October 14, 2018
William G. Carter
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. 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. Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you suppose that it is for nothing that the scripture says, “God yearns jealously for the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? But he gives all the more grace; therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.
The title of today's sermon comes from a tombstone. I had heard about it for many years, and one day was traveling through Bennington, Vermont. Old First Congregational Church is on the corner as you enter town. On the left side of the building is ancient graveyard. A few steps in, there is the grave of poet Robert Frost. The epitaph under his name reads, "I had a lover's quarrel with the world."
It's an evocative phrase, and not only for a poet who had a way with words. By all appearances, Robert Frost loved the world. He made all the difference by taking the road last traveled and could enjoy stopping in the woods during a snowy evening. He knew to question the wisdom of his country neighbor, that "Good fences make good neighbors." Yet as deeply as he loved the world, Frost also contended with it.
This is a theme that recurs over and over with the Christian life. How much should we love the world, and how much more should we love God? The world can be a beautiful place, full of mountain vistas and blue lakes. That maple tree across from my house is turning bright red; I wait for it every year. Yet the world can also be a place of temptation, corruption, and ultimately destruction. A lot of Christian people have a lover’s quarrel with the world.
Garrison Keillor reminisces about the struggles of his fundamentalist Christian upbringing. He says he grew up in a tiny Christian sect, so small that “only we and God knew about it.” His family taught him to be suspicious of the world, especially those who were outsiders, those who lived in cities, and those who flirted with activities that were quickly dismissed as evil.
In his Lake Wobegon memoirs, he tells about the day his family went to a restaurant in the big city of Saint Cloud, Minnesota. They didn’t want to do it, but they had to do it. Saint Cloud is where their little congregation met, and it was too far to go home after morning worship and get back in time for the Sunday evening service. So they went to a place called “Phil’s House of Good Food.” He remembers,
The waitress pushed two tables together and we sat down and studied the menus. My mother blanched at the prices. A chicken dinner went for $2.50, the roast beef for $2.75. “It’s a nice place,” Dad sad, multiplying the five of us times $2.50. “I’m not so hungry, I guess,” he said, “maybe I’ll just have soup.” We weren’t restaurant goers…so we weren’t at all sure about restaurant custom: could a person ho had been seated in a restaurant simply get up and walk out? Would it be proper? Would it be legal?
The waitress came and stood by Dad. “Can I get you something from the bar?” she said. Dad blushed a deep red. The question seemed to imply that he looked like a drinker. “No,” he whispered, as if she had offered to take off her clothes and dance on the table. Then another waitress brought a tray of glasses to a table of four couples next to us. “Martini,” she said, setting the drinks down, “whiskey sour, whiskey sour, Manhattan, whiskey sour, gin and tonic, martini, whiskey sour.”
Suddenly the room changed for us. Our waitress looked hardened, rough, cheap – across the room, a woman laughed obscenely, the man with her lit a cigarette and blew a cloud of smoke – a swear word drifted out of the kitchen like a whiff of urine – even the soft lighting seemed suggestive, diabolical. To be seen in such a place on the Lord’s Day – what had we done?
His mother stood up, announced they were leaving, told Phil the owner that they were in the wrong place, and everybody in restaurant watched them step outside. The children were feeling embarrassed, humiliated. Why can’t we be like regular people? Mother’s response was to quote scripture, “Be not conformed to this world…”
How much should a Christian befriend the world? Some of us were raised in families that kept asking the question. Today, we hear the letter of James give his answer: not at all. As he says, “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.”
It sounds harsh. It sounds like James is saying we must make a choice. What’s it going to be? God or the world? God says one thing, the Bible teaches one thing – and the world pushes against it. Whom will you follow? Which Voice will you hear and obey?
That’s how some of us were taught. I know that was how my church youth group was run. We got a new youth advisor when I was fourteen or fifteen. He was very strict, never smiled, never joked around. He heard that the previous year, the girls in our youth group made dinner for the boys and cooked up spaghetti. And then it was the boys’ turn to cook for the girls, so we cooked up some squid and got some chocolate-covered ants (true story!). When Tim heard about it, he said, “That’s never going to happen again.” No more joking around.
So he announced we were going to get together on Sunday nights and talk about sex. Specifically, we were going to talk about the Christian view of sex. Well, that got everybody’s interest. First night of the series, that youth room was packed. Teenagers are crowding in, sitting on the floor. Tim stood up, thanked everybody for coming, had a prayer – he had a prayer before he talked about sex – and then he gave the lesson. The summary of the lesson, as I remember, went like this: “No, not ever. Don’t even think about it.” That’s what he said to a room full of teenagers, for some of whom, that’s all they were thinking about. The room was very quiet.
Next week, we gathered again. A few people were missing. I was there, my sister was there, and that was pretty weird. We didn’t have a choice. I think our parents thought it was easier to drop us off then have a conversation about the topic. It was awkward. Everybody blushed. Nobody made eye contact. Boys were over here, girls over there, with a four-foot-wide frozen zone between them.
Third week, we gathered again. This time, right before the opening prayer, the minister’s son whispered, “Follow me.” So when Tim said, “Let us pray,” the two of us slipped out. We walked a block down the street to the theater, paid for a ticket, and watched a James Bond movie. When it was over, we walked back just as our parents were arriving to take us home. My folks never found out; the minister’s kid got busted, but I was free and clear. He had to go back for the rest of the series; I had had enough.
And one day soon thereafter, it was announced that Tim was moving on. He was joining a monastery on Cape Cod. I guess ministry with teenagers was too difficult.
How friendly should we be with the world? To hear James say it, not at all. I’ve always struggled with that. Ever struggle with that?
My mom suggested I should go to a Christian college. When I discovered the one she had in mind, I said, “No way!” They had a list of rules ten miles long. One of my cousins went there, and quickly discovered they had a rule against playing Frisbee on the lawn. The college wanted to keep its lawns pure and pristine, just like their students. Cousin John and some buddies tried to keep the Frisbee on the sidewalks. Alas, one of his pals tossed it a little too far to the left, John lurched and caught the disc, put one foot on the lawn, and got a fifty dollar fine. He transferred to Clarion State the next year, and now he’s a professor there.
A lot of Christian people believe faith is merely a matter of making rules and keeping them, that the Christian life is drawing up a list of bad habits, and then enjoying not doing them. I guess I’ve always thought faith is about trust and life is about living.
When I landed at a state university, unprotected by any rules, I ended up with a Christian roommate one semester. He took one look at my music collection and declared that, when he became a Christian, he got rid of all his jazz recordings. “They are pagan, satanic, or worse,” he said rather piously, “so I burned them in a bonfire.” I looked at him and said, “Why didn’t you give them to me?”
You see, here’s my difficulty: God created the world. God put us to live within the world. The world is the only home that we have. “God so loved the world that he sent Jesus into the world,” the same world that was created through Jesus (John 3:16, 1:10). The Bible says that.
And yet the Bible also says, “The world came into being through Jesus, but the world does not know Jesus” (John 1:10). Sometimes when the Bible is talking about the world, it’s not talking about a planet. It’s talking about a system, about the “world” as a symbol. When the Bible talks like this, the “world” is everything God made that now resists the God who made it. It’s the people made in God’s image who now act and believe as if there are in it for themselves, that nobody matters except they themselves.
I went back and looked at the text from James. There it is:
Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from cravings at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. 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 (4:1-3).
Then he says it, “Whoever wishes to become a friend of that kind of world becomes an enemy of God.” Do you hear the context? The good and gracious God creates this planet, sets us within it, gives us everything we need – and we want more. God gathers by grace, teaches us how to live, sets us free that we would flourish in faithfulness – and we decide to go on our own.
Why is this? Contrary to what some folks believe, we are not up against restaurants, kissing someone on the first date, wild jazz music, or Frisbee on the lawn. We are up against ourselves. James calls it being “double minded.” The trouble seems to be when we forget about God and focus only on ourselves, when we throw off any restraint so that we can run ourselves into the ground, when we become addicted to grasping, and grabbing, and getting more at any cost that we end up losing what we value most. It can happen. It happens all the time. And it causes chaos and destruction.
I was talking to a bright young man at a wedding reception the other night. He’s smart and articulate. I said, “What do you do?” He’s an environmental engineer. He excelled at school and decided early that he wanted to make a difference, especially in a polluted planet. These days, he studies soil samples, detects contaminants, and works to ensure remediation. His passion is helping all of us live in a healthier environment.
He was telling me that a new firm is trying to recruit him. They want to pay his college loans, his car loan, and triple his salary. They offered to put him through graduate school. But here's the thing. They want to him to lie about scientific facts, cook up some junk science, and denounce well researched conclusions. They want him to manufacture some false data to plunder the earth, and they are willing to make him rich.
“I’m struggling with the decision,” he said. “The money could make it possible for me to go on and do whatever I want, but I don’t want to lose everything I believe in.” I thought of something Jesus once said, “What does it profit you to gain the whole world and lose your soul?” (Mark 8:36).
That’s the question, isn’t it? Especially for those who are smart and capable. And we can’t have it both ways. Either we are friends of God or we are friends of something far less. A lover’s quarrel with the world, indeed.
And I can’t help but remember a prayer from one of the saints: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You.” (Augustine of Hippo)
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.
 Garrison Keillor, Lake Wobegon Days (New York: Viking, 1985) 109-110.