Martin Luther King called it the Beloved Community.  It is Gospel Spirit that urges our hearts to yearn for such companionship.  It is the call that comes in darkest night.

My grandmother’s advice is appropriate here.  “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” 

Similar is the Four Way Test in Rotary of the things we say:

  1.  Is it the truth?
  2. Is it fair to all concerned?
  3. Will it build good will and better friendships?
  4. Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

Sometimes a hard truth is appropriate to the moment, but spoken without the personal attack, it might be heard.  Danger, abuse, racism must be called out, yet Dr. King knew this could be done without the demeaning ad hominem, the personal insult.

When Mrs. Reiner called me in after class to talk about the homework I was not turning in and my lack of preparation for her high school English class, she did it in such a way that I really wanted to do better.  And I did.  She had an investment in my succeeding, an investment in me, and communicated that with a generous spirit.  It is testimony to her active concern that today I still remember her fondly.  That is the more excellent way commended to our hearts.

Through friends, parents, teachers and mentors – those who want us to succeed — God reaches down to the best in us — instills in our hearts the power to choose for the more excellent way, the “way born of wisdom.”

“Be perfect as your Father/Mother in heaven is perfect.”  When we are urged to be perfect in Matthew 5:48, what is being urged is not some sort of compulsive perfectionism.  The Greek here means grow towards the end to which you are intended.  To grow into your full and true self, your full potential.  This is exactly what Mrs. Reiner was urging.  As with a more “excellent way,” this takes a lifetime of seasoning.

As my Methodist friends are wont to say, “I’m going on to perfection.”  Still a long way to go for me.

In a remarkable op ed piece in the New York Times, Venus Williams gives testimony to the wisdom she received from her mother as she began her remarkable tennis career.  Physical strength was certainly important.  But equally so, psychological and spiritual balance.  This is irreplaceable motherly wisdom passed down from generation to generation.

At the age of fourteen, Venus was beginning to move into the professional level of tennis.  She had traveled with her mom to an important tournament in Oakland, and was entering a new level of her young career.  There would be pressure beyond what she until then had known. 

That day in Oakland, her mom took her aside to warn her of the intense scrutiny and demands she would now be under as she advanced.

The wise counsel her mother gave her was that this sport was not just about being tough with a well-honed body.  It wasn’t about how hard she hit the ball.  It was about the balance of a complete life.

“What my mom was telling me that day in Oakland was that none of those elements of winning would work unless I also tended to my mental health. I needed to have a balanced life and not identify myself solely as a tennis player. Even though I was beginning to have success as a young pro, I had to remain committed to my education, stay connected to my religion and enjoy the experience of improvement — not be so driven that I would miss it all.”[2]

That gift of love, bestowed by a wise mother, has carried Venus through tough years when she discovered she had an autoimmune disease.  It has carried her through upset and disappointment.  It has carried her through triumph with poise and humility.  Her mom and her faith have given Venus the gift of a “gentleness born of wisdom.”

For those who have followed her career down through the years, Venus has been an example of perseverance and generosity.  Always tending towards what God has intended her to be.  Venus has chosen a more excellent way.  So may it be with each of us – that we grow into the fullness of our authentic, God-intended, selves.   Amen.

[1] James 3:13 ff.,  New Revised Version.

[2] Venus Williams, “Being Tough Means Taking Care of My Whole Self,” New York Times, Opinion, September 13, 2021.

     St. Francis Episcopal Mission Outreach

        Rev. Dr. John C. Forney

       Pentecost 17, September 19, 2021
  Proper 20

     “A More Excellent Way”

Jeremiah 11:18-20; Psalm 54;
                          James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37

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