Saturday, September 05, 2009

Pentecost 13

I’ve got a really good forget-ery.  So good a forget-ery that – if you haven’t already figured this out – if I’m talking to you and I say I’m going to do something, it’s not a bad idea to insist I put it straight in my diary.  In fact – if it was you I was supposed to be meeting last Thursday afternoon – well, sorry about that.

Cognitive Psychology comes up with some theories about this sort of stuff.  According to Cognitive Psychology, it’s easier to forget little things than big things.  For example, if you want to remember a shopping list, like “Half a dozen eggs, two carrots, two litres of milk, a jar of peanut butter and a loaf of bread”, it’s actually easier to remember if you form a bizarre mental image – say - of a tall man with orange legs, leading a cow with two full udders, Humpty Dumpty sitting on its back eating six peanut butter sandwiches.  The more you load up the mental image, the more vivid you make it and the more types of information you put on it, the more different neural pathways are involved in holding it together and the more different ways you have of accessing the information. 

Teachers tell you something similar.  If you just sit and listen during a lecture, you’ll forget about 80% of it.  If you sit and listen and take notes, you might remember half.  If you take part in a practical demonstration you’ll remember it as long as you need to.  A half a millenium before Christ, Confucius said the very same thing: "I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand."  And a few years after Jesus’ earthly life, the letter of James says the same thing again: “don’t just be hearers of the Word, who let it go in one ear and out the other – listen, and put it into practice – assimilate it, do it, and be blessed”. 

The letter is what commentators call Wisdom literature, very Jewish, in the tradition of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Wisdom of Solomon, presented in the name of James, the brother of Jesus, who became head of the Jerusalem church.  James is considered quite conservative in his attitude to the Jewish Law, as opposed to St Paul, for example, who doesn’t insist on Torah observance for Gentile converts, or Mark, the most radical of the lot who tells us in today’s Gospel reading that not only is Jesus’ law of love more important than the Law of Torah, it replaces it altogether.  But surprisingly, for us modern hearers of the Word, surrounded by the subliminal messages and values of an individualistic consumer culture, conservative James is the most confronting, the most challenging.

Right at the very beginning of today’s passage, James challenges us at the basic level of who we think we are.  “Don’t you know”, he says, “that every good thing you have is a gift from God, unearned and undeserved, and not only that, but your own self is a gift from God - God has given birth to you like a mother so what really matters in your life is how much God shows through in what you do”.  Because actually, we don’t really know that, we hear the words but it’s hard for us to actually get it when we live in a culture in which people are valued for what they have, for how much they can accumulate, how attractive or important or clever they are.  We live in a culture where the Self is measured, compared and ranked, where wealth, in all its various forms, matters.  And James challenges that from the outset.  What matters, he says, is that you come from God as a gift.  When he talks about the first fruits he is playing with the idea of inherited wealth.  But the first fruits are not what you have, not what you can do, the first fruits are who you are, as inheritors of the Wisdom and Word of God.  We hear it, but in the way we live, are we sure we actually get it? 

And then James teases it out a bit, he links the articles of faith, which we don’t find too tricky once we’ve got the jargon, with the practicalities of day-to-day living, which let’s face it, we’re not so crash-hot with.  And he plays with the metaphor of the Word, which as we know is also rather more than just a metaphor.

How much has the Word actually seeped in?  How much do you really respond to it?  And instead of letting us get away with pious faith-statements, James puts it into the most literal, everyday-common context.  How do you respond to the word when you hear it from another person?  The Jewishness of James is shown very strongly in how he imagines the spoken word as something organic that is planted deep inside you, something to be chewed and digested and made part of who you are.  The word is a colonist, carrying something of the personhood of the one who spoke it, that you take into your deepest self by hearing and being changed by it.  How do you listen to people?  It’s an aspect of wisdom.  Recently I had a conversation with a man who poured out his troubles to me leaving me feeling out of my depth, completely unable to think of any solution or even anything real that I could say to help him.  So I just listened.  I forgot whatever else I was supposed to be doing that morning, and I made him a coffee and listened.  And at the end of an hour and a half or so, he said, “thank you.  You made a difference”. 

But, what about how you listen to words you don’t want to hear?  Criticism, anger, words aimed at you with the express purpose of lashing out, words that tell you your gift is misunderstood, not appreciated, that you are not welcome?  Words like those come out under pressure – out of the need to express hurt or anger or disappointment, and the first thing to remember is that the words themselves express the brokenness of human relationships that are imperfect but yearn to be complete.  It’s a difficult gift to receive another person’s angry words and not feel you have to regain control with defensive words of your own.  Listening carefully says, “I take you seriously enough not to push you away”.  When we can hear criticism and anger without reacting defensively or with counter-accusations of our own, it means that relationships can be regrown.  The angry word - accepted, assimilated and transformed by one committed to remaining in relationship - turns out to be the Word of God.  This doesn’t mean being non-assertive, being a door-mat, and it certainly doesn’t mean refusing to address the deeper issues.  It means letting God’s Word, and God’s own way of communicating, become part of our own practice of relationships. 

And then James extends his practical approach, and his metaphor of attentiveness, to religion itself.  The last four verses of our reading this morning confront self-indulgent religion, religion where the primary purpose is to feel affirmed and reassured.  If you’ve been brought up an Anglican, if the movements and the hymns and rituals of our faith connect you with the security of childhood and give you hope for the life to come – then listening to the familiar prayers and words of faith can be soothing.  To those not so blessed, they can just be a turn-off.  But James is suggesting that it’s all too easily to be a superficial, self-serving believer.  It’s not an automatic thing that when we assent to the words of faith they get integrated into our daily lives.  Human beings are delightfully complex and contradictory creatures, we live happily with major inconsistencies between what we say we believe and what we actually do, because our actual behaviours are based on old assumptions or habits that we’ve never really examined.  James says we have to be intentional, we have to be reflective like looking in a mirror to check whether what we think we have taken in has actually been absorbed and assimilated.  I heard it said a while ago – and I think it’s true – that 21st century Christians are embedded primarily in the surrounding culture of our society – that’s where we spend most of our time, and that’s the set of values we mostly live from – only secondarily do we live out the culture of the Gospel.  We need to work at it, and if you’re anything like me, every now and then you’ll wake up with a start and realise that you’ve been forgetting to.  Hear and forget – do and remember.

The right way, the blessed way according to James, is to connect with the needs of the world around you in such a way that God’s Word has got a chance to transform you.  But it has to be real, not just token.  So James sees the Word or the Law in a way that emphasises not do’s and don’ts, but transformation and freedom.  A way of hearing God’s Word that allows it to soak in and actually change something on the everyday level, true holiness is about allowing God’s Word to give birth to something new in you.  Being unstained by the world doesn’t mean standing aside from the world so that you don’t notice its problems – it means refusing to surrender to the dominant values of the me-first society.  Caring for orphans and widows means putting yourself out for people who are powerless and marginalised.  This is something I think that individual Christians have always done better than the Church as a whole. 

Every year, on this Sunday, the Church gives us a chance to reflect on the plight of refugees.  A few years ago, in Australia, it was a red-hot topic – now less so because we no longer have children behind razor wire or the courageous voices of refugee advocates pricking our national conscience.  But worldwide, the plight of refugees and displaced people is actually worse now than ever before.  In fact, more than anyone else in our world today, refugees represent the orphan, the widow and the alien that all through the Old and New Testaments God’s people are invited to care for. Today, James asks us to think about how our faith is reflected in our actual relationships with the most vulnerable people in our society.  It’s a challenging question, isn’t it?