Sunday 2nd September
Holy Communion at High Halden
James 1: 17-end. Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23
Heavenly Father, as we come before you this morning to hear your word and to receive your most blessed sacrament we pray that you may move our hearts and minds to do your will, now and always. Amen.
Unless you have been living on another planet recently, and I am not including Mars in that because you can probably get the internet on the Explorer module, you may just have heard the story about Prince Harry once again being dressed, or rather undressed, inappropriately for a party.
Now, although Prince Harry being caught with his trousers off caused a certain amount of tabloid finger wagging, and let’s face it the tabloids like nothing better than combining morality with a naughty picture, the incident has not really caused outrage.
And I think that the reason that people are not outraged is because, while he may have been silly to have allowed himself to have been photographed, his actions were entirely consistent with his character. He is a 20 something bloke, he is in the army, he is the sporty type and getting down to your skin for a bit of a laugh is just something that happens. If you have been on Facebook you may have seen that about 20 soldiers in Afghanistan posed naked in front of a tank in support of Prince Harry.
However, things tend to be very different when people’s actions don’t match up to their words. The real outrage of the tabloids is saved for those who say one thing in public, or tell others to do something in public, and yet do something very different in private themselves. I am sure that we can all think of moralising politicians who have been caught having affairs or cooking their expenses and, of course, the tabloids absolute favourite fodder is the vicar who hasn’t been behaving himself, of which there have been a fair number recently, I am sad to say.
The one characteristic that is valued most highly in others tends to be integrity, when words and actions are consistent, and the one characteristic that is despised most in others, and yet is so hard to see in ourselves, is hypocrisy.
You may be interested to know that the word ‘hypocrisy’ comes from the Greek word meaning ‘actor’ or ‘playacting’ and, of course, that is exactly what hypocrites do.
I mentioned naughty vicars a moment ago and the sad truth is that those who profess a religious faith can often be seen as the worst hypocrites, because we claim to hold ourselves to one standard and when our actions betray our words we have further to fall than those we have never sought the higher ground.
But I want to make one important point before going any further – I think that there is a subtle but vital distinction to be made between hypocrisy and sin. Every week, at the start of the service, we confess that we have fallen short of being the people that God has called us to be – that our thoughts and words and deeds have not been perfect. When we acknowledge our own falling short, and when we say sorry to God with a genuine desire to change we are assured of God’s forgiveness and help, because he knows that perfection in this world is not possible in our own strength. That is, or at least should be, different from the play acting of hypocrisy.
The bible has a great deal to say about religious hypocrisy and Jesus’ most stinging comments were reserved for those who professed an outward show of faith but whose hearts and minds seem to have missed the real point.
In today’s reading from Mark we have an encounter between Jesus and his disciples and the Pharisees and teachers of the law. The Pharisees and teachers had come from Jerusalem to where Jesus was, which may have been Gennesaret, and presumably they had come to see for themselves what this radical preacher and worker of miracles was really up to.
However, before they had even heard Jesus they observed the actions of his followers as they sat down to eat. That should remind us that people do watch and judge us by what we do as much, or if not more, than by what we say. And the traditionalists from Jerusalem were shocked to see the disciples tucking into their food without being ceremonially clean, that is without going through the washing of hands and bowls required of the Torah for spiritual cleanliness. As you are no doubt aware the law of Moses and the rabbinic code has a great number of rules concerning ceremonial cleanliness which include not only washing but also what food can and cannot be eaten, which people to avoid having contact with and when and so on.
Having seen such a blatant and basic breach of the law the Pharisees and teachers of the law are shocked and they remonstrate with Jesus for allowing such behaviour:
“Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders, instead of eating with ‘unclean’ hands.”
And this of course acts as the perfect foil for Jesus to condemn their hypocrisy:
“He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:
‘These people honour me with their lips but their hearts are far from me.’”
And then Jesus cuts to the heart of the issue, and where the Pharisees are going wrong with their adherence to outward shows of religion:
“Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone and understand this. Nothing outside a man can make him unclean by going into him. Rather it is what comes out of a man that makes him unclean.”
In other words it is not what we do on the outside which makes us good people it is what is going on in our hearts and minds that matters. And this is not confined to ceremonial washing but it applies equally to you and to I and the way we live our lives. Saying that we are Christians, going to church, perhaps even having a silver fish on the back of our cars is not enough.
The world judges us as hypocrites if our actions do not match up to our words but, and this is the really challenging part, God sees beyond the words and the actions and sees into our hearts. If we get caught with our trousers down then the world will point and laugh and call us hypocrites. But even if manage to get through our whole lives with our trousers firmly on and coming to church every Sunday God still looks beyond the outward show to whether we are really disciples and followers of him in here.
Are we hearers only of the word and not doers? James said that true religion is to visit widows and orphans in their distress and to remain undefiled by the world. We may all be sinners but we do not have to be hypocrites. True religion is when our hearts and words and actions are all facing in the same direction: towards God the Father, through the example of God the Son and in the power of God the Spirit. Amen.