A Sermon from Sherborne

Faith Works: Compline Address 4

Faith works: Compline addresses preached during Lent 2017 to accompany the Sherborne Churches Together Ecumenical Study Groups exploring the Epistle of St James.

  1. James 3.13- 4.10: preached on the 27th March by the Reverend Sister Ann-Marie Stuart.

True Wisdom

I have never trusted my memory, even as a small child I avoided learning things by heart, yet for some strange reason if something seems beautiful and meaningful then I have no problem remembering.

One of the few things I do remember learning since I was about 8 years old is a line from Morte D’Arthur by Tennyson, It goes like this, ‘the old order changeth and leadeth place to new and God reveals himself in many ways!’ It’s stayed with me throughout my adult life.

From our very first meetings in Lent we knew that this letter supposedly from James was unusual. For centuries it was unknown, then when it was discovered it took a very long time for it to be accepted as part of Scripture. For me that makes it interesting. It makes me want to sit up and discover what might be fresh and new.

This week we have some comments about wisdom but they are placed within a context of relationships, and it is described in a particular way from two different cultures.

Commentaries suggest that the letter was written in excellent Classical Greek, even if the author’s language was more likely to have been Aramaic. So to try to tease out with you this evening something of the mind of the letter, we need to look to the original Greek language and also the Hebrew meaning, because for me this is a very Jewish document.

Judaism still has such a high respect for the Master of the Universe, whose activity is all that matters that the activities of men and women do not count in comparison, so Wisdom comes only from God, from above, and not from men, and is described by William Berkley the Scottish theologian, as ‘the breath of the Power of God,’ the Rhuar perhaps ‘and a pure influence flowing from the Almighty.’

Sublime but a tad distant perhaps. While the Greek word for wisdom is the feminine Sofia the word used here for true Wisdom is the word ‘eirenikos’ It stems from the word, Eirene meaning Peace, but when it is used to describe humanity its basic meaning consists of, ‘right relationships between man, and man, and between man and God.’ Again according to William Berkley, because some of us would prefer it to refer to right relationships between men and women, which of course were actually included in the original inclusive use of the word.

So true wisdom has a complex context. If you are Jewish it comes as a gift from God and please note it is also a feminine word, chokmah, it cannot be attained by our own strivings but if we are Greek then the context becomes the state of our own relationships, which appears at first glance to shift the emphasis from a gift of God to whatever we can achieve by ourselves.

But don’t run away with that idea, because what we have here is a different kind of equation, one where God appears to sensitively insert himself into the midst of our capacity for relationships, and to stretch down an arm to assist us with our complex relationship with himself as well, be we male or female one hopes. I’m thinking now of that wonderful painting by William Blake, of God Creating the Universe, reaching down to touch the earth from his dwelling of brilliant light.

And if we take that idea even further then the Carmina Gadelica that beautiful collection of Christian Celtic theology, Liturgy and prayers, suggests that ‘when the foot of the Redeemer touches the earth, the light within creation glowed to greet him in response.’ For the Celtic Christian ‘redemption was not the bringing of light to a creation that was essentially dark, but rather the liberation of light from the heart of life.’ This kind of a God is not separate from us, not above us, he is with us, but he might be ahead of us.

And if we apply this kind of thinking to what has been said about wisdom and relationships, then this is exactly what the Living God offers us at the spiritual level. He stretches down to clarify what we mean by right relationships, and at the same time liberates our capacity to know and understand the Living God and our fellow men and women. So we come back to the Greek term here which is eupeithes, true wisdom. Sometimes we need to allow our minds to float a little as we gaze at Scripture, rather like those wonderful magic pictures that you need to stare at, and just beyond, in order to see the even more beautiful three dimensional pictures or objects they contain.

A long time ago, and for many years I spent the first few hours of every morning reading, praying and gazing at the Book of Wisdom from the Codex Sinaiticus, not in every ones Bible. It drew me to itself like a magnet.

‘Wisdom is a spirit friendly to humanity,’ it says, and tells us that ‘God observes the very soul, and accurately surveys the heart.’ And further we’re told that the ‘Spirit of the Lord fills the whole world,’ and is ‘that which holds everything together, and knows every word said.’

And here in this first Chapter of the Book of Wisdom we find the same kind of teaching that can be found in the section of the letter of James we will be studying this week. Finding a wonderful transition in this late Old Testament document from the God who coerced his followers to a God who persuades those who wish to live a good life through the gift of wisdom.

There is a Eulogy to Wisdom which if someone called James did write our letter he must have read. He uses similar terminology. The mystic who wrote the Book of Wisdom tells us that Wisdom makes people into God’s friends. God persuades through ‘his great light, the ‘untarnished mirror of God’s active power.’ And explores the way in which wisdom permeates history, delivering us, guiding us, to safety.

Clare of Assisi who together with Francis founded our way of life loved this idea of the untarnished mirror of God’s active power, which she interpreted as the face of Christ. To discover who we are she suggests we need to gaze long and hard, into the face of Christ, perhaps allowing the inner eye of our hearts to gaze just beyond the magic of that picture if we are to see our own faces hidden within, in three dimension.

So where have we arrived at so far? The good life, true wisdom it seems can only flourish within the context of a right relationship, both with God and then with our fellow men and women, and that God’s gift, and presence in our lives is designed to persuade us to live in peace with one another. So James warns us that nothing good can grow in an atmosphere where people are at variance with one another.

It seems that God is a jealous lover, ‘draw near to God’ he tells us and He will draw near to you.’ And this appears to be all the protection we need.

The world; our own society has never needed so profoundly, the wisdom that only those who draw near to God can offer. We need to be seen to think and act radically differently. In the first talk Richard mentioned that we need to learn a new language, and indeed we do, not just to express our faith and our theology if we are to be understood but also if we are to provide the wisdom that our society requires.

James reminds us that we cannot serve two masters, but that certainly does not imply that we should hold ourselves aloof from the practical, theological and political needs of our society. What we have learned both from the Hebrew and the Greek about the nature of Wisdom suggests that we need to open our hearts to this stunning peaceful gift. His gift is not static but dynamic as God’s light and love directs our hearts, and as He inserts Himself into the space we create at the heart of all our relationships. And dare to speak from that place.

It will not always be comfortable, it will sometimes challenge us and sometimes challenge those around us, just as the ministry of Jesus challenged all those he met and worked with. After all the 4 marks of the Kingdom are, Justice, love, peace and outreach, and James reveals that they are not easily assimilated.

This section ends with a call from James, a reminder that God will save the humble person. But before you run away with the idea that he’s talking about ‘humbugetty’ let me leave you with our Franciscan take on humility. Francis of Assisi suggests that the humble person is so at ease with themselves that they neither tip their cap to others nor dominate another. They greet all as equals before God, as indeed we are, equally loved jealously by the living God who it seems reaches down with longing to touch our hearts with the light of His wisdom. All we have to do is to open up our hearts, bask in his touch, and allow his wisdom in, sounds simple doesn’t it? Amen.

The Reverend Sister Ann-Marie Stuart 27/03/2017
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne