Hear the music, not the words
EIGHTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST SEPTEMBER 26th, 2021
Something I enjoy when I’m in another country is channel surfing the Hotel TV. I’m fascinated by what other cultures find entertaining. So, when Gelind and I traveled around Europe last month we had the golden opportunity to sample large helpings of televised culture. We sang along with the channel devoted entirely to Bavarian folk music, complete with wall-to-wall mountains, cows, and lederhosen. We screamed answers to the questions posed on French game shows. We even watched repeats of old American shows dubbed into Italian; and we tried to work out what they were saying in the original English. But it wasn’t just entertainment we sought, we looked for enlightenment too. So, we hopped through a variety of news channels. The first thing you notice with European news channels is how refreshingly boring everyone is. They deliver the news in a way that is reassuringly dull. I reckon if you can fall asleep watching the news it’s been a pretty good day in the global village. It’s a shocking contrast to the US where if you can make it through ten minutes of cable news without becoming angry or depressed you have a shell of steel around your emotions. Outrage boosts viewing figures and viewing figures increase advertising revenue.
So, it was with enthusiasm that we stumbled upon a news channel called RT, hosted by British and American presenters. They were doing a deep-dive into Amazon.com and the negative impact that globalism is having on small businesses. The coverage seemed fair, fact-driven, and undeniably true. We were hooked, and so for the next couple of hours we watched news bulletins and another in-depth piece of investigative journalism – this time into American housing policies. In particular this documentary examined how African Americans have been intentionally squeezed out of home-ownership, thereby perpetuating systemic poverty and injustice. We were deeply impressed. Why can’t Americans see this channel, we asked. People in the US need to hear this stuff.
And then Gelind pointed out that this news channel had no advertising. Weird. We looked at each other – I wonder how it’s financed. So, I asked Google and discovered the shocking, scary fact that RT sands for Russia Today, and the channel is owned, financed, and operated by the Russian Government. It is their slant on world news. We had spent three hours consuming very skillful Kremlin propaganda. And the really scary part was the stories were true – globalization is challenging, the power of a few multinational corporations is problematic, African Americans are the victims of housing injustice, and this has contributed to generational poverty. The problem wasn’t with the stories themselves, but the reason those stories were aired. It wasn’t the content, but the motivation for it that alarmed us. It wasn’t the words, but the music. RT used truth to try to create chaos – to aggravate ill-feeling against NATO (this was the week that the governments of NATO announced their troops’ withdrawal from Afghanistan.) RT’s goal is to cause disillusionment in the West, and to grow tension and division in the United States. We felt foolish and dirty – we had listened to the words but paid no attention to the music.
Listening to the words and not the music would lead you to think that today’s reading from the Letter of James was all about prayer. In just eight verses, the words ‘prayer’, ‘pray’, or ‘praise’ turn up nine times. But this morning, at the start of our autumn campaign, ‘Every Perfect Gift’, I don’t want to talk about the words. I’m more interested in the music. Because although the words are about prayer, the music of this passage is community. James writes from this dynamic vision of the local church as a united, cohesive organism in which every part is joined together, functioning out of love for each other, and supporting one another with courage and vulnerability. The words are about prayer, but the music is the melody of togetherness, the rhythm of community.
James calls people to pray for one another, care for one another, hey, even confess their sins to one another. Hmm. That last one. Many Christians are really good at confessing other people’s sins. But confessing our own – especially to each other – is another matter. I’m tempted to look at the world and point fingers. Those greedy people have made it like this, those crooks, those power-hungry narcissists, those envious and violent masses. They’re responsible. I am quick to confess the sins of others. The lesson to me is the lesson of planks and specks – don’t try to take out a speck of dust from someone’s eye when you have a dirty great log in your own, says Jesus. Instead of pointing out how everyone else has made the world a terrible place, how about seeing my own role in that. Yes, there are gazillions of greedy people on the planet and this creates global inequality and suffering, but before I call them to account, how about seeing that my greed contributes to it; that in a small but tragically real way – my sin is part of the problem. Many years ago, the Times of London ran a competition. They invited readers to send in answers to an essay question ‘What is wrong with the world?’ Thousands of readers mailed their essays – famous philosophers joined in, theologians and ethics scholars, diplomats, scientists, and public servants shared their theories . Including the author and committed Christian GK Chesterton. His answer to the question ‘What is wrong with the world?’ was this letter to the editor: “Dear Sir. I am. Yours faithfully.”
James fires us and also frightens us with this radical vision of true community. I must admit I kind-of cringe when I hear the word ‘community’. It is used so much that it has effectively lost its meaning. For example, I quickly searched Google and found an open letter to the ‘tea-drinking community’, and pages for the ‘left-handed community’, while on Facebook, I discovered that the ‘Model Railway Community’ has 3,381 members. By the way, I’m a member of those first two, but are they real ‘communities’? Does being left-handed mean I am part of a community with a 6-year-old boy in Indonesia? Does the fact that I like a nice cup of tea make me part of a community with an 80-year-old woman in Central Africa? We use the word too lightly. Having one thing in common with someone doesn’t make us part of the same community, especially if that characteristic is as trivial as liking tea or model trains. Tea drinkers share no common story, no common experience of suffering, no shared deep-rooted identity.
Real community is sharing a common dream, experiencing common pain, celebrating common values, rejoicing in a common story that gives us our identity. And the Christian community – the church – meets that definition. We have a common history – 2,000 years of worshiping God the Father, through God the Son, in the power of God the Spirit. We have an invisible but strong connection with Christians who have gone before us. Even though we no longer see them we are joined mysteriously but powerfully in one unbroken fellowship. We share a common pain – our millennia of persecution and of self-denying, cross-carrying discipleship. We have a common story – of a passionate creator who loved the world so much that he became human, lived, died, and rose again and who is intimately involved in our lives today. And we share common values – rooted in the expansive love that God has poured out on us and called us to share with all the world. That is a community.
The overwhelming tone of the music that James writes is this – we can’t do this alone. Following Christ is hard enough without trying to do it in isolation. Being a Christian is demanding enough without trying to do it in superficial relationships. We need each other.
The pandemic has shown us two frustrating truths. Human beings are made in the image of God, who is community. We therefore need relationships; we crave social connection. But the pandemic has also prevented that from happening. We have tried to adapt, but a Zoom meeting really can’t make up for an in-person get-together.
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, last January 40% of American adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder. Usually, it is 10%. 36% reported difficulty sleeping, 32% problems eating, and 12% reported an increase in alcohol consumption or substance use.
At the start of the pandemic people mused that lockdown was not going to be a big deal for introverts and they would have its easier than extroverts. And yet, according to BBC.com, psychologists have long known that introverts tend to experience more intense emotions, and they find it harder to regulate them; they also find it harder to adjust to new situations. All of which makes the pandemic equally painful for the introvert and the extrovert.
Last week we passed 675,000 American deaths from Covid 19 – a larger number than the flu pandemic of 1918. Our hopes for a grand autumn of near-normality at St Paul’s have been overwhelmed by the harsh reality of the Delta variant. And so, we meander into another phase of life, wondering how we can be the church, how we can build community. How we can be there for each other – when we can’t be here for each other?
Each autumn we have the amazing opportunity to dream. To allow our imaginations to play with God’s Spirit and together compose a song. What will be our rhythm? How will our melody flow? What music will we create? And where is your place in the orchestra? What instrument will you bring, what note will you sing? Last year we took the courageous decision to allocate large resources in two exciting directions. One was investing in new technology and media so we can minster more effectively in this fast-changing culture. The other was to invest in our ministry to young families – because that is the field where God has placed St Paul’s, and the field is ripe for harvest. Those two ministries – digital communication and young families – are the words. But the music, as with James, is community. We seek to build real, lasting, transforming community despite the pandemic. We yearn for deep and loving relationships across our parish. The music is community. We need it. As we emerge into a post-pandemic world, we will need it more than ever as every household faces new challenges thrust upon us by events that are out of our control. But we will strive to play the music of community. We will listen to each other, forgive each other, confess to each other. We will try to be there for each other, attempt to support each other, go the extra mile with each other. May the God who lavishes on us Every Perfect Gift lead us to discover our roles in playing God’s music.