Sermon for the 23rd September by Reverend Mark Wakefield
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8/Mark 9:30-37
It must be about a year ago now that I was in the Majestic Wine Warehouse in Chalk Farm and I got chatting to one of the assistants. He was a recent graduate who, like so many others, was struggling to find a job. It turned out that he had an ambition to get into management consultancy and given that I’ve got some experience in that field I offered to have a drink with him to tell him what I could and maybe point him in the direction of some people who might be able to help. Well, I am glad to say that a year on he’s made some great progress which doesn’t surprise me at all, although it has little to do with me. We still meet every so often and at our last meeting we ended up talking about religious faith. As it happens Rupert is an avowed atheist and we had what I think we both found to be a very interesting discussion during which he said that one of the difficulties he had with Christianity was the way in which doing good deeds seemed somehow to be selfish, as if they were necessary to secure our place in heaven. Surely, he reasoned, good deeds should be done for their own sake? Well, I couldn’t have put it better myself and the conversation left me wondering how on earth it is that we’ve ended up in a position where the common understanding of the gospel is the precise opposite of what it really is.
If you want an example of the self-centeredness that Rupert finds so unattractive then you need look no further than the poor example set by the disciples in today’s gospel reading. First of all they are too proud to ask Jesus what he meant when he talked of being killed and rising again, presumably for fear of looking stupid. But that doesn’t stop them proceeding to squabble about which of them was the greatest. As a picture of human folly you don’t get much better than this – and this from the people on whom the church was built. I guess we should take this as some kind of encouragement but only if we can take to heart the lesson that the epistle of James has for us today.
As James makes so clear, it’s self-centeredness that is the root cause of all that distorts and spoils human life – “for where there is envy and selfish ambition there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind”. At the heart of both the Old and New Testaments is the understanding that to be truly wise we must acknowledge in the depths of our hearts that we are not the centre of the universe, however much we may like to think and act differently. The simple truth is that life is about so much more than us.
Our church liturgy is one of the key means we have of conveying this simple truth. By liturgy I mean the words we use, the songs we sing, the stories we tell, the rituals we enact that collectively convey gospel truth. For me one of the most powerful liturgical moments comes on Ash Wednesday which marks the beginning of Lent, that great six week period during which, in preparation for Easter, we ponder the sinfulness of our human hearts. During the Ash Wednesday service a priest marks our foreheads with ashes made from the previous years’ palm crosses. As the priest makes the sign of the cross he or she says these words: “Remember O man or Woman, thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return.” It is an incredibly moving and humbling moment, a powerful reminder of our mortality and smallness, that we are, as Job said, “of small account”.
It is the ability of religious faith to speak to us of this profound truth that is one of the most powerful arguments for it. Christopher Jamison, the former Abbot of Worth Abbey, has written a great book called “Finding Sanctuary”. I think it’s a great book and commend it to you because it’s a book about how to grow spiritually in the midst of a busy life – in other words, it doesn’t assume that you need to become some kind of hermit to achieve spiritual growth. In it he argues that we are all of us, whether we believe in God or not, religious in some way in so far as we confer ultimate value on something. If that something is not God then it will be something else – money, celebrity, status or whatever. Such objects of desire he says are nothing less than idols. It was apparently once said of a successful entrepreneur “he’s a self-made man and he worships his creator”. Well, such an attitude can accurately describe many who are not entrepreneurs, including it seems the disciples in today’s gospel reading. What classical religion does is to mercilessly expose such idolatry by revealing a power external to ourselves to which we are accountable. Jamison puts it like this:
“Classic religion is about being set free from the idolatry of people, objects and techniques. It is about being set free from the constantly shifting sands of human desire. In classic religion you do not pick and choose; you learn a whole way of life.”
As in everything of course, Jesus is our model. Even when he’s making the greatest claims for himself – such as when he says “I am the bread of life” in John’s gospel – he is always pointing to his Father as the source of all power and wisdom and to whom he is accountable. No self-made man he. And it’s this of course that underlies and explains his complete submission to God’s will – “not my will but thy will be done.” It’s a radical openness to God and the creative possibilities that entails that Jesus models for us and that we try to emulate.
But what, in practical terms, does that mean for us? Well, this is where it gets tough but only in the sense that it’s for each one of us to find out for ourselves. There is no prescription for this, no identikit Christian – thank goodness! Just look at the Book of Acts. The church was rich in diversity from the very start. For every itinerant preacher leading a life of poverty there were many more soldiers, servants, housewives, administrators and business people all of them trying to follow the pattern of Jesus Christ in their own particular way and in their own particular situation.
What we can be sure of though is a paradox – that in submitting to God’s will, in putting God first and not ourselves, we find out and enjoy who we truly are and what our purpose is. The gospel clearly shows us that selfishness and pride distort our true natures, the people we were made to be. We are made for harmonious relationships – with God and with each other. That means each of us being fully honoured for who we uniquely are, with our talents and skills realised to the full for the joy and benefit of all. That’s what the Kingdom of God – that phrase that was constantly on Jesus’ lips as summing up the whole point of his mission – actually means. That’s therefore what the church should be: a community of people who delight in their difference in service of each other. And that means each of us being MORE truly ourselves than we currently are, NOT LESS.
This is emphatically not a blanding out, a levelling down or a denial of excellence – quite the contrary. I truly believe that in the OIympics we all got a glimpse of the Kingdom of God. You would have thought that the “I am the greatest” attitude of the first disciples would have been much in evidence but what has surprised, delighted and inspired so many of us is that so often it wasn’t. Here were young people exercising their talents to the full and happy to do their best whether winning gold or coming some way down the field – just happy to be who they were and to the very best of their ability. This is the life overflowing with abundance of which Jesus spoke. This is the key to our being the Body of Christ of which Paul spoke – that body in which each part plays its role in the service of the rest with no hint of pride or boastfulness, regardless of whether that role is seen as grand or lowly by the rest of the world.
Being a Christian means, simply, pursuing a way of life that enables us to live abundantly in community with others. But just as with athletics it requires hard work and commitment. Worship, prayer, study, reflection, meditation, discussion – we need to do these things routinely to achieve the wisdom that comes from knowing ourselves to be most fulfilled when in the service of God and others and not ourselves, the wisdom that comes from knowing – in our hearts – that we are not, after all, the centre of the universe.
This is a gradual, long process, as with athletics training. Be assured that the first disciples did not become model Christians overnight, if they ever did. The stories of both Peter and Paul show there were many slips along the way. But over time it’s a process that bears fruits and one of those fruits is good works – real, authentic good works. As the letter of James puts it:
“….the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy” (my underlining)
In other words, these are works done not out of any expectation of return or any sense of self-righteousness but done, as my young friend would say, for their own sake.