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Sermon for the 12th Sunday after Trinity The Israelites, it seems, were not quiet, biddable people,

re not quiet, biddable people, but


Proper 17 really more like a bunch of unruly children. The story we read in
Sunday 30th August 2009 the Old Testament is the story of the relationship between God
and his people. It‟s a story of a God who is good and gracious
Deuteronomy 4. 11-2, 6-9 and just. But it‟s also the story of ordinary people – people who
James 1. 17-27 were discontented, dissatisfied and disobedient.
Mark 7. 1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Small wonder, then, that God gave his people a law to live by.

I wonder if you‟ve ever heard the story of the Sunday School Our first reading this morning was from the book of
child who was rather puzzled after hearing a number of stories Deuteronomy. The name of the book means „the second law‟. It
from the Old Testament. reaffirms the law which had previously been given to Moses in
the form of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. God made
“Is it right”, asked Joey, “that the Children of Israel crossed the an agreement with the Israelites. He would remember and show
Red Sea?” his steadfast loyalty to his people. For their part, they would obey
his law out of gratitude for their freedom and God‟s goodness to
“Yes, it is,” replied the teacher. them.

“And is it right that the Children of Israel sang and danced for joy As the years went by, the people became increasingly people
when Pharaoh‟s soldiers were drowned?” who lived „by the book‟. A body of traditions developed, in a
process which was still continuing at the time of Jesus.
“You‟re right”, said the teacher.
The scribes, who were the professional students and guardians of
“And didn‟t the Children of Israel fight and kill the Amorites and the law, worked out precise regulations governing all
the Midianites and the Canaanites?” circumstances. For example, 39 types of action were prohibited
on the Sabbath. And food laws were of particular importance.
“Right again” answered the teacher.
Our Gospel reading this morning begins with a challenge from the
“Well, what I want to know is this”, demanded Joey. “If the scribes and Pharisees regarding the failure of Jesus‟ disciples to
Children of Israel did all those things, what were the grown-ups perform ritual washing before eating. The gospel writer, Mark, is
doing all the time?” !!! at pains to explain to his Gentile readers the significance of this
challenge.
“For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they “Part of being a Christian is to learn the art of spiritual
thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the discernment… And part of that art is learning to understand
elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they scripture and to test human traditions against it.”
wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they
observe, the washing of cups, pots and bronze vessels.”
As Christians, how are we to make judgements about current
Living, as we do, in an age when health and safety – not to issues or to resolve the ethical problems which we face?
mention Swine Flu! - are paramount, such rules perhaps don‟t
seem very surprising to us. But you have to remember that Such challenges appear in the news daily. We might want to stop
hygiene wasn‟t the main issue for the Jews. They were much and consider where we stand in the debate about „assisted
more concerned to make sure that neither they nor their food death‟. Or - what are the rights and wrongs of the decision to
were contaminated, or defiled, by contact with Gentiles. release the so-called „Lockerbie bomber‟ from prison in Scotland
on compassionate grounds?
Jesus was not fazed by the criticism of the scribes and Pharisees.
There‟s another issue which has been on my mind in the past
Using a quotation from the prophet Isaiah he challenged their week which clearly illustrates the need for „spiritual discernment‟.
hypocrisy.
You may have read in the news that the Anglican Communion –
“You”, he declared, “pay only lip service to God and do not the worldwide association to which the Church of England
honour him in your hearts. You follow human traditions rather belongs – is threatened by schism, or division, because of
than obeying God‟s word.” disputes between opposing factions within its membership.

Now, you might think, when you hear Jesus challenge the Earlier this year, a group calling themselves „The Fellowship of
lawyers of his day in this way, that Jesus is rejecting the law Confessing Anglicans published a document called „The
completely. But if you listen carefully you will see that Jesus is Declaration of Jerusalem‟. This is a group of conservative
upholding the word of God. The scribes and the Pharisees are Christians who have taken issue with the Anglican Communion,
following the law in a superficial, legalistic way. They are content and especially with its more liberal wing.
with keeping the letter of the law. But it is the spirit, the principle
behind the law, that reveals God‟s will.
They speak of a struggle against „a worldly Christianity‟,
„revisionist theology‟ and „false teaching and practice‟. Although it
isn‟t clearly and explicitly stated anywhere in the „Declaration of
It‟s important that we listen carefully today to what Jesus had to Jerusalem‟, their real issue with the rest of the Anglican
say about the word of God. As Bishop Tom Wright says: Communion is that of homosexuality.
I don‟t propose to go into that subject in any detail this morning
– although that might be something we want to do as a parish at We must “ ensure that biblical texts are received, read and
a later date. For the moment, my concerns are much more about interpreted faithfully, respectfully, comprehensively and
the way in which people set about making judgements about coherently, with the expectation that scripture continues to
ethical issues. illuminate and transform the Church and its members” and
“pursue a common pilgrimage with the whole Body of Christ
For the members of the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans, „the continually to discern the fullness of truth into which the Spirit
Bible is to be translated, read, preached, taught and obeyed in its leads us.”
plain and canonical sense, respective of the church‟s historic and
consensual reading‟. They recognise only „orthodox faith and It remains to be seen whether each of the opposing factions will
practice‟. In other words, what they‟re saying is, what we think is be willing to sign up to the proposed Covenant.
right because it has always been that way. Tradition is all-
important. The Church lumbers on through time and is slow to change. It
has survived so long precisely because of the need to protect its
What are the liberal wing of the Communion saying about the core values and to hold in balance the opposing forces of the
Bible? traditionalists and the progressives, the cautious and the hasty.
Faced with ethical challenges, it must use the informed reading of
“The interpretation of the Bible is a complex matter….Scripture scripture, a careful re-evaluation of traditional values and the
can function to open up and explode our culturally engrained guidance of the Holy Spirit for spiritual discernment.
assumptions …. (and) can give new insights that can affirm or
contradict our past practices‟. In other words, what they are In a changing and challenging world our moral survival, our
saying is, we need to be more in tune with the changing culture judgements and actions as Christians depend, too, not on simply
of modern times and we can use scripture to justify this. maintaining the status quo, nor on jumping on the latest
bandwagon, but on sound judgement and careful reflection. We
Is the Anglican Communion, with its membership of 80 million may need to take a fresh look at what the Bible has to tell us.
people, to be pulled apart by these opposing factions? Our generation of „unruly children‟ need God‟s law just as much
as the Israelites did. But we also need to remember what Jesus
The Anglican Communion has itself drafted a Covenant, which it had to say, about searching carefully within God‟s word for the
hopes will be adopted by all the member churches. 80 million spirit that reveals God‟s will, and, of course, about his new law of
people are never going to be in full agreement. But hopefully we love.
can find a way of welcoming diversity, resolving differences, and
working towards common goals.
As the Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said, writing in yesterday‟s
So what does the Anglican Covenant have to say about God‟s Times: “Religion is about open hearts, not closed minds.”
word and spiritual discernment?