Archive for September, 2015

27 September 2015, St Cuthbert’s, Heaton

James 5.13-20

The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much

I was walking along Heaton Road the other day, and a phrase floated into my mind:
Prayer without faith is better than faith without prayer
I went home and searched on the internet to find out who had said it, but no one had – not in those words

You can make up wise and witty sayings, just by taking a phrase and turning it on its head
There’s only one thing worse than being talked about, and that’s not being talked about
A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing
Work is the curse of the drinking classes

So I asked myself, is it true:
Is prayer without faith better than faith without prayer?
What do you think?

If we look at it from Paul’s standpoint, we would say that prayers without faith are just empty words
Perhaps we might think of someone just repeating prayers out of a book or a favourite psalm, without putting any thought or feeling into what they’re doing
Someone who thinks of prayer as a guarantee of God’s favour – say so many prayers, get so much back in return
Or perhaps as a way of impressing and misleading other people, like the man in the parable offering his showy prayers in the temple

But is faith without prayer any better?
What does your faith amount to, if you never pray?
– If you can’t put your faith into words addressed to God?
– If you are embarrassed to be overheard talking to God?
– If you never feel the desire or the need to open your heart to God?

I’m talking both about praying alone, and praying with others
John Calvin said, you should make a habit of praying both in public and in private
If someone never prays out loud in a gathering of other Christians, he says, they probably don’t really pray at home either
But likewise, if you never pray alone in private, any prayers you offer in public will be empty
Solitary prayer and public prayer are essential to each other; and they are both essential to faith

We can see from this passage that James has great faith in the power of prayer
He believes in prayer as a universal panacea – prayer is the answer in every situation

If things are going badly, you should bring your troubles to God in prayer
If things are going well, you should bring your gratitude to God in prayer
If you are too sick to pray, others should pray for you
Even someone who is not conscious of the words or prayer can be anointed with oil, so that the knowledge they are being prayed for reaches them through the channels of the other senses

On the basis of this passage, I would argue that prayer without faith is better than faith without prayer
If you pray at all, it’s a sign you have some hope there is a God who is listening

Prayer without faith is at least a beginning
If you pray at all, you have at least begun to think and act like a person of faith
And the assumptions you make in beginning to pray will be vindicated
The effort of forming words addressed to God will have an impact on you greater than you can imagine
Praying more will make you a more prayerful person

Whereas faith without prayer isn’t really faith at all
Faith without prayer is an empty faith
Faith without prayer is faith abandoned at the back of a cupboard
Faith without prayer is faith that is dying – or already dead

I want to draw your attention to one more thing
James doesn’t talk about the prayer of the faithful
He talks about the prayer of the righteous

We must not over-simplify this
James does not mean that God only listens to people who behave themselves

When James talks about the prayers of the righteous, I think it’s shorthand
He certainly doesn’t mean God answers the prayers of the self-righteous
He means, God answers the prayers of those who are seeking God’s righteousness

Righteousness is not a possession
It comes from God, and it belongs to God, not to us

Remember the Sermon on the Mount
Jesus says, Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness

Jesus also talks in the parable of the lilies about people who pursue righteousness and the kingdom of God

What James is saying is exactly the same
God answers the prayers of those who hunger and thirst after righteousness
People on the move; people who are actively searching
People pursuing righteousness and the kingdom
People who in the deepest core of their being are desperate for a closer relationship with God
Who believe that a deeper relationship is possible, and is something God wants to share with us

How do we recognise people who are pursuing God’s kingdom and his righteousness?
We recognise them by the way they live – especially in the way they relate to other people

But we recognise them above all as people who pray
People who like to spend time with others who know the importance of prayer
People who hand over their lives to God through prayer, day by day and moment by moment
People whose prayers are answered, above all, because Jesus has taught them what to ask for


20 September 2015, Thanksgiving, St George’s, High Heaton

Matthew 6.25-34

This might seem an odd choice of reading for harvest time. Don’t bother sowing or reaping – God will provide. It’s certainly not the advice you get in the book of Proverbs, which spells out clearly the threat of famine for people who don’t do their work in the fields at the right times.

These are different books, written at different times for different audiences. Yet underlying both is the same message about priorities. The writer of Proverbs would never have said it was more important to work in the fields than to take your offerings to the temple at festival time. The things of this world are important; but the things of God are vital, fundamental to life.

Let me give an example that illustrates the difference

We were tidying out a cupboard last week and we found a game of Trivial Pursuit
Trivial Pursuit (in case you’ve forgotten) was a board game that was very popular at parties thirty years ago
It appeared in 1982, and by 1984 it was selling in millions

You went round the board answering questions about sport and literature and art and politics and entertainment
If you got the answers right you get little coloured plastic segments which slotted into a little holder to make a kind of multi-coloured pie
You’re probably wondering how this ever became so popular

Our girls had never heard of Trivial Pursuit
So we opened up the box and tried to teach them how to play it

But we found it very difficult
– not because we couldn’t remember the rules
– but because we’d forgotten the answers to the questions
– especially the ones in the really important categories: sports, politics and entertainment

Remember, this was the original edition of the game
The questions were written in the early nineteen-eighties
Most of these people who were so famous at the time have disappeared from public view

Trivial Pursuit is rightly-named, because it really is a ‘trivial pursuit’
Why couldn’t we remember the answers? Because the questions weren’t important
Trivial Pursuit reminds us how trivial most of the things that catch our attention really are
It reminds us how quickly they are passing away

What pursuits does the Bible recommend?
The Bible says, pursue the things that last
Jesus says, pursue the kingdom of God and his righteousness
The kingdom of God and his righteousness – that’s the harvest we ought to want

The kingdom of God is the rule of God – it means knowing who is really in charge
The righteousness of God is not just trying to be nice to people
It means being right with God
Knowing we have sinned, but believing that our sins will be forgiven through Jesus Christ

The kingdom of God and his righteousness are not trivial pursuits
They are totally out of our reach – unless God helps us to achieve them

Luckily for us, that’s just what God has promised to do
He sent Jesus to tell us what the kingdom is
He sent Jesus to show us what righteousness is
Jesus died and rose so that we could be made righteous as he is

This morning, we thank God for the gifts and talents of our young people
We give thanks to God for all the good things our young people will do with their gifts
Knowing that all good things come from God
And that God gave us his gifts not to that we could please ourselves, but so that we could serve him, and come to know him

We give thanks to God, that in Jesus Christ he’s given us something real to pursue
Through the promise of the kingdom he’s given us an escape from all the things that are trivial and don’t last

13 September 2015, St Cuthbert’s, Heaton

James 3.1-12

Why does James tell people they shouldn’t want to be teachers?
Is it because so few people have the ability? Not really

Few people should aim to teach, James believes, because teaching is such a heavy responsibility
It’s so easy to tell people the wrong thing

Teachers have authority, and it’s so easy to abuse that authority
Easy to allow your viewpoint to tyrannise over the views of the people you teach

If you can’t answer someone’s question, it’s so easy to make things up
If you don’t like someone else’s question, it’s so easy to dismiss it
If you don’t like what someone else says, it’s so easy to tell them they’re wrong
If the truth is inconvenient, it’s so easy to find a way round it

But teachers cannot evade responsibility for what they teach
They are continually being monitored
They might pull the wool over the eyes of their students
But God is always listening, and constantly judging what they say

Even if a teacher acts with complete integrity, they still bear that burden
Especially if I talk about the things of God, how can I know that what I’m saying is right?

Teachers are being continually tested
Unlike their students, they constantly put themselves on show

No one can tell what the students in front of them are thinking, unless they speak
No one can tell what temptations they might be entertaining, until those temptations break the surface
Until the person entertaining them either speaks, or acts

But the teacher stands at the front, and everyone listens
Teachers are judged by what they say

However, there’s one thing we should notice about what James says
The difference between teachers and other people is only a difference of degree

Scholars say James’s letter doesn’t really flow – it’s almost a set of separate paragraphs strung together
But it’s held together by one theme: the relationship between words and deeds
Which is essentially the relationship that underpins the comparisons James makes between faith and works, beliefs and actions, attitudes and conduct
What James says about teachers fits within that framework

Last week we were talking about judgement
Not God’s judgements, but human judgements
The judgements we pass on other people, almost without knowing we’re doing it

This passage continues the same theme
James’s talk about teachers and tongues is not just an isolated little purple patch
It fits right in with the passages that surround it
It takes to a whole new level the rhetoric about how just what a potent danger rash words and careless judgements are to a Christian community

The problem is not the teacher; the problem is the tongue
Not all of us are teachers, but we all have a tongue
And most of us are not afraid to use it

This passage is right at the heart of the letter
It tells us, very forcefully, something we all know to be true
Your mother said, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me”
Your mother was wrong
We know from experience that sins committed with the tongue are both the easiest to commit, and often the most damaging, to ourselves as well as others

James picks on teachers because teachers show us the danger most clearly
Teachers do not just aim to pack their students’ minds full of facts
They try to influence how students feel and think
How they reason and believe

A bad teacher can be a really potent force for evil
Unfortunately, we have seen that in the behaviour of some religious leaders
We have seen an American religious leader take his followers into the jungle, and persuade them to kill themselves by drinking cyanide

If the church is the body, and Christ is its head, the bad teacher is the tongue: placed among our members as a world of iniquity
The bad teacher, who wants nothing more than to put on a performance, to impress other people with the power of his words, is
a restless evil, full of deadly poison
The bad teacher, who wants nothing more than to force other people to think as he does against their better inclinations,
stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell

Set on fire by hell – that is now dangerous the tongue can be; that is the power of oratory
The power of oratory can deceive even the people who use it
False oratory can fill people’s minds with self-righteousness and the hatred of others
It can turn a whole society on its head, send a nation into war, plunge the world into chaos

We see on television the horrors perpetrated by Jihadists
Filmed on mobile phones and posted on YouTube
Many of these images are so terrible they would never be shown on British television

But behind the images are the words of the teachers
The teachers who deliberately turned words into weapons
The teachers who made these unspeakable atrocities seem normal and right to the people who committed them

That, I think, is why James is so strong on the importance of good works
You can easily confuse people with words – but we can usually recognise good deeds when we see them
The habit of doing good deeds is the discipline our thoughts need

Good words are the proper response to evil deeds
Good deeds are the proper response to evil words
Responding graciously to the malice of others and all of the accidents that happen to us in this world is a discipline that teaches us wisdom
And when we have become wise, we will discover for ourselves that there is nothing more rewarding than speaking words of encouragement to other people

Each sin is an error of judgement

Posted: September 6, 2015 in Uncategorized

6 September 2015, St George’s, High Heaton

Mark 7.24-37  James 2.1-13

Speak and act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty

A long time ago, I said every sin results from a failure of love
When we sin, it’s either because loved ourselves too much, or because we didn’t love God and our neighbour enough

Today I want to put it slightly differently

Every sin is an error of judgement
Either we judged wrongly
Or we were wrong to judge at all

The theme of our gospel reading was presumption
The Pharisees presumed to challenge Jesus by criticising his disciples’ table manners
Saying they hadn’t washed their hands before they ate
Not surprisingly, Jesus gave them a mouthful

The Gentile woman, by contrast, challenged Jesus to reveal the wideness of God’s mercy
She said, even the dogs under the table were allowed to lick up the crumbs
Her behaviour looked presumptuous
But Jesus blessed her and healed her daughter

The woman challenged Jesus to live up to her idea of God
The Pharisees challenged Jesus to live down to their narrow definition of godliness

Put those two together, and you see how the Bible teaches us to view the sin of presumption
Presumption means, making too little of God, by making too much of yourself
Making so much of yourself, that there is hardly any room left for God

James gives us the social dimension of this teaching
All the judgements we pass on other people are attempts to control situations and relationships
They are designed to limit how far other people intrude into our safe worlds

I love his phrase, the law of liberty:

Speak and act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty

The law of liberty does not say that because God has chosen us, we are free to do what we like
The law of liberty is the standard God will use to judge how liberal we have been

Liberty is freedom; giving people liberty is giving them room
The law of liberty says, we will be judged by the we have allowed to other people
How accommodating we have been; in other words, how hospitable
How we judge, here and now, will ultimately determine how we are judged

Which is why it’s so appropriate James begins by talking about how newcomers are received by the church:

If a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

If you think for a moment, you will realise that James is building on a teaching of Jesus
In Luke 14, Jesus tells guests how to behave at a wedding banquet:

When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host. … Go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

In the Luke passage, it’s the guest who is tempted to behave presumptuously
In our passage from James, it’s the ushers at the church door

Jesus talks about feasts – don’t presume to take the highest place; wait to be invited
James talks about assumptions – we judge strangers by their appearance, and we automatically assign them a place, even before we can put our impressions into words

The situations are different: the passages look at those situations from opposite sides
But in both passages the sin is the same: the sin of presumption
The sin of pride, producing a selfish error of judgement

Misjudgement leads in one case to a failure of hospitality
In the other case, it leads to a trespass against the bounds of someone else’s hospitality
But in both cases we see a failure of love – a failure to acknowledge the other, and give them their due

The law of God is not something that confines us and closes us in
The law of Christ is perfect liberty
We are bound and confined by the judgements we pass on other people

The law of liberty has two dimensions
It is personal and immediate; it is also cosmic and universal
That is a really important lesson
The lack of welcome James complains about is not a trivial matter of etiquette

We face the consequences of our hasty judgements here and now, in our personal lives and relationships
But the ultimate consequences are eternal and infinite
James warns us, Judgement will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgement.

I said, all sin results from a failure to love; I also said, all sin is an error of judgement

Really, these two statements amount to the same thing
The impulse to judge is a denial of our love
We cannot judge as God does, because we do not love as God does
If we deny our love to others, God will be entitled to withdraw his love from us

The conclusion I would draw from this is, we should not judge until we learn to love
When we have learned from Jesus how to love, we will be equipped to judge