Keeping up appearances…

British television shows are some of my favourite diversions.

They are usually smart, funny, and (at least to my North American eyes), original.

They produce some memorable, lovable and quite sympathetic characters too –

not the Coronation St kind of characters, all serious and street-wise –

I’m talking about Father Ted,

that odd couple in the nursing home (Waiting for God)

the residents of Dibley village,

and my on-again-off-again favourite, Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced “Bouquet”)

Hyacinth’s struggle in life is to rise above her station –

to be, to her friends and neighbours, something she is not.

The comedy comes from her affected airs – her attention to appearances –

in spite of her bumbling family, her ordinary neighbours,

and her husband who simply wants to live their lives without pretence,

honouring who they really are.

It is funny because it hits so close to the bone –

We recognize, in Hyacinth, behaviour that makes us uncomfortable,

both because we have witnessed it, and because we have been guilty of it –

of judging according to the standards of the moment.

This is difficult behaviour to avoid – standards being as changeable as they are –

and it is certainly not new to this generations trend-driven behaviour.

“judge not lest ye be judged” says the ancient warning,

that James tries here to give new life.

Are you truly glorifying our Saviour?”, he asks –

by your catering to those whose appearance is attractive?

What sort of precedent were these early believers setting – the best seats for the best-dressed

what happened to “the last shall be first”? Had they forgotten so soon?

James comments are a harsh judgement on what the church was becoming –

a place to honour those who honoured themselves – who found themselves worthy…

and the church encouraged that attitude,

by recognizing the well-dressed as honoured guests,

and shunning those who most needed acts of charity, compassion and justice.

The church seems to have learned some of those lessons,

and certainly (in most places) is much less conscious of physical appearances:

the homeless are welcomed into many of our urban congregations,

we are learning to worship side by side

with people of different cultures, intellectual capacities, and sexual orientations –

it continues to be hard work – it will always be important work –

But I don’t think the problem is ever far from us.

When we dig our heels in

about the things we believe are necessary in the life of the congregation –

whether that is a particular style of worship, or a specific time (or place) for worship;

when we get hung up on music, or ritual, or leadership styles;

when we pay more attention to how many there are,

than to the needs of those who are with us;

Whenever we ask ourselves (or explain for someone else)

what we think the church is, or does,

we flirt with the same sins that James accused his readers of committing.

We favour those who think like us – whose fashions (or actions, or attitudes) keep us comfortable.

New ideas (and new people) frighten us – they are unknowns –

their fashions and customs seem strange to us –

and we have to keep up appearances!

The church must be familiar – comfortable – respectable – influential.

In our struggle to ‘maintain’ the church, we are in danger of forgetting the principles Jesus lived and died for – we abandon the life Jesus offers us at his rising.

The only appearance we need to keep, is that of loving one another.

In love should all justice be administered.

In love should God’s people gather – in love, be fed –

and while love is easily demonstrated to those who share our sympathies,

the test of love is in how we receive those whom we do not understand.

James’ question becomes our test –

does our activity reveal the glory of Jesus the Christ ? –

this is the only true test of our love.

This simple question should be the measure of all our actions as God’s faithful people –

regardless of the model of worship that we follow, the kind of music we sing,

or the way we wear our hair when we meet…

Is our task important? I certainly believe that it is.

Should we take seriously the way we worship, what we sing, where we gather and how we order ourselves? Absolutely!

But I believe James’ warning gives us a reason

– or perhaps permission is a better word –

to loosen our grip on the familiar and comfortable fixtures in our congregational culture that keep us from basking in (and sharing) the glory that we find in Christ.

Let us be, for Christ’s sake, who we are –rather than who we think we ought to be,

and let the world praise God because of what they see in us.


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