Sunday Service 5th September - Practical Christianity 101
The chosen hymns for this week, The church is wherever , All over the world , For everyone born and Lord make us servants of your peace can be found below along with a transcription of the sermon for those who prefer to read.
James 2: 1-7 Michelle
James 2: 8-17
Welcome to our time of reflection for Sunday 5th September.
We are working through the letter of James, a kind of practical theology.
This week we look at how we respect others, and who we respect.
But we will look into that more after Michelle gives us our reading from James, and leads us in prayer
Respect, who do we show respect to, and how do we show respect to them.
In the study notes that we use for these readings they give the example of the opening of this year’s General Assembly.
It starts with a gong going off and that warns the Assembly to stand as the great and the good entered the hall; the First Minister, the Provost with his golden chain,
the Lord High Commissioner, this year it also included Prince William, the second in line to the Throne, accompanied by the royal Purse-Bearer.
I don’t know how many times I have had to go to the General Assembly. I was wracking my brains to remember how many times the General Assembly had stood up as I entered the hall.
I lost count after...zero times.
The writer of the letter of James would have struggled with that.
Why are some treated differently than others?
This was a huge problem in the early church.
The early church would have been very different from the church as we know it.
Jews and non Jews.
Rich and poor.
Men and Women.
They would have thought they were very enlightened and progressive because all these groups would have been at the same meeting at the same time.
James however saw it differently.
Where they were boasting about their unity, James condemned their disunity.
They couldn’t see how divided they were.
How the very structure of the meetings meant they were divided.
The meetings, and I mean meetings rather than services, would have been in the house of someone wealthy because only the wealthy would have had a room big enough to hold everyone who wanted to go.
The meeting would have started with a communal meal, a time of companionship and fellowship, then they would have maybe read a new letter that Paul had written, or maybe one of Paul’s old ones, or maybe one of the books of prophecy from the Hebrew Bible, then an individual may have spoken on that passage or a group of them may have discussed it. That might have been followed by a time of prayer or psalm singing.
It all sounds very idyllic. Don’t we wish our churches could be like that?
The only problem with that theory is that if the church was that brilliant then how come James had to write a letter sorting them out?
The problem in every church has never been the style of worship.
The problem every church has is how we show respect to others.
And in their church the problem was particularly between the rich and poor.
You see the poor were probably slaves.
The meetings were in the houses of the rich because they were big enough to hold the meetings and have the meals.
In theory once the two groups were together they where one people in Christ.
But the reality was that they came in rich or poor and stayed that way inside.
The rich may have been supplying the house and the meal, but their slaves would have been the ones preparing it. So the rich come to the meeting relaxed and ready to worship.
The poor don’t just arrive, they arrive once they have serviced their own masters their foods and then been given permission to leave their homes to go to these meetings in someone else’s home. They probably arrive late because of that.
Even the slaves of the household would be expected to serve their masters first before they sat down to their own meal.
The rich, with no commitments or obligations to anyone but themselves arrive on time and start the meeting on time because they are hungry and that is a reasonable thing to expect.
Unfortunately the poor don’t have the luxury of deciding when they can leave their masters so by the time they arrive they arrive late, they all sit together at the far away seats because those are the seats that are left, and the food they get is the food that is left.
The rich folk are then annoyed because the poor folk are holding them back from the worship part; they have had their meal already and are impatient to get to the important stuff.
The rich contribute greatly to the discussion and the poor don’t. The rich take this to mean that the poor aren’t as intelligent, which makes sense, that is why they are poor. Instead of realising that the poor are contributing less because they have spent all day working and are mentally and physically exhausted.
You see the tensions rising?
We still have it; that imbalance of entitlement, and even worse, that imbalance of respect.
I am sure that if Prince William had arrived late at the General Assembly the rest of us would have been kept waiting till he arrived.
I am sure that if I was delayed because my train was late then they wouldn’t have waited.
If truth be told I wouldn’t have been bothered by that.
Most of the time I am at the General Assembly I am praying that the train arrives late so that I have a guilt free excuse for missing some of it.
What James saw, the sadness he felt, was the realisation that this lack of respect hurt the church, hurt us as individuals, because when we don’t respect people we ignore them and when we ignore them we miss out on so much.
To this day the greatest theologian I ever met was the cleaner of one of the poorest churches in Glasgow.
Her name was Mary and she cleaned the church at St James in Pollock.
She wouldn’t have been an academic theologian; she probably couldn’t tell you what half the books of the Bible were.
But if you wanted to know how to live your faith, you looked at Mary.
And it wasn’t because she had an easy, blessed life.
She was married to an alcoholic, she had three children and fostered goodness knows how many in a three apartment council house.
She knew what it was like to be hit hard by life and she tried her very best to help all of those more vulnerable than herself because she wanted to give them the help she wished she had had when she struggled.
I rarely quote academic theologians as most of it isn’t of much practical use, and I couldn’t quote Mary because she never said much really, and half the stuff she said was in expletives so it probably wouldn’t go down well in a church anyway, but I would hope that I try to follow her example as best I can.
Because what she did was more important than what she said.
And that is how we show respect to others, not by what we say, but by how we treat them.
So something practical...
I don’t want anyone to leave here today with some kind of inverted snobbery; that we all love the poor and hate the rich.
Trust me, that kind of attitude to the wealthy is as unhelpful as looking down on the poor.
What James seeks from us is an openness of heart.
To believe that the person we are in front of, no matter their status, their power, their influence, their culture, their sexuality...
is a person loved by God, so deserves to be loved by us.
And because they are loved by God they have a part of God in them, they can teach us, we can learn from them and we deprive ourselves if we cut ourselves off from them.
Because when we cut ourselves off from them we cut ourselves off from God, and that is very damaging.
There was once an academic theologian that I did greatly respect, a man called Henri Nouwen, really clever guy, was professor at University of Notre Dame, Yale Divinity School and Harvard Divinity School. At the end of his life he gave it all up to work within a community that worked with those categorized as high dependency because of their physical and mental disabilities.
And he did that
not because he thought he was noble helping them,
he did that because he believed they could teach him more about a God who inspires love.
The writer of the book of James doesn’t want us to love the poor and hate the rich; he wants us all to be open to each other.
To share what we can, to be there for each other, because it is in that openness that we see God most clearly.
The danger is that if we don’t do that then we categorize others so that we can call them different from us...they are rich or poor, catholic or protestant or Muslim or gay or non-gender or Tory or Labour or SNP or state educated or privately educated, or old or young or...whatever.
And once we put them in a box we can ignore them for they have nothing to say to us.
The truth is they have everything to say to us
because they are on a life journey that will be hard at times and easier at other times that will seem smooth at times and like climbing a mountain that never seems to end at other times...like our journey.
It is not that they need us or that we need them, the truth is that we need each other, and if we are not open to them, if we cut ourselves off from them, then both of us suffer.
Life is too short and too hard to cut ourselves off from others.
For their sake, and for our sake, let us respect one another, be open to one another, for when we do, we see God, and when we see God, we have hope.
Let us pray
The thing about our blind spots, is that by their nature we can’t see them.
But others can, they hear the snide remark or the dismissive glance.
They see how our attention wavers when we get bored of them or how we seem to always be busy when they want to talk to us.
Help us to change the filters within our eyes.
That when we look at others we see first their uniqueness and giftedness,
We see the wonder of potential and rejoice in their struggles overcome.
May our heart be full of the compassion and warmth and understanding that is in your heart when you look at them.
May we be the blessing that they need us to be.
And may we be open to the blessings You want is to receive from them.
This we ask in Jesus name.