12th September 2021
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our epistle this morning, the Letter of James, provides a rather sobering truth for someone delivering their last sermon in a church community: ‘Not many should become teachers’ James says, for we know that those who teach will be ‘judged’ with a ‘greater strictness’ …That’s an extra few years for me in purgatory then: all that talk about beer and football, and that’s not to mention the encouragement of boozing and partying… …just one more time after the service today though, if that’s ok?
Joking aside though, being judged, or being spoken well of, is something of great importance to most people. You only need to watch a handful of adverts by clothing brands, car manufacturers, or perfume and aftershave companies to see. And that’s without dipping your toe into the world of social media, with all its influencers and the selfie-stick culture.
I too, I admit, am someone who worries far too much about what people think of me. It’s something that often occupies my mind as I go home from a meeting, party or dinner. Did I talk too much? Was I annoying, too opinionated, uninteresting? It’s something I worried myself about when I arrived in Sudbury, and will no doubt nag at me as I begin a new chapter of my life in Ipswich. Will they like me? Will they enjoy my sermons? Will they think I’m a good priest?
And in some way all this is very understandable. From birth, the judgement of others, how people think of us, is vital for our survival. Instinctively as babies and children, we know that for us to have our needs met, we must be liked, loved. We will do what our parents or carers tell us, seek their approval and affirmation, learn the things that make them happy in order to please them. The same goes as we get older, trying to make friends at school, trying to fit in. Even in navigating the world of work, trying to get a job, maybe a promotion.
Being thought of well then, being judged or spoken of as good, smart, able…these are all things that we learn help us move forward in the human world, feel a part of something, feel loved. And we don’t need to think hard about what happens when we are judged negatively by the words of others. As James astutely observes in his letter, the tongue, especially of other people, has enormous power. Like a small fire, he says, it has the potential to ‘set a great forest ablaze’.
We know all too well the potential the tongue has for evil. And we know this not least in the Church. The tongue can be a tool for good, setting forth sparks of the gospel, breathing flames of love. But it can also be a weapon of evil, spitting the destructive embers of gossip, poison and disunity. It is of course the former though, that we are directed to, not least at the heart of our Gospel reading today. Here Jesus alludes to the power of the tongue, but trains it not to the destructive fire of the forest, but rather to the life giving fire of Pentecost. The fire that sets forth the love of God. ‘Who do you say that I am?’, he asks
Here, Jesus draws us away from the importance of what other people say about us (for he is our judge) and onto the absolute importance of what we say of him. Because what we say about Christ, who we believe him to be, and how that forms and changes us… well this is where our real identity is, this is where we find our firm foundations. When we root ourselves here, we know and are reminded that fundamentally we are loved and known by God who created us, and holds all of creation in existence. We know and are reminded that each and every one of us has value. That no matter how much we mess up there is forgiveness and love in such abundance, that we can hardly even comprehend it. We know and are reminded that this love cannot and will not ever die, because despite being deserted, abandoned and judged by those around him, on the third day love won the final victory, and Jesus Christ rose again.
So who do you say that Jesus is? And how do you live in the light of that? Are you motivated by the opinion and words of others? Or are you inspired by the gospel you proclaim? Because what we do solely for the approval, affirmation and good judgement of others, to have them speak well of us, may seem important…but it is often more life draining than it is life giving. And in doing so, we can end up becoming much less the person we are called to be, and much more a person we are not. Thankfully though, it’s never too late to change course. Because when we live less for the opinion and good words of others, and more for the reality of who God is in Jesus Christ, we find the sort of love, life and freedom we long for. I think this is what Jesus means when he says that those who lose they life for the sake of the gospel will save it. Because when your life is one of self-giving, your love is one that is unending.
So, why not? Deny yourselves, deny those things that make you less you, less free, and take up your cross, follow him. Choose life. Proclaim the gospel of God in every place. Shape your life by his example, forgive, leave the judgement to God, love. It is only by this way that you will know true freedom, it is only in this way that you will know true life, it is only by this way that you will know and become the person you are meant to be. Because you are a person that is so deeply, so securely, and so unceasingly loved by God. Always remember that. Amen.