Sunday, September 10, 2006

3 September 2006

This is a two-part sermon. During the service, each section (Mark and James) is preceded by the scripture reading and a relevent hymn was sung after the first talk but before the second bible reading. The lectionary readings were used.

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 text here

It’s not your religious practice that matters, it’s what in your heart. This isn’t just a theme that pops up for the first time here in Mark’s Gospel, it’s a theme that recurs throughout the bible.

Throughout Hebrew Scripture – throughout the Old Testament – we are told in the Law and the Prophets that God hates the worship, the religious rituals and festivals of his people when they are engaging in those religious practices but still doing what is evil in the sight of God.

Well, if it’s what’s in our hearts that’s important to God rather than our religious ritual, That’s good news for us!

As good Protestants and good Methodists, we aren’t about to suddenly start thinking that it’s important to keep kosher or that it’s important to say the right prayers in the right order with the right words.

Methodists are big on “heart-stuff”. John Wesley had his heart strangely warmed when God’s Spirit gave him assurance of his salvation. ‘Sincerity rather than ritual’ is something that Methodists should be quite good at.

If we’re not keeping the Jewish purity laws and we believe in sincere and heart-felt commitment to Christ, what could this reading have to say to us?

A Challenge to the Church

Someone suggested that this reading is supposed to be ‘a challenge to the entire way that we structure our lives’ And, if we start thinking in this direction, I think that perhaps we might begin to get a sense of how this passage could apply to us.

And so I started thinking down this line – How is the church structured today and what would be a challenge to that structure? I’m not claiming to have all the answers, and I invite you to think about this question yourself. How is the church generally structured? What would be a challenge to that structure? You might want to think very locally or you might want to think more broadly.

One thing that occurred to me – and I can see some connection here with the Pharisees – is that, by and large, the institutional church’s function seems to be one of preserving and perpetuating our religious rituals. We meet together in a church building, on a Sunday, to worship in a way that is actually – whether we like to hear it or not – fairly similar to the way that many other Christian denominations worship. We pray similar prayers, we sing similar hymns, we use a similar pattern of worship. We share similar sacraments and rites of passage: baptism, confirmation, marriage, funerals.

I’m not saying that there is necessarily anything wrong with any of this or that keeping our religious traditions is a bad thing. I believe wholeheartedly in this sort of public worship and prayer – if I didn’t, I’d hardly have believed myself called to a ministry of word and sacrament.

God in a Box?

I’ll even confess that I support church involvement in rites of passage for non-church goers. I believe that events such as baptisms, weddings and funerals give the Church the opportunity to demonstrate God’s extravagant generosity and hospitality to the world in a really tangible way. We can hardly say that we believe in God’s amazing grace and then say ‘Sorry, we in the church have God’s love and grace in a box here and we’re only going to doll it out to members of the club.”

In fact, though, I wonder if the Christian church does act as if we have God in a box and we’re only going to grant access to him to those who are members of the club or who look like possibly becoming members of the club. And I think there might be something to this because I think that’s why Jesus was angry with the Pharisees.

The system that the Pharisees observed – which was the well-intentioned tradition of their forefathers but not the law of God - had the result of creating an “in group” and an “out group”. And not even between Jews and non-Jews but also between Jews who kept the traditions and were considered clean and the Jews do didn’t keep the tradition and were considered unclean.

By not participating in these human-constructed rituals, Jesus and his disciples became unclean Jews and part of the “out group”. God’s law – God’s real law - wasn’t actually meant to do that. The primary purpose of God’s law is to draw people of all races, tribes, nations and genders together. The primary purpose of God’s law is to draw outsiders into the people of God. But these man-made traditions were resulting in the weak and marginalised being left out.
And I wonder, sometimes, if the Christian church doesn’t do this too. Rather than proclaiming to the world that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, Slave nor Free, Male nor Female, but that all people have equal dignity in God’s eyes, we create this little God-box called “Church” where people are welcome if they want to join the club but otherwise we don’t really know how to interact with them, even with the best will in the world.

Two Confessions

Now, before I go any further, I have two confessions.

My first confession is to first of all to tell you I did pause for a minute and pray ”God, do you really want me say this during my first service? I barely know the congregation.”

I think God’s answer was. “This is not a message about XYZ Methodist Church. It’s a message about how human beings use religion. It’s a message about what sometimes happens in the Church.”

And, for my part, preaching this is simply about what I believe this passage has to say. What better time to say all this when no-one could possibly think that I’m making a pointed remark to this congregation specifically?

But my other confession to you is that *I* do the “God in a box” thing. I know I do. I don’t think that I am holier than anyone in this regard and if I pretended to be right now you’d very soon find out that I was lying.

I don’t have any easy or magic answers for how to bring the gospel to a world that no longer understands what we mean when we talk about salvation or the Kingdom or resurrection.

But there is one thing that I *do* hope. And that is that you too are so excited about the Good News of Jesus that you will want to accept an invitation to journey with me, to pray and to discern how take God out of the box and make his love known more widely both inside and outside the Church.

James 1:17-27
text here

Faith and Action

“Do not deceive yourselves by just listening to God’s word; instead, put it into practice.” (James 1:22)

This is vintage James. In fact, if you had to sum up the entire message of James’ letter, this verse could probably do the trick. “Do not deceive yourselves by just listening to God’s word; instead, put it into practice.”

This reading has a lot of ideas and it’s a bit complicated. I think that this is because there is a tension in the Christian life between God’s free offer of forgiveness and God’s commandment to live out our Christian faith. For want of a better term, it’s a tension between personal faith and action. And James is already struggling with this tension at the beginning of his letter.

If we’re talking about proclaiming the Gospel to the world, what are we talking about? Is it our goal to get people to make a personal profession of faith in Christ? Or do we proclaim the Gospel to the world through actions of service and hospitality?

Each of us might want to give this matter some consideration about what we think. For me personally, it’s my belief that the Methodist answer is that it’s not a question of the Gospel being either personal faith or social action, it’s both.

I think that it’s clear from our history that the proclamation of God’s love at the level of personal faith is very important.

I think that it’s also clear that Methodism does not believe that being a Christian is just about saying: “We’ve accepted Jesus as our Lord and saviour” and to go on living as the world does.

And when I talk about living the way that the world lives, I’m not just talking about things like abusing drugs or alcohol, having a number of domestic partners one after the other or being an incorrigible gambler.

I’m talking about things like Christians making their own domestic comfort the number-one priority before which everything else is sacrificed.

As Graham Carter – the recently-installed President of Methodist Conference – put it, being a Christian isn’t simply a matter of personal piety, it’s a matter of how we live our lives on a day-to-day basis.

It’s about how we understand justice, community and the worth of individuals in a local, national and global setting.
It’s about how we behave at work, at home, in the community. It’s about our citizenship, our shopping habits and our use of scarce resources.

God’s Good News to humankind is that each and every human being who ever lived is of utmost important to him. Each and every human being is a person of dignity. God does not prefer rich people to poor people. God does not prefer successful people to unsuccessful people.. God does not prefer one gender, God does not prefer one race, God does not prefer one class.

God’s forgiveness is offered equally to all. God’s love is offered equally to all. God was so serious about offering his love equally to all that, when God was incarnate here on earth as Jesus Christ, he actually forgave all the people involved in his agonizing and shameful death.

God is so serious about offering his forgiveness and his love equally to all people that he was even willing to die.

We can proclaim the message of God’s love until we are blue in the face, but if we don’t live it out, no one is going to believe that we’re serious. Actions speak louder than words.

Practical Application

So what does this mean in practical terms?

First of all, I believe it means being a people of scriptural and prayerful worship. That’s the ‘faith’ component of this pairing of ‘faith and action’

Our faith has to be scriptural, because scripture is the means by which we come to know God’s will for us. Our faith has to be prayerful, because we have to incorporate scripture into our own lives. And our faith has to be worshipful – which doesn’t necessarily mean we’re always happy. But it does mean that we believe that God is the centre of the all that exists and that God’s laws determine what our values should be.

But secondly, let’s be people whose actions are taken in the light of the Gospel message. Let’s be people whose lives witness that we really believe in the dignity and worth of all human beings. Let’s be people who live like God offers his forgiveness to everyone and that God wants all to be included in the feast of life.
For some people, because of their particular gifts, this might mean campaigning for peace, for debt-reduction in Africa or for affordable housing in this country. For others, living out the Gospel might mean teaching, working in a hospice or a hospital or being the primary carer for someone who is house-bound.

For all of us, at a practical level, I think that it means things like speaking up when individuals are not being treated with dignity, I think it means registering to vote with the aim of voting for the party we think will advance the Kingdom (I’m not going to decide which party that is for you, though.) It means that everyone who is not on a tight budget should be thinking about buying Fair Trade items whenever possible.

And, for all of us at a practical level, it also means praying for the world and for our nation and neighbourhood.

For most of us, the primary way we are going to witness to the gospel is by living it out, in our everyday lives, outside the four walls of the church.

God’s word and God’s law are not meant to be things that we keep inside a treasure-box to be pulled out only on Sunday morning.

God’s law is meant to draw every single person who ever lived into the Kingdom of God, not to keep them out.

God’s word is offered to every single person who ever lived to help them become the person who God created them to be.

And God’s forgiveness is a free gift, given to us by a loving and outrageously generous father.

May we give generously and lovingly of the forgiveness that we have been given by God.


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