Saturday, September 26, 2009

St Michael & All Angels

I’ll never forget the day I was overtaken by a car driving at something approaching the speed of sound along Albany Highway.  As often happens in these situations, a few moments later I pulled up to a red light right behind the driver who had been in such a hurry to get in front of me – and had a quick read of the bumper stickers.  There was a back window sticker too – one of those fake traffic sign notices that warned me there was a baby on board – presumably the logic is that if we don’t know the car in front has a baby on board we’ll all start driving like hoons - and on the bumper bar – “don’t drive faster than your guardian angel can fly”.  Clearly this guy had more faith in angels than I do.

I’ve never really found the Internet a particularly good source of inspiration for sermons, except on the subject of angels.  In fact, the other day I did a Google search for angels and got 103 million references to angels in .16 seconds – this is true - including a short video clip on Youtube supposed to be of an actual angel, Hells Angels, cute, chubby Christmas card angels and sexy angels in bikinis.  I also found a website that told me who my guardian angel actually is – actually, the idea of a guardian angel goes all the way back to St Thomas Aquinas, though his idea wasn’t of a fast-flying bodyguard so much as a personal heavenly intercessor – St Thomas also thought the job of looking after individual human beings would be a job for the very lowest orders of angels, but this Internet site says that every one of us has an archangel on the job.  Mine apparently is St Barachiel – has anybody ever heard of St Barachiel?  I wonder if it means I'm supposed to be channelling the spirit of the United States President?  In fact, there are only three angels actually mentioned by name in the Bible - Michael, the warrior and commander-in-chief, Raphael the healer and Gabriel the bearer of dubious good tidings. Obscure apocryphal Jewish writings provide a couple of other names, such as Uriel - and Barachiel of course comes to us courtesy of the Internet.

As well as the idea of personal protection, Western popular spirituality around the eighteenth century started to link angels with the inconvenient and annoying whisper of conscience – the counterpart of the personal demon who simultaneously tries to tempt us with attractive but not very wise suggestions for getting ahead in life.  Islam came up with a very similar idea, though here the angel and demon sitting on our shoulders just take notes of the good and bad ideas we come up with for ourselves.  I guess it’s a way of suggesting that human beings are little more than pawns in a power struggle being played out by the invisible forces of good and evil.  As they so often do, the writers of The Simpsons show the idea at its whackiest with Homer Simpson, tempted in one episode to run off with an attractive co-worker, listening to the arguments of the little angel Homer and the little devil Homer.  He likes the arguments of devil Homer a whole lot better, so he tries to swat the angel while the devil also has a go at it with his miniature pitchfork.  Homer’s son Bart has his personal angel under even better control – tempted to steal some cookies, Bart’s personal demon says to him “steal the cookies, man!”, while the angel says to him “Yeah, man, steal the cookies!”.

So, here we are on the feast of St Michael and All Angels – the only saint’s day in the calendar which is not for an actual flesh and blood human being however extravagant their actions or however exaggerated their mythology – but a day for celebrating the unseen, angels of whose existence the Bible unequivocally assures us in dozens and dozens of places, in the Old Testament as well as the New Testament, in psalms and poetic literature, in parables as well as in the supposedly sober historical bits.  And we, of course, because our parish church is named after the host of angels, need to ask ourselves fairly seriously what it’s all about.

The idea of angels seems to point us toward a reality that’s deeper than the surface of our lives, a spiritual reality that we can’t see or touch but which affects our lives, a spiritual landscape superimposed on the visible one.  We know this is how reality is, we know that creation is loaded with spiritual energy but in our supposedly rational modern age most of us have become embarrassed by the old-fashioned language of angels and demons.  Many Christians prefer to enlist the new-fashioned language of psychology to dispel the religious superstition of an earlier age, to relegate it to the metaphorical and the colourful images of medieval Christianity that we no longer take literally but want to hold onto like a much-loved childhood fairy-tale.

And yet we also know that the struggle between what gives life and what takes it away is always going on, beneath the surface of our lives as individuals, as well as right out there in the open within and between groups and communities as well as nations.  The spiritual landscapes of our lives do involve a struggle between positive and negative forces, and the stakes for individuals and for societies are significant.  We might think, for example, about the negative spirituality of consumerism, that shapes the lives of men and women by orienting them towards the ownership of things as what gives their lives direction and meaning, and that encourages them to think even of human beings as commodities to be owned or manipulated.  And the language of angels has got something to say to this.

Maybe the first thing to notice is that what makes any spirit into an angel is how it operates, whether it is a messenger or in Greek, an angelos that discloses something of God’s purposes.  So, however we want to conceive of angels, they have certain characteristics. Writer Megan McKenna in her book Angels Unawares suggests we can think about angels without getting caught up in unhelpful literalism by focusing not on what they look like, but on what they do: "Angels”, she tells us,  “are the processes by which human beings apprehend the presence, the knowledge and the will of God...Angels are evidence that God is taking notice of us." 

In our reading this morning from Revelation we are reminded of the reality of the struggle within and around us, in which what is at stake is what it means to be human, what it means for us to have been created in God’s image. And in this struggle the malignant must be confronted by the good.  Michael – whose name Pope Gregory the Great reminds us means “Who is like God?” and who also stands guard in the Book of Genesis with a flaming sword at the gate of Eden – at both ends of the Bible Michael stands as the archetypal reality check – his presence, like his name reminding us that there is no God except God, that the contest between good and evil defines the boundaries and the limits of human existence, the integrity and purpose of what it means to be human, placed by God within the web of creation to nurture and protect – that human stewardship of creation involves the struggle to overcome our own greed, that to have dominion over creation means to understand our own lives within its context not as insatiable consumers but as self-limiting agents of life and flourishing.

Mythologically, the great war in heaven starts at the exact same moment God breathes life into human beings and endows us with the choice to seek either for our own good, or for the good of God’s creation.  The angels also are given a choice, to serve either God’s creation or their own power.  Both angels and humans make bad choices, the angels cast out from heaven set out to subvert God’s desire for creation by leading human beings into the same traps of seeking power over others.  Both angels and humans end up expelled, alienated from God and from one another.  It’s an allegory, a true image of the state of alienation as well as the state of yearning and potentiality for wholeness that characterises what it means to be human.  If all this sounds a bit grandiose we need to remember that self-aggrandisement is what human dreams of power are all about.  Just think of the demonic dreams of Nazi Germany, Pol Pot or Kim Jong Il.

Another writer, Walter Wink, suggests we look at the beginning of the Book of Revelation to think about angels as a mythological way of understanding our own spirituality.  In the first three chapters of Revelation he points out the letters addressed to the seven churches of Asia Minor, each one addressed to the “angel of the church”. Scholars have argued long and hard about this, one suggestion being that angelos or messenger is no more than the job description of the local pastor.  (If so, it’s a job I’d hesitate to accept!)  But Wink reminds us that every human institution has a ‘within’ as well as a ‘without’, an actual spirituality that represents the history and the collective world-view and experience of its members.  So every human institution has its own angel.  Perhaps the angel of Australia is the archetypal ideal of the jolly swagman, with its unresolved tension between individualism and the fair go.  Maybe the angel of James Hardie Industries is its struggle to balance the desire for profitability against the need to take responsibility and receive forgiveness from the victims of its asbestos products.  The angel of an institution shapes its culture and gives actual substance to its corporate identity.  The angel of an institution is its health or dysfunction projected outwards, reflecting what it is, and determining what it can become.

In Revelation, John of Patmos takes the seven churches to task in no uncertain terms.  I’ve heard it said that the seven churches are a mirror in which we can see ourselves free of self-distortion.  Have we in fact fallen out of love?  Are we paralysed by the fear of opposition?  Do we practice double standards? Are we just going through the motions?  Are just lukewarm?  Or might we become like the Church of Philadelphia, that punches above its weight, remaining fearless and faithful despite being small and powerless?  Or in different ways and at different times, might we be all of the above?

Our Patronal festival is a good day to ask the question, what is our angel?  What do we stand for, what does our activity and our shared life reveal about what we really believe?  What is our angel?  How well are we attending to it?  Can it still fly, or is it limping?  What is it whispering in our ear?  How is our Angel reflecting to us what we are, and how is it whispering to us of what God wants us to be?

 

Friday, September 18, 2009

As a little boy, I used to dread the inevitable question from adult visitors trying their best to make conversation with me when they would bend down condescendingly and say "and what you want to be when you grow up?"  I had the no doubt pretty accurate perception that whatever I said would be cause for amusement, but the main problem of course was that I had absolutely no idea. For one thing it wasn't all clear to me what grown-ups actually did - another thing I guess I hadn't yet learned the rule of thumb, which is of course that one should want to be the biggest, the best, the richest or the brightest at something. My deepest desires for a few years, as I recall, were to be either a fireman or a garbage collector.

For girls back in the early 1960s, the choices seemed more limited-I remember becoming aware that my sisters never could aspire to be garbage collectors or firemen-for girls in those days the options seemed to be being a nurse or a schoolteacher, and then having lots of babies. At the time of course I haven't come across today's reading from Proverbs chapter 31, but many years later a female friend pointed it out to me with the comment, "how is that for raising the bar?". This paragon of ancient near East femininity sets the bar pretty high indeed.

Just in case the women in the congregation are starting to feel singled out by the ideal Jewish wife in Proverbs chapter 31-this wonder-woman who clearly never sleeps, who combines domestic chores with running a small business to support her family while her less-than-dynamic husband sits around gossiping in the city gates-this model of circumspection who knows the value of keeping her own counsel, who is looked up to by all and sundry, and whose children wouldn't even dream of running off the rails-this woman who practices acts of charity, whose apparently boundless energy is the glue that holds not only her own family but the whole community together - just in case the women are feeling like getting a lynch party together to run this improbable do-gooder out of town, it is perhaps as well to notice that the book of Proverbs is written for men. In particular, this bit, like so many other bits of the book of Proverbs is written to advise young men full of ambition but low on experience. The ancient world's equivalent of a pinup girl for the pious young man. There are one or two things in it, however, which do stand scrutiny, particularly if we notice that the desirable young woman being described is none other than Lady Wisdom, who you might remember me talking about a few weeks ago.  Lady Wisdom, God's right-hand girl, the Muse of creation, the zest and sparkle of God's creation, and the goal and delight of human spirituality. In other words, stick your fingers in the electric light socket of God's Holy Spirit and find yourself living with verve and creative energy. If this is Lady Wisdom, then the most important thing for us to notice is that everything she does builds relationship, and encourages community. Lady Wisdom gets on with the job, she is alert to the needs of others, generous and openhanded -- though actually we also can't help noticing that she is politically well-connected and rather well-off.  Contrary to the model suggested by Jesus of Nazareth, the message from Proverbs seems to be “blessed are the rich for they can afford to be well thought of”.

Our Psalm continues to build on the theme of success. If your roots go deep enough, all the way down into the water of life, then you’ll grow straight and tall, your works will be crowned with success. If your delight is in God, then God's delight is in you. On the other hand, stop coming to church, turn your heart away from the law of God and you’ll be blown away like chaff in the wind. It appeals - I’m afraid - to a particular strain of wishful thinking that Christians have secretly harboured for the last 2000 years, and which is certainly alive and well today. There are just two problems with this line of thinking, so far as I can tell. The first problem is that it doesn't actually work-holiness motivated by self-interest doesn't translate into big bank balances, and neither is it real holiness. Experience suggests, as well, that the ungodly don't have quite as hard a time of it as the Psalmist would suggest. An even bigger problem is that this view of God, the world and everything, slides uncomfortably easily into blaming the poor and the needy for their own plight. But again, there’s a way of looking at it that is very helpful indeed – and that is to notice that the dividing line between godliness and ungodliness doesn’t lie neatly along denominational lines, neatly protecting Anglicans from hordes of drunken partygoers, for example – because the line between holiness and unholiness, or between good and evil, runs right through the middle of every one of us, right through the middle of my heart and yours.  Being human means that no matter how much we might yearn for the security of black and white moral choices, the reality we inhabit is the permanently fuzzy grey area of moral compromise.  Our faith is at times self-serving, and so Psalm 1 reminds us to check in from time to time to see whether our roots are firmly planted in the soil of scripture, whether we’re drinking deeply of God’s Holy Spirit or knocking back some other concoction of our own.

On to our reading from James, which sets up a contrast between earthly wisdom and heavenly Wisdom - between the wisdom of self-interest and the wisdom of relationship, the wisdom of gentleness and compassion. Getting closer to the mark, but of course the opposite of wisdom, as a close reading of books like the wisdom of Solomon reveals to us, is not a different sort of wisdom but simply foolishness. The pursuit of wisdom is the pursuit of God's priorities-substituting a different set of priorities for God's is no sort of wisdom in all, and James leaves us in no doubt that when we find ourselves acting out of self-interest it's a slippery slope. No doubt if you told James about the global financial crisis he’d find it hard to resist saying “I told you so”.  The difficulty for us is that the priorities we actually operate out of are so often unconscious, wisdom and foolishness, as I remarked a few weeks ago, live in the same house.

All of which brings us to the gospel reading and Jesus most uncompromising take on the relationship between wisdom and holiness. They're on the road to Jerusalem, and Jesus has begun speaking openly about what lies ahead. He's using the Aramaic expression Son of Man to refer to himself, a loaded term that in the first century would probably have been understood by his Jewish disciples as a claim to be the Messiah. But in the same breath he is talking about failure, about suffering and death, and the paradox of resurrection that can only be experienced on the other side of chaos. The disciples, it seems, have started to switch off. And at the end of another long day's march Jesus turns to them and says, "well, spit it out. What's the problem?". And the answer, of course, is that they have spent the whole day arguing over who is going to be the boss.

And Jesus puts the cat amongst the pigeons. "The first", he tells them, "will be last, and the last will be first. Whoever wants to be the most important in God's kingdom must be servant of all". A somewhat unfortunate turn of phrase, as it seems to have triggered off 2000 years of backbiting and jockeying for position amongst Christians, on the basis that “I do all this for the rest of you, so clearly I must be the most important".” but Jesus has discovered a basic truth about how the universe works, the truth that the paradox of resurrection is built into the structure of the universe itself. The logic of creation and evolution, by which new possibilities can only emerge through chaos and destruction, the logic of reconciliation, by which new relational possibilities can only emerge through forgiveness, the logic of joy, by which fulfilment can only come through self limitation and self giving. Jesus, who clearly demonstrates God's priority for reversing the effects of oppression, poverty, exclusion, and anything else that limits human life, is not in the slightest bit opposed to having a good time. Jesus, it seems to me, delights in the natural world of lakes and trees, birds and wildflowers, and observes closely the human world of love, intrigue and trickery. Or else he wouldn't be such a good storyteller. He delights in the world of eating and drinking and good conversation-or else he wouldn't be accused of being a glutton and a drunkard. The way of Jesus is not the way of withdrawing from the world but the way of engaging more fully with it-and yet he assures us that the deeper we are drawn into relations of love and self giving, the more we are drawn into the paradox by which becoming who we most truly are can only come about by giving ourselves away.  Becoming most truly alive can only come about through dying to our own agenda.  Being filled with the Spirit of God, which is the Spirit that underlies the universe itself, can only come about by emptying ourselves, and finding ourselves can only come about through being lost.

It’s not a fancy, poetic way of telling us to play nicely.  It’s the plain, simple truth about the way the universe works.

So, where does that leave us?  If our own hearts are hopelessly divided, and if reality itself is an Alice in Wonderland paradox of opposites, then which way is up?  The way of Jesus is to trust that the DNA of our own muddled hearts is also the DNA of God, that as we are drawn more deeply into the mystery of our own lives, the joy and the disappointment of giving ourselves to others in love, the beauty and the heartache of life that are the two sides of the same coin, that we are also drawn into the mystery that is the heart of God.  Love without limit.  Give as though there’s no tomorrow.  Live as though your deepest desires revealed the presence of God.



Saturday, September 05, 2009

Pentecost 14

In the movie, ‘Groundhog Day’, the selfish and arrogant TV reporter played by Bill Murray gets stuck in time.  We never find out why or how – but every morning at 6.00 am Murray wakes at the same time in the same place, and on the same day – the same things happen and everybody else keeps doing the same things – the only thing that changes is what Murray himself does – naturally he finds this all a bit alarming and goes through a phase of trying to end it all in extravagant ways.  But no matter what he does to himself he keeps waking up to the same cheesy music at 6.00 am on Groundhog Day – it goes on long enough that eventually he develops a sort of routine – must be at this street corner at such and such a time to catch the little boy who’s going to fall out of the tree, take a cup of coffee to the drunk in the alleyway because otherwise he’s going to freeze, waitress in the cafĂ© drops a stack of dishes at such and such time unless Murray’s there to help, and so on.  Along the way he takes piano lessons, and apparently he has to relive Groundhog Day hundreds and hundreds of time because he starts barely able to play chopsticks but by the end of the movie he’s playing Tchaikovsky, as well turning out heart-rendingly beautiful ice-sculptures and learning not to be such a self-centred so-and-so.  The time loop ends, naturally, when Murray has been sufficiently transformed and humbled, a radiant-looking Andie McDowell falls in love with him and he wakes up late the next morning – the day after Groundhog Day.

I guess it’s a poetic way of making the point that we keep making the same mistakes until we stop being self-centred, until we’re open enough to be changed and transformed by the needs of others.

[Funnily enough, earlier this year Foxtel – best known for its endless re-runs so presumably without seeing the irony of it – spent weeks and weeks playing repeats of Groundhog Day on TV1.]

Anyway, in today’s gospel reading, Jesus is having a Groundhog Day.  There’s something he needs to learn.  In just a couple of places, in Mark’s gospel, we read the actual Aramaic words that Jesus uses – ephphatha – which means, ‘be open’.  Probably because there’s something particularly significant going on with these words.  But it isn’t so easy, even when you know what it means.  Ephphatha.  Whose ears need to be opened?

In this text, Jesus is tired. According to Mark he has just been rejected in his home town of Nazareth. He has heard that John the Baptist has been beheaded. He has fed 5000 people with five loaves and two fish. He has walked on water and stilled the storm. He has been criticised by the Pharisees and given it back again with interest. He has had enough. He wants to get away for a while. He wants to go where no one knows his name so he enters Gentile territory. Fair enough, really.

Unfortunately, Jesus’ plans for a well-earned holiday come unstuck. Somehow this Gentile woman from Syrophoenicia – up in what’s now Lebanon – this unknown woman with a sick child, hears about Jesus and comes to beg that he will heal her little girl. Sounds like a minor annoyance – but one well known theologian claims that this woman changed the world.

Something I think we tend to forget, is that Jesus was a real human being. Jesus was a Jew, a product of his time and culture.  He thought and behaved like a first century Jew.  Jews of Jesus’ time were prejudiced against Gentiles, especially these near relatives to the north who - the way Jews saw it - had abandoned proper worship in the temple. They had abandoned the biblical dietary laws.  Like dogs, it seemed, Gentiles would eat anything. Gentiles were seen as second-rate people.

So when this Gentile mother comes to Jesus and begs him to heal her daughter we might be shocked at what Jesus says, "It is not fair to take the children's food and feed it to the dogs." You know what, even if we’re thinking, cute, tail-wagging puppy dogs, this is an insult.  Even more so considering the only dogs you’d be likely to come across in the peasant communities of Jesus’ day weren’t cute, they were generally wild, diseased, scavengers.

So for early Christians this was an embarrassing text.  Jesus is actually being prejudiced here.  Some biblical scholars have tried to soften it up, suggesting for example that Jesus was just joking, or that he was trying to test the woman’s faith – is she going to be open enough – is she going to be ephphatha?  But I don’t think we can actually get around the fact that Jesus was a product of his culture and he didn't really like Gentiles much. He saw his mission and ministry focused on the Jews. After all, they were God's chosen people.

And this woman changed Jesus’ attitudes. Her desperate situation made her persistent enough to endure being insulted. She had to trust in Jesus because there was no other help anywhere. Most people even today don’t respond too well to being called a dog. But she does and her response changes her life, changes her daughter's life, and changes the world because it also changes Jesus. This woman’s persistence turns a light bulb on in Jesus’ head and he has an ephphatha moment.  It’s a quick and clever come-back: "Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs."

Jesus hears in this woman's desperate wit something he had not known before, had never imagined. And now Jesus goes from hearing the woman with his ears, to hearing with his heart.

I wonder, is it possible that right here in this episode, we’re seeing Jesus opening up into a fuller understanding of what it actually means, this intimate relationship with God that he has always known?  That when Jesus begins his ministry he doesn’t yet understand everything he is going to have to understand? That he isn’t yet as inclusive as he’s going to need to become? But in this unlikely place, at the words of this unlikely witness, this Gentile woman, Jesus hears with his heart and his whole understanding of who he is and who he is to become begins to change.  A chapter earlier, in Mark, chapter six, Jesus has performed the first miracle of feeding – the feeding of the 5000 in Jewish territory.  Next chapter, in chapter eight, still in Gentile territory, Jesus is going to demonstrate by the feeding of the 4,000 that God’s love doesn’t stop at the border.  Right here, in chapter seven, we see Jesus himself learning to cross boundaries, learning something about the inclusiveness of God.

Faced with human need Jesus is persuaded that people matter most. No one can be excluded. The need of this Syropheonecian woman has penetrated Jesus’ closed cultural perspective, he has become ephphatha.  After being changed by this woman, Jesus encounters a man – presumably also a Gentile - who is deaf and has a speech impediment. Jesus puts his fingers into his ears, spits and touches the man's tongue with it and says "Ephphatha" – be open! - and the man's ears are opened and his tongue is released so that he is able to speak and be understood.  Which is also a pretty good description of what has just happened to Jesus himself.  All of this is very good news for Gentiles like you and me.

It isn’t easy being ephphatha, though.  It’s not easy for Jesus to step outside his own cultural conditioning, and it isn’t easy for us.  Being ephphatha can mean taking a risk, it generally means crossing boundaries, stepping outside your comfort zone, being prepared to look at things from a different angle.  It also means being able to look at yourself honestly, where you’ve come from and where you’re heading, being prepared to learn from your past in order to move forward.  A lot of the time – both as individuals and as a church - we find it safer and easier to keep reliving the same old routines of our own personal Groundhog Day where everything is predictable, though not actually very exciting.

What, I ask myself, is Groundhog Day for me?  Or perhaps I should ask, who?  Because when we find ourselves cycling around in a time loop, stuck in a holding pattern instead of moving forward into where God wants us to be, it’s always because there’s someone’s needs we’re not open to, someone’s voice we’re not hearing.  Whose voices have I been screening out, and how would it change me if I heard them?  But as they say, you don’t know what you don’t know – and hindsight is a wonderful thing.  More to the point, I guess, is how to become ephphatha?  How to practise receptiveness, how to practice being open to what God wants to teach me today?  Partly, I think, it’s about our basic orientation – learning to listen means firstly, expecting that no matter where we are, there’s something God wants us to notice, there’s something or someone God wants us to be open to.

How does God want me, today, to become ephphathaThe answer to that question is the direction in which God wants me to grow.

 

Pentecost 13

I’ve got a really good forget-ery.  So good a forget-ery that – if you haven’t already figured this out – if I’m talking to you and I say I’m going to do something, it’s not a bad idea to insist I put it straight in my diary.  In fact – if it was you I was supposed to be meeting last Thursday afternoon – well, sorry about that.

Cognitive Psychology comes up with some theories about this sort of stuff.  According to Cognitive Psychology, it’s easier to forget little things than big things.  For example, if you want to remember a shopping list, like “Half a dozen eggs, two carrots, two litres of milk, a jar of peanut butter and a loaf of bread”, it’s actually easier to remember if you form a bizarre mental image – say - of a tall man with orange legs, leading a cow with two full udders, Humpty Dumpty sitting on its back eating six peanut butter sandwiches.  The more you load up the mental image, the more vivid you make it and the more types of information you put on it, the more different neural pathways are involved in holding it together and the more different ways you have of accessing the information. 

Teachers tell you something similar.  If you just sit and listen during a lecture, you’ll forget about 80% of it.  If you sit and listen and take notes, you might remember half.  If you take part in a practical demonstration you’ll remember it as long as you need to.  A half a millenium before Christ, Confucius said the very same thing: "I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand."  And a few years after Jesus’ earthly life, the letter of James says the same thing again: “don’t just be hearers of the Word, who let it go in one ear and out the other – listen, and put it into practice – assimilate it, do it, and be blessed”. 

The letter is what commentators call Wisdom literature, very Jewish, in the tradition of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Wisdom of Solomon, presented in the name of James, the brother of Jesus, who became head of the Jerusalem church.  James is considered quite conservative in his attitude to the Jewish Law, as opposed to St Paul, for example, who doesn’t insist on Torah observance for Gentile converts, or Mark, the most radical of the lot who tells us in today’s Gospel reading that not only is Jesus’ law of love more important than the Law of Torah, it replaces it altogether.  But surprisingly, for us modern hearers of the Word, surrounded by the subliminal messages and values of an individualistic consumer culture, conservative James is the most confronting, the most challenging.

Right at the very beginning of today’s passage, James challenges us at the basic level of who we think we are.  “Don’t you know”, he says, “that every good thing you have is a gift from God, unearned and undeserved, and not only that, but your own self is a gift from God - God has given birth to you like a mother so what really matters in your life is how much God shows through in what you do”.  Because actually, we don’t really know that, we hear the words but it’s hard for us to actually get it when we live in a culture in which people are valued for what they have, for how much they can accumulate, how attractive or important or clever they are.  We live in a culture where the Self is measured, compared and ranked, where wealth, in all its various forms, matters.  And James challenges that from the outset.  What matters, he says, is that you come from God as a gift.  When he talks about the first fruits he is playing with the idea of inherited wealth.  But the first fruits are not what you have, not what you can do, the first fruits are who you are, as inheritors of the Wisdom and Word of God.  We hear it, but in the way we live, are we sure we actually get it? 

And then James teases it out a bit, he links the articles of faith, which we don’t find too tricky once we’ve got the jargon, with the practicalities of day-to-day living, which let’s face it, we’re not so crash-hot with.  And he plays with the metaphor of the Word, which as we know is also rather more than just a metaphor.

How much has the Word actually seeped in?  How much do you really respond to it?  And instead of letting us get away with pious faith-statements, James puts it into the most literal, everyday-common context.  How do you respond to the word when you hear it from another person?  The Jewishness of James is shown very strongly in how he imagines the spoken word as something organic that is planted deep inside you, something to be chewed and digested and made part of who you are.  The word is a colonist, carrying something of the personhood of the one who spoke it, that you take into your deepest self by hearing and being changed by it.  How do you listen to people?  It’s an aspect of wisdom.  Recently I had a conversation with a man who poured out his troubles to me leaving me feeling out of my depth, completely unable to think of any solution or even anything real that I could say to help him.  So I just listened.  I forgot whatever else I was supposed to be doing that morning, and I made him a coffee and listened.  And at the end of an hour and a half or so, he said, “thank you.  You made a difference”. 

But, what about how you listen to words you don’t want to hear?  Criticism, anger, words aimed at you with the express purpose of lashing out, words that tell you your gift is misunderstood, not appreciated, that you are not welcome?  Words like those come out under pressure – out of the need to express hurt or anger or disappointment, and the first thing to remember is that the words themselves express the brokenness of human relationships that are imperfect but yearn to be complete.  It’s a difficult gift to receive another person’s angry words and not feel you have to regain control with defensive words of your own.  Listening carefully says, “I take you seriously enough not to push you away”.  When we can hear criticism and anger without reacting defensively or with counter-accusations of our own, it means that relationships can be regrown.  The angry word - accepted, assimilated and transformed by one committed to remaining in relationship - turns out to be the Word of God.  This doesn’t mean being non-assertive, being a door-mat, and it certainly doesn’t mean refusing to address the deeper issues.  It means letting God’s Word, and God’s own way of communicating, become part of our own practice of relationships. 

And then James extends his practical approach, and his metaphor of attentiveness, to religion itself.  The last four verses of our reading this morning confront self-indulgent religion, religion where the primary purpose is to feel affirmed and reassured.  If you’ve been brought up an Anglican, if the movements and the hymns and rituals of our faith connect you with the security of childhood and give you hope for the life to come – then listening to the familiar prayers and words of faith can be soothing.  To those not so blessed, they can just be a turn-off.  But James is suggesting that it’s all too easily to be a superficial, self-serving believer.  It’s not an automatic thing that when we assent to the words of faith they get integrated into our daily lives.  Human beings are delightfully complex and contradictory creatures, we live happily with major inconsistencies between what we say we believe and what we actually do, because our actual behaviours are based on old assumptions or habits that we’ve never really examined.  James says we have to be intentional, we have to be reflective like looking in a mirror to check whether what we think we have taken in has actually been absorbed and assimilated.  I heard it said a while ago – and I think it’s true – that 21st century Christians are embedded primarily in the surrounding culture of our society – that’s where we spend most of our time, and that’s the set of values we mostly live from – only secondarily do we live out the culture of the Gospel.  We need to work at it, and if you’re anything like me, every now and then you’ll wake up with a start and realise that you’ve been forgetting to.  Hear and forget – do and remember.

The right way, the blessed way according to James, is to connect with the needs of the world around you in such a way that God’s Word has got a chance to transform you.  But it has to be real, not just token.  So James sees the Word or the Law in a way that emphasises not do’s and don’ts, but transformation and freedom.  A way of hearing God’s Word that allows it to soak in and actually change something on the everyday level, true holiness is about allowing God’s Word to give birth to something new in you.  Being unstained by the world doesn’t mean standing aside from the world so that you don’t notice its problems – it means refusing to surrender to the dominant values of the me-first society.  Caring for orphans and widows means putting yourself out for people who are powerless and marginalised.  This is something I think that individual Christians have always done better than the Church as a whole. 

Every year, on this Sunday, the Church gives us a chance to reflect on the plight of refugees.  A few years ago, in Australia, it was a red-hot topic – now less so because we no longer have children behind razor wire or the courageous voices of refugee advocates pricking our national conscience.  But worldwide, the plight of refugees and displaced people is actually worse now than ever before.  In fact, more than anyone else in our world today, refugees represent the orphan, the widow and the alien that all through the Old and New Testaments God’s people are invited to care for. Today, James asks us to think about how our faith is reflected in our actual relationships with the most vulnerable people in our society.  It’s a challenging question, isn’t it?