· There was much excitement in my household this week as my first grandson spoke his first word; and it was…. “mum”!
· It won’t be long now before the words will be tumbling out of a new generation in my family; and as I was preparing for this talk and the themes that emerge from today’s readings I was taken back to some of the extraordinary things that my children used to say, particularly when they were trying to make up excuses for when things went wrong between them:
· Pretending that they weren’t really there or responsible for what happened: ‘I didn’t know he wanted to get out of the wardrobe’; I didn’t know he was there when I shut the door on his finger; it couldn’t have been me, I was in my spaceship.
· Trying to get out on a legality; “it wasn’t me that hit him, it was the stick”. “He tripped over my foot.”
· Of course as adults we grow out of such habits don’t we? perhaps not when we look at excuses made by adults to car insurers:
· To avoid a collision, I ran into the other car
· The car in front stopped for a yellow light so I had no choice but to hit him.
· I didn’t think the speed limit applied after midnight
· We see similar attitudes played out in two of our readings this morning.
· First we have the pharisees in our Gospel reading. They come in for extremely harsh criticism from Jesus because of the way that they rely upon their humans traditions or legalities to make them think they are holy. But in focusing upon minor issues of washing rituals, they ignore the big issues of injustice, sexual immorality, oppression of the poor.
· Jesus accuses them of setting up rules so that they could do the minimum possible in keeping God’s law. ‘This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me’ says Jesus using the words of Isaiah’s Old Testament prophecy. Their hearts are not set to please God, but to do the minimum outward demonstrations of religion possible.
· The second group are described in our epistle reading from the letter of James. These are those who live in an unreal world of worship and belief which bears no relation to how they spend their time in the week. They hear about God’s call upon their lives, but then walk away as if they never heard it.
· These two groups represent the two extremes of how we often fail to understand and apply the Christian faith. At one extreme, we imagine that the Christian faith can be reduced to a series of simple dos and don’t which when observed can enable us to get on with the rest of our lives. ‘No’, says Jesus this people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me’ - you must love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your mind and with all your soul and with all your strength.’ We are called not to rules but to a relationship of love. God accepts us as we are, through Jesus (and his death and resurrection) our failures to live lives worthy of God’s standards are forgiven and we have a restored relationship of love; a springboard for us to offer all that we are back to God in service.
· But at the other extreme we can imagine that this relationship of love is so cosy, that it need not have any impact upon our everyday lives. We spend our time using the language of love without demonstrating its effect in our relationships with others. We are hearers of the word and not doers.
· James offers us a very helpful picture here of how we get it wrong and how we can put it right. When we are merely hearers and not doers, we are like someone who looks at themselves in the mirror and then goes away forgetting what they look like..
· There are two mistakes here. The first mistake is not to look close enough at who we are in God’s sight (and who we are created to be – this is what James describes as ‘looking steadily at the perfect law of freedom’); the second mistake is to forget what we’ve seen.
· When we look deeply into scripture, there are a huge range of picture or descriptions of who we are in God’s sight and who we are created to be and who we are in relation to others; insights which can transform our attitudes and actions.
· Right from the beginning in Genesis we know that we are made in the image of God with the capacity for love and concern for others and cherished with that human family image – in that respect we are like every other human being who, when we become aware of their needs, becomes a neighbour to us, a human family member to us, whether they be in Leicestershire or Afghanistan;
· We are also adopted children of God. Jesus taught us to call God ‘abba’ father and through the grace of Christ each of us is a beloved child of God, accepted as I am; and so when we have such opportunities as this morning to come together across different parishes and worshipping communities, we can look across our gathering and give thanks for one another as fellow children of God adopted by grace; and develop our sense of being family, in this case a deanery family.
· We are also made to live in reconciled community with God and with one another; we can find ourselves estranged, but just as with the prodigal son in Jesus’ parable, when we return to God aware of our waywardness we find the outstretched arms of the father are waiting to greet us. Time and time again we return to our father to ask his forgiveness and through reliance upon Jesus death and resurrection we are reconciled; but that is also true for our sisters and brothers in Christ with whom we are called to live in reconciled community as the body of Christ. And when relationships between us are strained or break down, our own experience of reconciliation when we reflect on it naturally directs us so work out reconciliation with others.
· We are temples of the Holy Spirit, that wonderful truth expressed by Paul in his letter to the Corinthians: ‘do you not know your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit’. When we come into community with God the Holy Spirit comes and lives in us, to change us and transform us; when in different ways we fail to take care of our bodies, of our minds or our attitudes it is not just ourselves we affect but we grieve the Holy Spirit living in us, and we also impact the reputation and credibility of God in other people’s eyes.
· We are not just children of God but we are heirs of God, joint heirs with Christ (as Paul shares in his letter to the Romans); we are no longer on a journey that ends in death; we are on a pilgrimage which ends with God and in eternal company with one another. We are heirs of the kingdom that Jesus set up and against which death is no barrier, so what we build now in our relationships with others matter because we belong together for eternity.
· And as we look deeply into these pictures of who we are in Christ, the whole orientation of lives is changed; we are destined to inherit the kingdom where we find true happiness, something that accumulating status and possessions will never give us.
· we are destined to share in a kingdom that knows no ethnic or national boundary; a worldwide concern becomes part of our identity. We won’t immediately look for the boundaries that say we do not need to engage with anything over there, whether that be a parish boundary or an international frontier; as beloved children of God we will not think we have to solve the world’s problems on our own to earn God’s favour but neither, acting out of thanksgiving for God’s generous love for us, will we seek to do the minimum in building a just world. We will do what we can, where we can.
· If this is the journey, our identity and our calling that we regularly reflect upon in different ways so that we remember this biblical mirrored image of our true selves as we leave it to set about our everyday faith each week, each day, then we shall set about living by kingdom values, we shall be doers of the word as well as hearers; not because we feel forced to do so, but because we recognise who we truly are in God’s sight and where we are bound in our pilgrimage with him and with each other.