James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
There are two sides, at least, to everything. The head and tail of a coin. East and west. North and south. Inside and outside. Before and after. First and last. Greatest and least. Indeed, when we have the insight to see both sides of an issue and we can acknowledge that our side or our point of view is not the only side, that’s a good thing. It means we are open to other viewpoints and we welcome other peoples’ perspectives. In fact, our minds seem almost programmed to see the world in terms of dualities, or two-sidedness. The way we make sense of the world is often founded on dualities like heaven and earth, lightness and dark, good and evil. Sometimes these dualities serve us well. But sometimes this kind of dualistic thinking doesn’t serve us so well. Think of people we know who see issues only in terms of black and white, with no grey areas in between, or times when we divide the world into yours and mine, us and them, liberal and conservative, right and wrong. Our tendency toward dualistic thinking sometimes puts quite a bit of distance between us, even those of us who are in the same family.
The disciples in today’s gospel lesson are caught in the kind of dualistic thinking that polarizes, that leads us to believe that the world can be divided into such dualities as first and last, greatest and least, yours and mine, ours and theirs. They have been walking through Galilee. Along the way, Jesus took Peter, James, and John up Mt. Tabor, where they saw him transfigured to a heavenly brilliance and standing in the company of Moses, who represents the law, and Elijah, who represents the prophets. And Jesus taught these three that the meaning of his transfiguration is that he must suffer and die and be raised up so that through his death and resurrection we too can be transformed. And meanwhile, while they were having their mountaintop experience, the other nine disciples were down in the valley struggling, without success, to heal a boy possessed by a spirit that prevents him from speaking. By the time Jesus arrives, a crowd has gathered to witness their failure, and they are feeling embarrassed and humiliated.
Suffering and death, failure and humiliation. Add to this the news that three of the disciples were singled out to witness Jesus’ transfiguration and you have a group of men who are ripe for conflict.
“What were you discussing on the way home?” Jesus asked. And they were too ashamed to say out loud what Jesus already knew: they have been judging and dividing themselves into me and you, us and them, greatest and least, first and last. They are caught in the trap of what James calls “double mindedness.”
Double-mindedness is the quality of discrimination that James mentioned earlier in his letter when he asks “Have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges?” Double-mindedness means having your mind and your loyalties divided between the things of this world and the things of God. Double-mind is born of envy and ambition and leads to conflicts and disputes, as it did for the disciples who argued over who was the greatest. “Those conflicts and disputes among you,” James says, “where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?” Single-mindedness—what James calls “wisdom from above”—on the other hand is wholehearted devotion to the things that are of God. Wisdom is born of the Spirit and leads to a mind that is “pure, . . . peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” Double-mindedness is a grasping, craving mind. Wisdom is a generous, open mind.
How do we cultivate generous minds? Jesus, when he understood that his disciples’ minds were full of grasping, cravings, envy, and ambition,
sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” (Mark 9:35-37)
And later in the gospel,
people were bringing little children to [Jesus] in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14 But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 15 Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them. (Mark 10:13-16)
A wise and generous mind is a childlike mind: open to the wonder and mystery of God, unclouded by ambition, unjaded by cynicism, and unscathed by disappointment. Whenever I hear the instruction to receive the kingdom of God as a little child, I always think of a particular day in the life of my daughter, Rachel. She was still a toddler, had just begun to walk, and had not yet acquired her propensity for constant chatter that she would develop in her preschool years. We were at a party at a friend’s house, and, at the time Chris and I were among the few there who had children. So Rachel was a bit of a novelty. We were all seated in lawn chairs in a big circle. White clover was in bloom all over the yard. Rachel picked clover flowers and carried them—one by one—to each adult sitting in the circle. I can close my eyes and still see her teetering walk, her fingers just learning how to grasp a flower stem, the concentration on her brow, and the sweetness with which she handed each person a flower. One man took the flower from her, watched her pick a flower for the next person, and looked at me and said, “She’s such a giving, generous child!” I suspect many of you have similar memories of your own children or grandchildren, nieces or nephews.
It was a simple gesture—to pick clover and hand it out to everyone in the circle. But what I think impressed my friend was her childlike delight in handing the flowers around. While an older child or an adult might see a field of flowers and want to have them for our own, Rachel had not yet developed that dualistic sense of mine and yours. She was happy to let the flowers flow through her hands to the hands of the grown-ups in the circle. That inability yet to see the difference between you and me is a characteristic of a childlike mind. For a toddler who does not yet grasp the concept of “my flower” and “your flower,” it does not matter whose hand the flower lands in.
A wise and generous mind is open to transformation. In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes,
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. 3 . . . 9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. . . . 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. . . . 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
Paul calls on us to be open to the kind of renewal and transformation that enables us to discern the will of God. That kind of renewal and transformation enables us to look at ourselves clearly and with humility, and to see others more generously than we see ourselves, to live peacefully and compassionately with others with genuine love, with empathy for their sorrows, and with delight for their joy.
Of all the characteristics of a generous mind, sympathetic joy might be the hardest to cultivate. Sympathetic joy is the ability to be happy for another person’s good fortune without envy or rancor. A friend announces her plans to travel to Europe, and sympathetic joy responds, “I’m so happy for you” rather than “I’m so jealous!” A co-worker earns a promotion or a raise, and sympathetic joy responds, “Well done!” rather than “Where’s my promotion? Where’s my raise?” A classmate wins a prize or an honor, and sympathetic joy responds “Congratulations!” rather than “This is so unfair!” To have sympathetic joy is to respond to others’ good fortune out of a sense of abundance rather than scarcity. It is to acknowledge that the good that falls to others does not diminish yourself or anyone else. And it is because it relies on a sense of abundance that it is the product of a generous mind.
Two parables of Jesus that test and stretch our sympathetic joy are the parable of the laborers and the parable of the prodigal son. In one, Jesus tells the story of a vineyard owner who goes out to hire day laborers early in the morning and again at 9:00, 12:00, 3:00 and 5:00. He hires each group for the usual daily wages. And he seems to be motivated more by their need for work than by his need for labor. Rather than be glad for the latecomers, the earlier hires—and we ourselves, I think—are outraged that they get the usual daily wage. In the other, Jesus tells the story of a brother who reacts bitterly over his father’s rejoicing in the return of the prodigal. In both of these stories, I think we find it far easier to identify with the characters who feel slighted than to sympathize with the ones who rejoice.
The process of cultivating this kind of generosity of mind is somewhat paradoxical: on the one hand you need generosity of mind to experience sympathetic joy; but on the other hand, you need to practice sympathetic joy to cultivate a generous mind. It would be so convenient if simply reading Paul’s words “be transformed by the renewing of your minds” could make it so. But Paul goes on to list a set of commands that, when we follow them, do make it so: to think with sober judgement about ourselves, to love, to honor, to serve, to persevere, to give, to welcome, to bless. Look at how many of these verbs connote an outpouring of part of ourselves on behalf of another. It is in the midst of all of that outpouring of love, honor, service, perseverance, giving, welcoming, and blessing that we come to realize that we are not diminished at all, but that we have increased instead. And that is where the paradox of God at work in us lies! The result of our outpouring is that our minds and our world view expand rather than contract.
A wise and generous mind is a Christ-like mind.
5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-7)
For Christ, emptying himself—the Greek word is kenosis—meant giving up his claim to Godhead to become human like us. And having become like us to hand himself over to death on a cross for our sake. But we, who are not like Christ and have no claim to Godhead to relinquish, how can we have the same mind as Christ? We who are not like Christ empty ourselves and take on the mind of Christ by
3 Do[ing] nothing from selfish ambition or conceit [empty pride], but in humility regard[ing] others as better than [ourselves]. 4 . . . look[ing] not to [our] own interests, but to the interests of others.
These verses from Philippians 2 (they are on page 1023 in your pew Bibles if you want to follow along) illustrate so well the genius of Paul and the depth to which he has pondered the mystery of God’s saving work in Christ, and how we participate in that work. For each part of Christ’s own kenosis, or emptying, has a parallel in our own self-emptying:
Looking at the actions Paul commends to us and the actions that Christ undertook in verses 3-7 shows how we empty ourselves and take on the mind of Christ:Whereas Christ:We are called to:Did not regard equality with God as something to be exploitedDo nothing from selfish ambition or empty prideWhereas Christ:We are called to:emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.in humility regard others as better than yourselves.Whereas Christ:We are called to:humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.look not to [our] own interests, but to the interests of others.
Though Christ can and did empty himself to become our equal, we can never be equal with Christ. What we can do, however, is take on the mind of Christ in a way that is appropriate to us and well within our capability: to let go of ambition and [empty pride], humbly regard others as better than ourselves, and look not to our own interests, but to the interests of others.
This is how God works in us to create a wise and generous mind. The practices of cultivating a childlike mind, a mind that is open to renewal and transformation, and a mind that is Christ-like are ways that we can, as James puts it:
Submit [ourselves] to God. . . . Draw near to God, [so that] he will draw near to [us].
As we’ve been talking about generosity of hands, hearts, and minds, I’ve tried to introduce you to some of the spiritual and prayer practices that I find helpful in cultivating a more open and spacious spirit. I think of these practices as a way to draw near to God, or to make myself available to God to shape me in whichever way God sees fit. Today, during the prayers of the people, I want to coach you through a form of prayer called Centering Prayer. I’ve included instructions in the worship bulletin. This is a form of prayer that is uniquely suited to cultivating kenosis, or self emptying. We’ll do it together in a few minutes, but I encourage you to also try it on your own. I’ve been practicing Centering Prayer for about 20 years now, and it is the form of prayer I practice most frequently.
My hope is that it can be for you a way to make yourself available to:
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. And a harvest of righteousness . . . sown in peace for those who make peace.
Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.