A sermon by Peter Lockhart
It is generally understood that for everything that we say and do there is something that lies behind our actions. We may be acting out of fear or hate or love or concern or whatever other emotion is driving us. Despite what we think marketing experts constantly and subtly know this and manipulate us accordingly! Alongside this, the predisposition to act in a particular way has been long debate as being either due to our genetic make up or to how we have been brought up. Some of you might have heard expressed as the 'nature versus nurture' argument.
Now I do not want to buy into that particular debate today but I do want to affirm the notion that everything that we do has reasons lying behind it.
We all have reasons for doing what we do. Maybe we do our chores because we are afraid of what people will think of us if they see our house untidy or our lawn not mowed. Maybe we do our chores because we feel everything has to be in its place. Maybe we do our chores because of the sense of fulfilment we get from finishing a job.
The same applies right across our lives. We have reasons for coming to church, for living our faith in a particular way and so on.
Now the scriptures today have something to say to us about our motivations for doing things in terms of our relationship with God.
In the gospel of Mark Jesus is confronted by the scribes and Pharisees concerning the failure of the disciples to follow purity laws when they are eating a meal. Now to understand this a little better we need to know that this is not about hygiene this is about religious purity. What is at stake is how the law and the Old Testament is interpreted and understood. If I were to make a contemporary comparison I believe it is not too unlike debates concerning how worship is conducted or about who is appropriate to exercise leadership in the church.
The rules of the Scribes and Pharisees were legalism to the nth degree – trying to make sure people stayed holy. Now Mark appears to ridicule the practices of the Jews when he goes onto mention other ritual washing of pots and cups and so on and so forth. In a sense Mark is challenging what could be a kind of Old Testament fundamentalist stance.
Jesus challenges the actions of the Scribes and Pharisees by quoting Isaiah, ‘This people honours me with their lips but their hearts are far from me in vain do they worship me teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
What does this mean? Jesus is basically saying that the Scribes and Pharisees have the wrong motivation. We’ve all heard the expression when someone is doing something that they don’t really want to do, ‘your heart isn’t in it.’ Well this is what Jesus is saying. Going through all the rituals is all pretty meaningless unless it comes from the heart.
If the reading finished here we might begin to think that the challenge for us is to put our heart in to it as it were that if only we can love God more then all the legalism isn’t necessary.
But Jesus has more to say about the issue. Jesus is actually going to critique the human heart more severely. Jesus argues that it is not what is outside the person going in that is evil but what comes from within. He tells the disciples that it is what comes from the human heart that defiles – the human heart is the source of our evil intentions.
Now Jesus goes on to list a nice little set of evil intentions: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person
What lies within us has the potential to undo us. So if we look at the whole passage we begin to get a bit of a sense that Jesus says following the rules is not enough, you have to put your heart into, but that the human heart is the place from which not good but evil intentions come. And, even if we think we have good intentions,
we have all heard the expression, ‘good intentions pave the road to hell.’
To me this sounds like the disciples are in a catch 22 situation – there is no way out. This is where we have to understand that this passage is part of the broader narrative of Jesus life, death and resurrection in Mark which is essentially the story of how in Jesus God’s love is extended to those who reject God. This is how the impasse of the human condition is resolved – obeying the law is not enough in and of itself and our human hearts are incapable of the fullness of response to God required but the good news is that Jesus was sent to save the lost sheep, which is all of us.
This is a reminder for us all of God’s great generosity. God gives to us so fully in Jesus that we are brought back into relationship with God through the depths of unconditional grace.
Now the book of James picks up on this theme of God’s generosity and encourages us to be doers of the word not simply hearers of the word. Now this is not a return to the legalism of the Scribes and Pharisees but I believe about living generously just as God has been generous to us.
James writes, ‘every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.’ This world that we live in, the wondrous landscape, the incredible diversity of life on earth, the joy of relationship, our gifts and abilities are all from God. And more than anything our faith and our relationship with God, our holiness, our righteousness are all from God through Jesus Christ and in the Spirit.
If we have understood this truth then our response to God is to live thankfully towards God. Our worship Sunday by Sunday is focussed on just this aspect of our relationship with God – thankfulness. In fact alongside the hearing and preaching of the word our thankfulness is expressed in that other pinnacle of our worship the sharing of the Eucharist – which means thanksgiving. At the heart of the celebration of the Eucharist is the great prayer of thanksgiving where we remember God’s actions through history and in our lives and we give thanks.
When we begin to explore what being a Christian is about thanksgiving, especially as expressed in our worship is certainly a key to Christian spirituality, but there is something more that James has to say about the issue.
James’ injunction to behave with respect and love culminate in the words “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for the orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
Now I have to admit for me there is a bit of a conflict between the idea of keeping oneself unstained by the world and what Jesus says about it is not what goes in to a person. Nonetheless, I suspect that James’ concern is that as Christian we keep our focus not on the things that oppose God but the generosity of God to us.
What is clear though is the assisting of orphans and widows. Now here I would read orphans and widows as being representative of those who are the most marginalised and those who are suffering within the society. Christian spirituality in this case is about giving thanks to God for what God has so generously done for us in Christ and about seeking to live generously serving those in the greatest need – those who are treated unjustly or who are marginalised.
Now we might find ourselves at odds at times as to how best do this but that we do it is our calling in Christ: to give generously just as we have been given. As a congregation we do this in all sorts of ways collectively and individually. Doing these things is not about making us good people, it is not about making us feel good, it is not necessarily because these people deserve to be helped nor are we going to save the world through our participation, but by engaging in these generous acts of giving we live our faith generously supporting just as God has been generous to us. These acts are one way of living our thanksgiving.
Moreover the money that you generously give week by week helps us as a congregation to continue this life of thanksgiving in witness and service not just locally either. Whilst it is true to say that the majority of what is given goes to paying the cost of having a minister, what is given also goes beyond the congregation through the Mission and Service Fund to serve the needs of people and the church across the state and nationally. The last journey had a very good summary of the kinds of things that our money goes towards. I encourage you to read it and to pray for the projects that are listed there.
I began by talking about our motivation for doing things. I suggested that Jesus describes a catch 22 situation for humanity and reminded you that God has generously given us a way out. Whilst I do not believe in some ways our actions or hearts are much more pure than Scribes and Pharisees ever were as Christians we live our faith not be striving to be perfect in our actions or our hearts but living thankfully and generously in response to the great love of God that we have been shown. Maybe our motivations and actions won’t always hit the mark, in fact much if not most of the time we will be off target, but through God’s grace we have been called to be this people and so we live inspired by the Spirit and led by Christ to give thanks together and to help the orphan and the widow and all those who are disempowered just we have been helped by a God who says I love you despite all your problems and failings.