James 3 and the story of the Abbot and the Rabbi
Reflection by Anne & Martin Stewart
We are all made in the image of God.
If you have been in church for any length of time at all you will have heard that said, prayed, preached and sung. Over and over in Scripture we are told this – seventeen times there is a reference to it! Once or twice is an idea. Seventeen times is an emphasis.
I have sometimes wondered which part of me is made in God’s image. Anne really likes her feet (so do I!), she thinks the best part of her body is her feet (I disagree!). Is the best part of the body that which is in God’s image? If so, in whose image are the disliked bits? I like Anne’s eyes the most…windows into the mystery…eyes almost always looking kindly on things, and others, and me. The eyes as windows to the soul, perhaps. But really, I wonder if the idea of ‘made in God’s image’ is more molecular than a reference to actual body parts. In the cells is the force and energy present in everything in the universe. Whether you look through a telescope or a microscope, the intricacy and the patterns look similar. God is in the detail, not the devil! There are so many ways of understanding God’s image in us and in what is around us. So many ways of seeing, it’s a wonder some people miss it!
It’s a great thing to try and get your head around what it means to be made in God’s image when someone not like you is annoying you! ALL, every one of us, as different as we can be, are made in God’s image.
That makes God a very interesting character. That makes God big enough and diverse enough for each of us to reflect God’s creativity. There is a lot of room in there for our individuality; for our strange and unique ways. Yet, so often, there are other images we try to live by, generally images that we concoct from some other source as perfect. Images that make us think we should be different because we are not good enough as we are. Images that make us want to be more like someone else.
Maybe some of the deep unhappiness about us comes from a warped idea of our image. We measure up against others rather than measure up against God’s work in us. I don’t think skin tone and neat fitting is the be all and end all. It is nice to attend to it and lovely to feel lovely. But some of the most glamorous can be the ugliest of people, and some of the most beautiful people on the planet are missed because of the fixation our society has with what is on the surface. I like the Psalm with its attention to what really matters and where in the body what really matters happens: ‘You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.’ [Psalm 51:6&10]
Made in the image of God we all have tongues. The tongue, we heard from James this morning, can be a dangerous beast. A small innocuous but quite necessary part of our bodies, it can take on a role much beyond its given task. It can think itself in charge even. As a bit in the mouth of a horse controls and steers, as a rudder on a ship controls and steers, the tongue can take on great power. As such it can be an instrument of light – bringing love and encouragement and it can be an instrument of the dark – bringing hatred and destruction. It can build up and it can tear down. Sometimes our tongues deceive us. As if they are taking on a life of their own they can lead us down paths we didn’t want to go. Or they can land us in places we never expected. Again this can be a good thing or it can be a bad thing, as James says both blessings and cursing can come from the same place.
Where is this place beyond the tongue that births this blessing and cursing? How do we manage this dangerous serpent in our mouths? What undergirds how we manage it? How do we ensure that it serves who we really are and not some distortion of ourselves that has been created by the events of our lives and the pressure from those around us? Where does the gospel story of an unconditionally loving and accepting God go when our mouths let us down?
And then there are times when we talk the talk but struggle to walk the walk. Did you note in the story Ruth shared the way that the monks, in their pondering about which one of them might be the Messiah, began to see themselves and one another differently – and then they began to treat themselves and others differently.
The seeing was lived out in the treating. What do you do when the person who bugs you is heading your way – what does it take in that instance to remember they too are made in the image of God? I can’t speak for you but sometimes it’s a mighty hurdle for me to get over! You know the character who complains before they show thankfulness, or who drains you by their negativity or who just wants to wind you up into an argument. What if one of them is the Messiah. Damn it, this being a follower of Jesus is hard!
I’m really taken with that quote from a child: ‘When someone loves you, the way they say your name is different. You know that your name is safe in their mouth.’ I remember finding the quote and mentioning it at church maybe eight years ago. It is a quote that has stuck with me ever since. It usually appears in my head soon after a conversation where I, or someone else, has been putting someone down. It is one of those quotes that invites me to apply the brake, turn around, and head once again for higher ground. I wonder if the reverence for each other that the monks in the story began to cultivate is that higher ground.
I think I have said before that the culture of a group is not found so much in what they say but in how they behave. So we might say that our predominant culture here in The Village is friendliness but is this always how others experience us? Is this how we always behave? Is it that the people who find us friendly are people just like us, the people we are comfortable with? I wonder, how do those who are not so like us find us? That’s the real test! How do strangers among us feel when they hear mutterings of negativity being whispered in the background in our community? Would hearing stuff like that make you want to be part of a community or would you want to keep your distance? Aren’t we all attracted by groups who celebrate the good in one another rather than fasten on people’s differences?
This is not a call to positivity over reality, we do need to be real, but it is a call to speak words that build up rather than crush, even if we have differing points of view. And to do this within our community and in our talk beyond it. It is four years since we formed The Village. Have you observed the many new and solid friendships that have emerged in that time? It has been quite special to see the differences between us become less of a barrier and more of an opportunity. It hasn’t been easy for everyone, and sometimes the tongue has been used to divide rather than build. It hasn’t been easy as we have also been wrestling with the nature of change in our lives and in our church life in particular, and sometimes the tongue has been used to speak against particular people. The challenge in most settings we are in is to attend to the conflict of ideas in ways that respect people and build them up.
That is the great witness. That is when people’s names are safe in our mouths.
That’s when people sit up and notice and are attracted by the love that is among us.
‘Love one another,’ says Jesus, ‘it is in loving one another that people will know that you are my followers.’ [John 13:34-35]