We should be a community that’s not afraid of a bit of chaos

Revd Mary Copping and Revd Liz Stuart, 29 August 2021

Deuteronomy 4: 1–2, 6–9; James 1: 17–27; Mark 7: 1–8, 14–15, 21–23

LS:  When I was doing my ordination training, I did a long placement at All Saints’ in Highcliffe with the wonderful Mike Griffiths. And I met his son Jacob, and Jacob could not compute why anybody would want to study theology, never mind be a professional theologian. And the only way he could understand was by deciding that I was a modern-day Pharisee.

It’s easy to caricature the Pharisees, isn’t it, as the baddies in the Christian story? Although obviously some were sympathetic to Jesus – think of Joseph of Arimathea. And there have been some scholars who think that Jesus, like Paul, may have begun his ministry as a Pharisee, which is why there’s so much tension between him and them. But if we don’t try and understand things from the point of view of the Pharisees, I don’t think we really grasp the full radicalness of Jesus’ teaching.

And I think that Covid has given me a completely new understanding of the purity rules in ancient Israel, because in a way that I had never experienced before, strangers suddenly became a threat to my life. I needed to protect myself from them and from their breath, from their excretions, for want of a better word, from their hands. We found ourselves obsessively cleaning and keeping ourselves apart from one another – to stave off chaos and death. This is exactly what the people of Israel did when they entered the Promised Land, a land which was for them full of strangers with strange beliefs and strange ways of living. Those strangers represented to the people of Israel the possibility of the undoing of their identity as the people of God. They represented chaos and the possibility of the death of the nation of Israel.

So the Israelites’ purity laws kept them apart from the stranger, kept them from chaos and death as a people. I think that now, perhaps more than ever before, I really understand why Jesus’ refusal to keep the purity laws so upset people. Because I get upset and panicked when people don’t follow the Covid guidelines. To me, people who when we were under lockdown defied those guidelines, they represented the possibility of death. And for the ancient Israelites the stranger, the non-Israelite, represented the possibility of the death of the nation.

MC:  That is such a good point, Liz, and I think we can all identify with what you say. The Pharisees did get a bit of a bad press, didn’t they, when they’re really as ‘church’ leaders perhaps only trying to protect their people from what they perceived as someone leading them on the wrong path. But Jesus could see into their hearts, as he can ours, of course.

I wonder what Jesus meant when he said that everything comes from the heart. He speaks about all sorts of evil coming from the heart – there were lots of challenging words there at the end – I think as a veiled reference to the Jewish leaders who were always trying to catch Jesus out and not acknowledging all the wonderful things he was doing. It seems they were fearful of him, fearful of him breaking the purity laws, quite understandably as you refer to, Liz, and fearful of him misleading the people.

Their hearts just weren’t right, though, their thoughts not pure. And we ourselves know that our hearts aren’t completely right and we’re not pure, especially when we do or say or think things that are unkind, unfriendly. And yet, from the heart can also come good thoughts, good actions, good words. We can be doers as well as speakers of the word. The heart is the essence of who we are. Through the pandemic, there’s been much fear of others, as you said, anger against those not keeping others safe; but also there has been such goodness and kindness to neighbour and friend. Our church community has supported and helped each other in every way, as we’ve been able to do so.

LS:  For me, I think, Jesus’ actions in not following the purity rules or not requiring his disciples to follow them strike at the heart of the identity of the people of God. He’s saying that it is not what community you belong to, or even really what God you worship, that matters; it’s what comes from your heart – and that is such a radical thing to say. What are the implications for us? I think it means that for us as his people, as his Church, we should be a community without boundaries, a community that welcomes strangers rather than fears them, a community that’s not afraid of a bit of chaos – because the Holy Spirit is chaotic, turning all our fears, all our assumptions, all our preciousness inside out and upside down. But the only way we can be such a community is if we keep a constant watch on our hearts, on what we are feeling about each other, about ourselves, and about the stranger, and strangers around us. Perhaps that’s what Jesus meant about being pure in heart.

Jesus is saying that it is not what community you belong to, or even really what God you worship, that matters; it’s what comes from your heart – and that is such a radical thing to say.

MC:  The letter from James tells us how we should live, being doers not just hearers of the word – and being quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger. The gifts we have given through this time and can continue to give are listening to others, giving them time, slow in talking about ourselves and slow to get angry about people and situations (although that is often difficult). Peter Seal’s last service and lunch were such wonderful witnesses to the love this community has for each other, and for those outside. We are people who welcome others no matter who they are, as new people have witnessed over these last weeks, we are people who envelop others in love. With Peter gone, we will be relying even more on each other to keep the community together.

In our Deuteronomy reading God is instructing the Israelites how they must keep themselves pure, how they must go into the Promised Land. There is a bit of that for us as a community, as we go into this new territory without Peter, this new land. And we need instruction and help. Our prayers and listening to God at this time are even more valuable, as we discern how to go forward with him. It would be wonderful, of course, to have the clear voice of God, instructing us clearly on the way to go forward as the Israelites and many in the Old Testament seem to have had. But as we pray, as we act, as we help and support each other, God’s voice will be there leading us, guiding us, telling us the way to go.

We have all been affected by what we’ve been through, as you’ve described, Liz, and we all continue to be affected. We are also all of us coming to terms with the sadness of Peter having left us only last Sunday. These things will take us a long time to come to terms with and to live with. In situations such as these, we often turn to God far more than if we are getting on fine. When we’re coping our attitude is, it’s OK, God, I’m managing, you can go and help someone else, I don’t need any help. Of course, we need God always, but, at this time we need him more than ever, his help and strength, living each day calling out to him for help, knowing that he is with us and will help us through. Let us turn to God afresh this morning, individually and as a church, asking his healing and his help in this time of uncertainty for all.

Let us pray.

Lead me, Lord, lead me in thy righteousness,
make thy way plain before my face.
For it is thou, Lord, thou, Lord only,
that makest me dwell in safety.