Sunday Sermon – 20 October 2019

Worldly Religion

If you listen to people talking about religion and life, possibly sooner rather than later, you will hear the phrase “other-worldly” used. There is a perception, strongly held by some, that true religion is somehow set apart from the everyday affairs of life. Perhaps this view is most starkly displayed by those who permanently cut themselves off from the ordinary everyday affairs of the world and retreat into a monastic life devoted to religious observances and thoughts of so-called “higher things”. They may pray for the world, but they are not of the world.

This attitude is also revealed in less absolute terms. Going to church is regarded as special, in the sense that it is different from everyday life – divorced from it and placed, as it were, in a separate compartment of activity. Once the service is over and one has left the building, ordinary life can proceed once more.

This special, other-worldly existence is contrasted with a life steeped in worldly affairs. The latter is described as being practical and down-to-earth, not living in an airy, fairy atmosphere of spiritual dreamland, but getting on with real life. “Life is real, life is earnest” goes the line of the hymn.

Certainly I would not wish to appear to judge sincerely held beliefs of others, but for my part I would find a life shut away from daily toil, even with all its pressures and disappointments, profoundly unsatisfactory. Similarly, a life exclusively devoted to so-called worldly cares, and which was devoid of spiritual values, would be equally barren. For my part, religious convictions are a guide, a framework within which everyday life can be enjoyed.

For example, a belief is held by some, that religion and politics should be kept apart. It is not a view I hold. Let me qualify that by recalling a BBC programme of yesteryear called the Brains Trust, which older members will remember. One of the regular panellists, the late Professor Joad, was wont to say when asked a question, “It all depends on what you mean by the words you use.”

If you look for the definition of politics in the dictionary you will find that it deals with government and the making of laws. In other words, it is about community and shaping the society in which we live. To my way of thinking, it is entirely right to judge the society in which we live by comparing it against the religious standards we profess to encompass.

Of course, that is not to say that any favoured political party’s principles are holier than another party’s beliefs. However, I maintain it to be entirely right to say from the pulpit whether or not, in the preacher’s opinion, we live in a just, forgiving society, and whether the government of the day is acting in a tolerant and humane way to its citizens. Observations about whether or not the needs of the community are fairly balanced against the rights of the individual, whether or not the strong oppress the weak, and whether or not young and old, men and women, black and white, enjoy equal rights, is to my mind an entirely proper function of the church. Certainly this is so for any church which professes to accept the Christian standards of love of neighbour.

Not infrequently one faction or group, be it a political party, religious community or social gathering, believes it has a monopoly of right on its side. During the first World War, a poet noted that all participants in the conflict prayed that God would bring them victory, for their cause was self-evidently a right and just one. The poet wrote of God listening to these pleas coming from Germany, France, Britain, and elsewhere to grant their side victory over the enemy. Defeat should be inflicted upon the other side whose cause was self-evidently unjust. Our poet concluded his poem with the lines. “My God, said God, I’ve got my work cut out.” To bring religion and ethical standards into everyday life is not to contend that God supports one’s own side and is therefore antagonistic to those holding different views. It is to establish the importance of considering one’s actions and comparing them with one’s professed beliefs.

And it is not only into the field of politics that we should carry our religious principles. It applies to business and commence, to the factory and office, to the smaller and larger communities in which we move, into our public actions and even our private thoughts.

A novel I read many years ago, whose title I now forget, dealt, in part, with the setting up of a manufacturing process in an imaginary Middle Eastern country manned by an untrained and unsophisticated work-force. The venture was successful, primarily because the workers were a deeply religious people, who, when trained, performed their tasks conscientiously and thoroughly. To them, to do less was a betrayal of their faith and an insult to their god. Failure to properly tighten a bolt, to carelessly assemble a part, or to weld badly a joint, was an abomination. They took their faith from the church, temple or mosque (or whatever their place of worship might be) into the work-place and the market-place, and made everyday tasks a homage to their deity.

To return to the definition of words. “Other-worldly” is shown in my dictionary as having two meanings. One is to do with spiritual things, with an alternative, meaning given as advocating impractical ideas. It is far from uncommon for words to have more than one meaning. But what appears to be the case with “other-worldly” is that the two meanings have become entangled, if not amalgamated. To many, that which is described as spiritual is assumed to be also impractical. And being impractical, separated from day to day living.

True religion is overwhelmingly practical. There are countless individuals who have shown in their own lives that this is so. In every land from north to south, from east to west, from times long forgotten up to the present day, men and women, some famous throughout the world, others anonymous, have served and continue to serve their neighbours. As managers or menial workers, in hospital, in Town Hall, in small shop, in multinational company, in paid employment, in voluntary service, in high profile jobs or in humble ways, you find those whose service to their fellow men and women is powered by the engine within that embracing, comprehensive term, spiritual values.

These people give the lie, by their life and service, to the suggestion that spiritual and impractical are interchangeable terms. Their practical contribution grows from their spirituality. Their religious belief is tried, tested and honed by public duty every single day of their life, as well as in private worship.

The complaint heard too often, that the church gets involved in areas that should not be within its province, describes a situation which is far from the truth. It is in the absence of standards set by religious teaching from everyday life that injustice lives, misery is harboured, and intolerance breeds. The establishing of these standards, ensuring that they are maintained and monitored in their application, is done by men and women. I believe that in undertaking this duty, men and women are best guided by and sustained in the task through a sincerely held religious faith.

Worldly is said to be about the secular life, the life of every day. It is described as the life of work and of leisure, earning our daily bread, enjoying sport and pastimes, meeting others in pub or club, in theatre, on golf-course or bowling green. It is shopping in the supermarket, driving on the road, walking along the street, or playing in the park. Worldly is contrasted with the other-worldly spiritual life of worship, prayer and contemplation.

But my whole argument is that to separate the worldly and the other-worldly as distinct, and even contradictory, is to devalue both. Life without a spiritual dimension is bland, tasteless and unsatisfying, like fish without tartar sauce, or steak without mustard, or salt which has lost its savour. Conversely, a spirituality not tested in the everyday world is empty, if not meaningless. What James called faith without works is to proclaim with the mouth but not to reflect in the deed.

Both the epithets “worldly” and “other-worldly” are in their turn variously used derisively, as missiles to harm and to hurt. But both are honourable terms if used as two aspects of a partner-ship, a marriage, not of convenience, but, if you will, of necessity; of necessity because neither partner can flourish in the absence of the other.

One might ask how can religious values be brought into all aspects of life when there is a multiplicity of faiths, and, in the Christian religion alone, a wide variety of sects. But though beliefs may differ, modes of worship vary and practices contrast, all true religions have, or should have, common values. It is of the importance of bringing those values into the daily round, the common task, of which I speak. I suggest those values include compassion and mercy, tolerance and understanding, love and charity, sympathy and consideration, patience and peace of mind.

Which of us would deny the inclusion of any one of these in a litany of our belief, alongside other manifestations of a love and respect for fellow beings? These “other-worldly” spiritual values savour the worldly life, making it at the lowest estimate, tolerable, but more frequently positively enjoyable. Far from being impracticable, they are the essentials in our diet – the vitamins on which healthy life depends.

It used to be customary to start a sermon with a biblical text, but I will reverse the process and conclude with one from the epistle of James.
“You see then that a person is justified by deeds, and not by faith in itself.”

C.J. Rosling 25 June 1994
Fulwood 26 June 1994
Mexborough 19 February 1995
Hucklow 2 July 2000

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