James 1:17-27, Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen
In recent times, it has been easy to become a bit obsessive about washing our hands. Hands is first in the “hands, face, space, fresh air” Government slogan to combat COVID – 19. All things being equal – we all sanitised on entry to church buildings (and lots of others) for practical as well as pragmatic reasons. Primarily, to ensure that we are thoughtful, and mindful of others and we do this even though we may well have washed our hands before we left our houses!
We are not washing our hands because we think it brings us closer to God – or is necessary before we worship. This puts us at odds with the Pharisees who devised layers of religious ritual around washing hands for exactly that purpose of bringing them closer to God in their eyes. Did it work? – Jesus is suggesting quite forcibly here that it didn’t!
Life as a good Pharisee was pretty demanding. One was required to obey both the letter and substance of the Jewish law. A quick gander through the first five books of the Old Testament and the array of some six hundred laws show this was not an easy ask! Pharisees had to know, obey and apply all the traditions practiced too, that had been handed down from one generation to another, giving equal weight to them as to the law as laid down in the books of the Old Testament. Frankly – An awful lot to take into account!
Let’s just think about the Pharisee’s ritual handwashing and what was involved. First fill a special often 2 handled washing cup with enough water for both of our hands. If we are left-handed, begin with our left hand. If we are right-handed, start with our right hand. Pour the water twice on our dominant hand and then twice on our other hand. Make sure the water covers our entire hand up to the wrist with each pour and separate your fingers so the water touches the whole of our hand. Then dry your hands with a towel –whilst saying Blessed are you Lord, our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us regarding the washing of the hands. Then we were supposed to not speak again until we had started eating!!! What startled me the most in all of this was the reality that it was also a prerequisite in the regulations that before they started all of this that hands had to be clean in the first place!
That all that ritual was not practical in the life Jesus and his disciples were living is obvious. It is pretty clear from the interchange between the disciples and the pharisees. For the pharisees all this ritual had become a stumbling block too. It was all about the ritual itself rather than what the ritual was supposed to do (i.e bring them closer to God). They had taken it to the next level, saying not doing the ritual defiled a person, which is a strong word meaning, mar, spoil, or make impure
We need to be careful with rituals we find helpful that they are doing what they say on the tin (and we are not getting caught up or caught out in hypocrisy as the Pharisees were). Jesus firmly calls them out on this. 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’.
We also in this and many other places need to be mindful of casting judgement, especially as harsh a judgement as was being meted out here! Judgement when it comes, is not ours but God’s perspective that matters.
Thankfully though our first reading which also addresses hypocrisy, gives us some tonic and advice in how to do better in our walk with God. James picks on a number of things to help us: –
Generosity being the first. I have on a number of occasions been overwhelmed by generous hospitality of my hosts, particularly in circumstances where very little is available. I particularly remember a trip to India and being invited to a lavish celebration. The hospitality was superb against a backdrop of very great poverty and relatively having very little indeed. The abundant generosity made me think at the time, and I have often reflected on it. The language James uses is that every generous act comes down from the Father of Lights. That this is God’s work – lighting up our hearts and lives and sharing that light with others – It is a powerful image and an object lesson in how to live graciously and gracefully.
The second thing James encourages us to do is to be quick to listen. Listening is much underrated in today’s world. It is important to attend carefully to what is being said and what is really being said. Listening attentively can make a huge difference in our communications. It can reduce misunderstandings and give us better insights. James equates this with being slow to speak too! We live in a very noisy world right now. We have the right to speak and be heard, but often there is a lot of speaking going on and precious little listening or hearing especially online – where the media encourages us to monologue – meaning just say what we think! What helps us so much more is proper dialogue. A conversation where people speak but also where people listen and really hear what is being said.
A third thing that James exhorts us to Is to be doers of the word – to let what God wants of us to filter out into our actions. Faith is not an academic exercise – and what we need to think, but about how our lives are lived and what our lives actually look like. Do they demonstrate our faith to those around us? The example James uses is an interesting one about looking at ourselves in a mirror. It describes someone who is just hearing but not doing as like someone who looks at themselves in a mirror and then immediately forget what they were like. It as if the individual leaves no impression in the mind. If actions do not accompany words…..
James also makes the point that God will bless the people in their doing. Over and over and over again, I have seen this being the case. My experiences says in serving God, and doing what he wants for us, we gain far more than we give in the first place. God’s economy is about flourishing for us and God’s overflowing generosity. Several times we will remember acts of Jesus where the response was overflowing, like in the feeding of the five thousand with 12 baskets left over or when vastly more high quality wine was made at the wedding in Cana. God doesn’t do things by halves and we shouldn’t either
It is worth us living our lives through generosity, listening carefully and doing what God wants of us. All of that will help us to steer clear of hypocrisy that so beset the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. Where Jesus ended our gospel reading was asking us to look at the motivations of our hearts and for purity of intention there. Just to recap – it wasn’t about what’s on the outside that matters or any amount of ritual we might do!! Jesus said it was all about having a heart that was clean. It’s all about what’s on the inside, and particularly it’s what comes out, from the inside, from our hearts that matters. Amen.
The New Revised Standard Version (Anglicized Edition), copyright 1989, 1995
Link to Rev Alison’s video reflection https://youtu.be/jJ9kK3bg7Ys
Ephesians 6:10-20, John 6.56-69
In the name of the God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen
How do we measure strength? Well, that would depend on what kind of strength. Physical strength could be measured by the development of our muscles. Mental strength by our capacity to answer tricky questions correctly or ability to recall information we need when we need it. Spiritual strength could be measured by how long we devote to prayer each week? These things are a bit arbitrary and will not really answer the point where the writer to the Ephesians is starting from in today’s well known reading from the end of this letter.
Our reading started Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. The important point here is not to be strong in our own faculties and capacities, but to be strong in the strength of God’s power in us and for us. The writer is talking of God’s power in our lives. In a way Jesus is also talking about it in our gospel reading. God’s power in us and for us inherent in the bread of life that Jesus is offering – the bread that will live for ever or as Peter sums it up that Jesus has the words of eternal life. What Jesus said at this point caused difficulty for some, but it is one of those things said to help us reset the balance and capture what matters. That Jesus had and did come to radically change everything.
Returning to the writer of the Letter to the Ephesians– He uses the militarist image of the armour of God to help us to understand how all the aspects of God’s love for us and particularly God’s strength in us and for us works. The writer begins by defining the battle we face and he defines the Devil and evil forces that conspire against us and the powers that hold sway over us. The wiles of the devil, and the spiritual forces of evil are neither the approach nor the language we use to describe this routinely today. Yet there are persistent lures and delusions all around us – for example the need to look after number one rather than be community minded or the persistent pressure to think of ourselves before others rather than thinking of others before ourselves.
We also see people are searching and looking for meaning – sometimes in all the wrong places. We have much to bring to the party where meaning, purpose and hope is concerned. Yet it can be very difficult to express that. As we participate in Jesus’ story today in our country through our baptism – we are part of God’s story for our world but in this we need to have great courage and persistent determination. We need to keep going – keep sharing and keep working counter-culturally to share the real meaning, hope and purpose that lasts for ever in the love of Jesus Christ
Interestingly, we most commonly address turning away from sin and renouncing evil (and the battle the writer to the Ephesians draws us toward!) in our baptism services. It is at the forefront of the commitment made by parents and godparents on behalf of the children involved. For some this may seem like startling language but I think it helps us to acknowledge there are dark powers and forces we do not completely understand. From time to time we clearly recognise sin and evil for what it is (even though we are often taken in by it too!). It is good when making a positive new start on the spiritual journey to make a stand. Draw a line in the sand – and consciously move forward in the strength of God for ourselves and the new life in Christ being celebrated through baptism.
Having defined the battle the writer moves on to describing the pieces of armour we have from God – through the power of the Holy Spirit. This was an appropriate way of putting it for 1st century Ephesus but in 21st Century Somerset we are, I confess, less frequently confronted with armour! However, we need all the help God’s spirit can bring us to stand in the strength of God’s power as God intends. So let’s just unpack the armour a little and the spiritual points being made here!
First, the belt of truth around the waist. Earlier in this letter, the writer spoke of the importance of telling the truth, which I talked about a couple of weeks ago. The armour begins with the belt of truth holding us together – pointing to how integrity is so important
This is accompanied in the early foundational pieces with the breastplate of righteousness. Righteousness is living the way God says is best for us. Self-righteousness – is living the way we think is best for us. These are different – righteousness gets too linked with self-righteousness. Behaving as God says is best – means we practice what we preach (and are not found wanting!)
The passage then says as shoes for your feet, put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. Make you ready – is an interesting way to put it! It is not as shoes for your feet proclaim the gospel of peace but what makes you ready to do it – prepared and able with words by all means but also our lives and lifestyle choices. St Francis famously said something like – Proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ and if you must use words. Gospel values are so much more than our words
Where next then the shield of faith to deflect the flaming arrows of the evil one the letter says. The going will not always be easy and our faith will carry us ever onwards until we meet our loving God – the other side of the great divide in heaven rather than on earth. Our faith will help and support us if we let God through his Spirit work his way in us, our faith will support us more and more as we grow more Christlike day by day.
The last 2 aspects of the armour of God begin with the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God. The word of God is vital nourishment. We should have Bibles well used to support us day by day. There is depth and insight in every page. It can be very difficult sometimes – but taken seriously through our daily prayers and bible study. Our spiritual lives will be enriched and many times we will find ourselves equipped in our daily studies with the resources we need for the day. Scripture can be piercing and hard – but also really to the point and a great tool in our journey.
And then finally in the armour topping it off is the helmet of salvation. Dwelling on how we have been saved and are loved by God and how God – so almighty and all powerful – is concerned with the likes of us. God loves us through all our comings and goings, the good times and the bad. It is not and never has been about being worthy – we are not worthy of this love but God loves us all the same. This helmet of salvation wrapped up in grace is one of great re-assurance and the bedrock of our faith.
This passage doesn’t end there but then with an exhortation to persistent prayer, to keep alert and to be bold. Not just the writer to the Ephesians being bold, but also the Ephesian Christians being bold and us being bold. Along with bible reading, time spent in prayer – for all the things of the day and all the things that surround us and concern us, and all that connects us with God’s love for us and his loving heart.
To finish the passage ends with a prayer for the writer from the heart of the jeopardy of his situation – in chains. To write as he has done of all these things that make us strong in the Lord and to still be bold from prison has to make us think on. Ultimately the important point here is to lean into God’s love for us for the strength we need for each day. Through truth, peace, faith, and salvation nourished through God’s word and our prayers. I end with the words of the Charles Wesley hymn we will sing on Sunday in the churches.
Soldiers of Christ, arise, and put your armour on, strong in the strength which God supplies thro’ his eternal Son.
Strong in the Lord of hosts, and in his mighty power, who in the strength of Jesus trusts is more than conqueror.
Stand then in his great might, with all his strength endued; but take, to arm you for the fight, the panoply of God.
To keep your armour bright, attend with constant care, still walking in your captain’s sight and watching unto prayer.
From strength to strength go on; wrestle and fight and pray; tread all the pow’rs of darkness down, and win the well-fought day.
Then having all things done and all your conflicts past, Ye may overcome, through Christ alone and stand entire at last Amen.
The New Revised Standard Version (Anglicized Edition), copyright 1989, 1995 – CCLI – Song words – Soldiers of Christ arise reproduced under CCLI 217043 for St Peter and St Paul’s Church Wincanton
Galatians 4:4-7, Luke 1:46-55
In the name of the God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen
This week started with remembering Mary Sumner on 9th August. Mary was the founder of the Mother’s union – This year that organisation is marking 145 years from the very first meeting in 1876 and her feast day fell on the 100th anniversary of her death.
From the start Mother’s Union was to unite mothers irrespective of their social status, around bringing up children in the Christian faith. (This ignoring of social status was very radical for the times!!) Family and parental responsibility as role models have been extremely important to this organisation over all those years. There has not been much drift. The Mother’s Union today as a global organisation has 5 aims to:-
encourage parents in their role to develop the faith of their children.
maintain a worldwide fellowship of Christians united in prayer, worship and service.
promote conditions in society favourable to stable family life and the protection of children.
help those whose family life has met with adversity.
promote and support married life.
We should take a moment to be thankful for the Mother’s Union in this place. Generations of families that have been supported over the years. We give thanks for our existing group too led by Kath White. It was great to have a social gathering recently for the first time in a long time. Commitment to prayer, service and family life is an important foundation for us.
And then moving to the end of the week, we move to thinking about another Mary – this time we remember the Blessed Virgin Mary. Another person we associate pretty uniquely with family life as the mother of Jesus. Mary was a constant in his earthly life, and who saw it all from his birth through to his death and resurrection. We often get the phrase and she pondered these things in her heart – so we surmise Mary to be a reflective and thoughtful person. It is worth thinking about how she responded to God’s call on her life.
Our readings today began with one from St Paul’s letter to the Galatians. It explained how Mary’s role came to be. There is something very satisfying in understanding the phrase ‘when the fullness of time had come’. This indicates the momentousness of what was happening at this point. Literally changing everything for ever!!!
On Sunday, we will remember these events through our first hymn – A great and mighty wonder. I know it was a bit Christmassy for August! but it made the point well, describing Jesus birth as a great and mighty wonder. (It could have been worse – I nearly picked the carol Once in Royal David’s city – But I struggled with the description of Mary as ‘mild!’). I was much happier with Mary being described as honourable and pure!
Going to her purity reminds us of the absolute jeopardy for Mary in undertaking what God had planned for her. Her “Yes” to God which we think about was without recourse to her own safety and security. Though God fixed this with Joseph so it didn’t happen – had Joseph disowned her Mary could have been stoned to death at worse and been an outcast from her family at best. It cannot have been an easy “Yes” with this in the back of Mary’s mind and yet it was an emphatic “Yes”.
It was a “Yes” of faith in the face of a profound mystical experience. A young girl in conversation with an angel – was not and is not an every day occurrence. Just to reiterate – What is happening here – God does not want to adopt a human child and have it raised as his own. God wants to come and join the human race as one of his own. God has chosen the role of father in the human process, so there can be no question that the child to be born is both human and divine. This is necessary so we can all be children of God too as was described in our reading from Galatians.
Moving on to our gospel reading next, this passage we attribute to Mary that is well known and profound. The stuff of every day for me in the cycle of evening prayer, as these words form the Magnificat. It is important to remember it is not the reflection of young Mary in the moments around Gabriel’s visit, but some time later when she has had time to think about it and when she encounters her cousin Elizabeth.
It is conjecture on my part but the similarities between Mary’s words and the words of Hannah at the start of the first book of Samuel cannot be overlooked. The circumstances are different but some of the sentiments are similar. Mary’s thoughtfulness and pondering may have taken some of Hannah’s statement into her own words made to her cousin. Whatever, they are words worth pondering
Let’s pick up a few themes within what Mary says as food for thought today.
Firstly Mary speaks from deep thankfulness with a tinge of awe and amazement. She was a very insignificant person in the grand scheme of things, on the margins, not just loved by God but chosen by God in this very special way.
There is also a deep sense of her humility in the face of wonder. She understands her lowliness and yet articulates how generations to come will called her blessed.
Mary has also been thinking about the implications of the coming Messiah. Like many of her day Mary was expecting the Messiah to come in power and strength to overcome all the difficulties of their present! And yet on reflection Mary’s words show her heart had reached a different conclusion. In a nutshell, she prophesies it as good news for the poor and humble, and bad news for the powerful, proud and wealthy. Indeed Jesus did challenge the powerful of his day be it the Pharisees, Pilate or Herod. Those who were arrogant, abused their power or were caught out in hypocrisy were also confronted.
Another key concept in all this for Mary was mercy and in particular the mercy of God. Mercy is about compassion, kindness and forgiveness. It is quite the opposite of what drives arrogance or hypocrisy. What Mary particularly draws our attention to is the mercy of God, which goes right back to our forebears, to Abraham and is with us into our future, most importantly forever.
God’s mercy is something we should look for and live for as Mary did, as we live modelling a merciful, compassionate and kind approach in our dealings with each other, each nation and our world. Ultimately the judgement and justice in all this is God’s and God’s mercy will always be wider and brighter than we can ask or imagine.
Finally as we reflect on Mary’s words we do see her recognising God’s hand in her life, even in the face of great potential jeopardy as I observed earlier. Mary says the Mighty One has done great things for me. God’s work in Mary was specific, significant and special. The same is true of each of us – we may not be as centre stage in the action as she was in her day, yet we each have a unique and special role to play in God’s world. We will do it better too with thankfulness, with humble hearts and seeking God’s mercy
Both our Mary’s today, Mary the mother of Jesus and Mary Sumner made a big and lasting difference, were thoughtful and reflective and followed God’s call on their heart and their lives. Let’s end with a prayer to do likewise inspired by Mary’s words of praise and wonder in Luke’s gospel.
O Lord, our hearts praise you, our souls are glad because you are our Saviour, because you have remembered us, your servants; because you have shown mercy to all who honour you. We praise you because of all the great things you have done for us. Help us to follow the calling you have for us as Blessed Mary and Mary Sumner did in their hearts and their lives. Amen
References – https://www.mothersunion.org/our-vision, New Revised Standard Version (Anglicized Edition), copyright 1989, 1995, CCLI – Song words – A great and mighty wonder reproduced under CCLI 217043 for St Peter and St Paul’s Church Wincanton, Prayer adapted © ROOTS for Churches Ltd (www
Ephesians 4.25-5.2, John 6:35,41-51
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen
In today’s reading from Ephesians, the writer is providing some sound and practical advice on how to approach living the Christian life. Just to summarise the do nots!
Do not lie, do not sin and do not let the sun go down on your anger or make room for the Devil
Do not steal or succumb to evil talk
Do not grieve the Holy Spirit via bitterness, wrath, anger, wrangling, slander and all malice!
If we were to briefly review this last week in our minds – how have we done against this list? Can we honestly say we haven’t been there at all, not even a little bit….. It is quite a tall order to avoid all of those things and it is quite right to repent of these things if they have come to mind. I deliberately put the confession later in Sunday’s service today – so we can ask for enlightened forgiveness based on these reflections. I am not talking about this because I want us to feel bad about our failings, but to show how open to the Holy Spirit we need to be in our day to day activities. The Holy Spirit’s guidance and power can help us with all of this. For virtually all of these do nots, I am pleased to say the writer of the Ephesians gives us positive and thoughtful advice on how to counter them. There isn’t time to talk about all of them but let’s unpack a few.
Starting then with do not lie! The writer says 25Putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbours, for we are members of one another. One of the easiest ways to lose confidence in a friend is to find that they have lied to us. This is true even in the circumstances when they have probably done it to protect us or some other compassionate pretext. Lying about something – is not a good strategy. For starters, we have to remember for ever that there is some deception on the topic, not tripping ourselves up later on and we always run the risk of something else revealing the truth. We can wrap this up in the semantics of language – Little white lies – diminishing them or being economical with the truth! But it all boils down to the same thing really and it is just not a good idea! Credibility and integrity are brought into question when lies (no matter how small) are discovered.
Another area of difficulty is what to do in the circumstances where someone is set on pursuing a course of action that is not or clearly will not be good for them. We are not much of a friend if we collude in situations like this, but it can also be very difficult not to agree without clearly saying so especially as remaining silent can be interpreted as agreeing. This is actually quite challenging to handle, but we are not alone in any of this. The Holy Spirit dwelling in us – will help us to cope and it is surprising how inventive it can be in this kind of difficult situation if we have the courage to step out. I have experienced a friend stepping out in faith for me – when it would have been easier not to and remain very grateful to her. How the Spirit gave her the confidence and the words to speak when that was what I most needed.
So from lying, the reading moves on to another difficult area. In our relationships with one another this is the thorny question of our anger management. The writer to the Ephesians says – 26Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27and do not make room for the devil.
For starters it does not say – do not be angry, which is good news – as it is a natural instinct (and we know Jesus was angry on occasion – particularly over the money changers in the temple). When we witness injustice and we know something to be wrong, this reassures us this is a natural human response to injustice. What the writer to the Ephesians however counters us with is but do not sin. Anger like many natural instincts can switch very easily – into something much more self-seeking. There is a great difference between getting angry over injustice or prejudice in a situation, than getting angry because we are not getting our own way or things are not turning out to suit us, or its not what we like! or wanted to happen. Anger with self-seeking and self-centred motivations leads us rapidly into sin! Making more of ourselves and our desires than is appropriate. In a way this is captured in what the writer of this letter was getting at when he said – do not make room for the devil.
About the choices we make, we are always on a knife edge with this! I always liked those Tom and Jerry cartoons where Tom or Jerry – had a little devil on one shoulder and a little angel on the other. Encouraging either character to behave badly or well respectively. We do have a choice – even in the most heated moments in how we behave and it will help us to remember this. We need to reflect on what our behaviour (especially when we are angry) says about our love of God!
Some of us are quite comfortable with getting angry and expressing ourselves. Others are not. I for one – am pretty uncomfortable with it. I would rather wait until I am calm – and deal with it then. Scared about what I might say and the loss of control. Sometimes it means I miss the moment – when an intervention would have been most helpful. I need to trust the Holy Spirit to help more. Another downside of this strategy is it can leave me festering! We know that stuff that as soon as we put our head on the pillow at night keeps us awake. Brinking resentment and unresolved anger – left to be dealt with later can be one of those things! The entirely sensible advice from the writer to the Ephesians is to never let the sun set on your anger. I have to say I can learn from this, and I even regularly quote this bit of the bible in preparation for wedding couples. It is a helpful and useful illustration of how to maintain a loving relationship. Anger is tricky and difficult to manage. It is not wrong in itself, but we do need to check our motivations and make sure we do not harbour resentments – that won’t do us any good at all!
The final do not I want us to think about from this passage Is 29Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. This one is a big challenge – and requires us to start from the spirit of encouragement with one another and not our gripes and moans. This is tricky at the moment as for some the stress of recent times has left us with a very short fuse or at best rather scratchy to be around. Again the Holy Spirit can help us in this – if we give it room to stir in our hearts. I find a helpful question when I am tempted to say something that isn’t helpful – is what is the gracious response? What will speak of God’s grace to us – his love that came down to save us that we have neither earned or deserved. And then after thinking of graciousness – is to test what I want to say with the question is that encouraging?
Church communities in particular should foster and model encouragement and building one another up and not be hotbeds of evil talk. We need to be both real and really counter-cultural in this regard and this is not easy!
To finish I ask us to read the verses we have been thinking about again with a short silence in between for our reflections
25Putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbours, for we are members of one another.
26Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27and do not make room for the devil.
29Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.
Help us through the power of the spirit to walk the Christian life inspired and enriched by these verses: Amen
New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995