Sermon for Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity – 2nd September 2018 (Proper 17)

Mark 7:1-8; 14-15; 21-23
(Song of Solomon 2:8-13)

From early on in Mark’s Gospel Jesus is involved in disputes with Scribes and Pharisees who find fault with the way he and his disciples behave.

The disputes get more heated until Jesus arrives in Jerusalem and is bombarded with questions designed to trick him into blasphemy or apparent revolt against the Roman government.

In Jerusalem Jesus is asked which commandment is the first of all and he answers:

“The first is ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength’.

“The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these”.

What I hear Jesus saying in our Gospel reading this morning is not a condemnation of human traditions and rituals. They’re not intrinsically wrong in themselves. But he is warning that there is a danger that we’ll put those traditions and rituals at the centre of our faith and worship instead of those two great commandments of God.

He says “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human traditions.”

The Pharisees portray an image of God as a rather nasty nit-picking judge who has set all sorts of complex and strict rules to govern our lives and who watches us closely for the least slip up in keeping those rules.

Sadly, that’s an image of God which burdens many of us today, maybe because of the experience of critical parents or poor church teaching or a mis-understanding of our faith which is so hard to shake off completely.

Its effect is to produce a stale, joyless, guilt-ridden religion that is stifling and crippling in its severity.

The God Jesus portrays is very different. Here is a God who wants nothing less than our very selves and all the love we are capable of giving.

He calls to us with the voice and passion of a lover like the lover we hear in that beautiful poetry from the Song of Solomon. He calls his Beloved to a joyful celebration of spring time and new life, to beauty and fruitfulness. His call is like a breath of fresh air blowing through the dusty, stale rooms of legalistic religion.

But why? Why does God call for a response from the hearts of human beings who are capable of such evil, depravity and squalid wrong-doing?

Why does God want to be intimate with beings who are capable of theft, murder, sexual immorality, avarice deceit, envy and so on?

The psalmist marvels at it:

“What are mortals, that you should be mindful of them?
mere human beings, that you should seek them out?
You have made them little lower than the agents,
you adorn them with glory and honour.”

God obviously sees something else as well in the human heart: He created, and sees in us, the image of Jesus.

He knows that the human heart, capable of such evil, is also capable of tenderness, compassion, amazing self-giving love and sacrifice, of enormous courage in the face of danger or adversity, of creating extraordinary beauty in art, poetry and music. And he loves us with the love we see in Jesus and calls us to grow towards being who he created us to be.

To love God with our whole being and to love our neighbour as ourselves is not an easy option. Perhaps the first lesson we need to learn is how to allow ourselves to be loved by God so completely and unconditionally. That may be hard for us.

In a way, if we’ve done something we know is wrong it might actually be easier to do the modern day equivalent of offering a sacrifice to God, pay the penalty and go away feeling that we’ve made it up to God. But Jesus is saying that unless our hearts are engaged in this we’ve achieved nothing.

The good news Jesus brings is that if we can only dare to accept responsibility for our wrongdoings, to be truly sorry and to confess our sins to God, God delights in forgiving us and allowing us to go forward with a clean slate into a new life full of the hope and beauty of spring.

There may be many reasons why it’s hard for us and for others to hear and accept the good news.

Maybe past experiences have robbed us of the ability to trust God and others, to believe that we can be loved so freely and unconditionally.

Maybe in our hearts we believe that some things we feel or do are unforgivable and we live our lives burdened by guilt which nothing seems to shift.

Whatever it is that holds us back we can pray for God’s grace to believe in his love for us and for the courage to respond to that love with our whole being – putting aside whatever it is that we may have put in his place.

And as we grow in our experience of God’s forgiveness and love we’ll learn to share that good news with others.

Let us pray that our lives and the life of our church community will show not the restricting, stifling religion of the Pharisees but the joyful life-giving love of the God who calls us to respond to him with every part of who we are.