Sermons from St Faith's     


Does Religion 'Work'?
Fred Nye, September 9th, 2012 

Does religion actually work? Believe it or not, a number of experiments have been designed to test this question, going back as far as 1872. Francis Galton, a Victorian scientist, thought that if prayer was effective, members of the Royal Family should live significantly longer than average, seeing that thousands of loyal Anglicans prayed for their well-being at Matins and Evensong every Sunday. Sadly, he found no evidence that this was so. Wikipedia gives the results of 17 controlled clinical trials of prayer. They even include a study of praying for patients after they had come out of hospital, to see if prayer could speed their recovery even if administered after the event. At best, the results of all of these 17 trials were inconclusive, and at least one of them was marred by irregularities and probable fraud. So what about sermons? Do they work? Do they help congregations to love Our Lord more dearly, or to follow him more nearly? And how in any case could we measure these desirable outcomes?

I doubt whether all of this would have worried the writer of today’s epistle, even though it reads less like a letter, and more like a little sermon. James isn’t much into spirituality, or deep theology; he is much more concerned with how we should behave towards one another. Traditionally St. James is believed to have been James, the brother of Our Lord, and that he was writing only a decade or so after the Resurrection. His letter is full of echoes of Jesus’ teaching, and you can feel the legacy of Our Lord’s love for human beings, alive on every page.

This morning’s ‘homily’ from St. James is about the ministry of welcome. He reminds us that our care for others should not be influenced by their social status.  We shouldn’t of course look for exact parallels – a time traveller from James’ synagogue visiting our church might reach the conclusion that the reserved seat for the best dressed church member is up there by the altar! What James is stressing in his letter is the Christian duty to love our neighbour as ourselves, and to seek out as neighbour, not the rich and influential, but the poor, the powerless, and the overlooked. James is surely remembering the way in which Jesus welcomed poor fishermen into his inner circle, how he welcomed tax gatherers and sinners to his table, how he ministered to Samaritans and Romans, to the sick and the deranged, how he gathered little children into his arms to bless them.

The principle of giving welcome and hospitality, especially to the stranger, goes back thousands of years, to Old Testament times and beyond. In an interdependent nomadic culture it was in everybody’s interest to avoid unnecessary misunderstanding and conflict. Meeting, greeting, and getting to know your guests, and learning to understand their intentions and motives, were invaluable in ensuring a harmonious sharing of resources. And times were hard and dangerous:  a host’s concern for the safety and protection of the traveller was important, because he himself might be the one in need of shelter the next time round!

And there was always the possibility that your guest might be someone really remarkable, whom it would be as well not to overlook. I’m sure all of us have embarrassing stories to tell of how we have totally misjudged someone on first impressions, of how we have totally under-estimated them because of their age or colour, of how they spoke or behaved, or how they were dressed. I remember going to a lecture at the Liverpool Astronomical Society and  coming across someone I took, dismissively, to be just another  new member; an anorak clad Liverpudlian with an accent as thick as a good dish of scouse. But during question time after the lecture, he revealed a breathtaking depth of knowledge, way above my head: he was of course, a first class academic astrophysicist!

The best Old Testament example of the hidden quality of strangers is the story from Genesis of Abraham and the three travellers. In this passage Abraham is visited by three unknown men. Sensing that, despite appearances, there is something very special about them, he gives them hospitality, washes their tired feet, and offers them food, water and rest. In return they promise that his infertile wife will conceive and give birth to a son. Had it not been for his hospitality, Abraham would have remained childless. He would not have become the father of a great nation, and the rest would not have been history. As the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews put it ‘Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares’.

We are so often strangers to one another. If only we could always meet and greet both those we think we know well, and those we may not know at all, without preconceptions, or prejudices, or favouritism, or misunderstandings. If only we could always offer them the time and the confidence to share with us a little of their needs, their feelings, their view of the world. If only we had the humility to acknowledge that we can never ‘sum people up’, that the depth and richness of the human personality is a constant surprise and delight. If we did all of this, what would the world look like? Would it, could it, begin to resemble the Kingdom of Heaven?

Perhaps what matters most in religion is not so much piety, or even spirituality, but a deeply ingrained Christian hospitality and generosity, and a highly valued Christian courtesy. I said just now that James wasn’t much into theology, but that was misleading. At the beginning of this morning’s reading he links Christian behaviour  very firmly with faith in the risen and glorified Christ. If we are prepared to follow Our Lord, then all the fruits of his spirit; the generosity, the kindness, the patience, the self control, will be our harvest. And we all recognise and know members of our Christian family who have these gifts in abundance: yes even here, at St. Faith’s and St. Mary’s, we can entertain angels unawares. Christians with these Christ-like graces are living proof that our faith ‘works’. With angels like them among us, who needs clinical trials?

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