Mark 7: 1ff – Pharisees
Some years ago I was preaching Holy Week in a very Anglo-Catholic parish. The worship was magnificent – elaborate, colourful ritual combined with superb music. Every service seemed to take us somewhere near heaven; angels and archangels hovered just off stage. It was very easy to believe God was present; yet, where God is, the serpent usually appears too. So it was in Eden; so it was in this lovely church. On Easter Eve there was a major row. The servers wanted the Vicar to wear the lace alb on Easter Day. The Vicar refused. The lace alb was old and tacky; he would wear his own very nice one. The servers were adamant. If he wouldn’t wear the lace alb they wouldn’t turn up to serve on Easter Day! Clearly they had got their priorities wrong. Liturgy can be very fine. Good vestments, good ritual can bring one into the presence of God. But none of it is God. God, Christ and certain Christian values like love must come before everything else.
It’s easy to see how wrong those servers were, yet all of us lose our sense of proportion over silly issues. Some people won’t come to mass if the priest does wear a lace alb. Barbara Pym is so funny about church life because what she writes actually happens. Yet Anglo Catholics are not alone: hymns, candles, flowers, tea making, guitars. The list is endless of things that perfectly nice Christian people will fall out about. We all understand why Jesus criticised the Pharisees for elevating hand washing and food rituals above caring for parents or for the poor. We all condemn the Pharisees for missing the real point of the Law Moses had given them. Yet we all do similar things. How often in monastic life do we use the rules of our life together, the conventions of monastic obedience to escape a demand of love. I do it, often. I expect others do as well. There is a Pharisee in each one of us. Rules are good; rituals are good; hand washing, clean pots, silence rules and laudable customs are all good. They help us live peaceably together. They create safe structures and large spaces in which we find God. They point often towards God and yet they are not God. That is the mistake we make. Love comes first because God is to be found most surely in love. Jesus doesn’t want us to spend our time arguing about hand washing, church rituals or any of the other distractions of Christian life. He wants us to discover love. He wants us to find the God to whom these rituals point. How can we do that?
It’s not rocket science. Jesus tells us to stop fussing about the rules and look at the evil in our lives: “evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.” Now I suppose none of us is guilty of all of these, but if we are honest we can all tick off a few that will need to appear in our next confessions. Sadly, our society is guilty of all of these. Any newspaper will tell us that. What is our reaction to that? To read about it with shocked delight? To watch films about it on Netflix? Or can we simply turn away from it? That is what Jesus asks us to do – recognise that all that stuff is simply bad and turn away from it, have nothing to do with it. But if we are going to turn away from this where do we turn to? Jesus doesn’t really answer that question in today’s Gospel, but James does in the epistle we heard before. James gives us two very useful pieces of advice. The first is: “Let everyone be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” That means, Listen properly; don’t talk till you know what you are talking about; don’t get angry. Or at least, don’t talk when we are angry – or write emails! We say very stupid things when we get angry and usually create more trouble than we started with. The old advice about counting to ten before speaking is really important. How much sin and stupidity would we avoid if we did that!
The second piece of good advice from James is this: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this; to visit widows and orphans in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” Well, keeping ourselves unstained from the world means turning away from every evil as we have seen. To visit widows and orphans really means to do everything we can to help those who are suffering, especially when they are helpless. Who are the most helpless people in our society – refugees, asylum seekers, people escaping from Afghanistan? Those are the ones I think of. Perhaps there are many other kinds of people who need this help. But what is important here is the fact that James puts this activity at the very heart of what true religion means, even before avoiding sin. Helping the poor, the weak, the people with no rights. We cannot love God unless we do that. And the more we do of that the more our love for God grows. Christianity is not complicated. It is very simple. It is based on a few small and simple rules. They are just difficult to do all the time. But if we do them our lives are changed. It may seem that doing the rules will be hard, unpleasant work. It turns out to be quite different. God is in this work and so the work becomes a joy, full of the love of God.
So I want to finish with a story from my own life: a very small event in my life which changed everything.
Many of you know that I grew up in Zimbabwe, in the days when Zimbabwe was a racist country, and I was a racist. As a teenager I saw this was wrong and tried to change. That is not an easy thing to do. Then one day when I was about 19 I was staying at St Augustine’s Mission. I was sitting on a veranda reading a book and I could hear that unmistakable sound of small kids playing. I looked up and saw they were African kids. “Good heavens, I thought. They sound just like ordinary kids.” Then I realised what a terrible thing that was to say. I had never seen African kids as ordinary kids. The world kind of turned in a moment and I began a journey which changed the course of my life and brought me here. I have to say, it has been enormous fun!
I am sure each of you has events like that in your own lives, events which changed your life. Something happened that brought you into the Christian faith, or made ordinary religion suddenly serious. Something that made you look differently at God, or people around you. Something maybe that makes us realise that refugees are not faceless creatures messing up our lives, but men and women just like us, with the same fears and hopes; the same care for their children, the same longing for peace. We need to look for those events in our lives and see if they are still operating, still bringing us into the love of God. That’s a good thing to do on a pilgrimage weekend like this.