Today we celebrate the bringing together of three traditions into one, which coming as it does this year, after Trinity Sunday, sounds divinely familiar. We can look back over the task of building that unity from a mere ideal into a reality, and we can rejoice in what we’ve achieved. It may not have always been an easy road, but I think we’ve done a pretty good job. I doubt anyone even thinks in terms of Methodist or Presbyterian or Congregationalist anymore. There are other things that may try to divide us at times, but denominational labelling is not one of them. We have created a unity.
Today is also the culmination of National Refugee Week, where we recognise our role in the task to create unity among diverse peoples so that ideal of world citizenship might be realised, where the earth is seen as one common home to all peoples; a world where everyone can have place of their own choice for safe refuge. On this path we still have a long way to go.
(Read James 1:17-27)
“Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”(James 1:22)
Have you ever heard the old saying, “I would rather see a sermon than hear one”? It’s a trite, well-known saying. It is also true. Just because a truth has become a cliche, it is not necessarily any less valid.
The Letter of James is full of these pithy little truisms that everyone already knows, which makes is rather easy to read and understand. I like reading James, but in my role as preacher, I confess that I don’t find it particularly stimulating. As a preacher, give me a text that is strange, unfamiliar, tough to comprehend, in need of a good scholar to open it up. That’s what I like. If the whole Bible was like James, you wouldn’t really need ministers of the word, for who needs a preacher merely to remind you of what you already know or can read for yourself?
Yet, maybe one reason we need to attend to this saying from the Letter of James is because we already know it. Knowing this, about being doers of the Word, and not merely hearers, is not the problem. Knowing is easy. Here, doing is the problem. As one anonymous wit once said, “When all is said and done, more is said than done.”
Years ago I remember discussing with a group of lay people what they looked for in a good sermon. The predominant response was, “I like a sermon that helps me to think about things in a new way,” a sermon that engages my mind, that spurs my thinking and reflection. Now this sounded good to me. I like to preach interesting, engaging, thoughtful sermons – when I can! Yet the more I thought about it, I wondered if their response was not quite right. There is something about us that likes to think all worship is about is sitting in church, praising, praying, listening, and taking in. Is this why James links our inaction to deceit? “Be doers of the Word,” he says, “not hearers only who deceive themselves.”
You see, we deceive ourselves into thinking that we have done the faith when we have merely listened, reflected, pondered, agreed. How often I have heard people say of church; “I come to church empty, and during the service I get filled so I can make it through the week.” See? Passive, receptive, but not active. It makes church into a place where we come, sit back and say, “OK preacher, choir, organist, do it to me; fill me up.”
No, the test for good worship, the mark of a good church full of good stewards, is not what we do here during this hour of worship; it’s what we do outside those doors for the rest of the week. It’s about how we spend our money and how we vote; how we care for the environment, what books we read, and, pertinent to the observance of Refugee Week after this service, how we show hospitality to those who come to our shores. It’s all about what we do out there with what we’ve been given in here.
The world is quite right to judge the truth of the gospel on the basis of what sort of lives and what kind of living the gospel is able to produce. Do we really look like the God whom we praise here on Sunday morning? Have our songs and prayers changed us, made us into that which we profess?
Will you agree with me when I say that there are some things in this life, often the most important things, which you cannot know except by doing them? You can’t really know the dance just by hearing a lecture, even a very good lecture, on dance. You must join the dance, feel the moves, let the rhythm take over your body. The Christian faith is one of those things, like dance, that cannot be known simply by listening.
Now as a preacher, I am in the business of words, and I think the world of words. But I am also painfully aware of all the things that words cannot do. And words do not enable a person to be a Christian. Words are not enough to know what it means to be God’s people.
Christianity is not about believing. It is not some sort of philosophy of life set out in a set of intellectual propositions. Jesus was not a philosopher laying out a new system of disembodied beliefs. Jesus was a preacher whose life was his sermon, a teacher whose actions taught what he preached.
I wonder if we mislead you by the way we worship on Sunday morning. When we Christians come together on Sunday, what do we do? Most of our worship is sitting and listening. I talk and you listen. If there is a choir, it sings and you listen. Do we thereby give people the wrong impression, and imply that the Christian faith is a passive rather than an active affair? I hope not.
If any of you have read the definition of “worship” on the congregation’s website, you may have been surprised to find out that there are many different Hebrew and Greek words in the Bible that are translated as worship. Sure, worship includes singing, prayer and praise, but it is much, much more. The words translated as worship in the Bible also include words with connotations of work, service, creating, seeking, ministering and dancing; i.e. words describing actions in response to God, words implying interaction and relationship in our day-to-day movements.
The Christian faith is only known in its performance. Standing up here as a preacher, my task is not to be interesting, informative, engaging or entertaining. I wish that my sermons were all of those things, of course, but none of these characteristics, as important as they may be, are the ultimate test of Christian preaching.
At the door of the church after the service the parishioner said, “Reverend, that was a wonderful service.” The wise preacher replied, “That remains to be seen.”
So the sermon ends. The test for the sermon, the mark of whether or not this was a good sermon in a good service of worship, is about to come upon us. You already agree with the text. Agreement or understanding are not the problem. Hearers must at last become actors. The faith which is affirmed in church must be performed in the world. The issue is now before us: what will we do with that which we have said, sung and heard about?
I hope you watched the memorial service for Bob Hawke a couple weeks ago. If you didn’t I think it is still available on ABC’s iView via your computer or smart TV. It was evident from the very first speaker, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, and echoed by every one of the notable speakers who followed, that Bob Hawke not only heard the sermons of his Congregational Minister father, Clem, he did them. Bob often would quote his father’s saying, “You cannot believe in the fatherhood of God unless you also believe in the brotherhood of man.” Though Bob eventually moved away from belief in the first part of the saying, he lived the latter, and that is the part that counts, both in the eyes of humans and in the eyes of God.
“A person cannot remain just a good egg forever. Either one must hatch or rot.” (C.S. Lewis)