Faith for the Future: Sermon for 2 September 2012

Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 2 September 2012: Year B, Proper 17

SERMON
Texts: James 1:17-27
Mark 7.1-8

Faith for the Future

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

The word ‘Pharisee’ is a word which, for us, seems to sum up the worst about religion. My dictionary says that a person referred to today as a Pharisee is ‘anyone more careful of the outward forms than of the spirit of a religion, a formalist [or] a very self-righteous or hypocritical person’. The adjective ‘pharisaic’ means ‘hypocritical’ (Chambers Dictionary 1998). So the Pharisees have a got a bad name. Now this is a wee bit unfair on the poor old Pharisees, because, at least to begin with, they meant well. They were living in an age when their faith was under attack, as they lived in the Roman Empire. There was no longer an independent Jewish state, and Jewish culture- including religion- was open as never before the outside influence. When that happens, there’s often a tendency by religious people to get the wagons in a circle, to adopt a defensive mode in their dealings with the world. This is what the Pharisees did- they emphasised what we might call the external aspects of their faith- the rituals and rules which marked them out as different from anyone else. That kind of thing is always a temptation for those who feel their culture or religion is under attack.

There’s no doubt that one of the great problems facing the world today is what we might call the ‘Pharasaical’ approach to faith. Across the world, globalization has left many people feeling their culture or faith is under attack. Many people adapt to these changes, and even find ways of living out their faith in this changed world. For others, however, the temptation is to emphasise what is different about their faith, and they use faith as an excuse to attack those who are seen as different. Perhaps the most notorious religious fundamentalists of recent years have been the Afghanistan Taliban, who until 2001 led a regime which, for example, subjected women to terrible oppression. They still, it seems, wish to make a come back and return that unhappy country to that state. But most Muslims around the world would disagree that the measure which the Taliban would like to impose are required by Islam. What happens is that the actual precepts of the faith get confused with cultural traditions, and what is merely human is given the sanction of the divine- with disastrous results. No-one should condone the extremes of religious fundamentalism when they result in things like women being kept out of school, suicide bombings, or- as happened in Pakistan recently- a disabled child being attacked for blasphemy. When religion lashes out with violence, that’s a sure sign that something has gone wrong. But without condoning these extreme results of religious fundamentalism, we should, perhaps, pause to consider how they come about. Is it really that surprising that a country which is grindingly poor, with no powerful central government, with little opportunity for education, and awash with arms, should develop a culture of religious violence? For that is the situation in places like Afghanistan or Somalia or in other failed states and unstable regions around the world.

Israel in Jesus’ day was a state under foreign occupation, whose culture seemed under attack from foreign influence- the power of Rome, the culture of Greece. Some people, naturally, understood that obedience of God meant that they should hold all the more firmly to their traditions. And people like that often hate and fear, not just the outsiders, but the insiders who call for change. So, in our reading today, the Pharisees are appalled when Jesus disciples’ seemed lax in the way they interpreted the Law of Moses. For example, they said true Jews should only eat after washing their hands in a ceremonial way. You were to use special water, and you had to wash between each course. You began with your fingers pointing upwards, you poured water on them. And at the end, you had to have your fingers pointing downwards, so that the water- which was now ritually ‘unclean’- could drain off and not make your fingers ‘unclean’ again (see Barclay, DSB: Mark, p164f). This had nothing to do with hygiene, or good manners. It was simply ritual- a religious requirement which Jesus believed had taken the place of true faith.

How often do we confuse the outward signs of religion with the real thing? But it is the great temptation of religious leaders to do just that, especially when they feel their religion is under attack. But it can lead to the opposite consequence from what it intended. Take a contemporary example from our own country- the debate about gay marriage. Too often, I have heard people from the Churches talk about this issue, and they give the impression that they are trying to defend themselves, and their beliefs and practices. As maybe they should. But too often, it sound harsh. Gay and lesbian people are asking that they, too, should be able to share in the benefits of marriage, and the State, rightly or wrongly, is minded to give them that right.

This is a debate which caught the churches in Scotland rather by surprise, even although we’ve been debating about sexuality issues for years. But I’ve often felt that when we debated sexuality in the Church, we didn’t think enough about marriage. There is a crisis of confidence in marriage in our time, which is having serious social consequences, especially for children. Even although we know that not all marriages succeed, still there is a consensus within the Church- and this is borne out by sociological studies- that marriage is, basically, a good thing. At every wedding service, I use these words from our book of Common Order, which state our belief that marriage ‘help[s] to shape a society in which human dignity and happiness may flourish and abound’ (Common Order, (1994) p 196). I sincerely believe that, and I think the Church should be getting that message out there.

If we are going to be debating marriage, then Christians should be telling the world that that marriage is one of God’s gifts to the world. A prayer in the Church of Scotland’s Common Order marriage services begins, ‘Gracious God, we thank you for all the gifts or your love, and especially for the gift of marriage’ (p197). I certainly feel that my marriage has been one of the greatest gifts God has given me. It has done more than to make me happy: I think it’s good for my family, and for society in general. I’m an enthusiast for marriage.
So when a group of people who previously were unable to get married come and say- we would like to share in that gift- that raises all kinds of questions for me. Why do they want to share this gift? Because they, too, have found a person to love and to whom they want to make a lifetime commitment. What does it do to the institution of marriage, which I am so enthusiastic about? It this an attack on the institution of marriage? I really can’t see why.

Marriage has been under attack in our society for a long time. But the crisis of marriage in our time has not been caused by gay and lesbian people, who formerly could not get married, wanting to be able to share its benefits. The crisis has been caused by those who used to get married- heterosexual people- but who now, for whatever reason, can no longer see the point of marriage, or do not understand what it’s really about.

So when, from an unexpected quarter, we hear people saying- we couldn’t get married in the past, but we’d like to get married now- well, that sounds like a good argument for marriage. I wonder whether these gay and lesbian folks who want to get married are not, in fact, strengthening the institution of marriage when they say they want to be part of it. What do I say to a gay or lesbian couple who want to me married with God’s blessing? Do I say, ‘Sorry, but our tradition says you can’t get married, because the tradition says only people of different genders can get married’. I might feel I was sticking up for the distinctiveness of Christianity. But I also think I sound like a Pharisee. What if I were to say, ‘Thanks for asking. It’s about time you shared in God’s gift of marriage. Welcome!’ Would that be the more loving thing to say? Would that be the more Christlike thing to do, even although it involves going against centuries of hallowed, Christian tradition?

The Pharisees said that the way you washed your hands showed you were distinctive, showed to the world your obedience to God. But Christ said that they got it wrong. Asked why his disciples don’t scrupulously observe the niceties of religious hand washing, Jesus replies with words from their own Scriptures: ‘How right Isaiah was when he prophesied about you! You are hypocrites, just as he wrote: “These people, says God, honour me with their words, but their heart is really far away from me. It is no use for them to worship me, because they teach human rules as though they were my laws!”‘ And he adds, ‘You put aside God’s command and obey human teachings’ (Mark 7.6-8).

Now, if we think God gave us a rule book a long time ago, then of course we will always want to maintain the traditional way of doing things. But look at what the Bible does with its own rules. Jesus reinterpreted scripture when he had to, when he saw that people were using scripture- or ancient interpretations of it- in a way that obscured its central message- the message of God’s love. He believed that God’s supreme law of love always came before any other law or rules. He said that the greatest commandments were to love God and our neighbour- those are the basic rules. As William Barclay wrote of this passage, what Jesus taught was this: ‘We must have a care that we never allow rules to paralyse the claims of love. Nothing that prevents us helping a fellow-man can ever be a rule approved by God’ (Daily Study Bible: Mark, p171).

This idea is developed in our reading from the Letter of James. Here is a letter from the earliest years of the then-new Christian faith. But already, it seems, there is a danger of people just being formal about their faith. James says, ‘Do not deceive yourselves by just listening to his word; instead, put it into practice’ (James 1.22). Here is the crux of what it means to live out our Christian faith. We are not simply to say we believe, we are live as if we believe. James gives us examples of what that means- watch what you say, and look after the poor. He writes very practically about issues which must have been bothering him: ‘Do any of you think you are religious? If you do not control your tongue, your religion is worthless and you deceive yourself. What God the Father considers to be pure and genuine religion is this: to take care of orphans and widows in their suffering’.

For the Pharisees, doctrine and ritual always trumped love. In their overzealous approach to religion they, they needed Jesus to remind them that love always comes first. Christ came, initially to renew the Jewish faith. At its heart, Judaism has two great laws which Jesus identified as more important than any other: that we should love God and love our neighbour. Jesus tried to recall people back to those first principles. And his passion for bringing God’s grace and love to people outweighed his passion for his religion and its sometimes stultifying rules and ritual. It is not that Jesus was not religious- of course he was. He worshipped in the Temple and the synagogue. He grew up within and was formed by his Jewish faith. But he understood that people always come before rules. So he wanted to remind religious people that their rules, their attitudes, their rituals, were obscuring the really important things. He quoted Scripture to remind them that God’s love always comes first, before any dogma, rule, ritual, or ceremony. That was his attempt to reform and renew the religion of his time. And it was what got him into trouble with the religious traditionalists.

And as Christ was a renewer of religion, so it seems self-evident that because our founder was a renewer, so Christianity always needs to be renewing itself. This week we heard that shortly before his death, the Cardinal Archbishop of Milan had given an interview in which he called for a thorough renewal of his Church. Ity’s because we need to renew the life of our congregation that the Future Focus programme is happenning. For Christianity ought not to be a religion of traditions. Yes, let’s learn from the wisdom of tradition- 2,000 or more years of reflecting on how to live as God intends is not to be dismissed. But we are not to allow our traditions to get in the way of love. We are not to be Pharisees- too attached to the ways our fathers did things, that so we forget to hear the word of our heavenly Father today. For true Christianity is about love- telling of the love of God, and showing love to others. Even when we get involved in serious, strenuous discussions, even when we try to keep the faith from being attacked- we are to show love, and do love, and speak lovingingly.   Jesus tells us that no rules and regulations- not even religious rules and regulations-  can get in the way of God’s passionate love for all people. Pharisees, of every age, might find that uncomfortable. But that passionate love of God, which goes out beyond all human boundaries, is what the Gospel of Christ is all about.

Ascription of Praise

Now to God
who is able through the power
which is at work among us
to do immeasurably more
than all we can ask or conceive,
to God be the glory
in the church and in Christ Jesus
from generation to generation for evermore, Amen.

Ephesians 3:20-21 (REB)

Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2012 Peter W Nimmo