“Covet Not, Judge Not”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
July 26, 2015
University Baptist Church
First Congregational Church
A child on a summer day really liked her neighbor’s new bicycle. Her bicycle was too small for her. She had long outgrown her training wheels. She dreamed of what it would be like to ride on a real big girl’s bike. She even started praying for a bike. When the bike never magically materialized, she went to her father and asked him about it. He told her to pray harder. He even moralistically asked if she deserved the bike. Had she been good? So she prayed harder. She told Jesus she would not hurt her sister, not tattle on her brother. Still the next morning, no bike. She pouted all day long and each time she saw her friend ride by it was like a sharp stick in her side. At the end of the day, she decided to make her prayers even more powerful. She found the Mary from the manger scene. Lovingly she cradled the carved figure. Got out her favorite blanket and gently placed the figure in her dresser drawer. When she prayed this time she said, “Dear Jesus, if you ever want to see your mother again…”
James starts out today’s scripture reading with these words: “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.”
We wish we had someone’s charm, their car, their home, their job, their relationship, their mobile device. When we want what someone else has, we will often feel lacking. For, if and when we achieve what someone else has, we’ll want another thing. Will it ever be enough? Will our hunger be satisfied? I’m reminded of Janis Joplin’s song. “O Lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz. My friends all drive Porsches I must make amends…”
Covet not, judge not says James. One wonders what James was seeing in his world to make him say this. Was it something in his community or was it something that he watched the occupying Roman army do so many times to his innocent church members—taking their land, saddling them with debt impossible to satisfy? Whose hunger for things are we talking about?
Atina Diffley writes that all war has land as its root. The desire to maintain ours and the land of our neighbors which we covet. Think oil and frac sand and holy sites and settlements and occupation. It’s all about the land, the resources we covet. This covetousness in pursuit of pleasure is the wisdom of the world and it is antithetical to the Gospel.
We can look at the wars in the Middle East. We deluded ourselves by believing our leaders who said the US war in Iraq would pay for itself in oil revenue. Talk about coveting your neighbor’s well an ocean away.
Then there is the manifest destiny-where settlers displace native people be they American Indians or Palestinians because God has destined this land for them the conqueror. James would call this practice sin. The root of our conflicts are not just envy, but the supposed permission to attain what another has by any means necessary, and when you can’t get it legally, then invoke the name of God to justify your robbery.
James sees this as a sin that builds on itself, craving ever more, seeking the wrong things, escalating violence until it ends in death.
James says that all of the conflicts and disputes come from our cravings, our covetousness and our greed. James opens the fourth chapter of his letter by telling us that we need to look at ourselves and our selfish desires if we want to solve the problems of the world. We need to watch ourselves when we lapse into covetousness and greed—seeking pleasure only for ourselves. Knowing this tendency to slip into selfishness and self-interest, James tells us what we must do. Hear his ten commandments from James 4:7-10:
- Submit yourself to God
- Resist the Devil and the Devil will flee from you.
- Draw near to God and God will draw near to you.
- Cleanse your hands
- Purify your hearts
- Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to dejection
- Humble yourselves before God and God will exalt you.
James calls us to put our priorities in the right place: with God and God’s people. And for James, wisdom is not what we think, but what we do.
If you have not figured it out yet, James was written to us and when reading it, we ought to take a serious and searching moral inventory of ourselves. See if we truly measure up. See if we are really doing the word, not simply doing what the world wants us to do-getting ahead no matter what.
He has some harsh words for those who have become rich. The stuff will not save you. The nicest clothes eventually wear out. The nicest curtains can get eaten by moths. The wages of the people you have ripped off will cry out, like rocks and stones. And we are seen by God. So watch what we do. Watch how we live. And be better.
The desire for self-seeking pleasure holds a strong temptation for many of us. And if it were not for the church reminding us of our needs to care for others, well we might all get left in the dust of history.
For James and the early church, their value and their identity was all wrapped up in how they did the word. Everything said that they shouldn’t, but they did it anyway—regardless of the consequences. The last verse of the fourth chapter was written to encourage the people to keep on doing the works of justice, mercy and hope that the Way, the early church was all about. “Anyone who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it commits sin.” That’s really the thesis statement of the entire book of James that we have been looking at all month. “Anyone who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it commits sin.”
In the fourth chapter, James says that the way we get along with one another has everything to do with being a Christian. It’s not simply a relationship between you and God. It’s a relationship with a community of people, even the whole world. Christianity is more than a belief system. It’s a lifestyle choice.
Today’s scripture says that it is true wisdom, often antithetical to the ways of the world that will save us. Not envy and selfish ambition, but purity, peace, gentleness, willingness to yield, being full of mercy and good fruits and without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. That’s the way of God.
Embrace your purpose as a follower of the Way. Remember that God shows no partiality and the grace of God is open to all. Watch out for the poison of harsh words and embrace the wisdom from on high. And as you seek pleasure, remember that your pleasure must never come at the expense of another. That is selfish ambition and it is the root of so many of our conflicts.
Okay, so it’s not rocket science to say that covetousness is bad. James makes this abundantly clear. But then he says that we shouldn’t judge one another—right before James judges the rich again in the 5th chapter. A righteous community can quickly become a self-righteous community. What’s up with that?
My daughter was trying to give me a compliment one day and she said, “Dad, I’m thankful for your lack of judgment.” True too much of the time. I think she meant my lack of judgmentalism, but I think Freud might have called her original statement the most true.
I think about our tendency to judge as we try to find a decent response to the myriad issues around the racism that continues to rattle around in this country. It’s not a simple solution, just like it’s not a simple problem. At the Baptist Peace Conference this past month, we heard a powerful sermon by Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou who had spent the better part of the last year in Ferguson among the people who were enraged by racism and had little time for niceties that make white folks feel better about themselves. Here’s a little of what he said.
“In the last decade, particularly in the age of Obama, the vast majority of the black leadership has been the punditry class - those of us, and I am guilty of this, who are on television, who write books, who give lectures, but don't necessarily experience on-the-ground direct confrontation with the state.
Now the leadership that is emerging are the folks who have been in the street, who have been tear-gassed. The leadership is black, poor, queer, women. It presents in a different way. It's a revolutionary aesthetic. It's black women, queer women, single mothers, poor black boys with records, kids with tattoos on their faces who sag their pants.
Martin Luther King ain't coming back. Get over it. It won't look like the civil rights movement. It's angry. It's profane. If you're more concerned about young people using profanity than about the profane conditions they live in, there's something wrong with you."
He was basically telling us to judge not the people on the margins, but judge the system that put them on the margins and even judge the advantages the rest of us live with because of that system.
Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” (Matthew 7:1-5)
Several clergy members, including one from First Church held a flash mob at the Mall of America yesterday. They were challenging the system to not judge the people who were protesting for their lives seven months ago. They named the too many people of color who were killed by police, representing many more whose names we do not know. They were calling on the city of Bloomington to do the right thing and question the real causes of the problems, not the protestors. Protest the profane conditions, not just the profanity someone might use. They chanted, sang and held up a banner that said, “White silence costs lives.” True words.
When James said don’t judge, he was saying, don’t spend your time attacking the people who are on your side. Join together and remember who the real enemy is. That’s the kind of discernment and judgment we need. I think James is saying not don’t judge at all, but judge rightly. Keep your eyes on the prize. Remember who has your allegiance. And be better than we presently are. That’s the hope.
We judge others, sometimes based on the stuff we envy. This never ends well. Why not judge ourselves? Why not be focused on how we are in God’s sight, not how we are in our neighbor’s sight.
At the Baptist Peace Conference, Kim and I were the music leaders for the children. The oldest in our charge was nine-year-old Molly. She was mad at her mom for dragging her to the stupid peace camp when they could have gone to the much cooler Wild Goose Festival. Molly didn’t know anyone and didn’t want to be bothered playing with little kids. It took a while, but she warmed up. She sang two songs at the open mike. She led her younger friends in the opening section of the worship services. She sang the songs and played the games with me and Kim. By the end of the week she had forgotten about the stupid Wild Goose Festival and like many children before her she didn’t want it to end. She dressed up for the Thursday night prom and played pin the heart on the tin man game. On the last morning she waited for them to announce the winner of the pin the heart on the tin man game. It was a monetary award $17 whole dollars. There was a drum roll and her name was called. When she was handed the money, she gave it back and said she didn’t need it. Later she would be heard to say “it’s the Jesus thing to do.” And a little child shall lead them.
Covet Not, Judge Not. Be better. Faith without action is dead. Love one another. Be better than the world. And live your faith. The reward will be great. Not just for you, but for the entire community. That’s what we’re called to be. That’s what doers of the word do.