A Sermon preached by Fr Peter Wolton at St George's and St John's on Sunday 30 August 2015
Sermon for Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity
Today I want to reflect on three things in today’s Epistle from St. James: Gossip and Tongues and Mirrors.
You may feel that of these three, only the last, mirrors, is appropriate to St. Georges, because we don’t do gossip, and nor do we do services in tongues.
What is gossip? Here is one person on gossip.
“My dear Arthur, I never talk scandal. I only talk gossip. What is the difference between scandal and gossip? Oh! Gossip is charming! History is merely gossip. But scandal is gossip made tedious by morality.”
If I asked you who wrote that, you might well guess Oscar Wilde – and you would be right. We can marvel at his wit, the sheer cleverness of so much of his output, and the joy provided by his plays such as Lady Windermere’s Fan, from which this description of gossip comes.
But putting witty Wilde to one side, we all know that Gossip is often hugely destructive; this can be summed up in the words of Sir Richard Steele, founder of the Spectator magazine, who wrote “Fire and swords are slow engines of destruction, compared to the tongue of a gossip.”
In today’s Epistle we are warned about the destructive power of the unbridled tongue. In the Gospel Jesus warns us that is from within the human heart that evil intentions come
Today, I would like us to look more closely at the Epistle.
The letter of James is often overlooked. It is short, only five chapters and if you have the chance to read it at one sitting, the message is pithy and hard hitting, stressing that faith and works are indivisible and that discipleship and faith are only real when they are lived out.
This morning James addresses us to be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger and of the need to bridle our tongues.
Who was James? There are a number of James in the NT, and the writer of this letter is generally thought to be the eldest of Jesus’s four brothers, or more accurately half-brothers, given the Virgin Birth.
He is, you may recall, mentioned in Mark 6, when Jesus returns to his hometown to preach in the synagogue at Nazareth “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. 4Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honour, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”
He is also known as “James of Jerusalem,” whose Saint’s day we celebrate on 23rd October. He received Paul cordially in Jerusalem following the latter’s conversion. He was prominent in the early church in Jerusalem and was Head of the Jerusalem church for over a decade until his martyrdom in 62 AD.
Turning back to tongues, James demonstrates his brilliant use of similitudes: “If we put bits in to the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at the ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to move them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.”
We all know the power of the tongue, how it can bond or fracture a community. How many times have we said to ourselves after the event “How I wish I had not said that.” And also how when someone says something unexpectedly encouraging, what a difference it can make.
The opposite of the use of the tongue is silence, but as we know there is “good” silence and “bad” silence, such as not speaking up, when something needs to be said.
Silence is a key part of Benedictine monastic life. The rule of Benedict stresses four things: Prayer, the Community, and Work and fourthly The Rule of St. Benedict, a guide to living comprising short chapters, including one on “Restraint of Speech” I’d like to share with you what the Benedictine Abbess Joanne Chittister writes:
“Silence is a cornerstone of Benedictine life and spiritual development, but the goal of monastic silence is not nontalking. The goal of monastic silence and monastic speech, is respect for others, a sense of place, a spirit of peace. The rule does not call for absolute silence; it calls for thoughtful talk. Silence for its own selfish insulating sake, silence that is passive aggressive, silence that is insensitive to the present needs of the other is not Benedictine silence.”
Now I come to St. James’ reference to mirrors. “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror, for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act - they will be blessed in their doing.”
These verses on the need to look at ourselves, I suggest, could rank among some of the most important in the New Testament.
Because, if we, as the theologian Kierkegaard wrote, come to understand that God’s word is a mirror in which one should observe oneself. Scripture is no longer is an objective doctrine. It takes on life. It is about God and us. We become engaged. We find ourselves asking “What does this passage mean to me?”
“It is I to whom it is speaking; it is I about whom it is speaking.”
Thus to read Scripture as God’s word, means we must find ourself in it, to have given ourselves to it and to be addressed by God.
To see ourself in the mirror properly, one must ask difficult questions, interested questions, and questions in which one is passionately engaged.
We pray that we can all be doers of the word, but to do this, we will all be doers in our different ways.
And because we are all different, yet are all loved and commanded by God, indebted and responsible to God, we will all see a different reflection in the mirror. And we will find that what a passage of scripture says to me will be different to what it says to you.
Since arriving at St. Georges, I have noticed that as a community, we are not prone to gossip, that our tongues are bridled and many a kind word and word of concern for others is heard.
We ask God that as the summer break comes to an end, we may find ourselves refreshed, look in the mirror, be directly addressed by the scriptures, be passionately engaged, and as commanded by St. James, “be doers of the word”
Let us go forth today, each asking ourselves two questions:
First: Given where I am, my gifts and resources, how can I be the most effective doer of the word?
Second: How can I use my tongue most effectively, to build Christ’s community here on earth?