Sunday, September 02, 2012

Tempted by the Good

A Sermon for Trinity 13
Deuteronomy 4.1-2,6-9; Mark 7.1-8,14-15,21-23

The Talmud, the great Jewish commentary on the Scriptures, tells us that “the good are tempted by the good”.  And our readings this morning present us with good things, and so they present us with temptations.  Deuteronomy gives us the joy of being the chosen nation of God: “What other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just this entire law that I am setting before you today?”  And in our Gospel reading we see the Pharisees’ devotion to their religion and its traditions.  And it is important of a whole range of reasons, vitally important that we see these things – national identity and religious devotion – as good things.  It is good to take pride and joy in your country.  It is good to be devoted to your religion.  And it is because these are good things that they also become temptations. 
        The book of Deuteronomy celebrates the good of being the chosen people of God.  This is a life-giving and life-bringing part.  The chosen people are offered to the whole world, bringing wisdom to the nations around them, and being acclaimed as a people for their relationship to God.  Little wonder the writer is exclaiming ‘what other nation …’ is like this?
        This special position is something that the Pharisees know well and are trying to live up to.  They want to take the law that God has given them with great seriousness, and so they wash their hands and their food, their cups and their pans.  We’re not talking about a quick rinse under the tap here.  This is formal ritual washing, washing that makes unclean things clean again.  In doing this they are taking care to uphold the law that is the basis of their special relationship with God.  In fact, the Pharisees spoke of having a fence around the law, so that they wouldn’t get close enough to break it.  That’s why they wash the food they buy at the market – you’ll not find that demanded in the Law, but in case it has been made unclean they wash it.
        And into this situation, where people are celebrating good things, and trying to maintain them, here comes Jesus.  It’s difficult to overstate just how shocking Jesus is being here.  He is undermining what makes the chosen people special – their obedience to God’s law.  Only a century earlier, Jews had been forced to endure martyrdom rather than compromise their obedience to God’s Law.  Is Jesus saying that their sacrifice was in vain?
So, let us be clear, Jesus is not saying that the Law is bad.  Rather he is saying that the way in which God’s people are behaving is having the effect of closing them off from others, from those around them in other nations and even from their own people.  Joy and delight in being the chosen people of God has become rigid separation from others and a despising of them.  Devotion and love for God and their religion has become an oppressive means of elevating one group of people over others.  Jesus’ whole ministry undermines these distinctions.  Think of the people he heals – women with a flow of blood; lepers; Samaritans; raising the dead; foreigners and so on.  All of them are unclean.  And Jesus heals these people by touching them, he should have become unclean.  But instead they are healed.  They become clean.  Jesus holiness is more contagious than their uncleanness.
        And this is not something that is confined to first century Palestine.  In this country we are also skilled in using our national identity to close others out.  Whether it be by the assumption that we can ‘bring democracy’ to the world; or by the scapegoating of immigrants and asylum seekers by far-right groups and certain elements of the press.  This summer the Olympics and the Paralympics have offered us a more open way of celebrating our nationality, and we should be glad of this.  From Danny Boyle’s fantastic opening ceremony celebrating British achievement not to prove how great we are but to offer it as something we share with the world to our celebrations of  a British runner who was born in Somalia and came here as a refugee winning two gold medals and embracing the Union Flag this summer of sport has given us an opportunity to open up our joy in our country and not to let it close us to others.

        Our religion can also be a means of excluding others.  Here it starts to get a bit closer to the bone.  It is true to say that historically many different groups of people have been excluded by the Church of England, both in its official stance and in its actual practices.  And there are those who are still excluded today.  I’m not here trying to undermine the very real theological arguments that the Church is having and needs to have, whether this be about ordaining women as bishops or our attitude to gay people or whatever.  What concerns me most is that, as a church, we are not having the arguments, and we are certainly not talking to people who disagree or are different to us.  As a church, we are creating a new version of not touching those who are unclean, and in doing so we are forgetting what Jesus said and did. 
        Both nationality and religion are good things and are to be celebrated.  But that very goodness makes them into temptations, temptations to close down and exclude others rather than to open up and include. In Jesus we see this closing down and exclusion being undermined and reversed.  And that too is a good thing, and therefore brings a temptation.  We are tempted to go away from this thinking, thank God we are not like those Pharisees or thank God we are not like the BNP or even thank God we are not like some in the Church of England.  And that should bring us up short. 
So let me draw your attention to something else that happened this summer.  Back in February, a group of three womeninvaded a cathedral. Dressed in brightly coloured masks, they played a noisy punk song that included swearing and complaints about political and church leaders.  The women form a band called Pussy Riot and their complaints were against President Putin and the Russian Patriarch who is a supporter of Putin. They have been accused of blasphemy, but I think that really they are joining a long and distinguished line of those who speak uncomfortably about the idolatries of religious and political leaders.  Jesus himself overturned tables in the Temple.  This summer they were sentenced to two yearsin prison. 
Now the Dean is fond of reminding us that this Cathedral does not belong to any of us, whether we are the Canon Chancellor, a member of the Chapter or a member of the congregation he has reminded us that we are such so that we can offer the cathedral as a place that belongs to others.  And he is right to do this.  This Cathedral is an offering to others.  But, as the example of Pussy Riot shows, this is not always a comfortable or a safe approach.  I hope that were this Cathedral to be invaded by a punk band I would be able to listen and see the Cathedral as belonging to them as well.  The truth, however, is that I would probably be angry and upset.  I am still learning what it is to offer this place as ‘Your Cathedral’.

The good things of our country, our faith and even our Cathedral are, because they are good, temptations to close down and exclude others.  Our Gospel this morning shows us Jesus turning this around and being with those who are unclean and cast out.  This too can tempt us to an attitude of self-righteousness and thankfulness that we are not like the Pharisees.  There is still spiritual work to do in our lives, still parts of us that we need to become more like Jesus.
So, as part of this spiritual work, I want to suggest three very practical things that we can do.  You might think of them as homework from this mornings sermon. First, when the time comes, support the Cathedral in encouraging this city to become a City of Sanctuary – a place of hospitality for those seeking refuge in this country.  Support from people here would make a difference, so when the time comes please be ready to offer it.
Second, pray for ourselves and for our church.  Pray that God will show each of us who we are treating as unclean and help us to lower the barriers we put up.  And that God will help our church and its leaders to do the same.
Finally, go to the Amnesty International website and write a letter of support for Pussy Riot.  Amnesty has adopted them as prisoners of conscience, it would be good to open the cathedral to them also.
            Support, pray and write.  And may our Lord Jesus Christ open our hearts to enjoy all that is good and keep us from all temptations.  Amen.

Given at Derby Cathedral 2.9.12.

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