Wednesday, 24 March 2010

The uncontrollable tongue!

James has already spoken about the tongue
1:19: ‘Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry’
1:26: ‘Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.’

But now he expands on what he has said.

He starts by talking about teachers, about people who use the tongue to teach of Jesus.

He challenges a church where people were pushing themselves forward to be teachers. Everybody wanted to be up at the front, doing the ‘limelight’ jobs. I don’t think that that is an issue here. In fact I think we have the opposite problem: we actually need more people who are willing to be teachers – teachers of children, teachers in our groups, teachers here in church. We need people who are prepared, before God, to give themselves to this work, and to choose to place themselves under the stricter judgement

But I guess that there is a point: don’t assume that you can become a teacher. The teaching ministry has to be received and acknowledged by others. It needs to be tested. And part of that testing is submission to the church.

And James warns us that those who teach will be judged more strictly.

The world certainly judges us more strictly.

If a vicar falls it is front page news. Journalists love it. Particularly if they are hostile to Christianity

And if a politician, especially a politician who has taken a moral stand, falls – they are murdered by the press. John Major’s government came unstuck when, having said that they were going to promote family values, several of their ministers were caught having affairs. Since then, no politician has dared to make family values a platform on which to stand.

What are the qualifications for being a teacher?
So is James saying that those who teach must live better, even perfect lives?
Are they people who need to have learned how to control the tongue?

And the answer that James goes on to give is not what we would expect.
He doesn’t say ‘Yes’.

Instead he goes on

1.      to speak about the power and influence of the tongue

He talks about how with a bit we can control a horse
He talks about how a rudder can control a ship
He talks about how a spark can set a forest on fire

And he talks about how the tongue sets the body on fire.

We see that.
We boast about something – why? Boasting is the language of hell and the devil. It is about setting myself up as bigger than I really am. And when I boast about what will happen in the future, I am setting myself up as God. We boast because we want to somehow prove ourselves, to tell the world we are someone. But the boast catches us. We need to live up to it, or lie, or make excuses why what we boasted about didn’t happen – and that usually involves blaming other people.

2. He speaks about the fact that nobody can control the tongue

He says that if we have controlled the tongue, we would be perfect.

If you can control your tongue, you can control every part of your body.

He describes the tongue as a wild beast that cannot be tamed. We can tame birds and beasts. We can put the fiercest beasts: lions, rhinos, crocodiles, komodo dragons, rattlesnakes in a zoo. We can put eagles in aviaries and killer sharks in aquariums. We can often make them work for us. But we cannot control the tongue.

Isn’t that interesting? We can control the natural world, but we cannot control sin. It’s too big for us.

I’m sure many of you will have heard of the tube of toothpaste assembly. We squeeze the toothpaste, and once it is out, it cannot go back in. So it is with words. We speak the words and once they are spoken, they cannot go back in. I read recently of the testimony a woman who had a break in a work, who went to the ladies with a colleague to do what ladies do, and – she said – she started to slag off a colleague, Beth, who wasn’t particularly popular. You know what happened. Out of one of the cubicles came Beth. She rushed out, and left the place of work immediately in floods of tears. She didn’t come back the following day; she didn’t come back at all. The woman who tells the story says that it is one of the most awful moments in her life. She tried to get in touch with Beth but she wasn’t able to. And she finishes off by saying, ‘And I am a Christian; I am someone who calls Jesus Christ Lord’.

I like the story of the three vicars going on a long train journey. Agreed to confess their most besetting sins. The first said, ‘I have a problem with the women’. The second said, ‘I have a problem with drink’. The third says, ‘I am an incurable gossip’!

It comes out of our mouth: the gossip (and yes, we can dress it up in Christian terms), the backbiting, the swearing and profanity, the cruel unthinking comment: ‘you are so stupid’, the comment that is designed to cut someone down. As I’ve said before, I thank God that I am not particular quick on my feet with words. I always think of the thing I should have said about 2 hours afterwards. But I thank God for that – because it often means I don’t say it. The unnecessary comment, the labelling of someone so that you can dismiss them – whether that is to do with their sex or their age or their colour or whatever.

Interestingly the tongue can be just as devastating when it is not used in the right way. We are silent when we should be speaking out; we do not sorry; we do not confess Jesus as Lord.

It comes out when we preach: Baxter wrote – brilliant comment – “One proud, surly, lordly word, one needless contention, one covetous action may cut the throat of many a sermon, and blast the fruit of all that you have been doing.”

And the tongue, it is dramatic language, says James, is ‘a restless evil, full of deadly poison’. We can use the venom of a deadly poisonous snake for healing. But when the tongue is unrestrained it is the agent of death.  
I saw a sign on a strip of highway once that I would like to have copied on my gravestone. It said, "End of construction. Thank you for your patience."

3.      He talks of the inconsistency of the tongue

And he is clearly talking to Christians here: ‘With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings’

There are times when we can express the most wonderful things; we praise God; we praise other people. With our tongues we build people up, we allow people to see the world in a completely new way. And yet in the next breath, we blaspheme, we tear people down and then crush them, we mock people, we tell jokes at their expense, we insinuate things about them – so that we feel better about ourselves.

And James says, ‘This is not right’.

So it is very interesting.

Having just told us that not many should presume to become teachers, and that teachers will be judged more harshly than others, he then goes on to say that we all stumble (v2), and that no human being can tame the tongue (v8).
So what is it all about?
Well I do not wish to anticipate the next few verses, but I think that there are two essential qualifications if someone is going to become a teacher in the church

1.      They must be aware of their own weakness and sin
If a person thinks that he is able to control his tongue, then he should not be a teacher – because James has just told us that no one can tame the tongue.

And please do not expect your teachers to be perfect, or nearly perfect. That way is the way to disaster. It is the way to disaster for the teacher – the expectations are just too high. It is also the way to disaster for the people, because you are going to be let down. If you expect your teacher to always say the right thing, to never lose their temper, to never say something rashly, to know what to say in all situations – you will be extremely disappointed.

James is emphasizing the fact that we are all messed up.

And the teacher needs to be incredibly aware of that fact. St Augustine said, ‘What you are must always displease you, if you would attain that which you are not’.

And that ties in with some words in the next few verses: they talk about deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. And in verse 14, James writes, ‘But if you harbour bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth

The point about a Christian teacher is that they are not perfect, that they will never fall. The point about them is that they are someone who realizes that they are far from perfect, and that they may well fall. The point about a Christian teacher is that they must first be a repentant sinner.

2.      They must be aware of the source of wisdom
In v11 James says that fresh water and salt water cannot flow from the same spring; that a salt spring produces salt water and not fresh water; that a fig tree produces figs and not olives.

He is actually saying the same thing that Jesus said in Mark 4: ‘What comes out of you is what defiles you. For from within, out of your hearts, come evil thoughts, etc. All these evils come from inside and defile you’.
He is beginning to say that we need to get the source right, to get the heart right. That is why he goes on to talk about the wisdom which comes from heaven, from beyond us. It is a wisdom that is given to us if we ask God to give it to us. In James, wisdom is really another word for what other writers call the Holy Spirit.

So the teacher needs to be someone who is not perfect, but who knows where the source of perfection is. They should be someone who is always pointing people to Jesus Christ the Son of God. Because it is as we go to him, we will be changed.

Ruth Graham, the wife of evangelist Billy Graham, said, “I saw a sign on a strip of highway once that I would like to have copied on my gravestone. It said, "End of construction. Thank you for your patience."

So to summarise: James warns us not to presume to become teachers because there is a stricter judgement. But he goes on to say that we all stumble, and none of us can control or tame the tongue.

He speaks of how the tongue has so much influence, of how it cannot be tamed, of how it is utterly inconsistent.

And he hints that the secret to controlling the tongue is to begin to get the heart right, the source of our life right. And we do that as we seek Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and cry out to him to have mercy.

I hope you find this not too condemning, but actually quite liberating – whether you are a Christian teacher or not.
You do not need to be perfect.
You do not need to have tamed the tongue.
You cannot.
But we can change, and we do need to be seeking the one who did control his tongue, who is perfect and who offers to us the gift of perfection. Evangelism, as someone has put it, is one beggar telling another beggar where they can find bread. 

Thursday, 18 March 2010

An address for the funeral of SAC Luke Southgate, 19th March 2010

Luke was 20. He loved life. We’ve heard that. He was already looking beyond the current conflict to life together with a girl he passionately loved. But he died on active service. He died doing a job that he loved,  doing it with people he deeply cared about. He died doing his duty, serving in the RAF Regiment and serving his country. He died for his friends

That – we heard in our reading - is the definition of love: the giving up of your life for your friends.

We often speak of the courage and the sacrifice of the men and women who serve in our armed forces. It is right to do so. But we also need to speak of the immense sacrifice that is made by the families left behind: of the wives and husbands, mums and dads, the fiancées, the girlfriends and boyfriends. When they sign up and go off to places of conflict, it is as if you have signed a blank cheque on your heart; you pray that that cheque will never be cashed, but you also know that at any time it could be. Today for you Keith and Kate, for the brothers and sisters of Luke, and for you Caley, part of your heart has been ripped away, and you too have paid an awful price.

That is the definition of love: the giving up of what is most precious to you for the sake of others.

But – and I want you to hear this - nothing that is done in love is lost.

And there is a reason that I can say that. The one in whose name we meet, the one for whom this church was built, died a few hours after he spoke those words we heard read earlier. He was crucified on the first Good Friday. But he was not simply a victim. He chose to die. He chose, out of love, to give his life for all of us, so that we could be forgiven and put right with God. But that was not the end of the story. Three days later, on the first Easter Sunday, something remarkable happened: God raised Jesus Christ from the dead. He appeared to his followers, he talked with them, he even ate fish with them. Their lives were changed. The history of this world was changed. And he has promised that he will take whoever puts their trust in him – even if they have to go to hell and back - through life and through death, and that whatever happens he will never leave us.

So because of Jesus we know that, in the end, evil and hatred and death do not win. In the end, life and love win.

I know that at the moment Luke’s death still seems unreal, and these words even more unreal. It is a bit like looking at stained glass from the outside of the building: it just looks dark and meaningless. But when we come inside and look out, towards the light, it suddenly is full of colour and makes sense. But please, in the very dark days, when it all seems so empty and dark and meaningless, hold your heads up high. The people of Bury St Edmunds are immensely proud that Luke, your son, your brother, your boyfriend was one of us. We are inspired by him, the service he offered and the sacrifice he made. We honour him. And we are also very aware of and immensely grateful for the sacrifice that you have made.

And we pray that one day, like coming into church and seeing the stained glass window from inside, that one day the light of God will shine through for you in your darkness, that you will know his hope, and you will know that nothing that is done in love will be lost.

Friday, 12 March 2010

The Church, our mother and our family

John 19:25-27
Mothering Sunday 2010

I recently watched The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, when Benjamin discovers who his real mother was. Queenie, the woman who brings him up asks him, ‘Did you go to the grave of your mother?’ And Benjamin replies very firmly, ‘You are my mother’.

We’ve all had mothers or mother figures

But I am very aware that this is still a service which can be quite painful: painful for those of us who have lost mothers; painful for those who have longed to be biological mothers – but have not been able to have children, for whatever reason; painful for those who have very difficult memories of their mother.

But this Mothering Sunday service never in fact set out to celebrate motherhood, although it is a good thing to celebrate. It comes from the BCP reading for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, which includes verses from Galatians 4, in which Paul contrasts two mothers: Sara the mother of Isaac, and Hagar the mother of Ishmael, both wives of Abraham. The difference was that Hagar was a slave girl and Rachel was free. So Paul writes, “I am taking these things figuratively, for the women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves. This is Hagar. Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother”.

And Paul looks at those who are slaves to the law – that is they believe that they have to fulfil the law, do everything the law requires in order to be saved – and then he looks at those who are saved by putting their faith in Jesus Christ the Son of God, and he tells them that they are free from following the external law.

But from those verses and from other passages, the idea has grown that the Church (with a capital C – not a congregation or a denomination – the people of God together with Jesus) is our mother. Cyril of Jerusalem said, ‘You cannot have God as your father if you are not prepared to have the church as your mother’.

It is the church, the people of God, through whom God brings us to life. It is the church, in the form of your neighbour or your parents or your colleague or your Sunday school teacher, who first preached the Good news about Jesus to you.

It is the church, the people of God, through whom God nurtures and grows us – whether that is through services, teaching, praying, receiving baptism and communion. It is the church, the people of God, who offer us love and care.

And Mothering Sunday for the church is not initially a celebration of our individual mothers, but it is a celebration of the life of the church, the people of God.

And John 19:25-27 are very striking verses, because what we see happening here is a small picture of what the church is called to be, and what it is.

It all starts at the foot of the cross. That is where the Mother of Jesus and the disciple who Jesus loved are standing (John 19:25-26).

At the very heart of the church, of the people of God, is the cross.

It is the place where God has put us right with God and right with other people.

[It does not depend on us keeping the law, having lived a good life, because none of us can do that. But it is the place where God has shown us his mercy. At the beginning of John’s gospel, John the Baptist sees Jesus and declares, ‘Behold the lamb of God who comes to take away the sin of the world’. So Jesus became that sacrifice for sin. He took onto himself our sin, so that we can be forgiven.

And the cross is the great leveler. The only way into God’s Church is through receiving what Jesus has done for me on the cross, recognizing that I am a sinner, a rebel against God, who is saved by grace – by God’s sheer love and goodness. So there is no place in the church for pride in relationship to another. I cannot stand over another person and say ‘I am better than you’, or ‘I am more significant or important than you’, because the only reason that I am here and you are here is because Jesus died for me and for you.]

What happens here in John 19, happens at the foot of the cross.

1. Jesus gives people a new identity.

I don’t know what you are like when you are in pain, in real pain. I confess to being a bit of a cat. I want to go off and die on my own. I really cannot be thinking about other people. When I am in real pain, the I in pain gets bigger and bigger.

Jesus, on the cross, remembers both his mother and the beloved disciple.

But I do not think that Jesus is simply ensuring that someone will look after his mum when he dies.

What Jesus does here is much much more radical.
Even if Joseph had died by this time, Jesus had brothers. They could have looked after Mary. That is what would have been expected. And John already probably had a mother.

What Jesus is saying is that because he has died on the cross, John – a young man, and Mary - an older woman, come into a new relationship. He is saying to Mary, because I die on the cross, John is now your son. He is saying to John, because I die on the cross, Mary is now your mother.

At the beginning of his ministry, in Mark 3, Jesus is teaching. His mother and brothers come to take him away because they think he has gone mad. His followers tell Jesus, ‘Your mother and brothers are outside’. Jesus replies, ‘Who is my mother and brother?’ He looks at those listening to him and he says, ‘Whoever does the will of God is my mother and my brother and my sister’.

This really is transformational stuff.

Jesus is telling us that as members of the church we are in a new relationship with each other.

And that is the challenge. How much do we see those who are older in the church as our mothers and fathers in Jesus? How much do we see those who are younger in the church as our sons and daughters in Jesus? How much do we see those of the same age as us as our brothers and sisters in Jesus.

Mothering Sunday should never ever exclude people. It has to be an including Sunday, possibly the most inclusive of all our Sundays – because it is the nearest we get to a ‘Church’ Sunday. It is about how we are all part of the family of the church.

Now don’t get me wrong. This is not a justification for Christians to cut themselves off from their biological family, parents or children. Later in the NT we are told very clearly that if we do not care for our biological families we are denying the faith and are worse than unbelievers (1 Timothy 5:8) But it is saying that because of the cross we are now different people. We now have a new first allegiance. We are members of a new family. We have a new identity. We are in a new set of relationships.

2. Jesus commands us to care for each other

This is immensely practical. John takes Mary to his home. He looks after her, and no doubt she helps him. She also becomes fully part of what goes on in the church. She is specifically mentioned in Acts 1 by name, together with the apostles, when the Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost.

And in Acts we are told how the church cared for each other in very practical ways – meeting together, eating together, selling possessions when others are in need.

Now I am aware that we live in a relatively stable community. Most of us have established support networks. But I am very concerned that as a church we should be looking to support those in our congregation who do not have such networks. Maybe they have recently moved to Bury; maybe they have been cut off by their family or friends for believing; maybe they are simply on their own. And we need to be listening to Jesus as he tells us to look at those around us, to treat those around us, as we would treat members of our family.

This is not the job of the vicar or the staff team; this is the job of all of us.

When it works, it is glorious.

I received a letter a few weeks ago from a lady in the church. She writes, ‘I have never really liked the phrase the church family, but recently have had reason to change my mind. I was in hospital and the church became a family to me’.

But I am very conscious as someone with a family of how easy it is to pull up the drawbridge, and to focus on ourselves and on the biological family, and to forget that I really am part of a much bigger family.

And it is incredibly easy for us to focus in on our family and friends (in the church and beyond the church), and we really do need to both listen to Jesus, and to ask him to give us a genuine compassion especially for people within the church, with whom we have become members of a wider family.

There is something that is strange about these verses. In John’s gospel neither the mother of Jesus nor the disciple who Jesus loved are named. Of course they are talking about Mary and John, but it is intriguing. And I do think that we need to read the mother of Jesus and the disciple who Jesus loved as both individuals but also as symbols of something much bigger.

Who is this disciple who Jesus loved? He is the one who is next to Jesus at the last supper; he is the one who is at the foot of the cross; he is the one to whom the women go when they realize the body of Jesus is missing; he is the who recognizes the risen Jesus when they go fishing; and it is his fate that Peter is interested in after Jesus has told Peter how he will die.

And why use this title? Are we not told that Jesus loves all of us?
And that for me is the key. Yes, it is talking about the apostle John, but the disciple who Jesus loved is ‘every disciple’, every follower of Jesus. We are invited to be where John is: next to Jesus at the last supper; standing at the foot of the cross; listening to the news of the empty tomb; recognizing the risen Jesus.

And the Mother of Jesus. If we only had John’s gospel we would not know her name. It mentions a Mary here, but it is a different Mary. She only appears in two places in John’s gospel, but both are significant. She appears at the first of his signs when Jesus turns water into wine (John 2:1-11). There she tells the servants ‘do what he says’ – in other words she embodies the preaching ministry of the church. And here, in John 19:25-27 she stands at the last of the signs, the cross and the resurrection.

Maybe I am reading too much into this. But it is not unsurprising that people have come to see Mary as a symbol for the church, as a picture of the church, the people of God (the same imagery is taken up in Revelation 12:1-6). It is a picture that has been wildly abused, with Mary given almost the same status as Jesus, and the bible uses other much stronger, more obvious and clearer images for the church (body, family, assembly, bride) but that does not mean to say that it is a completely unhelpful picture.

The icon of Mary.

In Orthodox theology, she only appears with Jesus. She is only who she is because of Jesus. She hears the message about Jesus, she says ‘yes’ and Jesus is literally born in her. And she offers the message of Jesus to the world. And the church, the people of God, we are only who we are because of Jesus – we hear the message about Jesus, we say ‘yes’ to him, and he comes among us. And we too tell the world, ‘Do what he tells you. Trust him’.

So on this Mothering Sunday we give thanks to God for those who have been mothers to us; we thank him for his people, the church; we thank him that he has given us life through his people, that he nurtures us through his people; and we pray that as we stand at the foot of the cross, as forgiven sinners, we may look at each other and at ourselves with new eyes, and that we would show to each other the same love that John showed to Mary.