Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity
Posted on the 2nd Sep 2018 in the category Sermons
The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity Year B
This people honours me only with lip service, while their hearts are far from me.
St Mark’s duty in writing his Gospel is to set down for posterity the foremost facts of the Christian Gospel. In this endeavour, it is important for him to set the teaching of Christ in contrast to the existing Jewish tradition. But this was not, we should note, in opposition to it! Jesus’ purpose is to enrich and deepen and broaden the people’s understanding, and the light that he shone on existing religious practice was and is a revealing and a critical one. This morning’s Gospel centres on a confrontation with the Pharisees concerning ritual cleansing rites: the ritual washing of hands before meals and the cleansing of dishes. Today, these duties are widely praticed outside the religious sphere as being basically civilised and practical. Good manners… No-one would dream of providing a meal on dirty dishes and serve food with dirty hands, would they? But here, Jesus is speaking not about good manners but about the worship due to God. For Jesus, true religion is a religion expressed by the human heart.
To speak of the heart is to address humankind from the inside out. It is to call from us our true selves. It reflects upon what is needful : ‘Rend your hearts and not your garments’, warns the prophet Joel (Joel 2.12-13). There is no need to fuss over considerations of what remains ritually clean or unclean : this is to externalise what can only be experienced from our interior life; No : Christianity is firstly and foremostly a religion of the heart, of what lies deep within human nature. Joel’s ‘rending of the heart’ is a call to a radical kind of honesty about what things are needful for us. And though we cannot always be ‘honest to God’, we do have in this Eucharist the means by which we can try.
“Cross my heart and hope to die” we said as children!
If last week we spoke of the God ‘who seeks us out and knows us’ so this week we can speak of our own human knowledge in terms of what God already knows of us: St Paul says in Romans 8, when our life ion this earth is ended, “I shall know, even as I am known”. Christ, the Son of God, is shining a new light onto man and women as we really are. But this is only apprehended with the human heart and in the light of faith. We are to know right away that Gods longing for our reconciliation is one which is being communicated at this moment; heart speaking to heart. God’s a priori love for us is humbling and gladdening – it is everlastingly generous and renewing.
What Jesus calls ‘The Commandment of God’ is realised in us as we worship God. When we worship God in church, we come to realise that this is an experience of God’s prior knowledge of who we are and of what our world is made. It involves a heightening of our senses. Our worship of God involves an experience of the sensitive contemplation of our lives and their purposes. This is because our place of worship is a place of truth-bearing and truth telling. It is important to set religious practice into its proper context. The liturgies, the ceremonial, the outward signs of our religion: making the sign of the cross, bowing at the name of Jesus, kneeling for prayer, standing for the Gospel, the burning of incense; these are all outward expressions of what we regard here at Holy Cross as ‘practical piety’, for they express something of the respect and the honour we want to offer to God. I thank God that there are many examples of such piety shown in churches and even on the streets. Bu they exist only to magnify and draw out the best of what lies already in our own hearts.
I was once in a funeral car, been taken to the Islington Cemetery, and sat next to the driver with the chief mourners behind us. As we approached Hampstead Hill, next to the Royal Free Hospital, two hoodies were walking in front on the pavement. The driver moaned to me about hoodies and the demise of our society, when suddenly, as these two hooded young men saw the hearse and the coffin, pulled down their hoods and bowed in respect. My driver said to me after a long, dense pause, “Well, I take that back, Vicar”. Does such a gesture point us to something we should always admit – that humankind has an essentially spiritual nature, or as the great theological writer Evelyn Underhill put it ‘Man is a worshipping animal’.
It is the Church’s vocation in the modern age to seek out and to uphold all those people and places where the love of God is being acknowledged, both in an beyond the bounds of the established Church. Only a religion which comes from the heart will have the necessary sensitivity and compassion to acknowledge these things…as like for like. The words of Jesus remain stern and unyielding and challenge us to discover that place of being where as Newman once put it, ‘heart may speak to heart’. Acts that emerge out of a movement of the human heart are agents of human transformation : we need never doubt this and nor, and for that matter, did Christ.
‘The people honours me only with lip service, while their hearts are far from me’. Jesus seeks after the coming together of our actions and their intentions. And he calls us, as spiritual beings, to live lives that take proper time to reflect upon the love of God from deep within us. The danger is always the trivialisation or routinisation of those things which form the essential bedrock of our spiritual health. The return for us, therefore, is always to the heart of things, their centre and source, Jesus Christ, ‘by whom and with whom and in whom, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all honour and glory be to thee, O Father Almighty, now and for ever. Amen.
St Augustine ‘Thou hast made us for thyself and our hearts are restless ‘til they find their rest in thee’.