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Doing God, Doing Good

September 2, 2018

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Preached by Canon Roly Riem using James 1.17-end, at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 2nd September 2018 the 14th Sunday after Trinity.

It’s not often that the back page of the Church Times catches the eye, but it did this week as the person interviewed there seemed incredibly young.  The young woman in question, Jessie Faerber, is the author of an internet blog called belleministry, and of a recent book called More than Just Pretty. Both advise teenage girls about how to find a sense of value which isn’t enslaved by the expectations of others, amplified by social media.

Jessie’s very sane advice stems from her own struggle to find a stable sense of self-worth, and from her belief that our value comes from God. She says in the interview, ‘girls need to know that there’re more than pretty – that they are pretty kind, pretty funny, pretty ambitious, pretty wise, pretty wild’.

Jessie has found a God-perspective on herself and her peers which chimes with our first reading from the letter of James, written to a community of Jewish Christians defrauded by the wealthy and mocked for their faith. They faced their own social pressures.

And yet against these pressures the apostle James offers a simple truth, that God is unfailingly generous, that every good gift comes from Him, and that it is possible to live in the slipstream of God’s initiative by acting generously ourselves.

James goes on to say that these acts are part of a bigger picture, a harvest of which we are the firstfruits. He sees this generosity as furthering God’s plan to restore creation to righteousness.

The connection between what individuals and churches can do and how society ends up looking is worth affirming, but in the Church the vision sometimes narrows, so all our actions are seen as needing to proclaim and commend Christ.

What Jessie Faerber’s story teaches us is that the connection between the individuals, churches and the wider society doesn’t always have to be obviously and immediately Jesus-shaped. For Jessie the point of connection is body image and self-worth. That’s where the young are struggling and exactly where Jessie meets others with the wisdom she has gained through faith.

James gives his readers two dynamics to think about as they face the pressures of the world. The first dynamic you might call back-foot ethics, ethics on the defensive. He says, ‘Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger’.

It’s been nice to have time for reading over the summer. Robert Peston’s latest book, about the incredibly uncertain position in which Britain finds itself at present, describes how we have moved from an age of rationality to an age of sentiment. He notices that when he writes a carefully argued and balanced piece it is politely received, but when he emotes his words go viral.

‘Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger’. In these times this is radical behaviour, which implies that those with differing views may not be our enemy after all, but those we need to accept and learn from. Adopted as community ethic, it would have a considerable impact, especially when you consider that many choose to pay for the chance to be listened to patiently and without judgement, and that this sort of listening is more likely to be considered as therapy than as one as of the social ties which bind us.

On the back foot sometimes we can be reduced to frustration and to lashing out, but James is an optimist that God’s generosity can work its way into our cramped and cussed hearts, as we make space for God to act in our lives. He imagines us chopping back the undergrowth of wickedness to allow God’s implanted word to grow in our hearts.

This understanding of what we are about as faithful Christian people has been challenged. Some observe that despite endless teaching and worship of one sort or other, the church has been largely ineffective in reaching out to the world. The new strategy is not to start with ourselves at all but with the common good, and to set targets to engage with it. And there is some truth in that argument for extroversion.

However, there is some impatience in it, too. It treats growing in the Christian life as a matter of throughput, and that’s not how we are. We need to struggle to become human, and to be as fully alive as our generous Creator intended, and that involves quite a lot of work clearing away all the rubbish and gunk that holds us back from wholeness. We can’t really live in a post-Freudian age and be oblivious to that.

But if we do attend to the basic listening, to God’s Word and to one another, good things can and will emerge – lasting fruit.

Last week was an excellent week for my family research, thanks to a friend who is Russian-speaking. She has found on the internet a record of my great, great grandfather’s charitable works in the Ukraine.

To put this in context, most of the vital records of Jewry in the Ukraine, the metric books, were destroyed in the Second World War, so it is unusual to find any record in history from this region. Yet on the internet you can still find a record of the two 36-bed hospitals he built, one for his Jewish workers at his flour mill and the other for Russians. It’s very humbling that one of these building is still standing today.

My great, great grandfather, David Moldavsky, was a wealthy Merchant of the First Guild, so you could argue that a record of him was far more likely to survive than for any of the poor. True enough; but the historical record is not of his wealth but of his charity, which stemmed from a conscience informed by faith.

This is what James recommends to his community as its front-foot ethics: as and when opportunity allows, the purest and most perfect expression of religion is to care for widows and orphans, the most economically vulnerable in society.

In his book Robert Peston has much to say about the economic context in which we find ourselves today: growth in our Gross National Product has slowed to a standstill; the gap between rich and poor and north and south has widened; inequality is up and social mobility down. He doesn’t rule out the possibility of riots and civil unrest, if things don’t change.

Everyone wants change, though. The Prime Minister herself on her election in 2016 expressed the ambition to build ‘a country that works for everyone’, which is why faith communities have such a significant opportunity to contribute to the social fabric. Many have pointed out how doing good faithfully has a fresh poignancy and power in society today.

An example of this would be the Street Pastors. The pubs in and around Winchester have just put on a sponsored football tournament to raise funds for them because their work is so widely appreciated. They are a band of ordinary Christians devoted to humble acts, such as picking up broken glass, chatting to party-goers, trying to de-escalate conflict safely and giving people flip-flops to replace unsuitable footwear for staggering home.

You may think this is simply patching a problem, but actually its part of changing a culture, avoiding as best we can the snares that make us more part of the problem than the solution – like the tendency to react angrily – and, as opportunity permits, being eager to act in charity.

The world would be a more righteous and more generous place if we spent more time listening and less grumbling, less time wallowing in our limitations, more alert to what obedience to God might mean, even when under pressure.

It’s advice from James, repeated centuries later by St Benedict – wisdom for all ages, and for every faithful soul.