[Ed. So this might have been ready for a (late) Evensong, but certainly not Eucharist!]
September 16 – Trinity XV
Oh dear, this week’s lectionary readings are almost embarrasingly rich in wonderful language. The Isaiah passage is a wonderful vision of the restoration of God’s creation. I can just hear Harris’s wondeful musical setting (Strengthen ye the weak hands) as I read it. Psalm 146 feels like the social gospel in condensed form. James 2 is renowned for infuriating Martin Luther. How can you justify a justification by faith alone in view of a Bible passage which says “faith without works is dead” or “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead”. Well, Luther didn’t like that very much!
But oh dear is the fact that I’ve really not given enough time to looking at these passages this week to justify anything that might approach a sermon. I have a few thoughts on the gospel passage – two very different miracles compared with many more conventional miracles. The first miracle is interesting for the nationality of the person healed (and that of her daughter). Does Jesus really dismiss someone from the scope of his healing ministry simply because of where they have been born. Is “dog” a racial slur akin to “n*gger” as I recently heard suggested from an african american? Does Jesus really change his mind in this passage? Can God change? Does God change?
The second miracle has none of the racial questions of the first. It is perhaps interesting in that it happens in a very private place. This is not a healing for everyone to see. It is also a very physical healing – the healing action of Jesus is accompanied by physical actions: placing fingers in ears, spitting on someone’s tongue (!) or spitting on your finger and touching someone’s tongue (still !). It reminds me of the sacrament in that an outward physical sign is accompanied by an inner change.
Well, as I said, just thoughts. No time to even think about working them into something useable as a sermon. I continually get the feeling that I am too busy for God at the moment. There’s an expression that is trotted out when people say “I’m too busy to pray” or “I’m too busy to go to church” which goes “You’re too busy NOT to pray/go to church”. Well, maybe, but I’m not quite sure how much grounding that has in the world that most of the populace inhabits. Yes, we are all too busy, yes we all work too hard, yes we all worry about money too much. But we also have to keep up our mortgage and council tax payments, we have to keep putting food on the table amidst rising prices – almost entirely due to shadowy market forces way beyond our control and understanding. Assertions that we’re too busy not to pray/go to church don’t commute for hours every day to boring jobs with unpleasant bosses and work-weary colleagues.
There’s an expression “the God of the gaps”. It’s normally employed in discussions involving science and religion. The God of the gaps is what is required to explain all of those things in nature that are beyond our understanding. Such a “god” has slowly been whittled away as human science has explained nature. But in my recent experience there is another “God of the gaps”. At the moment that “god” for me is the “god” for whom I don’t have enough time, the “god” who doesn’t get as much attention as my job, the “god” who is constantly being pushed into the gaps between the other things in my life. That “god” doesn’t feel much like the God of Abraham, and Isaac and Jacob, the God revealed in Christ. What is worse is that I don’t seem to be actively doing anything about this…Kyrie eleison
Well, after a blog absence of over a year (!) you must be wondering what on earth is going on here. I’m back again writing?! Who I am kidding – noone is actually reading but I am actually writing.
One thing I am really feeling in my life at the moment is the need to preach again. I used to preach quite a bit at our old church, but since leaving there around a year ago I haven’t preached once. The opportunity has not really arisen at our new church. Also, being an Anglican church those who preach are essentially all clergy or at least Lay Readers. (What I need to do to preach in church is another thing, of course…) We’re also blessed with a lot of clergy in the parish (although no incumbent or priest in charge) and Lay Readers so there are plenty of people to preach.
So, no pulpit…or lectern from which to preach. However, I can use my blog to collect my thoughts as I would for a sermon, and I hope you’ll indulge me in doing so! It really is a written reflection, rather than exactly what I might say, but the thoughts are probably the same. As seems fitting, I thought I would use the weekly lectionary texts as the basis for my thoughts. Much easier than having to choose a text each week, and much less danger of just choosing favourite passages.
Despite my best intentions, it is now 2330 on Saturday evening, so if I were a jobbing priest or preacher this would really be very last minute for a Sunday morning sermon. But, it’s been a hectic week. I also gain a certain degree of perverse pleasure thinking about the number of others also writing their sermons at the last minute on a Sunday evening! This will really be a collection of random thoughts I’ve had about the passage(s) this week rather than anything rounded at all, so do forgive me in advance.
The texts for Trinity XIII are Deuteronomy 4.1-2 & 6-9; Psalm 15; James 1.17-27; and Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23. I only really have time to consider the gospel passage, although I think the pairing with the Deuteronomy passage and that particular Psalm is a little ironic. The prohibition of lending money at interest in Psalm 15 should also be food for thought for, well, just about anybody. Every had a credit card? Ever had a mortgage? Work in the financial industry? How do you deal with Psalm 15? Really not enough time! (Now 2335…and I must hit the sack at midnight).
What is all this business about excessive hand- and pot-washing all about? Yet again Jesus and the strict set of the scribes and Pharisees seem to come into conflict with one another, and again over something which seems fairly trivial on the surface. Yes, washing your hands before eating is the hygienic thing to do, but not worth arguing about surely?! Well, it goes a little bit deeper than that I think.
Firstly, it’s worth noting that Jesus did not attack the practices of the Pharisees directly. It only became an issue for him when they (the Pharisees) started questioning the behaviour of Jesus’ disciples. Through that they were really having a go at Jesus himself. “If the pupils are doing this or that, it must have come from the instruction or example of the master…” It is when the Pharisees in effect ask why the disciples are not behaving like good people of God that Jesus’ anger is provoked. He calls out the Pharisees’ obsession with external cleanliness as a mere human tradition which pays lip service to God but shows how empty their hearts are of true affection for God or his people.
The issue with washing of hands and vessels goes way beyond simply wanting to be clean, and to avoid food poisoning! Whole swathes of the Old Testament are devoted to discussions of what sort of things make a person unclean, how long it makes them unclean for, and how to ritually wash to make oneself clean again. Unclean things include pigs, lepers, dead bodies, menstruating women, bodily discharges etc. The Law in the Torah clearly demarks who is “clean” and who is “unclean” and therefore “untouchable”. Those outside and those inside the lines of acceptability. The Pharisees in Jesus’ time would have been washing themselves ritually to decontaminate themselves after having touched the wrong sort of people.
Jesus in this passage, and in his behaviour throughout his ministry recorded in the gospels roundly criticises this. Think Jesus touching lepers, touching dead bodies or at least being in close proximity to them (Lazarus, Jairus’s daughter), being touched by the woman who had been bleeding for years. Jesus says that no more should people be made untouchable outcasts. Yet again the message of Jesus is a radically inclusive one. You might have read in the Scriptures that to touch a leper makes you unclean, but look this Jesus character is happy to touch a leper and then pronounce that they are healed and their sins forgiven. Who does he think he is?! Who is he?! What gives him the right to do this for God’s sake?!
It sometimes feels that the church hasn’t moved on very far from the attitudes of the Pharisees in this story. People don’t tend to worry so much about ritual washing and cleanliness, but there are some groups of people that the church is very uncomfortable associating with – drug addicts, alcoholics, the gay community and others deemed to be sexually “other”. There are those within the church who worry that other’s perceived sin might rub off on them if they get too close. They need to stay clean. They cannot be contaminated.
There is another sense in which the church indulges in this sort of Pharasaism. That is in terms of what beliefs are and aren’t acceptable. The church is hugely fond of saying to others “Why do you not behave in accordance with our tradition?” “Why do you not do what it clearly states in the bible?” Laying aside questions of exactly what IS part of tradition, and exactly what the bible DOES say, this sort of behaviour looks very questionable in view of this passage from Mark.
Any time the church says “Why are you not like us? Why do you not believe what we do? You must be like us and do what we do in order to be a Christian, or to be a good Christian” it is falling into an ages old trap. This is not the time and place to discuss right beliefs or practices (and at 2358 I must go to bed!), but there is something inherently problematic in an attitude which looks at others and asks them to justify themselves. This applies to all: conservatives, liberals, progressives, evangelicals, progressives, whoever.
It seems far more consistent with the message of Jesus that we should be looking at ourselves and asking difficult questions of ourselves instead. What do you think?
[And at midnight I’m calling it a day, or night, or whatever, without quite getting round to the next bits of the passage]