Eucharist Sermon - 29 August 2021

The Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity
Song of Solomon 2:8–13; James 1:17–end; Mark 7:1–8, 14–15, 21–23
The Revd Philippa White, Precentor and School Chaplain

+May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our Strength and our Salvation.

It’s easy to think of the Pharisees – who are, after all, often set up in opposition to Jesus – as the big bad religious establishment, squashing Jesus and his concern for individuals. This isn’t quite true. For one thing, the Pharisees definitely weren’t the religious establishment. Later, much later, after the Temple had been destroyed, they would become the Jewish religious establishment – but at this point, they were a bit more like John Wesley and the early Methodists. They weren’t in charge, and – just like Jesus, in fact – they cared a lot about ordinary people living ordinary lives in Galilee. They wanted to take faith out of the Temple and into people’s daily lives, encouraging everybody to be more enthusiastic about God and more faithful to religious practice. The traditions they are talking about are ways, they think, to make faith alive and to dedicate every part of life to God.

So if we listen carefully, we hear that Jesus isn’t telling them they are irretrievably bad; nor that their traditions and their priorities are entirely wrong. The problem is not that they wash their hands before meals, or wash their pots and pans in a particular way. Those are perfectly good things to do. The problem is that because these are perfectly good things to do, the Pharisees have lost perspective – they allow these good actions to distract them from what is better. They forget that God’s key commandments are more important. They forget that people are more important. These questions come up again and again in the Gospels – why, the Pharisees ask Jesus, do you heal people on the Sabbath? You should wait till tomorrow, when you’re allowed. Jesus replies: because this is a person who needs to be helped right now. The rule of the Sabbath, like the traditions about washing, are good rules which God gives us – it’s just that life doesn’t always fall neatly into rules. And sometimes, the rules that are written at one time need to change, as the world changes. When tradition comes into conflict with what God demands individually and specifically, God needs to win.

This is not just a Pharisee problem. It’s a universal human problem – it’s much easier to go by rules and laws than to think about subtleties and nuance. Think of Les Miserables – of Inspector Javert, who can’t see beyond Jean Valjean’s crime to either the overwhelming need that forced him to break the law, or the good man he has become. Look at what St James is talking about in his letter: how easy it is to focus on what we think we ought to do and ignore the real human need in front of us. We think we’re doing the right thing, but we’ve missed the point. We are acting according to the abstract rules of religion and missing the main rule of religion: love those around us with the practical, generous love which God shows us.

What then – to misquote St Paul – are we to say? Is tradition bad? By no means! On the contrary – tradition is good. Hygiene is important – please, nobody go away after hearing this Gospel reading and decide you don’t need to wash your hands or do your washing up any more. Tradition gives us connection with our history, with the ways people have met God and praised God for a long time. Working within tradition is, essentially, acknowledging that we are not cleverer than or superior to people in the past. Tradition often isn’t in conflict with the demands of God. But – and it’s a big but – tradition is not the same as God.

Tradition, and traditions – whether worship, or music, or behaviour – can be an icon: a window into God. It can be like stepping out of our everyday lives into heaven. It can be like finding connection with those who have prayed in the same place, or sung the same hymns, or said the same words, or received the same Sacraments, or fasted on Good Friday, for centuries. And all of these are good. The Pharisees were right: God does care about detail. God does care about everybody being involved in worship. God does care about tiny practical things. God does give us tradition as a gift, a gift for normal times which allows us to meet God and get on with a life of faith and service to God and our communities.

But we must not confuse these details, or any other aspect of our traditions, or even less, tradition in the abstract – with God Godself. Just as James says: be doers, not hearers; be people who look and listen and persevere; be people who remember that what God primarily asks of us is, not to keep to traditions and to carry on doing the things we’ve always done, but to look after the people who need us.

Tradition is life-giving when we allow it to point us to Jesus: Jesus who says that it’s not the external things that matter, but the things that come from our hearts. Jesus who says that it’s more important that hungry people have something to eat than that they wash their hands in the correct manner first. Jesus who says that true worship doesn’t depend on having the right words in the right building, but on having the right intention. And Jesus who says that we don’t need to worry: all of these are good and important, but none of us will ever get them all right. So long as we trust in him – not in tradition, not in externals, not even in getting our intentions right every time – his love will fill the gaps.

What then are we to do?

Well, first to notice what we do that is tradition, and what is God’s command. It’s surprising how few things there are that are specifically God’s command. If it’s tradition – God might call it to change.

And second, not prioritise our traditions – good and holy though they are, windows on God though they are to us and to others – over the other things God asks of us. The things in the letter of James – doing that which God commands us, refraining from anger, caring for orphans and widows in their distress. The pictures from Afghanistan this week might give us a pretty clear pointer towards those people in need and distress whom we need to prioritise at the moment. What does that mean practically? Are there things we, as individuals or a community, need to stop doing so we can focus instead on helping those in need? I don’t know; but that’s the question we need to ask of God and of one another.

And third, to extend grace to one another. The thing about God’s call to us, to discern when we need to work within tradition, when we need to bend the rules for the sake of human need, and when we need to change because the world is changing, is that it’s difficult. It requires us to pray and read the Bible, to talk to each other and read the news, to be engaged in thinking about our faith and listening to God’s guidance. We aren’t always going to get it right, we aren’t always going to agree about where God is calling us. We need to be gracious to each other as we all seek to follow God’s call.

And finally, to trust in Jesus. Above all things, traditions and feelings and behaviour and ethical decisions, to trust in Jesus. If we trust in Jesus, Jesus will bring good even out of our worst decisions, and bring grace into the hardest situations.