Sermon – Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23 (Lesley)

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’ He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

“This people honours me with their lips,

but their hearts are far from me;

in vain do they worship me,

teaching human precepts as doctrines.”

You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’

Then he called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’* For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’

Since having four step-daughters I have realised that I am older than I thought I was. In so many ways. I guess many of you are thinking that I ain’t seen nothing yet. I have been sent round one of those emails about getting older and sadly some of them resonated:

1. You feel like the morning after but you haven’t been anywhere.

2. You look forward to a dull evening.

3. You turn off the light for economic reasons.

4. You regret all those mistakes you made resisting temptation.

5. You have too much room in the house and not enough room in the medicine cabinet.

6. You know all the answers, but nobody asks you the questions.

7. Your broad mind and your narrow waist have exchanged places.

And it is the last one of those that I want to address, because I think Jesus, in so many Bible passages, including the one we heard today, is telling us to stop being narrow-minded, and he particularly has a go at the Pharisees for their religious pride.

I have been challenged by this passage. Let me try and explain how:

I became a Christian in an Anglo-Catholic church and I loved being a server – being close to the priest, close to the Eucharist, close to the holy things of God.

It strikes me that the Eucharist is so holy that it affects other things – the Chalice and Paten (cup and plate) become holy, just by association with the bread and wine which become the body and blood of Christ. The altar (table) where this event happens becomes holy and people venerate the altar. Then the area of the church where the altar resides (the sanctuary) becomes a special holy of holies, and is separated by the altar rail, and only the priest and the servers (and the cleaner) pass across this barrier. And indeed the whole church becomes holy, and we talk in hushed voices within the building and we never swear in the house of God.

Once when I was a server I had set up incorrectly – I had mistaken one of the patens (that looked like a bowl) for the bowl where the priest washes his hands. When I came to pour the water over the priest’s hands he spotted my error and agonised for a moment – could he allow the water to pour off his fingers into the paten? No, he couldn’t. So I processed the paten back to the vestry and processed a bowl back to the altar.

But I wonder about all this – I understand it, I am part of it (I fret terribly if I am in a Communion service and I don’t see the left over bread and wine consumed (eaten and drunk) – I fear the worst and worry that they’ll pour the wine down the drain or put the bread in the bin.) But can this be right? I love the picture of the Last Supper where Jesus is about to hand round the bread and the wine and then says “Oh, we have a problem – none of you are confirmed!”

It is the most incredible honour and privilege to preside at the Eucharist – my theology is that we all make the bread and wine become for us the Body and Blood of Christ. One day I was praying – giving thanks that I was able to Preside at the Eucharist – to be amongst the Holy things of God and as clear as anything I felt in my heart God replying that the Holy things of God are the people.

And that is all people – all of us here and also the unwashed, the unchurched, the leper, the outcast, the children, the prostitutes. Jesus made this quite clear. The holy things are the people, and in particular the people that cause us religious folks to tut.

I fear that sometimes, like the Pharisees, we suffer from religious pride.

Alan and I read Joan Chittistler’s “Rule of Benedict” each day.

There is a section that he loves and I have hated, it goes like this:

The Hasidim tell a story that abbots and prioress, mothers and fathers, teachers and directors may understand best. Certainly Benedict did:

When in his sixtieth year after the death of the Kotzker, the Gerer accepted election as leader of the Kotzker Hasidim, the Rabbi said: “I should ask myself: ‘Why have I deserved to become the leader of thousands of good people?’ I know that I am not more learned or more pious than others. The only reason why I accept the appointment is because so many good and true people have proclaimed me to be their leader. We find that a cattle-breeder in Palestine during the days when the Temple stood was enjoined by our Torah (Lev 27:32) to drive newborn cattle or sheep into an enclosure in single file. When they went to the enclosure, they were all of the same station, but when over the tenth one the owner pronounced the words: ‘consecrated unto the Lord,’ it was set aside for holier purposes. In the same fashion when the Jews pronounce some to be holier than their fellows, they become in truth consecrated persons.”

I think for Alan he found the story helped him as a way of avoiding pride – a priest is no better than anyone else, just someone who has been set aside in this way. But I disagreed in the strongest terms – this suggests that a priest is set aside for holy things, as if everyone else is not – surely every Christian is holy, every Christian is set aside, every Christian has a calling – not just the priests…!!?

But what if we see the story in a different light? What if the one in ten (or more like one in a hundred) are the church goers? Are church goers any better than anyone else? Do they love their kids more? Do they worry more about ethics? Are they more loved by God? Does God really care whether people go to church? Perhaps this story is for all of us who go to church to avoid religious pride and say “Why do I find I have the privilege of being part of a church community? I am no more holy or godly than anyone else.”

In the Gospel story the Pharisees were outraged because the disciples were not obeying the religious laws and conventions – they were eating their food with unwashed hands. And Jesus responds by saying that we aren’t defiled by what goes into our bodies – unclean food isn’t the problem, what defiles us is what comes out – envy, slander and the like. Jesus is challenging our ethics – our understanding of right and wrong, and I believe that Jesus is much more interested in our ethics than our religious behaviour.

Ethics is simple – but people seem to want to make it complicated. There are three ways by which we make ethical decisions – we base them on rules, results or values (the posh names for these are ontological, deterministic or virtue ethics). My belief is that Jesus steers us towards Values – our behaviour is to come from loving God and loving our neighbours. Less important are rules and religious restrictions that trip people up, especially the outsiders, and again results are less important, for if our hears are pure, if we act without malice, then surely our actions will bear good fruit.

I have been challenged by this passage – how does my behaviour trip up those who want to find God? I hope and pray that for all of us we might reflect on this, for our calling is not to form a cosy club like the Pharisees, but to be a band of disciples, a bit uncouth perhaps, a bit broken, but full of the love of God and able to reach out and love our neighbours as ourselves.


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