By the Reverend Dr. David Sinclair
Last week Roger spoke about integrity; our theme this week is integration. Our theme concerns how we bring together, make coherent, our words and our deeds. It’s about how we integrate what we say and what we do; about how we do it for ourselves, and how we encourage it in others – particularly, perhaps, how we encourage it in our rulers.
The psalm from which we read is, on the face of it, a piece of sycophancy that would make Jenny Bond or Nicholas Witchell proud. The psalm is addressed to the king on his wedding day; it tells the king how handsome he is, how graceful is his speech, how blessed and how gifted he is. He is told how much he is loved not only by the queen at his side but by the people before him.
But the praise is praise with a purpose – it is designed to remind him of his commitment to equity and to righteousness, and to remind him that it is because of these things that God has smiled on him. And the unspoken concomitant of that is that, were he to waver from these, wander from the straight and narrow path they represent, the blessing of God would likely be withdrawn.
Preachers have had over the years to find ways to remind monarchs of their duty without seeming to be too disrespectful – and without risking losing their heads; they have not always succeeded in accomplishing this. Occasionally rulers have been spoken to in ways too direct for the speaker’s own good; and the sword has ended up being mightier than the pen.
Listen again to the way flattery and ‘guidance’ are woven together:
You are the most handsome of men;
grace is poured upon your lips;
therefore God has blessed you for ever.
Your throne, O God, endures for ever and ever.
Your royal sceptre is a sceptre of equity;
you love righteousness and hate wickedness.
Therefore God, your God, has anointed you
with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.
The king is reminded by the word ‘therefore’ of what it is that God blesses. God has blessed the king because he speaks gracefully; God has blessed the king because, ‘your sceptre is a sceptre of equity; you love righteousness and hate wickedness.’ You speak wonderfully, your Majesty, is the message; make sure that you do what you speak. Make sure you really do treat your people equitably; make sure your love of righteousness is shown by the way you govern.
But the context tells us more. This is addressed to the king on his wedding day, so he is not simply being addressed alone – others are there; others are listening. He is being attended, we are told, by the daughters of kings – so the likelihood is that their fathers are there as well. This message is also for them. It tells them that ‘our king’ is a wonderful king because of his grace and his love of equity and righteousness; and it asks if ‘you’, the other kings present, are like that as well – and the chances are, given the track record of kings, that they weren’t.
And right in the middle the psalmist slips in a sentence that is designed to remind any king present of his real place: ‘your throne, O God, endures for ever and ever.’ Or, probably more importantly, ‘your throne, O God, endures for ever and ever.’ Kings come and go, is the message, but God endures – indeed, only God endures. And it is God who anoints the king – and without God’s anointing the king is nothing.
And you wonder, at least I do, if the king (or indeed all the kings present) got the message. Did they hear what they wanted to hear: the flattery and the seeming sycophantic sighings? Or did they notice what they were really being told? Because, and this is another recurring theme with royal families, it might be that being too subtle would send the message completely over their heads.
But it might be that it’s not only royalty with whom it does not pay to be too subtle. Maybe it applies to the rest of us as well. Maybe we too are too keen to hear the words that flatter us, and fail to notice the message that challenges us – or, if we notice it, to find reasons or excuses to ignore it, leave it for another day, find someone else more in need of it.
James is a little less subtle. He writes to the early church encouraging integration, challenging them to take their faith beyond words and into actions. And challenging them to make the two meet, shake hands, get acquainted, get along, get married – and live happily ever after. He starts, in the passage we read, in the same area that the psalmist was occupying – in the gifts and the graces that come from God:
Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfilment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.
In a sense, he is saying the same things that the psalmist said to the king: that we are gifted by the gifts of God. But he goes further and becomes more direct: unlike in the address to the king, here the meaning is spelled out. We are to distinguish between the gifts that come from God and those that do not. And he goes on to make sure we know which are which: and being quick with your tongue or your anger are not.
But what comes next is the part most clearly about integration:
Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.
I wonder how often we think of integration in terms of a mirror. In essence it asks us if we are really the people we see when we look at ourselves in the mirror: are we really the people we sometimes like to think we are? And James asks us then to think of the law of God as a mirror – and ask ourselves not if we are reflected in the law, but if the law is reflected in us. I suspect that most of us know the answer.
But James wants us to be clear – this reflection that we are thinking about is not of the static nature that mirrors even today represent. It’s not about standing there looking at a picture of ourselves – tilting our heads this way or that to see which our best side is, nor even about trying to find the best angle to make sure there are no blemishes we’ve missed. This mirror is one held up to our actions, to our doing, to our lives.
Just as the psalmist praised the king for his best features, encouraging him to live up to them all the time, to remember them as gifts from God, and to remember God as the source of all that comes; so James speaks of the blessing of God in the lives of his readers in their doing – in the way they reflect the will of God in their daily lives, in their encounters with their neighbours, in how they speak and how they act.
So, if James was quite a bit less subtle than was the psalmist, then Jesus loses all pretence of subtlety. Typically, he tells it like it is. His targets, as was often the case, are the people who want to tell him that he’s not doing things the way they’ve always been done; he’s veering from the religious path of the faith of his fathers. There was clearly little that was more likely to get him going than this. His message is that where, as is often the case, the strictures of religion and the will of God do not agree, there is only one way to go – and it is not the way of the religion.
Sometimes, he says, the way a faith has developed is not integrated with the ways of God; rules that originally had a purpose outlive their usefulness. James names the law of God, the perfect law, as the law of liberty – and Jesus points out how rules and customs originally intended to promote liberty have, in the hands of power-hungry religious rulers and teachers, become the promoters not of liberty but rather of oppression. What was once integrated has dis-integrated, and the rules and the traditions become the objects of worship, and usurp the place of God.
‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
“This people honours me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.”
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’
Jesus quotes Isaiah – so it was clearly not a new problem – and neither is it one that has gone away. All over the world, in every way humanity has found to search for and to worship God, there are those who insist on their traditions, insist on their customs, insist on their way – proclaiming that their way is God’s way, when in fact they have taken their way and put it in place of God.
I’m sure we can all think of examples of this disintegration, where the perfect law of liberty has been replaced by traditions of oppression. By far the most pervasive in the religions of the world is the way in which the traditional role of women has become sanctified, announced as the will of God, when it is nothing more than human tradition. The place about which the debate today seems to be conducted is Islam – but almost all other faiths, including most of world Christianity, are just as stuck in a world view – and a view of humanity – that has nothing to do with God and everything to do with power.
And the general issue of the attempted or successful religious control of human sexuality, and its general confusion with issues of faith and religion still dogs most, if not all, attempts to follow the way of God. Views and understandings from many centuries ago have been codified and ossified in the ways of the religious world, and the religious world has found it incredibly difficult to break away from the traditions passed down, and look again in the mirror of the generous, liberating ways of God.
It’s all about integration: it’s about how we integrate our words with our deeds, our praise with our pronouncements, our faith with our life. It’s about looking into the mirror, and asking if what we see is real – or just our imagination. It’s about looking at God in Jesus, and asking if we are following him and his ways – or simply following the traditions passed down to us from our all too human predecessors. It’s about being honest with ourselves: about not letting the flattery conceal the challenge, not letting our egotism ruin our compassion, not letting anything divert us from the blessing and the gifts of God, displayed in the law of liberty.