The Golden Rule?

Mark 12:28-34

If you could ask Jesus a question what would it be? What’s on your mind, what’s your pressing concern that you’d bring to Jesus?

Of those who had the opportunity to do this, who met Jesus in Palestine, plenty of them just messed about. Before our gospel reading the Sadducees have an oh-so-clever academic puzzle that they’re longing to put to the new teacher. The Pharisees have been trying to catch Jesus out – perhaps he’ll put a foot wrong and we can report him!

In Mark 12:28 one of the scribes comes near, and hearing that Jesus has given a good answer, he brings the question that is on his heart. This man is genuine: ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Or sometimes translated the greatest.

Jesus replies: ‘The first is: Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength’. This was a well-known phrase. It’s found in the Hebrew Bible, Deuteronomy 6:4-9, it’s called the Shema after the phrase with which it begins in Hebrew. The Rabbis saw it as the core principle behind the Old Testament law – put God at the centre, serve him with your whole being, make him the basis and ground of life, and everything else will follow.

From that flows the answer to the question that the seeker hadn’t asked: ‘The second commandment is this: You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ The teacher of the law agrees. Serving God and loving your neighbour is the heart of the law. This is much more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices. God does not want dead animals but living love. It’s not a condemnation of ritual as such – Israel’s temple faith recognised that forgiveness often needs an outward physical grounding – but it is saying that worship is in its proper place when it is focused on God and results in service to one’s neighbour.

In v. 34 Jesus approves: ‘You are not far from the Kingdom of God’- wonderful. We could end there. Who could disagree? After all, isn’t this principle the irreducible core shared by all religions? Doesn’t every faith teach us to love God and love our neighbour?

Well, actually, not quite. In other faiths broadly similar things are said, up to a point. I remember once when I was waiting for a flight, and to try and occupy myself I wandered through the airport. In a quiet corner I found the prayer room – fascinating place, it had a kind of giant chest of drawers up against one wall. Each drawer had a different religion in it – so you could set up an altar or lay out a Muslim prayer mat. On the wall was a big poster – you may have seen this elsewhere – it has symbols representing the various religions and their equivalent to the Golden Rule.

Except when you read closely, they’re not quite equivalent. I think whoever has created this poster has looked into the various faiths to try and find whatever they say that is closest to the Golden Rule. The results are interesting. Although many people imagine so, in reality the faiths are not identical. For starters, the place of an ethical command like this will vary in importance – it may be central or not particularly what a follower of that religion would describe as the heart of their faith. So there’s a big caveat here: what I’m about to say is not in any sense comparing the full range of religious beliefs – and it may be that here are other sayings out there with which the person who put this poster together was not familiar. 

But even comparing what seems to be like with like, there are real differences. For instance Eastern religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Bahai and Zoroastrianism are here described as saying ‘Do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you.’ It’s Google’s motto: Do no evil. Now that would certainly be recipe for a decent enough world. If we all lived like that there would be a significant improvement in society. But it’s essentially negative – do no harm, which is quite a way from love.

Some faiths emphasise interdependence. Under Taoism it says ‘Regard your neighbours gain as your gain, and their loss as your loss.’ There’s wisdom in this, the religion of the First Nations, or perhaps an enlightened self-interest. Maybe this is the only way to get some people to take seriously care for creation – for if we ruin the world we lose our life support system. But it’s not yet love.

Islam goes a step further: ‘Wish for others what you wish for yourself’ – although one might quibble that merely wishing is not enough, we need to act. The Jain appear to go further than Judaism or Christianity: ‘One should treat all creatures in the world as one would like to be treated’, and apparently you can see the Jain walking slowly down the Indian street, sweeping ahead of them so as not to tread on a bug.

Except that treating others as you’d like to be treated is not the same as love. Love recognises that the other is, well, other. We’re not the same, our needs are different, love is more complex than projecting yourself into someone else’s situation. It is important that we learn to love and accept ourselves – this is an important part of what Jesus said, love your neighbour as yourself – but it doesn’t mean you should imagine your neighbour is the same as yourself.

You may have noticed that I like cake. If you want to keep the Vicar happy, the simplest way to do it is to feed him. And that affects the way that I show love. I might not be a particularly huggy person, but if I want to show someone love, I feed them. Entertaining is a way of showing that people matter to me.

But I have learnt that not everyone looks at a steak and kidney suet pudding with unalloyed joy. What for me is the language of love may be for another person ‘How on earth am I going to eat that?’ or ‘Bang goes the diet’.

One of the most important lessons I learnt on a parenting course was the concept of love language. This is the idea that there are four broad ways of showing love – and by the time we’re about 5 years old each one of us has developed a preference. So a parent may lavish gifts upon their child, because that’s how the parent appreciates love, when all the child wants is the spoken word: ‘I love you’. The parent who feels rejected when their child wriggles out of hugs might need to learn to give generously of their time instead.

If we are not to be like the cat which kindly deposits dead frogs in its owner’s bed, then we need to ask: ‘What would x like?’ ‘What actually is a loving action in this situation?’ Maybe a manager needs order and clarity in their world but the people they are supervising long for creativity. We’ve seen in Iraq and Afghanistan that people who are freed from dictators don’t automatically long for Western democratic values. Perhaps we feel they ought, but sometimes they don’t.

Which brings us to the question: Is what we want, what is best for us? In what sort of situation is it appropriate for love to be tough?

A child may be told that you’ll have to watch the rest of Strictly on catch-up because it’s school tomorrow. We understand that love doesn’t mean doing what we want. Falling in love does not mean it’s ok to break marriage vows. The feeling of love doesn’t justify every action. For love is prepared to make sacrifices. Love doesn’t just consider what makes me happy but considers everyone who is involved – even the effect on society if a particular law is broken. Love is an emotion, but it is also an action, a decided state of mind, a passionate commitment.

What then does it mean to love those with whom we profoundly disagree? If two groups of people have opposing views about what it means to thrive as humans, how do they love one another? This cuts to the heart of debates in the Anglican Communion, to the challenges of a multicultural society in liberal democracies.

In Jesus we see a deep commitment to keep talking, to stay in some sort of relationship. Hate thrives in isolation – existing in an internet echo chamber allows you to demonise the other. Encountering those who are different, speaking and listening, eating together if the rules allow, means that differences can begin to be held in love. If we disagree with someone, let’s not cut ourselves off but stay in relationship.

That’s why I think the Golden Rule is misnamed. It’s not a rule. Not ‘When this happens, do that’. In applying it, we need to work out in each circumstance what it means to love someone. Not just to do no evil, not just to wish good, not even to treat them the way we’d like to be treated. But to love them. This needs discernment and relationship.

So perhaps we’d be better using the term Jesus himself used: ‘A commandment’. For a commandment comes from God to us. It was given once in the Old Testament, repeated and affirmed by Christ. Jesus himself showed us in his death the ultimate extent of its meaning, as he gave his life for his friends. It is interpreted for us each day by the Holy Spirit – and as we love God and love our neighbour as ourself, let us turn to the Holy Spirit for wisdom and strength. The Golden Commandment points us to a life lived in relationship with God and with one another. It is indeed the summary of the law – because it points to relationship. Amen.

 

 

 

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Wealth and the Kingdom of God. Mark 10:17-31

I wonder if there is somewhere you’ve always wanted to go? That’s captured your imagination? For me one of those places is the remote Scottish island of St Kilda. A rugged rock in the middle of the Atlantic, St Kilda was home to a unique way of life. The people hunted the sea birds which nest on the cliffs, and subsistence farmed the shallow soil. If you have the stomach to spend hours in a small boat in rough seas, you can visit the ruins of the deserted village they called home.

 

It seems incredibly romantic, but you wouldn’t actually want to live like that. Why would anyone voluntarily return to grinding poverty, to a short hard life?

 

In first century Palestine there was no Welfare State. No workers’ rights. An accident at work, like a broken leg, could mean a rapid descent into poverty. Hunger illness and death could follow for the entire family. No-one would choose poverty.

 

Surely therefore those who were well off could count themselves blessed by God? Throughout the Old Testament wealth is seen as a gift from the Almighty. For instance, Abraham became very wealthy because God had blessed him. Solomon’s wealth came because God approved of his request for wisdom. Job was a rich man who lost everything, but when God vindicated him Job’s fortunes and bank balance recovered.

 

To be sure, the Old Testament also recognises that there were many bad rich people. Prophets like Amos rail against those who gained wealth by injustice. Just because someone was rich didn’t necessarily mean they were good, but people in Jesus’ time would believe that, in general, God provided for and blessed those with whom he was pleased.

 

So the teaching of Jesus in v.25 that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God would have seemed crazy! And yes, Jesus really is talking about a big beast of burden and small hole in a sewing implement. It’s that hard! That’s why the disciples say in v.26 ‘Who then can be saved?’

 

Why is this so? Why does Jesus tell this wealthy young man to give it all away? What does wealth do to us that can be spiritually dangerous?

 

Firstly, there’s the risk of injustice. In Biblical times in Israel the productivity of the land wasn’t particularly high. No artificial fertilisers, not much irrigation. If you wanted to increase your profits you could reduce your labour costs by paying your people less. Or you could try and get economies of scale by snapping up the ancestral land of those who fell into debt. This is why the letter of James has such harsh words for those who are rich – he can reasonably assume that those who have reached the top of the pile have done it by scrambling over others.

 

His words have resonance today. If you want goods in time, at a reasonable price, chosen from a wide range, delivered to your door, where do you go? Amazon. For sheer convenience it’s hard to beat. But at what price? Low wages, workers reliant on benefits. Amazon paid less tax in the UK than the singer Ed Sheeran.

 

It needn’t be like this. Money can be a force for good. The Timpson family who own the shoe repair business deliberately give jobs to ex-convicts. In John Lewis the staff are not called workers but partners as they each own a share – which of course is a good incentive too. And if anyone’s looking to invest, I’d recommend Oikocredit which gives loans to individuals starting businesses in developing nations.

Why is wealth not used in positive ways more? One answer might be that we easily end up justifying the situation: I’ve worked hard for what I’ve got – but actually where did it come from? The problem with thinking that riches are a reward is that the flip side is that those lot are poor because they deserve it. They’re not working hard enough, they can’t get organised, they’re spending it on fags and satellite TV. Listening to the real stories of those who are struggling, those near to us, will give us a much more balanced view than the tabloid hysteria.

 

Perhaps a third spiritual danger of wealth is that we get used to it. The more you have, the more you want. The more you want, the less satisfied you feel.

 

I bought a car last year. One of my criteria was that it should have a built in sat-nav. And indeed, I’m much less likely to get lost now. If I’m likely to be late I have a Bluetooth connection to my phone so I can ring up and say that I will be delayed. It is brilliant, and I wonder how on earth I coped beforehand?

 

Well the answer is: I managed pretty well. Twenty years ago I drove to Elgin in a one litre Nissan Micra with no air conditioning and a half-broken radio. There are many people in the world who would still be grateful for that! Yet once you have become established in a level of living it is hard to give it up – and this rich young ruler knows that well. In v.22 he goes away grieving, because he has many possessions.

 

The question for us is: Do I really need such and such? What difference will it make? Perhaps it would also be good for us to live simply from time to time – say at Lent.

 

Fourthly, we become invested in places and things. We sense that we are finding our place in the world, whereas in reality the world is finding its place in us. Money can tie us down.

 

Every holiday I have my estate agent’s window moment. A few days in, when I’m enjoying myself, I begin to think ‘Wouldn’t it be lovely to have a holiday cottage? I could nip down on my day off…and have another lawn to mow and another set of gutters to clear!’ As we buy things, particularly the big ticket items, we tie ourselves down with more and more commitments. And while in one sense commitment is good, it is good truly to belong to a place, good to be committed to people, there are other commitments which are perhaps more of a tie. Are you still able to respond flexibly to God’s call?

 

It’s interesting that many really successful businesses started off in someone’s garage. A big existing company might not risk its funds on an unproven technology – but the little guy has the freedom to invest everything he’s got and become an entrepreneur. Do we, do our churches have the freedom to be entrepreneurial for God?

 

Finally, perhaps the most significant risk in having a bit of money is that we put our trust in it rather than God. The fact that our money can help us through a hard time may be wise planning – but it must never become what we rely on.

 

It seems to me that self-reliance is what Jesus was driving at in our reading from Mark. In v.17 the rich young man arrives to see Jesus and he has a most peculiar question: ‘Good Teacher what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ That’s odd – you don’t usually do anything to inherit – it comes to you as a gift. Although I suppose there are people who carefully cultivate wealthy great aunts.

 

But this man seems to think he can do something to inherit eternal life. Jesus’ response seems equally strange. ‘Why do you call me good – no-one is good but God alone.’ Actually, he’s pointing out to the young man that if only God is good, then trying a bit harder to be a bit better is unlikely to be the path to eternal life. Self-reliance won’t get you there, but reliance on God who is good will.

And if the man recognises that Jesus is good – well that might well be a pointer to the divinity of Christ. That’s why following Jesus, in v.21, is the path to eternal life. Think about it, if Jesus meant to say that, he Jesus, wasn’t good, if Jesus meant to say that he was a sinful person just like anyone else, then it would have been utterly crazy to suggest that following that Jesus would be the way to eternal life. What Jesus is doing here is pointing us to his divine nature, and saying that when we follow him we receive the greatest gift of all.

 

Yet why does the man need to give away his wealth in order to follow Jesus? Perhaps it was a tie, but it seems there’s more going on. In v.19 Jesus lists the commandments – but interestingly he misses out the tenth commandment ‘thou shalt not covet.’ Sincerely, the young man says that he has kept all these.

 

But then Jesus strikes to the heart of the matter: ‘You lack one thing, go sell what you have, give the money to the poor, and come follow me.’ He sets this huge challenge because he knows it is the one thing the rich young man struggles with. This is the crux of the matter.

 

Jesus doesn’t do this because he wants to catch him out. v. 21 says that Jesus loved him, he wants what’s best for him, he wants him to recognise this problem and address it. Only by going for it head-on can he address this self-reliance. Would we be able to do this? Does it feel as if Jesus asks too much? Do you doubt you could do it in our strength? If so, good. Because Jesus means us to understand that we can’t. We need God. We couldn’t do that on our own. We need God.

 

It could have turned out differently. If the young man had said ‘Help me’, if he’d said ‘Lord, this is tough, I can’t do it in my own strength but you can enable me do it.’ then that would have been enough. Jesus can work with the smallest willingness – as long as we will let him in. Isn’t that what he says in v.27? ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God. With God all things are possible.’

In other words, this man was approaching it the wrong way round. His success, his wealth, had made him self-reliant. He asked what can I do to inherit eternal life – when it actually comes as a gift through trusting in the only one who is good, Jesus himself.

 

When we have put our faith in Christ, we can work out its implications. This is the only way to be set free from the love of riches – by trust in the God who provides. This is how we really grasp God’s generosity – and are set free to be generous ourselves. This is what a Christian attitude to money is – whether rich or poor we trust in God, and use what we have to bless others. Amen.

 

 

 

 

Healing. James 5:13-20

My grandfather was a man of many talents: a soldier, an art teacher, a beekeeper and a man of great faith too. While I was at University he endured a battle with cancer for several years – it would flare up, he would have treatment and for a while it went into remission.

Towards the end, when it had spread to his liver, he did what we’ve read about in James. He called the leaders of their parish church together, to pray and anoint him with oil. I remember well his disappointment when nothing seemed to happen: ‘Our faith wasn’t strong enough’ he said. But he did have peace at the end.

I struggle with healing in the Bible. On the one hand there are passages like James chapter 5 which challenge us to ask for healing, and to ask in faith that God can do anything. Why not gather people round and anoint the sick with oil? What have we got to lose?

I believe God can do anything. I met a new colleague the other day. He told a story about something that happened in a church near him in the 1990s. In the middle of worship, a lady of about 60 dropped down dead. Of course, the ambulance was called, but a medic in the congregation said ‘She’s gone, there’s nothing they can do for her.’

The vicar was set next to the body, waiting for the ambulance to come and praying, when the woman’s eyes rolled back. She sat straight up, and announced: ‘I’m going to live the rest of my life for Jesus’. And that’s what she did – for the next twenty years. Apparently her testimony used to begin ‘Before I died…’

There are the stories like that. There is the example of Elijah that James gives in verse 17, who prayed that it would not rain, and it didn’t. And when this righteous man prayed that it would rain, so it did. We are encouraged to pray for healing because God can do anything – yet if healing does not come I do not believe it is solely due to a lack of faith.

As you can imagine, countless people have prayed for my son Jonathan over the years. Yes, we have taken him to healing services and a revival. Despite all this Jonathan cannot walk, jump or climb trees. Yet there can’t be that many twelve year olds who have published a book, launched a campaign and been interviewed on live TV.

By some measures Jonathan is the most healed of any of us. I have never met anyone who is so comfortable in their own skin, who is so assured of who they are and does not wish to be anyone else. He has a deep acceptance of himself despite all his frailties, he has incredible fortitude in suffering and above all he has this rock-like Christian hope. Jonathan trusts Jesus and looks forward to the day when he will meet Christ and be fully physically healed. He may be broken in body but not in soul.

The immediate context in the book of James helps us to understand prayer for healing more deeply. V. 7 imagines a farmer waiting for the crop. He is patient and presumably also keeps on top of the weeding. Maybe we should remember that the answers to prayer may take time, and that in the meantime we need to keep doing our bit, so that we can be part of the answer to our own prayers.

In v.11 Job was patient in a different way – he endured much suffering. His experience shows us that it is ok to complain to God – our loving Father is big enough to cope with whatever we can throw at him. Eventually Job was finally vindicated – and James reminds us that the Lord is near, he is coming soon.

There will be a time when all of God’s creation is renewed, when suffering is banished and life restored. Maybe Christ will return in our lifetime – maybe we shall go to him. Either way, if we have responded to him in faith it will be a joyful meeting where we shall see him face to face and be made whole. So for the Christian, the ultimate healing actually comes through death.

For this reason the anointing with oil that James describes evolved into the ministry of last rites. It is one of the greatest privileges to be able to share that with someone – especially if the clergy person has been called then the person is still conscious. It is a remarkable thing to pray and comfort a dying person, to hear a confession, to anoint with oil and commend to God’s care.

And you never know what will happen. One or two of them have actually got better!

So perhaps part of the answer is what do we mean by healing? Often we focus on the physical aspect – but perhaps the answer to prayer comes through emotional healing as someone deals with the wounds of the past or receives the gift of acceptance. Or psychological healing. Or healing of the spirit when we are reconciled with God and find salvation.

That’s what it actually says in v.15. Look at it again: ‘The prayer of faith will save the sick.’ Depending on which Bible version you’ve got it might say ‘heal the sick’ or ‘save the sick’. There’s a good reason for this ambiguity – the Greek word sodzo can mean both! Sodzo can mean to save, to make whole, to heal. What we see as several different concepts in English are all aspects of one idea in biblical Greek.

That’s why if the sick person has sinned, he or she will be forgiven, because it’s part of being healed. That’s why the letter ends with an emphasis on reaching out to those who have done wrong and reconciling them with God.

With an eternal perspective, we can see that healing takes many forms – but is ultimately found in the love of God. Through his providence the prayer of a righteous person can be powerful and effective, but we can never dictate what form healing or salvation shall take.

I’d like just to end by thinking a little bit about this reading and Norton church. For many years prayer has been held in this church, and for a decade at least it has been a place of prayer within Gauzebrook. You could say that the church has been ill recently – certainly the prospects did not look good. But the people have gathered round, there are encouraging signs, new life – of which this service is a part. Now our call is to be like the farmer – to be patient and to persevere. To keep on doing those things we have committed to do. To give generously, and to pray. As we wait for God, may his Kingdom come here. Amen.

Given at the rededication of memorials at Luckington Church

As a vicar, you spend your life surrounded by memorials. Underfoot, polished stone tablets bear witness to the lives of local aristocrats. Lying awake at night, you hope the massive sculptures are firmly fixed to the church walls. And everywhere you look shiny brass plaques commemorate the achievements of your predecessors.

 

In my previous parish the vestry had a series of photos of previous vicars, gazing with varying degrees of disapproval at modern goings-on, a pictorial record of the ebbs and flows of Victorian enthusiasm for facial hair.

 

Memorials, whether in stone, brass, or pictures, remind us of the past but they also speak to our present, shaping our values for the future. In his Elegy in a Country Churchyard, Thomas Gray wrote of how the lives of many pass uncommemorated:

 

Nor you, ye proud, impute to these the fault,

         If Mem’ry o’er their tomb no trophies raise,

Where thro’ the long-drawn aisle and fretted vault

         The pealing anthem swells the note of praise.

Can storied urn or animated bust

         Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?

 

In those days only the wealthy could afford a lasting memorial. For many a bunch of flowers or a simple wooden cross would suffice. In our more abundant age we imagine that our honed granite bookends will last forever – but the reality of dispersed families and Local Authority maintenance budgets mean that this is often not the case.

 

So why do we choose to renovate memorials? Yes, there is the dreaded Health and Safety argument. A box tomb might collapse, so the council, who are responsible for Luckington churchyard, fence it in. Far better, we feel, that the steel riot cages are removed, the vegetation cleared and the memorial restored.

 

Several of those tombs are listed structures in their own right, added to the register because of their history, craftsmanship and even beauty. Perhaps there is an inequity in our plan to to restore the tombs of the rich – but they are the only physical signs we have left of that entire generation of our forebears. In restoring them, we say that the lives of all our ancestors matter.

 

In the case of the two more recent memorials we rededicate today, we honour those who are commemorated because of their acts of service. Colonel Ottley and Sgt Elsip, at different ends of the social spectrum and in different wars, served their country and were ready to give their utmost. Indeed, the Armed Forces are often called the Services because of the spirit of service they rely on, and foster.

 

Their example of service is not restricted to military life. Colonel Ottley was a great benefactor to this church, serving this parish and community. As a churchman, I am sure he would have been familiar with the reading we have heard from John’s Gospel, which speaks of the seed which must die in order to bear fruit.

 

It reminds me of a particular church which will bring out a sack of wheat for this year’s Harvest. At one level it a symbol of abundance and growth – but at another it is completely sterile. For this sack of wheat comes out every year. The grains will never do anything, never become green shoots, never produce plump ears of corn. They are preserved, safe, missing their destiny.

 

As Jesus said in John 12:24 ‘Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain, but if it dies it bears much fruit’. Jesus points us to a profound paradox: it is in dying to self that we actually find our deeper, true selves. It is in serving one another that we find a rich fulfilment. As we turn our gaze outwards, we grow and flourish. I imagine that the two men we commemorate today might well have discovered that truth: that service benefits ourselves as well as those we seek to serve. Many, like Sgt Elsip and Colonel Ottley, have served us – let us pledge to serve one another. Amen.

Envy, James 4

Can envy ever be a good thing? Seems a ridiculous question. How can envy ever be good? Envy is jealousy of someone else, or what they have. Envy is the opposite of contentedness and gratitude. Envy wishes that we might be like another person or enjoy the things they enjoy. Therefore it prevents us from valuing who we are and seeing the gifts that we have been given. The sixth deadly sin diminishes us and gives little in return. Could it ever be used for good?

 

In the Bible, the tenth commandment tells us not to covet: do not covet your neighbour’s ox, his ass, his house, his wife, or anything that belongs to him. Proverbs 14 verse 30 recognises that envy eats us up from inside: ‘A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh but envy makes the bones rot.’ Jesus lists envy as one of the evil thoughts that pollute a person from within.

 

And in the passage we read today from James chapter 3v13 through to chapter 4 verse 8, James lists what the results of envy can be. How often children fall out over sharing toys, or a parent’s attention! Adults are not immune – what is often called a personality clash may well be down to envy of someone else’s perceived good fortune. It has a corrosive effect in our society, as advertising encourages us to raise our aspirations, to compare ourselves with our neighbours, to imagine we can satisfy our deepest needs with the latest clothes or gadgets.

 

The Christian response to envy is to cultivate thankfulness. If we regularly give thanks for the good things we enjoy, we are much less likely to consider ourselves hard done by. In v. 3 James urges us to ask God for the things we need – simply pray for what is necessary. St Paul in his letter to the Philippians chapter 4 verse 13, tells us that he has learned to be content in every situation, whether with a little or a lot. For if our deepest needs, for God, for human relationships, for meaning in our work – if those needs are met then we are less likely to try and fill the hole with wanting more stuff. The good news is that following Christ means we do not need to envy!

How then do we deal with envy? If you’re prone to it, do you have a straight choice between squishing it or allowing it to take over? Or is there another way? After all, the problem with trying to suppress emotions is that they have a nasty habit of popping up unexpectedly elsewhere. Or the pressure builds up until the boiler bursts.

 

In v. 14 James writes about bitter envy and selfish ambition. Yet does ambition have to be selfish? Perhaps we can imagine a kind of ambition that can be positive: an ambition to make your company a force for good in society; an ambition to change the world for the better; an ambition to be the best you can for God. If ambition can be selfish, but need not, might there be such a thing as an envy which is not bitter?

 

I’m reading a book by the philosopher Alain de Botton, called The Joys and Sorrows of Work. It’s lyrical, astutely observational, occasionally a little smug but often entertaining as the book reflects on the world of work. Surprisingly, although Alain de Botton is an atheist, some of his thoughts on the value and purpose of work and human identity have close correspondence with Christian beliefs.

 

At one point he watches a vocational advisor giving careers advice. This is not to sixth formers, but to mature executives who have lost their way. Christians might say that they are seeking a more profound vocation. The adviser urges one of his clients to identify people that they envy – be honest, he says, and if there’s not at least two close friends on that list I’ll know you haven’t been truthful.

 

What’s he playing at? If we can identify who and what we are envious of, we might then be able to discern some misplaced desires of our hearts. So perhaps if you are envious of Carol’s fast car, maybe you long for fun and freedom? If you spend your time looking at gorgeous houses and gardens in the paper, do you have an unmet need for beauty, or a desire to give hospitality, or are you just tired and want to relax? I expect many people have a friend who doesn’t own much but whose simplicity of life and strong relationships are deeply attractive.

Identifying what we envy and thinking about why is a very interesting exercise. Perhaps with prayer and discernment, it can teach us something profound. It may even point us towards adjustments we can make to find deeper fulfilment and draw closer to God’s plan for our lives.

 

Of course, this isn’t the same as giving in to it! James’ point is very clear: unchecked envy is a powerfully destructive force. If we find it in our hearts, which v.14 recognises can be the case, then what do we do? Verses 15 and 16 show that giving in to envy, indulging it, leads us down an unhealthy path. Curious isn’t it, that those who have the most often seem most prone to compare themselves to others and want more as each bite satisfies less and less.

 

I would argue that understanding envy, and thinking about where it comes from, will give us a much greater ability to defeat its negative consequences. Then, as v.17 urges, we will not be hypocritical but able to live at peace with ourselves and with others.

 

Nonetheless, as we fight against any temptation, there will be times when that is a struggle and we need to draw on real willpower and learn to work with God’s Holy Spirit. When James talks of peace and being willing to yield, it teaches us that we ultimately have a choice: we can choose to let others be others and be content with who we are – or we can try and prove ourselves. We can choose to spend time giving thanks in prayer – or we can choose to flip through the catalogues.

 

Making peace requires effort, the ability to reach out to someone else. Moving on to verse 7, resisting evil is a deliberate choice too. ‘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.’

 

 

 

As James closes this passage, he brings the battle against envy onto a spiritual dimension – an ongoing spiritual warfare. Resisting the devil is about knowing right and wrong, and being aware when there is a battle on. Some significant battles have been lost because one side didn’t know there was a war! We need to acknowledge that there is a battle for our hearts and minds, a spiritual dimension.

 

Submitting to God is explained later on – it’s about being humble and drawing close to God. We need his spirit to help us, and as we draw close to God then he draws close to us. Cleanse our hands is a picture of repentance, of acknowledging when we have done wrong and turning from it. Purifying our hearts recognises that we can learn to control our thoughts.

 

To sum up then: Envy is a powerful emotion. It lurks within – and if we’re aware of it, it’s better to be open with ourselves and with God. If we pray about it, the roots of envy may even reveal useful things about ourselves. And when we have understood it and rejected its negative consequences, thankfulness and contentedness are the blessings that God gives.

 

James 3:1-12

In Jane Austen’s novel Emma, there is a key moment when Emma and several friends go out for a picnic. To liven up proceedings, somebody suggests that they play a game: each person should say one very clever thing, or two moderately clever things, or three things very dull indeed.

A character called Miss Bates good-naturedly comments that she will have no trouble meeting the last requirement. Fired up by her own wit, Emma shoots from this hip: ‘Ah ma’am, but there may be a difficulty. Pardon me, but you will be limited as to number – only three at once.’

There then follows a tumbleweed moment. As a reader, you feel the pain. The humiliation of poor, boring Miss Bates. The embarrassment of the onlookers. The self-loathing of Emma once she realises what she has done. Her Freudian slip has revealed her pride and contempt. Will things ever be healed? And most of all, we feel our own pain – for I expect most of us have been there. Carried away by anger, or inflated by our own wit, we too have said things which can never be undone.

St James wants us to understand the dangers of careless speech. In today’s epistle reading he warns of the damage an uncontrolled tongue can do. In chapter 3, verses 1-12, a dramatic passage full of colourful imagery, he reflects on the power of words. We use words for many things – to bless and to curse; vows to marry, promises to bring Fred up in the faith, murmurings of love. Words good and bad. James’ point is that words make a difference.

In the last few weeks, as this church has followed a sermon series through St James’ letter, one point has become very clear.

Everyday living matters. It is in the simple daily actions that faith is made real and shown. What we do and say to those near us is not a little thing, it is one of the most profound tests of faith. For no matter how many things we believe, our insight is nothing if we do not care for the needy. It does not make much difference if our faith is incredibly strong, if it does not issue in practical love.

Someone once said that as you bring up a child there are two little eyes watching everything you do. Two little ears hearing every word. Today as Fred is baptised we shall make promises to bring him up in the Christian faith, to introduce him to the love of Christ – and so much of that is learnt in the home and from the family.

It’s wonderful when you see children pick up good communication. It’s lovely to hear a little voice singing happy songs through the house. It’s a beautiful thing when hear you them giving words of comfort or encouragement to a hurt friend.

Words well used can build us up. James points to the power and responsibility of a teacher in verse 1. In my time as a vicar I have known quite a lot of choir directors. Many of them are talented – but only a special few have a children’s choir. They are the ones who can encourage, give feedback without crushing, keep discipline without destroying a young person’s spirit. Their words nurture and grow.

Through music and speech we praise God. Yet as James reminds us in v.9, with our tongue we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the image of God. The image in v. 3 of a horse being guided by a bridle, or in v.4 of the ship being steered by the rudder speak strongly of how often we see a piece of gossip or an insinuation change the whole dynamic of a situation. A tweet by Elon Musk – and the share price of Tesla drops by 3%.

A careless word broadcast around the world by the internet is like the out of control forest fire of v.5. Our words have eternal consequences, v.6 tells us that we are accountable to God for the things we say. Let’s be thankful that it is also with our mouths that we confess our sin and are reconciled with God. James does not pull any punches in his rhetoric as he urges us to control the power of the tongue. But how?

Perhaps there are certain situations where you know you will get carried away. With a certain group of friends, or after the 3rd glass of wine. Be prepared, or avoid getting into that situation in the first place.

As James says in Chapter 1 v 19, Listen before you speak. We are given two ears and one mouth. Use them in proportion.

You could just put a sock in it. But if we continually stifle our feelings, pressure builds up and the boiler eventually bursts. It’s much better to release frustration in a controlled way. Rather than snap sarcastically at the end of your tether, say something constructive earlier on. I have to admit, I struggle with that. Even saying: ‘When you do that, I feel like this, so please do the other’ feels like conflict and quite a big deal. But it’s much better than clearing up the mess after the eventual explosion.

Going deeper, it’s good to tackle the underlying thoughts too. If we entertain resentment in our mind, if we allow bitter feelings to develop, then, as Emma found, they will eventually find their way to the surface. So let’s deal with our thoughts and address them early on.

Finally, ask for the gift of the Holy Spirit. Pray that we may be filled with God’s presence every day. In the baptism promises we say ‘With the help of God we will.’ For we need His help. With him, we can learn control. Inspired by God, our speech can be a blessing. With the help of God, we can praise him and raise children who know the power of kind and faithful words.

The good news of the gospel is that those wounds one day shall be healed. Those harsh words will be forgiven and forgotten. In God’s new creation they shall be no more, and if we start living God’s way now, then that future promise starts being made real in the present day. With that in mind, let us make our promises for Fred

James 2

It’s amazing to see how many doors a wheelchair can open. To be sure, a family member who uses a wheelchair is, even today, restricted in many ways. But there are other opportunities that compensate – like the first class coach on the new Great Western trains to London.

 

There is much excitement if our train that pulls into Chippenham is a big sleek green class 800. For the only wheelchair spaces are in the First Class coach. Even if you paid standard, wheelchair users get to travel First, and often the whole party travels together with the disabled passenger. So we all get enjoy the big comfy seats, the extra leg room, the complimentary coffee and biscuits, the refined atmosphere of peace and quiet – or at least it was until the Bryan family arrived.

 

Part of the enjoyment is that it feels like a freebie. In this country we’re used to getting different levels of service depending on how much you pay. So if you get an upgrade, it’s something to celebrate! Culture widely accepts that if you are willing to pay more, you can get more. And I suppose if someone wants to pay £25 extra for a cup of coffee on the way to Paddington, then why not? In fact, you could argue that if airlines didn’t charge astonishing prices for business class, they’d have to raise the cost of economy to compensate. I bet you’d never thought of British Airways as a mildly socialist form of wealth redistribution!

 

We’re used to money talking. As were the people of New Testament times. But the reading we’ve just heard from the letter of James brings us up short. Imagine, says the writer, a noteworthy benefactor comes to church and is made a great fuss of. At the same time someone sleeping rough slinks in, and is put out of harm’s way at the back. ‘Have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges?

 

It’s particularly ironic because v.5 hints that many of the people in the church James was writing to were poor themselves – they were the ones who had been chosen by God. If anything, God has particular concern for those who are poor because they are starting from a disadvantage. God seeks justice. The recipients of James’ letter were fawning over the rich – yet v. 6 indicates that wealthy people were oppressing the Christians and taking them to court. In response, James quotes the saying of Jesus: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. Rich or poor, treat as you’d like to be treated. v.9: ‘If you show partiality you commit sin’.

 

What then does it mean to show partiality? What kind of fair treatment is envisaged? How do we enact justice today?

 

Are there times when the ability to pay more is just part of life’s variety? Part of a healthy economy which enables people to make choices about what they spend their money on? Are there times when that’s basically harmless? And when is it not?

 

For instance, some say it’s wrong that you can buy a better education for your children. Others retort: I’ve paid my taxes to fund education, if I want to pay again then why not? …What about healthcare? My own father benefitted from the private health insurance provided by the Civil Service. When he needed a back operation he could have endured pain for months, or he could have seen the same surgeon within a week. At one level it’s a no-brainer, yet would it be fairer to use society’s resources to improve outcomes for all?

 

Perhaps when we think about a particular example we should ask: is this a zero-sum game where allowing a few to buy better service reduces the opportunities available to others? Or is a given example part of a symbiotic diversity where the process of creating steak also creates sausages? And what effect does inequality itself have on people’s wellbeing? Research suggests that the wider the gap between the richest and poorest, the less happy and stable that society will be.

 

Clearly, whether we’re dealing with First Class or Economy, a Christian should look beyond the ticket and treat each person as a fellow human being. Not diminishing their significance, polite to all.

It is particularly important in the church. For the Christian faith teaches that all people have been created equal. God is Father to us all. We have all equally sinned – as v.10 says if we keep all the law but fail at any one point we become a law-breaker. No matter how upright our morality, if we do make distinctions and judgements in the way James describes, we still end up breaking God’s perfect law. The Christian faith calls us to honesty and realism : none of us is better than any other because although we were all created in God’s image, each one of us has marred that image through the various things we have done wrong.

 

Yet the good news is that Christ came to offer all of us salvation. Just as we are all equally in need, so healing is offered equally. Jesus bore the sin of every person, so that we could be equally restored when we ask him to forgive us. In the church we are therefore all redeemed sinners – and we are all destined for the same glory – there are no second class citizens in the Kingdom of Heaven.

 

Of course churches are made up of broken human beings, they are hospitals for sinners on the way to being saints. So, as we are all on a journey of transformation, we do still see hierarchies, power plays and all the rest. Yet with a little effort, churches can become signs of the Kingdom of God, pointers to a deeper, inclusive reality. I know a church near here which has grown from a small handful to a regular fifteen because everyone who comes is accepted for who they are.

 

The steps we can make are quite simple: for instance I make a point of not knowing who gives how much to the church. Otherwise it would be easy for the Vicar to think, I’d better listen to so and so, he’s a generous donor. Or person Y is always making a fuss but never puts her money where her mouth is. I don’t want to be thinking those things, so only our Treasurer knows who gives what.

 

 

James told a story about seats, because where you sit matters. If visitors get the feeling that they might put a foot wrong, they can easily feel excluded. For the same reason I’m a little wary of processions – those carefully choreographed sequences of various ministers and robed bigwigs – can easily send a message of knowing your place, of people who are and aren’t important.

 

Positively, the church can be a great witness. The Parish Share system, where wealthier parishes support those who are worse off, is a wonderful sign of the Kingdom in action.

 

When Chantal wrote in Jonathan’s book about how the local church responded to a family crisis and filled our freezer within an hour, the publishers who read it were astonished. That kind of practical help can be a really powerful witness and example to our society. For when we don’t show partiality but do love one another in practical ways, we live out our faith and make it clear what we believe.

 

Real faith is practical. James imagines another picture. What good is it, if one of you sees a brother or sister without adequate clothing, who doesn’t have enough to eat, and says to them: ‘Go in peace, keep warm and eat your fill.’ If you don’t also supply their bodily needs, then those are empty words. So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

Here James seems to be correcting a misunderstanding of St Paul’s teaching. In Romans and Galatians Paul teaches that we are put right with God, or justified, because of God’s mercy to us. We don’t get into heaven by doing more good things than bad things! It’s because Jesus gave himself on the cross that we can return to God. Faith is when we accept what Jesus has done for us. But some people seem to have been saying that if you have this faith, you can do what you like. James corrects this misunderstanding: how can it be real faith if it doesn’t also affect the way that we live? How could we be serious about following Jesus if we didn’t allow the Holy Spirit to change us for the better? Real faith is lived out.

James is not giving us a complete theology of social action here. What to do in a particular situation involves a lot of practical wisdom. James’ point is much simpler yet also profound. He cuts to the heart of the matter: don’t just believe, act. Show your faith by what you do. Be consistent – treat people equally in accordance with what you believe. Live out your faith in practical love, that way you will know it is real.