Sermon: Looking and acting
Preached on 30th August 2009
by The Reverend Canon Rosalind Brown
James 1:17-end, Mark 7:1-8, 14,15, 21-23
Put yourself in the shoes of a Pharisee and the gospel reading is turned on its head. No longer is it a story about Jesus proclaiming that the kingdom of God is at hand and demonstrating that by healing lots of people, instead it is a story about a pesky peasant from a rural backwater who is drawing large crowds by purported miracles and dangerous teaching that is undermining the religious faith you as a religious leader strive so hard to uphold and enforce. Worse, if he goes on raising the expectation of uneducated peasants about the kingdom of God, there could be civil unrest, insurrection against the Roman authorities and serious trouble for you and the other leaders of the Jewish community who have come to an uneasy arrangement with the powers that be. So no wonder you keep a close eye on what is going on and act to uphold the traditions you have inherited.
I'm not saying the Pharisees were right, but they did have their reasons for harrying Jesus. And Mark has cleverly structured his gospel so that they keep reappearing, like annoying pedants, to pour cold water on Jesus' mission. In fact, Mark peppers the gospel with them - Jesus begins his mission with lots of teaching and healing, a tax collector is converted and invites Jesus to a meal with other tax collectors. Cue a complaint from the Pharisees: why does he eat with sinners? Why don't his disciples fast like good Jews? Jesus answers them tersely. Then Mark tells some more stories of Jesus' activities and the scribes who have come from Jerusalem to check him out try to destroy his reputation by saying he is from Satan. Then more teaching and miracles culminating in crowds coming from villages, cities and farms with their sick and even touching his cloak is enough to bring healing. So, again, cue the Pharisees and scribes who, as we heard in the gospel, notice that he eats without ritually washing his hands and use this as ammunition: ‘why don't your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders but eat with defiled hands?' Which brings a strong retort from Jesus who calls them a bunch of hypocrites.
In the other gospels Jesus appears to have more sympathy with the Pharisees, but not in Mark. In future weeks we'll encounter the Pharisees and scribes again, not simply complaining about what Jesus is doing but trying to trap him with questions about the source of his authority and his interpretation of the law on divorce, paying taxes, the resurrection, the greatest commandment and the Messiah. It's a whole sub-plot of Mark's gospel, this question of how Jesus' proclamation of the kingdom of God relates to the interpretation of their inherited religious traditions. It's interwoven with another sub-plot about how the disciples fail at first to understand who Jesus is but gradually come to recognise that he is the Messiah, then have to have their understanding of Messiah-ship turned on its head. At the end of the gospel, the Pharisees and scribes are last heard of ensuring that Jesus is put to death whereas the disciples are confused and fearful but are given the message that he has risen. Mark's story isn't blandly straightforward.
The irony in Mark's gospel is that he has just told us how Jesus fed 5,000 people from five loaves and two fish, and now the Pharisees are nit-picking on whether his disciples had washed their hands before eating. In that context of a head on collision between Jesus' radical message that was exciting the crowds and the fastidious, often sincere, observance of religious niceties enshrined in regulations, what about our questions of what faithful religious observance means today? We're less worried about the religious washing of pots and pans which bothered the Pharisees, but we have our own serious disagreements on how tradition applies today. Jesus doesn't answer directly and instead reframes the challenge by saying that it's what comes out of us, from our heart, that defiles us. Outward shows of religion are useless if our hearts are not right.
So would Jesus disagree with James, writing towards the end of the first century, who stresses that what we do is paramount? Has James got it as wrong as the Pharisees? His epistle certainly has more imperatives per square inch about our actions than any other book in the New Testament. Martin Luther famously called James's epistle an epistle of straw, having fought, at great personal cost, the theological battle to reclaim the insight that we are saved by grace through faith, not by our actions. But with the wisdom of hindsight, James is not as simplistic as Luther might have made out.
We picked up James' letter when he says that every generous act of giving and every perfect gift comes from God and that we are a kind of first fruits of his creatures. Because of this we must be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger, and we should be doers of the word, not hearers only. James sets this emphasis on our actions in this theological context that every generous act of giving comes from God. We act in a godly way because we have been given such good gifts by God and we are to be the exemplars of his love. Our actions are a response to God's grace and an expression of it, not an attempt to win it.
As the regulars here know, Benedict keeps finding his way into my sermons. His Rule is predicated on what James affirms, that our lives should be an embodied response to God's grace. The Rule is directed not towards outward action but to the inner disposition of our hearts, what motivates us and keeps us faithful to God, because if that is right then right action can follow as an expression of our love for God. Benedict describes his rule of life as a little rule for beginners and he wants to establish a school for the Lord's service. He says that the Lord waits for us every day to see if we will respond by our deeds to his holy guidance, and that we must prepare our hearts and bodies to serve him under the guidance of holy obedience. Have you ever thought, when you wake up, that the Lord is waiting for you? James tells us to welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save our souls. He's not referring to a call to conversion, a sort of altar call in the middle of an epistle, but a call to welcome God's word which is already implanted in our hearts so it can have its full effect and he seems to be alluding to the Old Testament insights about God's word no longer being on external tablets of stone, such as the ones Moses received with the commandments on them, but instead written on the tablets of human hearts. When God's word is written there then our response to God's word is the internal one Jesus spoke of, a response of loving obedience that Benedict wants to facilitate, rather than an external adherence to laws that we feel obliged to keep, perhaps out of fear of the consequences if we don't.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that we shouldn't keep God's law and lead godly lives. The Pharisees could not be faulted for their intent to live absolutely by what they believed God wanted of them. But they had lost their perspective and keeping the law became an end in itself and the only guarantee of their security with God - a security which Jesus challenged. For James, as for Jesus, godly action comes from within and is the expression of a heart that is given to God. To welcome God's implanted word is to respond to it. When James tells his readers to be doers of the word and not hearers only, he says that if they only hear and don't do they are like people who look at themselves in the mirror and forget what they see. A couple of weeks ago when I was starting to think about this sermon, by chance I read three separate stories of people who for various reasons did not look at themselves in a mirror for years and were shocked when they did eventually see themselves. In effect, they were not aware what their experiences in life had done to them. They did not know fully who they were and could not respond to what they saw. When I look at myself in a mirror I respond to what I see, for example by combing my hair or adjusting my clothing, perhaps even just smiling at myself. We should be doing the same spiritually, looking at ourselves every so often and making necessary adjustments in the light of what we see. If we don't check in with ourselves regularly we will forget who we are and what we should do.
Benedict is very strong on listening. He beings his rule, ‘Listen, child of God. Attend to the message that you hear and make sure that it pierces your heart'. There should be an ‘ouch' factor to our listening. That way Benedict says we can accept with willing freedom and fulfil by the way we live the directions that come from our loving father. In the bible if we don't act on what we have heard we haven't listened. But behind our action lies the theological insight that every generous act of giving, every perfect gift, is from God. We live in a world suffused with God's goodness and with wonder, we are inundated with marvel, and that should transform the way we live. As Jesus said, nothing that is outside us can defile us, the world is ours to enjoy. That does not make us naïve about evil and suffering, or the traumas that people face; it does not give us licence to make ourselves the arbiters of our behaviour or to abuse our personal integrity; instead it should make us more sensitive and responsive to the demands of obedience to God.
I could explore how this might pan out in our lives but I'm going to stop here and let you do that work for yourselves. Each one of us needs to become a reflective person who listens with the ear of our heart, who looks at ourselves in God's mirror and sees what is going on, a person who welcomes the word of God that is implanted in our heart and acts on it, knowing that it is what comes out of us that can defile us or express our love for God. In about six months time we will be beginning Lent again so this is a good time for a mid-year health check. The suffering world out there needs us to live as people who know that God is a generous giver of perfect gifts, and as people who are doers of that good word. How we do that is different for each of us. That we do it is an imperative for all of us. What do you see and do when you look at yourself in the mirror?