Preached on Wednesday in the First Week of Advent 2018
The Chapel of the Resurrection, Pusey House, Oxford
Readings (KJV): Isaiah 8.16-9.7, James 2.14-end.
“If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?”
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The writings of James are perhaps not what we want to hear in the middle of this month of over-indulgent shopping, eating and drinking, but there we are – it is in the lessons appointed for tonight, and they are eerily similar to the readings we heard on Monday evening – where James admonishes us to be “doers of the word and not hearers only”, and yesterday he further beat us up last night, reminding us of the one of the ten commandments I personally struggle the most with – “Love thy neighbour as thyself”.
There’s almost as if there would be a thought behind the way the lectionary is put together…
To hear all of this during the busiest shopping month of the year, (the Christmas shopping in the UK last year was worth almost £79 billions!) to me almost feels like a slap in the face.
Even more so, when we see one of the largest economies in the world fires teargas on innocent children seeking refuge. Apparently there was no room for them in the inn…
We need not even look across the Atlantic Ocean… Here, in England’s green and pleasant land, the food bank use has increased with more than 52% since the roll out of Universal Credit in the areas where it has been adopted as general policy, and Oxford has more people per capita sleeping rough than most other places in England.
Almost every Sunday at High Mass in this very chapel, we hear the priest recite the Summary of the Law, in which we find the words “And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself”, to which we all reply “Lord, have mercy upon us and write all these thy laws in our hearts, we beseech thee”.
Does it sound like something that needs repeating?
To me, it actually feels like James wrote his letter to us in present-day western society, rather than in the late first century, and that he sees us in our bleakness and failings in asking what we, ever weekday at noon, ask the Blessed Virgin to pray for us to become – “That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ”.
It is not exactly as if this call to care for the vulnerable is unique to James either – in Matthew’s gospel, in the story where Jesus puts himself in the position of the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick and the prisoner, He Himself declares: “ Verily I say unto you – Inasmuch as ye did it not to the least of these, ye did it not to me”.
So, having now been beaten hard with Scripture – what can we do then? If it is as James said that faith without works is dead, then what are the works?
Can I suggest that we do what Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said in his sermon at the Royal Wedding earlier this year:
“Imagine governments and nations where love is the way. Imagine business and commerce where this love is the way.”
In my imagination that leads us towards a world where we all manage to keep both faith and works together, not in tension, but as in parts of the same whole.
I can see a world where all of us God’s people, will keep Christ in Christmass not only by keeping Mass in Christmass but also by seeing Christ in our neighbour, by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the lonely, protecting the oppressed and vulnerable, and sheltering the homeless.
I can see a world in which we prepare for the coming of Our Lord and Saviour not only by buying the most advanced toys, or by cooking the most elaborate Christmas meal or by having the straightest lines walked by the servers at Midnight Mass, but also by doing those good deeds that the same Christ has commanded us to do.
A homily is perhaps not the best place to list all the things you can do, even if you cannot fit in volunteering at the foodbank or at the Samaritans into your busy schedule, but there are many charity shops that will happily accept that Christmas gift from old aunt Joan that you simply don’t like, or many charities selling Christmas cards where part of the profits go to the charity, or indeed many charities that would welcome a penny or two.
However, I think it might be equally as much, if not even more so, about a change of outlook, a heartfelt change of priorities, and so, let us pray:
Lord, when we strive after healing in the world and nourishment for those who hunger, we find you on our side. Whenever we long to see your face, help us not to avoid the corners of our communities where you most often dwell. Stir our hearts that we might seek and find you today in those places where you have promised to be. Amen.