Deuteronomy 4.1-2, 6-9, Psalm 15, Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23
What does your faith look like?
What does our faith look like?
How do our particular habits, customs and traditions affect our ability to honour God’s commandments and love our neighbours?
These are just some of the questions which stayed with me following my reading of the lectionary for today.
First we have the passage from Deuteronomy telling us to heed the statutes and ordinances Moses taught his people to observe, to keep God’s commandments and to observe them diligently.
Then we have Psalm 15 telling us that to abide with God we must do what is right, speak the truth, not slander, not take up a reproach against our neighbours, not do evil to our friends, to honour those who fear the Lord, to stand by our promises even when they cost us, not to charge interest and not to take bribes.
Then we have Jesus, in our Gospel reading, amongst other things reminding us of the evils of fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride and folly, all of which he says, come from within us and defile us.
Lastly, we have the reading from James which exhorts us to be not merely hearers of the word but doers of the word, to bridle our tongues, to care for orphans and widows in distress and to keep ourselves unstained by the world.
Usually, when I’m preparing for a sermon, I find myself gravitating towards one particular reading but not so this week. Rather I found myself moving back and forth between them, looking at them as a whole and reflecting on what it is they say to us about the way in which we are to practise and live out our faith. To me there seemed to be some obvious links and connections between the various readings (not something that can always be said about the weekly lectionary readings!)
I immediately noted the references to hearts in both the Mark and James passages.
In Mark we have Jesus quoting Isaiah:
This people honour me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me
(words thought to be the origin of the phrase ‘lip service’ by the way)
and in James we have the reference to those who deceive their hearts and whose religion is worthless.
Then my eye was drawn both to the gospel reading and Psalm 15 and their references to slander and to that part of the James reading which warns of the need to bridle our tongues. We are to be careful with our speech and what we say about others.
On reading those reminders I couldn’t help but think of some of the unbridled exchanges between clergy of different traditions which I’ve seen on social media in recent months as they’ve engaged in a very public spat about the future direction of the Church of England. I wonder what impression non-Christians gain of the Christian faith after reading such exchanges? What do such exchanges say about our ability to honour the commandment to love our neighbours?
The reading from Mark’s gospel teaches us that over emphasis on human traditions can distort God’s command.Traditions can be used as a means of division.
Do we become so preoccupied with and bogged down in our theological arguments and debates that we sometimes miss the opportunity simply to love each other?
Human precepts can get in the way and result in us doing precisely the things we shouldn’t - slandering people and being critical and judgmental of people who have done nothing directly to us simply because they adopt a different approach.
Having read the Gospel account of Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees and the scribes and the discussion around their cleansing rituals I couldn’t help but be drawn back to the words of Moses in the passage from Deuteronomy and his warning against adding anything to the commandments he passed down to the people of Israel.
Haven’t we human beings consistently and repeatedly sought to do the very thing he counselled against? Adding, over the centuries, layer upon layer of our own subsidiary rules, precepts and traditions to the simple but comprehensive framework God gave us? To the extent that we begin to lose sight of the wood for the trees!
So preoccupied did the Pharisees become with upholding their traditional practice of Corban (by which people dedicated the produce of their land to the Jerusalem Temple and were then unable to use it for anything else) that they failed to see how it was impacting on their ability to observe the commandment to honour one’s parents by taking away money which might be needed to support them in their declining years. I wonder how much our preoccupation with and determination to maintain certain regulations, customs and traditions impacts on our ability to honour some of the commandments?
I’m reminded of those new games one sometimes tries at Christmas where by the time someone has finished reading out the rules to everyone all the anticipatory excitement has gone and the purpose of playing the game in the first place, to enjoy it and have some fun, has been lost. It’s no coincidence I think that the games with the fewest or simplest rules are often the most enduring. The strap-line for one of my particular favourites, Othello - “a minute to learn, a lifetime to master” has much to commend it. It may not take long to learn the 10 commandments by rote but honouring them fully both literally and in spirit is a struggle which lasts a lifetime.
The older I get the more convinced I become of our innate human tendency to over complicate things! Was that what Moses was warning us against when telling the people not to add nor subtract anything from the commandments which were given? Was that what the Pharisees and others, in their understandable determination to preserve their rituals to protect their cultural identity were guilty of too?
I confess I’m a fan of the letter of James, the epistle somewhat disparagingly referred to as the Epistle of straw by Luther, with its emphasis on doing and a faith which which is active in its love and care for the poor and needy. It seems to me the more time we each devote to actually tending to the widows, the orphans and other poor, the less time and energy we are likely to have for internal squabbles over our human constructs. In James the living faith becomes evident in concern for those in need. James in reality is stressing the concrete practice of love.
As I reflect on how we live out our faith I’m inevitably drawn back to the Gospel reading and those words Jesus referenced from Isaiah and his warning against paying lip service.
I find myself asking, do we SAY the Lord’s Prayer or do we PRAY it and LIVE it?
What does your/my/our faith look like? What should it look like?
What things get in the way of us honouring God’s commandments and of loving our neighbours as we ought to? What do others see in us and in the Church of which we are a part? Do they see a Church engaged primarily in putting love into action or do they perceive it as too often preoccupied with minutiae?
Our readings today give us a pretty good idea of what our faith shouldn’t look like and where our focus should be.
Richard Young (Rector)