The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at: http://users.bigpond.net.au/frsparky/r134.htm
s134e97 Somerton Park 31/8/97 Pentecost 15 Sunday 22
"Religion that is pure and undefiled ... is this: to care for the orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world". James 1.27
This may seem a clear and unambiguous statement of our Christian duty, and something which perhaps the Anglican Church in particular (as a somewhat staid, unemotional, one might even say not especially evangelistic Church) has traditionally done quite well. What has evolved into the Anglican Community Services - soon to become Anglicare SA - in times past in South Australia, was effectively the State adoption agency. This was before the government took over the role, then found it too hard and the Catholic Church picked it up. And the extensive Aged Care facilities the Anglican Church has provided over many years, while perhaps not always ideal, certainly have been much appreciated by many, many people. The Churches in general, as well as the Anglican Church in particular, have been in the forefront of providing for those in need. The same has been true over the centuries. The Church began hospitals, educated those children who showed some promise, and really were the centre for learning and arts which are now organised by our secular governments and institutions.
Neither could the Anglican Church as an organisation be ever accused of being tainted by the world - despite the fact that Donald Dunstan and John Bannon, former (labour) Premiers of this State, both went to St Peter's College.
One gets the feeling that provided one drives along North Terrace or Currie St - never of course setting foot in Hindley St1 . - we are keeping oneself "unstained by the world".
Now I really want to question whether this is indeed true - whether this passage is indeed as unambiguous as this. For I am not personally all that certain that the orphans and widows that James is talking about are simply those who have lost their natural parents or their natural spouses.
We regularly affirm in baptism that we are children of God and in many instances in the Old Testament the nation of Israel is spoken of as God's bride. So by "orphans" James may as likely be referring to those who have lost their relationship with their heavenly Father. We are naturally aware that many are baptised as new-born babies, but that relationship has not had the opportunity to be fostered by regular attendance at worship. It is not that God has ceased to be their Father, but that they cease to know him as their Father.
Similarly by "widows" James may as likely be referring to those who, perhaps in later life, found themselves to feel that their relationship with their spiritual spouse - God himself - has died. Jesus' parables about the seed growing on the path and amongst the thorns, show us that there are many things in life that can lead us all astray.
If this is so, then the phrase James uses: "Keeping oneself unstained by the world" may in fact mean the world that disdains sinners - those with whom Jesus associated, and by that association was himself criticised by the Pharisees of his day. Criticised, ostracised and finally killed.
So, in this view, it is precisely down Hindley St., that we will find the orphans and widows that James calls us to care for. Travelling down Currie St., you will only find Church Office - mind you, you will have to look fairly hard. But you won't have to search very hard to find who lives in North Terrace - the Governor and the politicians. There is a certain amount of evidence to suggest that James was concerned that the Church not be seen as only interested in the rich and powerful. It was not that he didn't like the rich or powerful, but our friendship with people, whoever they are, rich or poor, is not for what we might get out of that friendship.
James calls us to care for the orphans and widows - not convert them or preach to them. They are the real afflicted - they are the ones who have lost a relationship - one which all of us here will affirm as the most important relationship of life.
In that amazing story of the affliction of Job, the friends "Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, when they saw (Job) from a distance, they did not recognise him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. They sat with him upon the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw his suffering was very great2 ". They were indeed good friends - until they got into the theology of it all.
What I guess I am saying is not that we should stop our good work among the natural orphans and widows of the world, but that we may reevaluate our attitude to those we see as sinners. Instead of considering them to be nasty, stiff necked, and incorrigible (some parody is intended here), we can look at them as those afflicted with the loss of that precious relationship with our heavenly Father. Instead of criticising those who don't come to Church and trying to change them, we can - like Job's friends initially did - mourn with them.
My thoughts are turned back to the woman with a haemorrhage who secretly touched the hem of Jesus' garment and found herself healed. Leviticus3 makes it quite clear that her action would be to make Jesus ritually unclean - to be tainted "by the world". This sort of ritual defilement was precisely the opposite of what Jesus was on about. If bringing ritual defilement upon himself was the cost Jesus had to pay to bring health, wholeness and the restoration of sexuality to this woman, Jesus was more than happy to pay that cost.
Recently I was doing some research on virginity in the Bible and I was quite astonished by some of the results. I expected to see phrases like "virgin daughter Zion", "virgin daughter Judah" and "virgin daughter Israel" - and indeed there are. God is under no illusion as to the purity of his chosen people, as the prophet Hosea4 makes plain. The Israelites were far from innocent. But what surprised me was to find the phrases "virgin daughter Sidon5 ", "virgin daughter Babylon6 " and even "virgin daughter Egypt7 "! Of course the last two in particular were bitter enemies of Israel, and the context in which the phrases are used make it quite plain that God has a very strange view about virginity. They are in oracles of impending destruction. It is clear that God sees us in quite different ways to what we perceive ourselves. He can see past the frustrations, sadness and earthly character of our existence and see what we least expect for him to see - a virginity in us. He can do a lot of things of which we can hardly conceive.
If the most important thing to us is the loving relationship we have with our heavenly Father, then those who don't know that relationship or have lost it, need first and foremost our friendship, not our accusation or condemnation. Heaven only knows - we too might look for some solace in such places ourselves if we didn't know of God's love. Friendship, not accusation or condemnation is what Jesus offered us in the beginning and what he continues to offer us. If he offers his friendship to us then surely he bids us not offer accusation or condemnation to others.
Last week I was preaching at the 70th birthday celebration for the Mothers Union at Woodville, and a non member spoke to me after the service. She told me that she had realised why she hadn't joined MU years earlier - she pointed out the MU pray: "Bless all who are married and every parent and child ..." When they changed that to "Bless all mothers, every parent and child ..." she would join, and I have to agree.
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