Trinity 11 – August 20th 2023
Isaiah 56:1,6-8, Matthew 15:10-28
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Just before the beginning of our gospel today – Jesus had had a rather testy exchange with the Pharisees. They had come to him, and demanded to know why his disciples broke with the tradition of their elders, and did not wash their hands before they ate? What followed was a rather frosty conversation with Jesus answering with his own question, and then calling the Pharisees hypocrites! Quoting the prophet Isaiah saying 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.
Obviously with the Pharisees on his mind he talks to the crowd at the beginning of the passage set for today – he said – ‘Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.’ He was referring to the food eaten by the disciples without the ritual handwashing the Pharisees practiced, being what went in to the mouth. That did not cause the disciples to be defiled – which means to make impure or unclean (in the Pharisees eyes) – but the kind of things they said – where heart and life style didn’t match up – which was alluding to the attitude of the heart of the Pharisees who were more concerned with ritual and tradition than being loving!
What he goes on to say by way of explanation then to just his disciples is even more hard hitting for the Pharisees. First that every plant that has not been planted by God will be uprooted, and then a rather harsh reference to blindness – where if one blind person guides another, they will both fall into a pit! I think underneath this is a reference to the teaching role of the Pharisees and them leading people into dead ends and ritual practices that are not connecting them well to the loving heart of God.
I find it quite pertinent that Jesus reserves his harshest criticism for those in leadership positions who are not leading faithfully to God, and leading people into ways that are not good for them. When leading becomes self-seeking and self-serving rather than pointing to the love God has for us. The Pharisees were respected and admired for their serious pursuit of their version of righteousness. Perhaps this is exactly why Jesus criticised them so harshly. The source of their perception and perspective was not God, but the ways they had devised and carried on for many generations. Where tradition had taken too much hold, they were blind guides of blind disciples (and the leading people astray was of particular concern to Jesus).
Where does this leave us. I think at the very least it means we need to think carefully about some of our ‘traditions’ and where these have got a bit out of control, or are pointing us away from the God of love we know. The Christian faith, as the Church of England has it, is based on understanding the Bible, tradition, reason and experience. Tradition can play a big part, but sometimes it is also getting in the way of progress and what God wants of us today. There is a strong ‘pull’ to do what we have always done, rather than to change. Some of that may be right, but sometimes we are blinkered by it too.
Right now we are in choppy waters as a Church. There are a selection of things going on in the life of our Church on which people do not agree. This is the way with a Church that has always been a broad church – not a narrow one – enabling people with differing views to sit together.
This Autumn, at a National level, the next steps in the ‘Living in love and faith’ process will involve the results of three work streams:
- Firstly looking at the Prayers of Love and Faith to be used for same sex couples.
- Secondly looking at the guidance to replace Issues on Human Sexuality which governs particularly the behaviour of clergy in same sex relationships.
- And thirdly a group focused on Pastoral Reassurance, is considering questions around freedom of conscience, implications for clergy and laity, and transparency around using the Prayers of Love and Faith.
The intent is to create a “generous theological, church and pastoral space”, offering a pastoral welcome to same-sex couples while not altering the doctrine of marriage. The difficulties in all this are obvious!
Even closer to home, this autumn I am expecting the next phase of consultation on the proposals to reduce the number of clergy in our Deanery to be discussed by our PCCs. Over the past year we have had a series of rather frosty discussions about this at Deanery Synod – nobody really wants to have to reduce clergy, but the truth is we can only have the number of clergy we can actually afford. This will have an impact, and the current proposal sees the separate benefices of Wincanton and Pen Selwood, becoming one benefice with Wincanton, Pen Selwood, Cucklington and Stoke Trister, and Charlton Musgrove. This will take time to come to pass, and for the changes to begin to take place, and there is plenty of time to have our say. However having said that we do need to be careful in light of our Gospel today about what we say!
As we approach both these big things in the life of the national church and the local church, we need to do so with what comes out of our mouths reflecting God’s love for us and the needs of the common good! What comes out of our hearts has to reflect what God wants of us and it is important that we do keep firm foundations as the going gets a bit more rocky! Eating with unwashed hands may be unwise but does not make us any less in God’s eyes of love for us. Where as what we say…….. Enough said – lets share God’s love first and foremost!
End with some silence and a prayer. Jesus Christ, barrier-breaker, lead us from our comfort zones. We want to surround ourselves with like-minded people; help us to be open to those who are different. Jesus Christ, risk-taker, free us from our fear of all that is strange. We are afraid of what we don’t know and understand; help us to see the inclusiveness in your plan. Jesus Christ, hope-giver, show us how to be like you. We don’t willingly embrace change, or always welcome the stranger; Help us to open our hearts and minds, so that your kingdom may grow. Amen.
The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible (1989 © 1995).
Prayer from Rootsontheweb.com © Reproduced with permission.