Sunday 2nd September
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.
Those of you who were here for my service of installation as Vicar may remember that I did something rather unusual during the service. After we had done the legal bits and I was officially the Vicar I got my mobile phone out and pressed the send button on a prepared tweet, announcing the good news to the Twitter-sphere. In those far-off days of 2013 I know that this took some people, including Bishop James, somewhat by surprise.
Fast-forward to 2018 and Twitter is now so ubiquitous that many people use it as their first source for breaking news and the leader of the free world seems to both communicate and govern solely through Twitter. I now have plenty of clergy friends for whom no service is complete unless they have tweeted at least one selfie.
However, and perhaps I am just a contrarian by nature, I am finding that I am slowly drifting away from social media. Part of the reason for this, I think, is neatly encapsulated by St James in our first reading:
“Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger, for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.”
Twitter seems to have very little to do with listening to one another and everything to do firstly with speaking or broadcasting your own thoughts and then, sadly, often dealing with other people’s anger. The level of irrational anger that Twitter is able to generate really came home to me when I saw two clergy friends fall out with one another and block each other over an obvious misunderstanding which got out of all proportion and would never have happened either in real life or if they were properly listening to one another. That anger certainly had nothing to do with God’s righteousness.
People like to be listened to. More than that, people need to be listened to. Even if you aren’t able to produce a practical solution to their problem, or even if you still end up coming to different conclusions about things, if people feel that they have been not only heard but really listened to at a deep level then it can not only take away anger but also produce real healing.
So let’s listen to one another before we speak, or before we tweet. And not only listen before we speak but actually be slow to speak and certainly be slow to anger. As the world gets faster and angrier perhaps our distinctive Christian response is to slow down and be kind to one another.
If you would like a listening ear then feel free to pop into the Vicar’s surgery hour on Thursday mornings, starting again this week. I can’t promise to solve all your issues, or even perhaps to agree with you on everything, but I will promise to listen to you. If you would rather make another time then please do call or email me. The only form of communication I have not yet mastered is telepathy.
Also on Thursday mornings [as you heard Barbara say in the notices] we shall begin acting as an agent or a portal for the Community Storehouse foodbank.
Our desire to support and get more deeply involved in the work of the foodbank is no mere adjunct or optional extra to our faith. As St James also tells us this morning:
“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
On this basis, caring for the poor and needy is not simply a nice thing for nice Christians to do, it is actually ‘pure religion’! And he is also clear that if we simply hear the word of God and don’t do it then our religion is worthless. These are intentionally strong words. The things we do here on a Sunday are not the culmination and fulfillment of our faith. God does not call us to be Christians so that we can worship him on a Sunday morning and then go home unchanged. Rather, through our worship, he calls us to become more Christ-like so that we will love and serve the poorest and neediest amongst us.
This church has a very long and good history of supporting charities, both local and foreign, but it is good to be reminded that such giving is not an optional extra but is at the heart of our calling.
Otherwise we run the risk of becoming the hypocrites, whom Jesus so roundly condemned, both today and on many occasions.
But I want to make one important point before going any further – I think that there is a 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. The Pharisees had come from Jerusalem 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.
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. So, they remonstrated 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.’”
The world judges us as hypocrites if our actions do not match up to our words but, and this is the challenging part, God sees beyond the words and the actions and sees into our hearts.
Are we hearers only of the word and not doers? 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.