My friend Anne declares that there are two different kinds of houseguests. Anne divides them in two groups. "Change the sheets" or "don't change the sheets" houseguests are her categories. With a parade of children and grandchildren, one group is not guests so much as they are staying over.
Then there are the houseguests where you hope to make the right impression - your daughter's new in-laws - a work colleague from out of town. For those, you not only change the sheets, but you straighten the pillow shams, turn on the lamps, set out some finger foods on the coffee table. Soft instrumental music in the background.
Then there are the guests who are not family, but they might as well be. They are childhood friends, college buddies, "the girls." These are the friends you don't set out a cheese ball and crackers for - you just tell them if they are hungry, they should get up and fix something.
Then, at night, way past late, these are the friends you sit with on the sofa, pull your knees up to your chin and the conversation turns to things that happened 10, 15, 20 years ago. Then the conversation turns to hopes for 10, 15, 20 years from now. We share what we accomplished and what we hope to accomplish. We share how it did not turn out like we thought or hoped. Ambitions unfulfilled - regrets. The things I wanted; the things I still want. It does not go away - it is like an unsatisfied craving. We think, "There is something out there that I still have not acquired that will make this all feel better."
Unsatisfied. We keep looking back. Regret and "what if." "A little more and I would be fine." We have air-conditioned homes, more than enough stuff and hobbies but still there are ambitions unfulfilled. It does not go away - it is like an unsatisfied craving. "There is something out there that I just have not acquired yet and it will make it all feel better."
My reading habits are rather random. Pastors don't always read commentaries and Eudora Welty. Recently, I spent a little time with Jimmy Buffet's memoir, A Pirate Looks at 50. The first chapter is titled, "My Life (In 400 Words or Less)." I'm going to read about 100 words of it. But listen to all of the unsatisfied cravings:
I sang and worked on a fishing boat, when totally crazy, did a lot of dope, met the right girl, made another record, had a hit, bought a boat, and sailed away to the Caribbean.
I started another band, worked on the road, had my second and last hit, bought a house in Aspen, started spending summers in New England, got married, broke my leg three times in one year, had a baby girl, made more records, bought a bigger boat and sailed away to St. Bart's. I got separated from the right girl, sold the boat, sold the house in Aspen, moved back to Key West, worked the road, and made more records.[i]
Do you see, another band, another house, a bigger boat? It does not go away. "There is something out there that I still have not acquired that will make all this feel better."
This is our reality. And while it is our reality, it is hard for me to think of this being part of the first century world. When I read today's text, I imagine the early Christians wearing togas and sandals and walking and sharing ideas about the current philosophy and talking about the day's catch of fish. It is hard to think of these first century Christians as being greedy and lustful and ambitious as we are.
But what continues to be true is how much we are all alike. Our differences are differences of degree and not differences of kind. Their struggles are ours. Our struggles are each other's. So, the Bible continues to transform across the generations because it continues to shine its light on the human condition. The first century hopes and frailties are the same as ours. The first century woman probably wanted a more appreciative husband and a house closer to town and not as long a walk to the well each day. The first century man probably wanted Jesse's girl, someone more dazzling than the one he was betrothed to and a boat that was as big as the one his friend just got.
When I was in Turkey a few years back, I visited the ancient city of Ephesus. The city rose up from the sea, uphill. At the top of the city was a water source that by virtue of gravity provided running water into the homes and shops below - pretty clever. One main street, cobblestone, ran through the city, library at the bottom. On our tour from top to bottom, we stopped about half way down the hill and looked at the remains of a private home. Someone had a home right on Main Street. And there was remnant of the entryway. A mosaic. Little yellow tiles that created a pattern made up a spectacular entry to this home on Main Street. I imagine others lusted for his fancy home, right in the middle of town.
Our sins and their sins are the same. And this gnawing, craving, competitive, "can't get enough," selfishness was killing their church. The writer of James is addressing the common, everyday sins that might look harmless enough but are the true thieves of human happiness and congregational unity. Unredeemed anger, partiality, the pursuit of unsatisfied cravings.
These 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. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.
Your cravings are at war within you.
The answer to your anguish, the satisfaction for your cravings - the author of James tells them simply, Submit yourselves to God.
"Well, thanks." Doesn't this sound like silly bumper sticker theology? But it is not. This is the deep and profound truth of the Gospel of Christ. The only way to end the war of the cravings is deeper submission to the love and acceptance of God.
My dear mentor, John Claypool, used to say that he grew up feeling a profound sense of "nobodiness." He said that his parents meant to encourage and inspire but the phrase he heard over and over as a young child was, "If you are ever going to amount to anything, you are going to have to make something of yourself."
He fell into and succeeded in the game of competition - trying to satisfy the cravings. He became teacher's pet and then there was another war to win. He became a school patrol and then there was another war to win. Next was athletics. People became objects. They either contributed to his success or hampered it. "There is something out there that I still have not acquired that will make this feel all better." He said that he lived that way until he was 35.
What happened at age 35 that changed things for him is that he fell in with a peer group of area ministers who grew to risk being vulnerable with each other. One day, he let down his mask and told the group how desperate he had been living - how he had continued to strive for worth. He confessed how rung out he had become by always competing - always proving. Then the word of grace came to him from the man in the group with whom he felt the least affinity. The man said, "What we need is to feel the truth of the gospel down in our guts. When Jesus says on the Sermon the Mount, 'You are the light of the world,' he just declared, 'You are.' It is your birthright. There is nothing to achieve. By birthright we are persons of great worth. Our worth is not something out there to be acquired, but something in here, to be claimed."
Claypool said it was as if he saw clearly for the first time. From that life-changing moment, he said that his agenda shifted from attainment to awareness. He realized that for him to live fully, he was going to have to win the war of the cravings. He could not attain enough to feel worth and significance - it is a silly and elusive game. Worth does not come from attaining what you do not have but instead comes from the happy awareness of what you already possess.
So, when the author of James says, "Submit yourselves to God," he is not giving a trite Sunday School answer. He knew that those first century Christians were living into the same lie that we have fallen for, "There is something out there that I have still not acquired that will make this feel all better." He is telling the early church that the only way to win the war of the cravings is to submit yourself to God's "already love of you" - to open your eyes to the truth that you are already beloved, you are a person of worth by birthright not by attaining. Amen.
[i] A Pirate Looks at Fifty, Jimmy Buffett, p. 4