On Sunday August 30th we began worship as we sang ‘Come let us sing of a wonderful love’ before Trevor Dixon our minister led the opening prayers of praise, thanksgiving and confession. We sang, ‘There is no moment of my life’, a hymn based on Psalm 139. We then heard the readings from Deuteronomy 4v1, 2 and 6-9 and James 1v17-27 before we sang ‘Teach me my God and King.’ Then the gospel reading was from Mark 7v1-16 about the fact that Jesus did not obey the washing rituals set down by his ancestors and was criticised by the Pharisees. However Jesus reminded them it was an outward tradition but they did not realise that what came from their mouths condemned them.
For his sermon Trevor took his text from Mark 7v8; ‘You disobey God’s commands in order to obey what humans have taught.’ Trevor regularly visited his wife in hospital as she had to have a third knee operation, as one had failed. He always religiously used the alcohol to rub into his hands and when he left the hospital to clear any trace of possible infection. However in the outpatient clinics the alcohol rubs were not to be refilled; apparently people had been stealing the alcohol rub?! This hand washing had been encouraged especially since the flu scare and the rise in MRSA. When Trevor celebrates communion he always makes sure his hands are washed, carrying an alcohol gel to use before distributing the bread and wine.
The scribes and Pharisees did not mean that Jesus’ hands were not clean, simply that they were not religiously clean, so he broke religious rules. Rules are useful but enforced in the wrong can just be misuse of power, when those in power threaten those who break them with damnation. Discipleship, being a follower is being obedient to God, not by merely observing religious rules.
How do we know if we are doing right thing? There are questions in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. The Hebrew Law includes the 10 Commandments and has it at heart justice, mercy and dignity and shalom underlying the Law. James knew that widows and orphans were the most vulnerable in Israel and Palestine, as they lacked the protection of a man. They were also marginalised by poverty and servitude. The Scribes, Pharisees and Jesus agreed that the Law were important. They disagreed sometimes when these laws were unhelpful for those living in community, such as whether to heal on the Sabbath.
Sundays nowadays are very different than 30 or 40 years ago. Now we are used to Sunday trading and they are talking about allowing shops to open longer on Sundays! Incidentally that does affect those who work in retail; my elder daughter Beth worked in retail initially on checkout when she could choose not to work on Sunday but latterly as a baker, which meant she had to work on at least 2 Sundays a month and sometimes more Sundays. That affected her ability to worship at church, something that was very important for her; now she has changed her job and rejoices in the fact she can go to church each week and sing in the choir.
The system of the law had 300 dos and 600+ don’ts because the Scribes and Pharisee believed that those laws helped people live good and just lives. Jesus trusted people would know how to live when they saw what God was like and did what God required them to do. It was important to keep the law, as Deuteronomy encouraged wisdom and discernment as a witness to other nations.
Jesus delighted in the law, but it angered him to see the damage its misuse did to people and communities; the marginalised women, the sick, prostitutes, foreigners and children. Jesus challenged the accusations of being unclean as going too far. The Law prevented someone from being loved and healed on the Sabbath or an injured traveller from being helped as such actions could lead to a person being unclean. Where is humanity in such situations? Concentrating on outward cleanliness of religious rituals created oppression. Are we open to surprise conclusions about God? Do I abandon God’s Laws? The disciples were stunned when Jesus spoke to women; Peter was disgusted when Jesus said he would suffer and die. Peter’s dream about clean and unclean food challenged him and prepared him to meet Cornelius.
Trevor posed a number of questions for us to consider which I found very challenging. Is God bigger than this? Do the absolutes I follow exclude others? Do I refuse to learn from other people’s insights? Am I open to new hymns not because they are better, but because they can revitalise my thinking and help me not to stagnate in my faith? As we grow through our lives we are allowed to go through development and embrace exciting change. Trevor told us that our church had been cleared of chairs and had a large bouncy castle to encourage young people. Hymns, flowers or organs are not always present in every church. The introduction of organs in churches caused controversy and splits in the Anglican Church, as too much like popery. There are many different controversies nowadays; ministry of the congregation; pastoral care; sexuality; the church exploring those issues of same sex marriage. How can we care for the widows and orphans, the marginalised, and the homeless? Do we welcome or condemn the homeless, the foreigners, single people, single parents, migrants or is it more convenient to ban them as benefit cheats? What challenge should we accept? It is who we are to love and how we are to love to reflect the inclusive love and justice of God. What are we doing about loving others as Jesus did and seeking the justice as God desires?
We then sang, ‘Jesus Christ is waiting, waiting in the street’ before Trevor led the prayers of intercessions. Worship concluded as we sang ‘The Kingdom of God’. It was a thoughtful, challenging act of worship.