Thursday, June 29, 2017

Don't Give Up

James 4:13-5:11
I work for part of my time as the manager of a community organisation in Sheffield called Darnall Forum. It provides adult community learning, especially for people who didn’t grow up speaking English, gives employment advice and runs the local post office. But ‘austerity’ has hit us hard.
Older readers will remember a song about a Wild West settler called George whose wagon - loaded with all his possessions and carrying his wife and children  too - is being pursued by Cherokee Indians. ‘Three wheels on my wagon,’ he sings, ‘But I’m still rolling along!’ That’s how it often feels at Darnall Forum. The wheels are coming off the wagon, one by one, but we’re still just about rolling along.
My wife sometimes asks me, ‘How long is Darnall Forum going to keep going?’ and I never know the answer. James tells his readers, ‘You should know better than to say, “We’ll do business in the City for a year and make a lot of money.” What do you know,’ he goes on, ‘About tomorrow?’ Well I certainly think Darnall Forum will never make a lot of money any time soon, but, as I said to someone the other day, ‘Tomorrow continually surprises me.’
And it continually surprises politicians, doesn’t it? I predicted a month ago, when we were reflecting on the lessons we might learn from the sudden and unexpected defeat of a proud and mighty ruler in the time of the Prophet Isaiah, that Theresa May would be in trouble if she didn’t win a landslide in the general election. It seems her advisers would have done well to consider James’s words, ‘What do you know about tomorrow?’
The same advice applies to every one of us, doesn’t it? Human beings are hardwired to be optimistic and to make plans for the coming week, the coming month and the coming year, on the assumption that life will go on much as before. If we weren’t made that way our ancestors would never have dared to get up in a morning and go out onto the plains to hunt and forage for their dinner. They would have been so worried that a leopard was going to jump on them that they would have pulled the covers over their heads and stayed by the embers of last night’s campfire.
No one goes to a concert, or out to dinner, or sightseeing, or to pray, or to bed in their own home, thinking that some terrible tragedy is suddenly going to unfold around them. But James asks, ‘How can you be so sure about your life?’ He doesn’t want us to be totally dismayed, but he counsels that ‘[our life] is nothing more than mist, which appears for only a little while before it disappears.’
That could seem a rather bleak way of looking at things and, as I said, thinking like that runs counter to the way we’ve evolved as a species. Except that James doesn’t tell us we shouldn’t be optimistic. He just reminds us to temper our optimism with a bit of humility. He advises us to think like this, ‘If the Lord lets us live, we will do these things.’ In other words, life doesn’t owe us a living. We should place our trust in God and hope that - whatever comes our way - he will help us to accept and deal with it.
This doesn’t mean that James is fatalistic. He isn’t suggesting that everything which happens in life is the way God means it to be. There used to be a verse in ‘All thing bright and beautiful’ which went,
‘The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate,
God made them high and lowly, and ordered their estate.’
That’s far from the way James thinks about life. If he wants us to be humble, and not to expect too much out of life, that doesn’t mean he wants us to be passive and put up with injustice and wrongdoing. As one commentator puts it, ‘For James holiness without justice is an impossibility,’ so we can’t be holy just by putting up with things the way they are now. We can only be holy by working for change.
James warns wealthy people, ‘Here on earth, you have thought only of filling your own stomachs and having a good time. You keep on storing up wealth in these last days. You refused to pay the people who worked in your fields, and now their unpaid wages are shouting out against you. The Lord All-Powerful has surely heard [their] cries.’
Is James thinking here about the parable of the rich farmer, who built bigger and bigger barns to store his surpluses in, only to die before he could enjoy the benefits? If so, he’s referring to a longer version where it turned out that the farmer was amassing so much wealth only because he was exploiting his workers.
We may not be farmers but the lesson still applies to our situation. In Sheffield the City Council reluctantly gave planning permission for a big new store, but on the strict condition that the store’s owners employed as many local people as possible. This was partly because the Council’s public health officers had warned that traffic pollution, caused by cars queuing to get into the store car park, would shorten the lives of local residents. However, having a job helps people live a little longer, so the officers hoped to balance out the harm caused by extra pollution with the benefit brought by providing extra jobs for unemployed people.
Unfortunately it didn’t work out like that. Only five per cent of the jobs went to local residents. And this is just typical of a pattern of broken promises, where local people - who will be the worst affected by a new development - are given assurances that turn out to be just as elusive as the mist that James described.
Of course, the same sort of thing happens around Pomtefract sometimes, too. This week I conducted the funeral of someone who, back in the 1950s, helped to build the British Coal power station at Grimethorpe. As he went on to hold a very responsible position, working on contracts across the North of England, I surmised that he might also have been involved in a groundbreaking experiment at Grimethorpe to see whether electricity generated by burning coal could be made more efficient and environmentally friendly. If you’ve not heard about this so-called ‘clean-burn technology’ it’s because in 1988 the government decided to stop funding it.
One of the local MPs protested to an empty House of Commons. He said, ‘The project has been very successful. The decision to withdraw funding is somewhat shortsighted, not only because of the continued threat to jobs and the community in that area, but because of the mounting pressure both in Britain and throughout the world for more environmentally acceptable methods of producing electricity.’ But, of course, his and the protests of other local MPs fell on deaf ears and we all know how the story ended.
Of course, our problems pale into insignificance compared to the issue of cladding high rise tower blocks with materials that weren’t fire resistant, just to save £5,000 out of a £10 million project. No wonder James warns that people who make these kinds of decision may sometimes ‘have condemned and murdered innocent people, who couldn’t even fight back.’
What is James’s answer to injustice and wrongdoing? Well, he tells us to ‘be patient like farmers who wait patiently for the spring and summer rains to make their valuable crops grow and don’t give up.’
I’ve been trying to grow dwarf runner beans and French beans this summer. I must have planted a couple of hundred seeds. At first I planted them under cover. The first batch either didn’t come up,because of the cold, or rotted because the compost was too damp. I tried again, and this time those that survived withered in the hot sun. So then I planted them either directly into the ground, in a raised bed, or in containers, only to have the birds hunt for them very efficiently, leaving me with about five plants so far  to show for all my efforts! I must admit my patience is running out.
But James says, ‘Be patient and follow the example of the prophets who spoke for the Lord. They were patient, even when they had to suffer.’ Notice again how James doesn’t ask us to do nothing, to stoically put up with what’s wrong. He tells us to be to be like the prophets and speak against injustice and wrongdoing, even if we have to suffer. There’s nothing easy about the faith of James. He expects us to have to struggle for what is right, to endure setbacks and to face hardship and challenge. However, he offers us this promise, ‘Finally [the Lord will help us]… because he is so merciful and kind.’

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

London Bridge and the commandments of Jesus

Exodus 20.1-17, Matthew 22:36-40
Do you have any school rules at  your school, or did you have school rules when you used to be a pupil? One of the rules when I started secondary school was that boys must wear a cap, so my parent dutifully bought one for 7/6, which was a fair bit of money in those days. On my first day I turned up wearing the new cap but one of the older boys said, ‘Put that away right now or someone will snatch it off your head and you’ll spend the rest of the day chasing round trying to get it back.’ So I stuffed it in my pocket and never wore it again. My parents were not pleased.
But that was nothing compared to the money we wasted on two knee length pleated woollen skirts which the school rules said my daughter Jenny must wear when she went to secondary school. On her first day I dropped her off just as an older girl walked in front of the car wearing nothing - well, I mean she did have shoes and tights on - but otherwise nothing more than a little tie, a blouse, a blazer and a fairly broad black cotton belt . She had no skirt on of any description, so far as I could see, and certainly not a knee-length one. I knew immediately that we’d been had! And Helen had to set to and make Jenny two new plain skirts which weren’t as cheeky as the belt version but only came down to an inch above the knee.
Well anyway, we were taking tea in the servants’ hall at Hanbury Hall the other week, as you do, when some other rules caught my eye - the house rules for the servants. Someone had helpfully put them up on the wall in case we were new servants, or visiting for the first time to look after our master or mistress during their stay.
There are only ten commandments in the Bible, and Jesus boiled them down to three, but at Hanbury Hall there were 17 rules to be obeyed. The first one forbade servants from playing games for money and using abusive language. That’s two rules really, isn’t it? But presumably whoever drew up the rules felt that people who use abusive language are likely to be the same sort of daredevils who are apt to play Monopoly for real money.
The rules don’t say what they mean by abusive language, either. Is it calling someone else ‘fat’ or ‘stupid’ because they’ve beaten us at Tiddlywinks? Or does it mean swearing? Perhaps we’d better not test the boundaries! Who knows what might happen if we did?
When I was a child my grandmother used to say that bairns should be seen and not heard. This never seemed right to me, and fortunately it didn’t seem right to my parents either. But that’s how it was for servants at Hanbury Hall. They must be seen but not heard!
They couldn’t even talk to one another in the hearing of their so-called ‘betters’’. And if they met a member of the family, or one of their guests, on the stairs they had to stand aside to make way for them and look away instead of looking at them.
Although they weren’t allowed to answer back - or start a conversation with - the people they worked for, even just to say ‘goodnight’, the servants still had to pay careful attention when they were being spoken to. They had to stand still and look at the person speaking to them - unless, of course, they met on the stairs. And they had to say, ‘Yes Sir’ or ‘Yes Ma’am’ when they were given an order, just to show that they’d heard.
You might think that when they heard the doorbell ring the servants ought to have  stopped what they were doing to answer it. But no, they were to ignore it. Only the butler could answer the door!
And there could be no snacking in their bedrooms - not even a biscuit and a cup of cocoa. The servants could only eat in the servants’ hall and they had to be punctual for meals otherwise, presumably, they didn’t get to eat at all.
And that wasn’t the only time when punctuality was called for. They had to be in for the night by half-past ten sharp, and if they stayed in the house on their evening off, they had better have a good book to read or some sewing or model-making to do, because there wasn’t any TV or radio and they couldn’t have any visitors - not even members of their own family.
Any maid servant who was found with a member of the opposite sex when she was off work would be dismissed, ‘without a hearing’ the rules say. This only applied to girls, mind you, not boys. So long as they were meeting members of the opposite sex outside the house, boys might get away with it. And boys were allowed to smoke too, whereas it was forbidden for female servants to smoke. So these rules were never about fairness, let alone equality.
You may say, of course, that - like school rules - the servants’ rules were made to be broken and the servants probably ignored them cheerfully. You may also say that you never missed an episode of Downton Abbey and a lot of these rules were broken there.
But at least we live in a different sort of society now, don’t we, where most houses don’t have servants any more and even those which do wouldn’t dare to treat them like this. We like to feel that we have a lot less rules and we can do more or less as we wish. The servants’ rules are still on the wall at Hanbury Hall, but no one takes any notice of them except as a reminder of a bygone age.
Yet those rules I mentioned from the Bible - the Ten Commandments and the commandments of Jesus - still apply to us. They haven’t gone away. But like us with the rules we’ve inherited, Jesus takes the roles from the Old Testament and boils them down to what really matters: ‘Love God and love others as much as you love yourself,” or - in another version - “love one another the way I have loved you.”
When we baptise a small child we obviously don’t expect her to make all the promises we might expect from an older person but we are asking something of her family, her friends and the church where she belongs. We’re asking them, you, us, to be a good example to her - to love God and love one another the way Jesus loves her and the way we should like to be loved.
No other rules really matter, but these rules are exacting enough. In the second version of his commandment about love, the one in John’s Gospel, Jesus told his friends, “Now I tell you to love each other, as I have loved you. And the greatest way to show love for your friends is to die for them.” In fact St Paul pointed out, in his letter to his friends in Rome, that Jesus’ love went even further than that. He wrote, “God showed how much he loved us by having Christ die for us, even though we were sinful,” in other words even before we were his friends. Can we love like that?
Kirsty Boden, a 28 year-old nurse, died last weekend “because she ran towards danger in an effort to help strangers who had been attacked on London Bridge.” I hope it never comes to a matter of life and death, but we’re asked to love others that much. The men who stabbed her claimed they were doing it out of love for God, but the true expression of love for God is to show love to one another.