Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

Where Wisdom is Found

Rev. Kathy Donley



Scripture Lesson:  Mark 9:38-41, James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a


About ten years ago, an economist at the University of Southern California found that if people get a raise, or a nicer car, or a new stereo system, that doesn’t make them happy unless what they get is more than what their neighbors or co-workers get. In other words, according to that study, if everyone on your street got a new BMW, in the long run that wouldn’t make you happy, because every time you looked at your BMW and started to get excited, you’d look next door and see that your neighbor had one too, and that would take the enjoyment out of it. No, according to that professor, the only way you’re going to be happy about getting a new BMW is if at the same time your next-door neighbor only gets a used, beat-up clunker.[1]

Full disclosure:  I read about that study in another pastor’s sermon and I have not been able to verify it any where else yet, but I’m sharing it here because it makes intuitive sense to me.  It explains why our consumeristic treadmills keep running.  At one time, the goal was keeping up with the Joneses.  Now it seems, our culture teaches us that we won’t be happy until we surpass the Joneses.  It’s not just that we envy what others have; we want to be the ones who are envied.  Or at least that’s the message of a lot of the advertising that I see. 


In chapter 4, James describes a similar brokenness in his time.  He says, “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? 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 observes a culture where people are bitterly envious and selfishly ambitious.  People are at war within themselves which drives their conflicts and disputes with others.  Tension and bickering and violence all contribute to the chaos.  James says that that way of behaving comes from following cultural, earthly wisdom.  In contrast he says that “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.


Wisdom from above, or godly wisdom, is “willing to yield”.  That phrase jumps out at me.  Willing to yield is the opposite of striving to win at all costs.  Willing to yield means letting someone else go first.  Willing to yield means giving up my chance at getting this years’ must-have Christmas gift.  Willing to yield means letting go of my need to be right in order to hear and really understand someone else’s point of view. 


Willing to yield . . . does not seem to describe the disciples’ attitude in the reading from Mark 9.  In the few verses we heard, John tells Jesus, “Teacher, someone was casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 


John wants to stop others from offering healing in Jesus’ name.  One of the main things that Jesus does is to heal people.  So you might think that more healing in Jesus’ name would be a good thing, but not for John.  If we were to read back earlier in chapter 9, we would find the story of a young boy who was, in the understanding of that time, possessed by an evil spirit.  The disciples had tried their best to cast it out, but they had failed.  And now some stranger, some outsider, can do what they could not.


John tells it like it is, ‘We tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”  Did you catch that?  John might have said, “We tried to stop him, because he was not following you, Jesus,”  but he didn’t.  Instead he said, “We tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”  Just because he was not one of them, regardless of the good he might have been accomplishing, the disciples believed he must be stopped.  Almost from the beginning of the church it seems, there have been people drawing lines to say who is in and who is out, who is on God’s side and who is not. 


Linda is a United Church of Christ minister who attended a strict Catholic school as she was growing up.  One day, she says, Sister Mary Roberts Cecilia preached to the children at school, telling them that everyone who was not a Catholic was going to hell.  That afternoon, when Linda came home, her mother asked her the same question that she asked her almost every day.  She said, “What are you thankful for today dear?”  And little Linda, without hesitation, replied, “Today I’m thankful that Sister Mary Roberts Cecilia is not God.” 


We might react to this story thinking, “Who do those Catholics think they are?  Saying that they’re the only ones going to heaven.”  We can get all indignant and self-righteous and quote Scripture, but I have to tell you that growing up in a Baptist churches, I was led to believe that only Baptists were going to heaven.  So we have all been guilty of it.  We may not say it quite that boldly.  We may only think to ourselves that Baptists are just a bit more enthusiastic than the Presbyterians, just a bit more Biblical than the Methodists. 


And truthfully, many of us have gotten over our hang-ups with denominational labels.  Now our concerns about us and them tend to run along other lines.  I hear statements like “Conservative Christians just want concrete answers.  They can’t handle complexity or ambiguity.”  or “Mega churches are too big to meet people’s personal needs.  Smaller churches, like mine, offer a real sense of community.”


I wonder, the next time I hear one of those statements, or maybe if I’m the one who is thinking one of those statements, how hard will I have to probe to find an element of envy underlying them?  I wonder if, in this situation, Jesus would say again what he said to John, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”   And I wonder if I will remember James’ admonition that Godly wisdom is willing to yield. 


It’s not just a rhetorical question. Because sometimes it feels to me like the gospel is being watered down. Sometimes it feels like the gospel is being distorted.  Sometimes it feels to me like the name of Jesus is being used to not to liberate people, but to bind them up.  I’m thinking particularly of gay people, who have been told in Jesus’ name that they’re going to hell.  I’m thinking of poor people who have been told that if they just prayed enough or had the right faith then God would fix their finances, and since they’re still poor, they must be displeasing to God.  I’m thinking of the way that being a patriot, someone willing to kill for his or her country, has been confused with being a follower of Jesus, the one who laid down his life for his enemies.  


So it has to be OK to name destructive theology and distortions of the good news and the ways that people are being bound by institutional religion.  Jesus did it.  He called out the clergy of his day for those things. But what about, “Whoever is not against us is for us”?


Gustavo Guttierez is a Catholic priest originally from Peru, now professor of theology at Notre Dame.  About this text, he writes, “Whoever gives life (giving a cup of water) will be rewarded. It does not mean that what we think is not important. However, it should be underlined that the essence of following Jesus is found in the way we live love.”[2]


So what I want to do now is to wrap up this sermon in a tidy package.  What I want to say is “Whoever is not against us is for us” is a lovely thought.  When Jesus said that, he meant that the Spirit empowers all kinds of people, even ones who don’t hang out with us, who don’t share our denominational labels.  When Jesus said that, he meant we should rejoice wherever people are healed, liberated, set free of their demons.  But, I also want to say, that let’s not get carried away with this.  Because Jesus also said “beware of false prophets” and “by their fruits you shall know them.”


So I want to say that there must be a middle ground.  There must be a way to rejoice in the life-giving work that some people are doing, but also to separate ourselves from those other people who claim to follow Jesus, but who offend us.  Maybe they offend us because of their success.  Maybe they offend us because we know that we are right and they are the ones distorting the gospel.   Maybe if we could speak to Jesus face to face, we would say, “We tried to stop them, because they were not following you.”  I mean, maybe we would get that much right, that we all should be following Jesus. 


I want to wrap this up and make it tidy, but I can’t. Because the power of the text is found not in some middle ground, but in its radical rebuke of the disciples, and if we can hear it, its rebuke of us.  The best I can do is to go back to what Father Guttierez said, “What we think is important.  But the essence of following Jesus is found in the way we live love.” 


If that is true, then the essence of following Jesus is found in the way we live love towards those whom we believe are distorting the gospel, in how we live love towards those of whom we are envious, in how we live love towards those who believe that we are the ones watering down the faith. 


I want to make this tidy, but I can’t. So I think I will just leave us with two things.  The first thing is a parable.  It’s not one of Jesus’ parables.  It is attributed to Benjamin Franklin and called The Parable Against Persecution.  This story says that once upon a time Abraham, the great hero of the Genesis, was visited by a man who was 198 years old. When evening came, it turned out that the elderly man didn’t have anywhere to spend the night, so Abraham invited him to stay with him.


But about midnight God appeared to Abraham and said, "Abraham, where is that stranger who came to you?" And Abraham said, "Lord, as he and I were talking this evening, I found out that that old man is different from me. He doesn’t believe in you and he doesn’t worship you and he doesn’t pray to you. So I kicked him out of my home and drove him out into the desert." But God said, "Why did you do that? If I’ve put up with that man for 198 years and have nourished him and clothed him, despite the way he is, couldn’t you have put up with him and got along with him for just one night?"[3]


And finally, I return to these words from James 3: 

Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.  . . . 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. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.”


The word of the Lord.  Thanks be to God.



[1] Found in a sermon by Edward Bowen, Pittsburgh, PA published at goodpreacher.com  He referenced the St. Louis Dispatch  6/22/2003

[2] Gustavo Gutierrez,  Sharing the Word Through the Liturgical Year, (Eugene, OR:  Wipf and Stock 2009), p. 232.

[3] Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003), p. 196.