Sermon: Sunday 30 August 2015
The Revd Dr Johannes Arens, Canon Precentor
Purity and cleanliness are words scripture uses to describe a state of grace in which a human being can approach God, approach the Holy. To be pure is a great desire for my life to be of such quality, that it is fitting to be close to God.
This obviously cannot just mean an external purity – like washing your hands before communion, this cannot be something you just say or profess, or some outward sign like nice clothes. Such purity, allowing closeness to God needs to be purity of the heart, purity of actions, of my entire being.
My geography teacher told us that shortly after his graduation in the late 1950s he did a long tour of Asia with some friends, going to strange places with a rucksack and a sleeping bag. Shortly before leaving he went into to parish office and wrote himself a very formal letter:
To Whom It May Concern:
The carrier of this document is an important person and is to be given every support. The he took every stamp and seal he could find, glued a few ribbons and and the equivalent of some Hello Kitty! Stickers and whatever he could find. He said that with this paper they got into every park, every temple and almost every palace. Nobody could read what the paper said, but it looked really important and he could his way past all sorts of security guards.
Of course behind this was nothing but hot air, but apparently it was enough for a really cool trip of a lifetime.
Outward appearance can be misleading. What somebody looks like or comes across may have nothing to do with what happens inside this person, what kind of person that really is. This is the theme of today’s gospel reading.
Most important point: the traditions and rites of the Jewish people were considered tools to improve one’s relation with God, to live according to God’s plan as a human being. All these rituals, rites and traditions are biblically founded and are supposed to help human beings to take their right place within the order of creation. Jesus’s attack is not about these practices – quite the opposite – but those people who take the outside rituals more serious than what is supposed to be behind them. Whilst talking about rites of cleaning and washing they were in danger to forget that these were tools to direct one’s life according to God’s will. And forgetting this, they removed the meaning from the rites and made them empty rituals. It became like the stickers on my teacher’s document: basically empty and meaningless drivel, all tinsel and glitter – but it looked good.
Hence Jesus says rather sharply: don’t remain in outside rites and rituals, don’t let yourself be fooled by some Hello Kitty stickers – don’t miss the important stuff.
And of course it’s an easy mistake to make: we may not have two sinks in our kitchens and differentiate between milk pots and meat pots like orthodox Jews, but there are enough fundamentalist or mainstream Christian groups who draw very firm – possibly biblically justifiable – lines around their holy places. A Christian may not be holy enough if one drinks alcohol, doesn’t pray in the morning and in the evening, doesn’t believe that the world has been literally created in 6 days. Biblical rules are taking at face value concerning education of children, the role of women and the conduct of marriage.
This is exactly what Jesus is talking against. And the judgement of people by their external badges and Hello Kitty stickers is something which nobody is protected against. You may find this difficult to believe, but I am far from holy enough not to judge others by their style of worship or physical behaviour during worship. I can make cutting jokes about people who can find God only in a bath with floating candles or in the wild forest – possibly the mountain ranger could do the funeral.
On the other hand I often experience that spiritual forms which nurture me are mocked and attacked by others and that I am told to grow up. I am better at hitting than taking a hit. Well – I don’t. And if you mock my faith I might strangle you with my rosary.
Jesus’ point is that what may look holy may not be holy. What makes a human being holy is not acceptable behaviour or dress code or crossing oneself at the right moment, but whether God’s grace is permitted to enter our inner world, our heart, our soul, our head – and whether we allow his love to change and cleanse us.
John’s gospel says; So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. 1 John 4.16
This inner change through God’s love manifests itself through outward changes and behaviour – not the other way round. To walk this path needs time for healing, meditation, prayer, conversation with others whom to trust and dare to open our hearts to. I can do some bits to grow – but I cannot force it, certainly not rapidly. Things which help me to be more happy with God and myself may not help you: some dance and lift their arms, others go for walks and I prefer to find Jesus hidden in the exposed Blessed Sacrament. The decisive factor is that these rites and rituals and practices are tools to sort out my relationship with God and to change my heart. We are not here this morning to demonstrate to the world how holy we are and how rubbish everybody is who isn’t here this morning – we are here to allow God to touch us, to make space for him to touch us. What somebody appears to be is not important, but what somebody’s heart is like and what one does to let one’s heart be touched by God is everything.
My geography teacher had fun with his fake document, but I cannot build my life on dress code, the right friends, the correct church and other outward signs – that’s not funny but simply tragic.
Blessed be God who often through others has the power to change our heart. Let us invite him in.
Finally, I don’t need any purity or holiness to invite God to join me. The God who truly emptied himself to become a baby in a dirty stable and was happy to be with smelly animals in a human body has demonstrated that he is happy to enter my defiled heart.