A Sermon from Sherborne
Faith Works: Compline Address 2
Faith works: Compline addresses preached during Lent 2017 to accompany the Sherborne Churches Together Ecumenical Study Groups exploring the Epistle of St James
- James 1:19 – 2:13: preached on 13 March 2017 by The Reverend Jane Craw
An American lady walked into church late and asked one of the sidesmen, “Is the sermon done yet?” He replied, “The sermon has been preached, but it has yet to be done.” What an answer! The word of God is not just meant to be preached. It’s meant to be practised. It’s not just meant to be delivered, it’s meant to be done! The book of James is eminently practical and challenges us to practise what we preach.
The author is aware that sometimes people’s understanding of faith is limited to a simple series of truth claims, something which is head knowledge and confined to words alone. James challenges this concept and demonstrates that the kind of faith which really works and counts is that which is truly active in your life. He would probably go as far as saying that faith which is not active, alive and has the power to affect every part of one’s life, is not faith at all. The portion of Scripture which has been designated to the second Lent talk is James 1: 19 – 2:13. You will have been given a copy of these verses as you came into the Abbey. So what is the thrust of the second section of James’ letter?
I have focussed on three parts of this passage in detail and have entitled this offering The Three Gifts: the gift of listening; the gift of knowing who we are and the gift of loving without discrimination.
First, then, let us explore the gift of listening. James encourages us to be quick to listen. Listening is a gift. In fact it is a gift of giving yourself to the person who is sharing their thoughts or ideas. It is not something that just happens; that is hearing. It is an active process in which a conscious decision is made to listen and to begin to understand what the person is talking about. When we have a conversation with someone we are very quick to jump in and share our own experiences and sometimes the person who needs to be heard feels that the focus has shifted to the listener and the one who needs to unburden themselves retreats into his or her shell feeling that once again they have not been heard or understood. True listening involves patience. Pauses or short periods of silence should be part of the pattern of listening. The listener should not be tempted to jump in with questions or comments every time there is a moment’s pause. Active listening involves giving the other person time to explore their thoughts and feelings. Some people are very articulate but others take more time to express their thoughts. That makes them no less important and indeed there is great merit in weighing your thoughts before you express them. We are often quick to judge or to finish people’s sentences before they do!
Listening is a discipline and done well can sometimes make you feel very tired because of the concentration you have given to that person. ‘Given’ is the key word here. Listening is a precious gift which you have the opportunity to provide for another. It is a simple act and just requires us to be present. We are not required to advise, coach or to give direction but we do have to be willing to sit there. Whatever we have experienced, if we can tell our story to someone who listens, we find it easier to deal with our circumstances. Listening to a painful story may involve listening to the speechless moments, to the silence which often speaks louder than words.
Margaret Wheatley in her article Listening as Healing writes ‘A young black South African woman taught some of my friends a profound lesson about listening. She was sitting in a circle of women from many nations, and each woman had the chance to tell a story from her life. When her turn came, she began quietly to tell a story of true horror – of how she had found her grandparents slaughtered in their village. Many of the women were Westerners, and in the presence of such pain, they instinctively wanted to do something. They wanted to fix, to make it better, anything to remove the pain of this tragedy from such a young life. The young woman felt their compassion, but also felt them closing in. She put her hands up, as if to push back their desire to help. She said: “I don’t need you to fix me. I just need you to listen to me.”’
Our second gift is seeing ourselves as we are. James uses the illustration of someone who looks at themselves in a mirror and then forgets what they look like. The other day I arrived at Castleton and the Churchwarden looked at me somewhat surprised. She took out a tissue and gave it to me. I had failed to get rid of the toothpaste which I had on my face. She was my mirror and she rescued me from my embarrassment. I had certainly not seen my reflection in any window let alone mirror!
Just for a moment let us look at another character George who does glance in a mirror. He has not shaved for a couple of days and has a good line of designer stubble on his chin. He has a bad hair day and it is standing up all over the place, in an unruly manner. He is late for work and grabs a coffee from a street vendor and cares little about his appearance. He had seen his own image and chose not to do anything about it.
Like George, the man in James’ illustration quickly forgets what he sees in the mirror and ignores the problems. He does not remember the wild image in the mirror because he has a poor memory, but because he has other priorities. He has his career to pursue; he has his boys’ toys to enjoy and his fast car which eats up petrol, his time and his attention. He forgets all that God’s word has revealed about sin because it isn’t of great importance. Other things are on his mind.
The word of God is like a mirror that reveals to us the very thoughts and intentions of our heart (Hebrews 4:12). It exposes our self-centred attitudes and it exposes our pride and arrogance. Sometimes we don’t like what it reveals. It confronts our contempt for others and our lack of compassion. But, if we just take a quick glance at the word once in a rare while and rush out the door, without doing anything to address the problems that it reveals, it won’t do us any good. I must confess that I shudder with the strong stance that James initially takes. Whilst I am sure that the hard shock of seeing ourselves as we are is sometimes necessary, I find it hard to be left with the reality, the toothpaste on my face, without the help of someone or something to deal with it.
Indeed, James does ask us to picture ourselves, as we are, standing in front of a mirror, dishevelled, scarred and in a mess but he does not stop there, he asks us to think about ourselves in the light of what has just been said in James 1:18, the final verse which you studied last week. He gives us hope. He wants us to see ourselves differently. We are people who have been blessed by God’s gifts, those who have been brought to new life through God’s word. We are ‘the first fruits of his creation.’ In biblical tradition, the first fruits are the first ripe sheaves of grain or the first fruits that appear and ripen on a tree. They are signs of a greater harvest yet to come. This is the ‘new’ us and we can have confidence in that. Sometimes it is easier to dwell on our weaknesses rather than stepping out into the transformative life that our Lord Jesus offers us. James wants us to look at ourselves again, this time in the mirror of the perfect law of liberty. This is the love which frees us to serve and frees to see ourselves as God sees us. Just the smallest glimpse can be transformative.
And so, in the first chapter, James has drawn out a vision of faithfulness to God in which we demonstrate our fidelity by reflecting God’s character in our human lives. Our faith must go beyond what we know and instead become part of who we are. That type of faith enables us to dare to look at our own situations and to ask ourselves if God’s law of love is being upheld. Theory and practice must match. So we move on to consider our third gift, the gift of impartiality. James asks us what happens when we gather together in worship and an elegantly dressed man in a well-cut suit enters our church. Is he treated better than the beggar who comes in a smelly outfit which has seen better days? James suspects that you and I give the snazzy suit-wearer a more prominent place than the homeless man.
When I was training for ordination our year group numbered over forty. We were divided into groups called &Co. groups for ease of administration. These enabled us to work together, to develop different styles of worship and to share in discussion and prayer. Our group was given the opportunity to create a suitable service for Justice Sunday. We had a call to worship outside the chapel and then each person had to throw a dice as they came through the entrance. The way the dice landed decided whether the person was ‘poor’ or ‘rich’. Those who were given the status of the ‘rich’ were spoiled rotten, seated on chairs, given attention, chocolate and were swathed in comfort. The ‘poor’ sat on the cold chapel floor at the back of this place of worship, ignored and certainly given no comfort. You will say that people realised this was a game and knew that this was only for a short period of time but you should have seen the dispirited look of the ‘poor’ and the pride of the ‘rich’. It was staggering how quickly the allocation of status affected body language, level of involvement and self-esteem.
I came across this story which exemplifies James’ point of loving without discrimination. It has been said of the Duke of Wellington, that once, when he remained to take the sacrament at his Parish Church, a very poor old man went up the opposite aisle, and, reaching the communion table, knelt down close by the side of the Duke. Someone came and touched the poor man on the shoulder and whispered to him to move farther away, to rise and wait until the Duke had received the bread and wine. But the eagle eye and the quick ear of the great commander caught the meaning of that touch and that whisper. He clasped the old man’s hand and held him to prevent his rising; and in a reverential undertone, but most distinctly, said, “Do not move: all are equal here.”
I wonder if James were writing today, he might not only challenge our attitudes to the poor of our community but to those who have a different sexuality, education, political stance or even accent. I was once asked by someone not to mention where he lived because he felt that people would judge him accordingly and would not want to spend time with him. What an indictment.
Our Lord Jesus wants to free us from being bound to the Law and instead wants us to live in the light of his abundant love. It is that love which embraces others. It is an inclusive love which holds the orphans and widows in the heart of our congregations. It is a love which listens, which allows us the dignity of seeing ourselves as God sees us and it is a love which shows no partiality. To know that we are loved is the most freeing thing ever imagined and James’ epistle encourages us to live in the light of this discovery. Will we spend time this Lent being embraced in God’s arms or to use another image, sheltered under his wings so that we can emerge transformed and be able to share his love in all its depth with others? Amen.