Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity 2018 - 9am & Choral Eucharist

  • Preacher

    Canon Treasurer - Revd Canon Leanne Roberts

  • Canon Treasurer - Revd Canon Leanne Roberts

It will doubtless come as something of a surprise to those of you who know me to learn that I spent half of my annual leave last month so-called ‘wild camping’ in West Wales.

For those of you who are not familiar with the terminology, ‘wild camping’ means sparse, and Spartan facilities. It wasn’t my idea. It had its charm, despite the rain, but few things rivalled the blissful experience of – on our return – getting well and truly clean again, luxuriating in a hot bath and washing every single item of clothing.

Isn’t it lovely to be clean? It can even feel like a real relief, especially if we’ve got particularly grimy. Think of the pleasure of getting into fresh bedding… and on those occasions (rare, in my case) that the house is looking spotless, everything feels more manageable. Order has been restored.

And as anyone who works to deadlines knows, cleaning is one of the best methods of procrastination in the book if there’s something more urgent to be done. I will not be the first person to be found hoovering under the bed when a sermon (or whatever it is for you) needs to be written. It is the only time that such chores seem remotely attractive; but one can feel virtuous having done it, even though something was much more pressing.

So far, so amusing, but we know too, don’t we, that this cleaning business can tip over into obsessive behaviour, a way of managing anxiety by exerting control over our environment. Focusing on the little things – wiping down all the surfaces again, washing our hands again – while shutting out the big internal issues that can’t be faced, and are the cause of the anxiety in the first place. It can take over one’s life, and become a terrible burden.

I wonder if this is what the Pharisees, the religious professionals of Jesus’ day, were doing, even if they weren’t quite aware of it? I wonder if they were fearful of moving away from the rigidity, and the safety of the purity laws which were hard, yes, time-consuming, yes, but measureable, achievable, and within their control, to the challenge of looking within themselves, and doing some cleaning up there?

It’s always easier to take care of external appearances than inner realities. Burdensome though the rules and regulations imposed by the religious authorities were, they were still manageable – just about – compared the challenges posed by Jesus. That Jesus, who hung around with the really dirty people – the lepers, the unclean, the outcasts, the women, the poor. Who had disciples who didn’t spend their time washing their bronze kettles (I suspect the C1st equivalent of hoovering under the bed), but were being taught to put their energy into spreading the good news about God’s love for those feeling a bit grubby.  

Jesus recognizes and diagnoses the problem again and again in the Gospels. Listen to him, in Matthew’s Gospel: ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and all kinds of filth’ (Matt 23.27). The external cleaning is a displacement for what really needs to be done internally. It’s focusing on the wrong thing.

Jesus, meanwhile, reminds us that there is only one commandment that actually matters, that trumps all others: to love God with all heart, mind, soul, strength; to love neighbour; to love self.

This is where the real work needs to be done, where the care needs to be taken; this is what cleans, clarifies our life.

The harshest things Jesus says throughout the Gospels are aimed at hypocrites. Nothing makes him angrier; nothing, he says, offends the Father as much as those who pay lip service but whose hearts remain hard, or empty, or dark. Those who, inevitably, lack love.

Because however much effort we put into making a good impression for other people, God is never fooled. He alone sees into our heart. I’m not quite sure why that doesn’t bother us more, to be honest. Why most of us still seem to live as though other people’s opinions matter more than God’s. 

But, let’s face it, most of us – all of us – do.

And as if that weren’t misguided enough, once we’ve finished our ritual washing –whatever it is we do to assuage our conscience and make ourselves look good to others – the next thing we tend to do is look around and see who hasn’t done it. And we point our finger, judge, exclude, and generally use this to feel better about ourselves.

Now, this might be part of our human nature, our propensity to sin, but it’s really important that we’re absolutely clear that this is in no way obeying God’s commandment to love.

It’s not showing love of God, because it flies in the face of his will for us; it’s not showing love of neighbour, because we’re acting without compassion and mercy; and it’s not even showing love of self, because these kind of delusions harden our hearts and make us deaf to the call of the one who can lead us into the way of freedom and peace.

So what are we to do?

Our epistle this morning has wise words, and forthright instructions: ‘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.’ How do we behave in the face of the distress of others? What can we do to care more, even when it’s hard, and uncomfortable, and costly?

We are, of necessity, in the world; but to remain ‘unstained’ is to be less affected by worldly cares and impressions than those who do not yet know the truth about the love of God. To care too much about worldly impressions, like the Pharisees, is to wreak terrible damage on ourselves, our relationships, our children.

I’m sure I’m not alone in having been horrified (though not surprised) by the survey published last week which reported that more than a fifth of fourteen year old girls engage in self-harm. The reasons given were varied, but most fall into the category of trying to subvert the pain of not fitting in; being bullied, being worried about how they look, identifying as LGBTQ.

We cannot afford to persist in our desperation to fit in with what the world expects of us. It makes us live beyond our financial means, keeps us addicted to medication, damages our children. In the words of Jesus, we are abandoning the commandment of God and holding to human tradition.

If we wish to experience life in all its fullness, we cannot remain obsessed with outward impressions and ignore the poverty of what goes on within – which is the real work of being a fully integrated, redeemed, and transformed child of God. We cannot make ourselves perfect. Only God can bring this about in us, only God can effect the deep clean we need, through the redeeming death of Jesus – this is what it means to be washed in the blood of the lamb which removes every stain.

Only abandoning ourselves to perfect love can make us whole. Not money, or status, or physical beauty, or our number of followers on social media.

Haven’t we seen enough to know that the western world’s values aren’t really bringing us fullness of life?

Might it be time to acknowledge that God’s commandment to love is the only thing that can really give us what we crave?

‘You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition’, accuses Jesus. 

Let us turn this accusation on its head, looking to him, only, for cleansing; and committing ourselves to put human tradition, views and priorities firmly in context, by holding firmly to the loving commandment of God.