Sunday, 23 September 2012

Wisdom and Humility

Sermon at St Mary Mentmore – Sunday 23 September 2012

Reading James 3.13-4.3,7-8a

Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbour bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.

But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.

What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.

Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you.

Gospel Mark 9.30-37

When the Gospel is announced the reader says
Hear the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to N.
All Glory to you, O Lord.

Jesus and his disciples passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, because he was teaching his disciples. He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.” But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.

They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.

Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.”

He took a little child and had him stand among them. Taking him in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”

This is the Gospel of the Lord.
All Praise to you, O Christ.


Choice of name for Olympic volunteers was telling. They were ‘Games Makers.’ When I first heard the description, it sounded overblown. How could group of untrained volunteers ‘make’ the Games? How could their contribution be so significant?

Many I know were well qualified: I met a man who had spent 30 days at both Games, spent £1,000 on travel, and was a skilled coach who worked with the athletes in their training and warm-up facilities. But the ones who were praised and lauded for their contribution were not the unseen ones, but those who directed the massed streams of humanity coming in and out of the Park, entertained them with singing and witticisms, and smiled. Yes they smiled and laughed a lot. Another man I met said his hands stung from all the high fives with children.

What does it mean to be a VIP? To be important. To be admired by others? The Church Times runs a weekly feature interviewing one person about their aspirations. One question is always “Who would you choose to be locked in a church with?” The answer is rarely a banker on a £2m salary; or a political leader; or even an Archbishop. Usually people choose a person who is not ‘important’ in the eyes of the world, but with who they could have an unending and fascinating conversation.

If I had been Lord Coe, or one of his colleagues who had taken all the risks and worked hard for 7 years to make the Games happen, I think I might have been just a little miffed that others who directed traffic got such high praise, and those who had the concepts and delivered the aspirations were given scant recognition. Yet that’s the way the book of James says things should be for a Christian.

Who is wise and understanding among you? asks James. Not the boaster. Not the person who harbours bitter envy of others. Not the one with the selfish ambition. Not someone who conceals the truth. Such wisdom, he adds, is earthly, not spiritual.

Just like the Games Makers who ‘made’ the Olympics and Paralympics for so many others, these people are Peace Makers. They are ‘peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.’

Many people don’t get what they want because they rely on themselves and not on God, or they ask with selfish motives. Peace Makers get what they want without the need for quarrelling or disputes, but by listening and aligning their wills to what God wants for them, and not what they think they want for themselves. Their kind of peace is the peace of the Lord. The kind we wish each other at every Communion service.

It’s hard to be counter-cultural. To run contrary to the established ways of the world. Our children are trained to be self-sufficient. To yearn for success by standing on their own two feet, getting ahead of others on the ladder, influencing other people rather than making friends of them.

Wasn’t this just what the disciples were arguing about on the road to Capernaum? Who would be the most important and influential in this new kingdom Jesus was talking about? Jesus stopped them arguing. He turned the conventional wisdom of self-help books on its head. “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.”

When he took a little child as a live illustration of what he was saying, Jesus did not advocate here that his followers should become like little children. No – he says we should not be so important in our own eyes that we have no time for simpler folk, and that we take time to welcome them, for whoever welcomes little children in his name welcomes Jesus himself.

Back in the 1970’s there was a popular TV series called The Good Life. Richard Briers and Felicity Kendal played the young couple who produced their own food. Paul Eddington and Penelope Keith were their pretentious neighbours. The message was simple: those who think they are above others are actually below them.

For James, and for Jesus alike, submission, humility, childlike trust, charity and mercy represent the Good Life. The Christian way.

Submit yourselves, then, to God, says James. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Amen

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