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Sunday 29 July 2018 – 10am Sung Eucharist
James 1:17-27 Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
What, I wonder, are your earliest childhood memories? What’s the first thing you can remember in your life and how old were you?
I have quite vivid memories going back to about the age of three, but one that really sticks in my mind dates from a little later, when I must have been about seven or eight. Most of my early memories have to do with grandparents, and on this particular occasion we were staying with my paternal grandparents in Rugby. I remember going to church one Sunday, as we always did, the building being the sort that’s often referred to as a ‘tin tabernacle’, and I can recall quite clearly the vicar’s sermon. Sitting in the front row were three teenagers, dressed very casually in jeans and open-necked shirts or blouses. The vicar made a point of singling them out as he was preaching, saying that it really didn’t matter what they were wearing; the important thing was that they were there. I’ve very little recollection of anything else he said, but I guess he must have been making a point to those who might have thought that people dressed like that clearly shouldn’t have been allowed to attend a service. This was the sixties, and there was a social revolution, manifesting itself in all sorts of ways, not least in fashion and etiquette. Hitherto people would have worn their ‘Sunday best’ to church, but the vicar seemed to be stating that this wasn’t what really mattered. He didn’t say so in as many words, but what he was suggesting was that it wasn’t the external appearance that mattered, but the intention, the heart.
Does it matter what we wear to church? Do you dress up to come to church or do you come dressed casually? There are plenty of people who just like dressing up and think that church should be something special. Others hate dressing up for anything, and prefer coming to church simply in what they feel comfortable with. Whatever the case, I doubt very much whether any of us would challenge whether this person or that was dressed appropriately. We’d probably argue that this was to miss the point.
Missing the point was the challenge that Jesus made to the Scribes and Pharisees, as we heard in the gospel reading. In this case, it wasn’t about what the correct dress code was, but something of a not entirely dissimilar nature. It had to do with whether certain external ritual actions had to be performed in order to be acceptable to God. The Scribes and Pharisees were unnerved by the fact that Jesus’ disciples didn’t observe the regulations about ritual washing before eating. The charge, in other words, was that they were unclean. Ritual cleansing, however, lay at the heart of the tradition, because it was an outward sign of becoming acceptable to God. The original purpose of things like ritual cleansing was to impress on people the overriding importance of holiness. The problem arises when the sign is taken to replace the reality, when just going through the motions and little more is deemed to be what guarantees holiness. This is what lies at the heart of Jesus’ charge: that there’s more to spirituality than performing the right ritual actions. What matters is what motivates them. When they lose sight of what they’re really for, they just become mechanical and, for this very reason, counter-productive. What matters is the heart.
The problem with obsessing about ritual cleanliness and what’s acceptable to God in terms of the externals is that the attitude that lies behind this can be toxic. It leads to a whole host of binary judgments about who’s in and who’s out, who’s acceptable and who’s not. At the time of Jesus, simply to be sick put you beyond the bounds of social and religious acceptability. This is why Jesus’ behaviour was such an affront to the religious establishment, because he mixed readily with those who were diseased and deemed thereby to be outcast. Time and time again, Jesus recalled people beyond mere external observation to what truly lay at the heart of the tradition, particularly in relation to the prophets.
Nowhere does Jesus actually quote Amos or Micah as he does Isaiah, for example, but he would entirely agree with what they believed God to be saying through them. From Amos: ‘I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn festivals. Even though you [make] offerings [to me], I will not accept them. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream’ (Amos 5:21-22, 24). And Micah, ‘With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?…He has told you what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?’ (Micah 6:6,8). Jesus and the prophets before him affirm that God isn’t concerned with the externals in and for themselves alone, but with what they reveal about who we truly are and what we’re really like. In other words, the externals point to something far more important and less visible: the heart, the very essence, if you like, of who we are. Justice, mercy, kindness, compassion and love, these are things that really matter, because these are what lie at the heart of God and, because we’re created in the image and likeness of God, at the heart of who we are, too. What matters is what comes out of the heart and Jesus suggests that in the end it boils down to love: love God and love your neighbour as yourself. Everything else is simply a gloss on that.
The uncomfortable thing for all of us, of course, is that there’s a disjunction between our outward behaviour and what we profess. To put it another way, our actions reveal our diseased hearts, and this so easily leads to charges of hypocrisy. The charge made by Jesus to the Scribes and Pharisees can be levelled at just about anyone who claims to follow him: ‘You hypocrites. “This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are from me”’. The Church’s record on child sexual abuse, in particular, makes this charge especially irrefutable in our own day. Even the extraordinarily popular Pope Francis is coming in for a good deal of stick. Having tweeted, ‘Christians aren’t “selling a product” but communicating a lifestyle’, he’s had to change his tweet to ‘communicating life’, because some people were so affronted by what they took to be rank hypocrisy.
We’re all Scribes and Pharisees at heart. Well, that’s only partially true. We certainly don’t live in accordance with who we truly are, but our true nature isn’t corrupted and diseased, it’s actually pure and wholesome. As the great 20th century monk and mystic, Thomas Merton, affirmed, at our very core, we’re untouched by sin; there’s a part of us which is untouched by anything but God. The purpose of all our religious observance is simply to enable us to access this hidden ground of who we are, the heart, and discover it to be none other than love and compassion. As Jesus indicated to the Scribes and Pharisees, true religion is of the heart or it’s nothing. If there’s any real point to the whole paraphernalia of religion, it’s to enable God to facilitate the transformation of our hearts, so that renewed and restored, they finally beat in harmony with God’s own heart of love.
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