A Sermon from Sherborne

Cups, pots and kettles

A sermon for the Parish Eucharist at Sherborne Abbey, preached on Sunday 2 September 2018 by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods


I guess that all of us who think we still have some travelling days in us have our wish lists. For example, I have no desire whatsoever to visit India. I don’t know why, but there it is. Yet some of you love India. I love its history, bu/t I have no desire to visit. And yet I would love to visit Alaska. I don’t know why, but there it is. Alaska, Sarah Palin territory. You remember: the Vice-Presidential hopeful in 2008 who fought with the much respected and recently departed John McCain against Barak Obama. The Sarah Palin who, whilst Governor of Alaska, would drive 300 miles every weekend to shoot the groceries. I’d love to visit Alaska. I don’t know why, but there it is.

A couple were travelling in Alaska by dog-sleigh. It was 40°F below freezing. He walked with the dog team, while she sat comfortably on the sleigh. She felt warm and cosy, and began to doze. He noticed this, and took hold of the sleigh and jerked it violently, shaking her off. She woke up and called out, but he did not stop. She picked herself up and began to run. Half a mile later he stopped the sleigh and she climbed aboard. “Why did you do that?” she shouted. “Because”, he said quietly, “if you had fallen asleep, you would have frozen to death.”

Whenever I recall that story, I understand why it is that Jesus so often had a hard word for the Pharisees, the religious leaders of 1st century Palestine. Their religion had become warm and cosy, but spiritually they were in danger of freezing to death. They had turned it into a rigid system of rules and regulations, designed to keep the institution, the club, immune from change or challenge. Jesus saw that they needed to be jerked out of their complacency. And this morning’s Gospel account of his run-in with the Pharisees and scribes over observing ‘the tradition of the elders’ [Mark 7. 1-8, 14-15, 21-23] illustrates that very well. The Pharisees can only see that that Jesus and his disciples are not following the minutiae of the law, in the ritual washing of hands, cups, pots and kettles. They are breaking club rules, and that will never do.

They challenge him about it publicly. Jesus responds by calling the crowd and by teaching them that what really defiles us are not the external, man-made things – the club rules – but the things that flow from the heart, our evil intentions which turn into theft, murder, adultery, deceit and so on. It is not the outward observance of ritual that matters, but the inward observance of the law of God, which is the law of love and of grace.

So Jesus rebukes the Pharisees, the guardians and teachers of the law, for actually being the ones who fail to understand the spirit, the point and the intention, of the law. They play a part, they function as religious officials, but they have missed the point. This is not what faith in God is about. Throughout his earthly life, Jesus cured and cared by being himself with people, not by playing a part. He let himself love, and he let himself be loved, and he took all the risks of loving, and made himself vulnerable. And in the end he challenged the world to search for the meaning of life by laying down his own life for love. He preached, wandered, told stories, chatted, argued, drank, went on picnics and to dinner parties (not least with other infringers of ritual laws), touched, prayed, wept, doubted, suffered, agonised, died. He lived to the full his own destiny, true to God and true to himself.

This is the choice we are still offered today, the choice (as Moses put it to the people of Israel) of life or death, good or evil [Deut. 30: 15]. Moses saw that the Commandments were not being given to the people as ends in themselves, to be kept for their own sake, but as signposts and landmarks to real and truly authentic living. He warns the Israelites not so much that they mustn’t disobey the Commandments, as that their hearts must not turn away from God; that they must go on loving, and then the living will take care of itself. And St Paul, Paul the Rabbi, Paul the Doctor of the Law, came to understand that too. Time and again he struggles with the legalist inside himself. He knows we can’t do without the Law, without the rules and the codes and the standards, because without them there is only licence, the empty aimlessness of bright and shiny things that have no point and no purpose. But he knows too that religion often deadens, the letter of the law kills, fundamentalism turns in upon itself and destroys life and living. And it’s when he sees how law and grace work together that his faith takes off, his language soars, he lifts us up into the glorious liberty of the Children of God. Listen to my favourite piece of Paul, from his second letter to the Christians at Corinth:

Honour and dishonour, praise and blame, are alike our lot: we are the impostors who speak the truth, the unknown men whom all men know. Dying, we still live on; disciplined by suffering, we are not done to death; in our sorrows we have always cause for joy; poor ourselves, we bring wealth to many; penniless, we own the world. [2 Cor. 6: 8-10]

In this morning’s Epistle [James 1. 17-27], St James says much the same thing: be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves…. If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep themselves unstained by the world.

So if we, as the Church of God in this place, are prepared to struggle to be true, to follow the path of the servant, the way of the cross, to love and to be loved, to be real and to allow our lives to be rooted and grounded in the reality of Christ and his love for us – why, then, there is hope, a divine hope, that this church will get up and grow into life and into living, and that those who come here – the visitor, the stranger, the young and the old, the bereaved and the sad, the doubting and those in despair – that they will stay, as the people who heard Jesus stayed and hung upon his words, because what they find here will be real, and about their hopes and their dreams, their fears and their anxieties, their joys and their sorrows. And bit by bit, slowly and perhaps painfully, we will stop being ‘religious’ and become truly ‘Christian’ – because we know that God loves us for ourselves, and that we are made and kept and loved by him, and because we have discovered that Christian living is about loving God for his own sake and loving each other for each other’s sake, set free to be the people God intended us to be, true to Him, true to one another and, at last, true to ourselves.

The Rector, Canon Eric Woods 02/09/2018
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne