Sermon by Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, for the Memorial Church's Sunday Worship Service. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications
“Every generous act of giving, with very perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” James 1:17
I am a skilled traveler. Ask my family. I can pack a bag in roughly three minutes. My TTP number secures me TSA Precheck. My skyline status and credit card come with a concierge service. I’m a skilled traveler.
But I’m also a proficient traveler. You should see me navigate this nation’s busiest airport, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International. I’m a CLEAR member. No need to pull out a boarding pass and ID, I just tap my fingerprint and wiz through security. I know all of the back elevators. I know which train to ride to get the first shot at the escalator. I’m a proficient traveler.
Not only am I a skilled and proficient traveler, but I’m also an efficient traveler. I know how many steps sit between the T gates and Terminal A. Quite often I opt to walk between gates to both get to my gate and progress toward my daily 10,000 steps. Sometimes I will even hit the timer on my watch to measure how long it takes me to get from the car, through security, to my gate. My record is 4 minutes. I’m a skilled traveler. I’m a proficient traveler. I’m an efficient traveler.
Yet despite my skill, proficiency, and efficiency, I learned something last week about my home airport. While traveling back here to Boston with Cecily and the kids, we came off the train at the A gates. I heard Cecily say, ”This is Baldwin’s favorite part of the airport. He likes to walk through it.”
I was curious as to what she was referring. So since we had some time before our flight departs, I grabbed his hand and said, ”C’mon, Baldwin. Let’s walk.” As we looked up toward the ceiling between the A and B gates, I saw something I never noticed before. It was an art display, simulating a rainforest. Called “Flight Paths,” the $4.1 million installation is a virtual forest replete with 24,000 LED green lights, simulated rainstorms, and thirty-one different species of birds chirping and hovering overhead.
“Look, Daddy. Here come the birds!” The next thing I know, an image of birds broke through the clouds. “Listen to the rain, Daddy.” Thunder rumbled with a calming, rhythmic roll. And right there, in the middle of a terminal that I have walked through dozens of times over the past year, my six-year-old son invited me to look up and accompany him through an enchanted forest. He asked me to look up, and experience a world of art, awe, and wonder.
Needless to say, I learned a valuable lesson that day. Though I prided myself on being a skilled, proficient, and efficient traveler, that skill, proficiency, and efficiency blinded me to an incredible reality that rested right above my head.
As we welcome entering and returning students to campus, I think we might all learn something from my experience. You are skilled thinkers. You’re proficient in the arts, sciences, and humanities. That’s why you are here. You’ve developed incredible learning habits. That’s why you work efficiently. But it is possible to go through life with skill and precision in your chosen field and lose sight of wonder and amazement. Losing touch with beauty and bliss is possible. As you enter this journey, as you hop on this moving sidewalk of campus life, let me warn you of the folly of a fast-paced faith.
That’s what the writer of James is doing in today’s text. The letter of James is similar to the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible. It’s full of aphorisms and practical instruction. It’s full of sage advice and wise words. But there is something different about this letter than the book of Proverbs or Ecclesiastes. Whereas practical wisdom in antiquity was often about becoming proficient in one’s place in the world, the text of James emphasizes personal virtue. Wisdom is not just about what you want to do and how to do it well. The letter of James focuses on what type of people we seek to be. In this regard, New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson nails it. He says the letter of James is more concerned with morals than manners. It’s more concerned with ethical thinking than successful doing. For if you get the former right, the latter will take care of itself.
The author affirms a duality of existence. There is the wisdom of the world and the wisdom of God. The wisdom of the world focuses on success and status. Yet the wisdom of God focuses on character and community. The wisdom of the world focuses on achievement and recognition. But the wisdom of God focuses on beauty, love, and joy.
It’s not that the author is saying that anything is inherently wrong with success and achievement. We all seek it. We desire recognition. That’s natural. But if we don’t privilege character, community, beauty, and love, then our worldly pursuits will lead us to a dangerous place.
The wisdom of the world without character leads to envy and avidity. The wisdom of the world without the beauty of art leads to animosity and acrimony. The wisdom of the world without love and humility leads to venom and violence! The wisdom of the world without character leads to the Art of the Deal not a heart for humanity.
This is why the letter of James encourages us to pay attention to the divine. Slow down our pursuits. Savor the scent of the sacred. Decelerate from the daily grind. Enjoy winsome winks and instants of awe. Take time to look up and look around. Then we will see that “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above.”
A fast-paced faith becomes yet another extension of the world’s wisdom. A fast-paced faith is another example of our privileging results over morals and means. A fast-paced faith uses religion as just another way to attain our worldly ambitions. Our fast faith, then, becomes but another distraction. We opt for the urgent over the important—the noticeable over the necessary. Then we wonder why, even in the church, we are so stressed out.
I’ve heard stress described as the silent killer. I’ve also heard somewhere that the greatest trick of the Devil is to convince us that he doesn’t exist. This is why I regard stress as demonic. For this is part of the enemy’s artillery—to make us so busy; to keep us so engrossed; to have us so inundated by titillating yet empty activity and mind-numbing noise, that there is no time for prayer. No time for compassion. No time to see the divine in the face of others. No time to see God’s handiwork in the quotidian details that frame our existence.
For instance, consider those who facilitate our learning on campuses like ours. I’m not talking about the prominent professors that often make students giddy. Nor am I talking about the celebrity sightings that have us grabbing our phones for a selfie. I am talking about the men and women who do so much to make our lives possible, but, more often than not, go unrecognized and unacknowledged. The invisible labor that we too often take for granted. The custodial staff. Dining hall workers. The grounds crew. Campus security. Clerical and technical workers.
These are the unsung heroes of any campus. Classrooms don’t clean themselves. Food doesn’t miraculously appear. Schedules and section times don’t just fall into place. Yet in our laser-like focus on becoming the next Socrates or Marie Curie, many of us ignore the miracle workers whose gifts of care and commitment bless us each day.
Hands that serve are more potent than lips that just pray. So do yourself a favor. Speak to them. Get to know them. Ask them about their families. Thank them with kind words and small gifts. Lend them a helping hand from time to time. Ask to post selfies with members of the dining hall staff. These are the real rock stars of a campus. In fact, the Bible tells us to open our arms to those we do not know because we might just be entertaining an angel. But to do this, we have to slow down, and look up!
The same is true for our relationships. Social media, for all of its import and capacity, can deprive us. Our phones make us more efficient. But they can also render our relationship more anemic.
What’s the point of having 10,000 followers, if you don’t have time for a true friend? Look up.
Why keep our heads down thumbing through hundreds of likes, if it causes us to ignore those few in our house who merit our love? Look up.
You and I can become so consumed with the chase that we fail to take time to dream? Look up.
Some of you have heard of the phenomenon called inattention blindness—we lose sight of the otherwise obvious when we focus on a particular task. This was proven by what’s now famously known as the invisible gorilla test. A video shows six individuals—three in white shirts and three in black shirts tossing a ball around. Researchers asked respondents to count the number of times that the ball is passed between those wearing white shirts. Yet during the exercise, someone in a gorilla suit dances across the screen and gives a thumbs up. Over half of the viewers totally missed the gorilla dance by. They were so focused on getting the answers right, they missed a dancing gorilla.
How many times have we missed what God has for us? We were so focused on our skill, our proficiency, our own efficiency, that we may have missed moments of joy. We may have missed moments of beauty. We may have missed moments of love. God danced right by our faces, yet we missed it. In the words of John Lennon, “Life is what happens when we are busy making other plans.” So, I’m here to tell you today, slow down. Don’t forget to decelerate. And look up. For every perfect gift comes from above!