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St John and St Stephen’s Church, Reading, August 29th 2021, Trinity 13

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Song of Solomon 2:8-13, Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

‘Give me an undivided heart’

 

It would be difficult to find two readings that are more different. The one, part of the beautiful love-poem of Song of Solomon with its invitation to “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away!”; the other a showdown between Jesus and some religious leaders over washing before eating. Yet there is a thread running between them, which, if only we can see it, we will find is made of the purest gold.

 

Let’s start with the gospel reading from Mark 7. Jesus and his disciples are enjoying some welcome food after traipsing around on hot and dusty roads all day. Some Pharisees and other religious leaders come by and find that they haven’t washed their hands and rebuke them, since this is against the strict rules of ritual cleanliness they observe. Now let’s understand this before we go on. Back in Exodus, there is a requirement that priests wash hands and feet before ministering at the altar (Ex 30:17-21) – understood to include washing before eating meat offered in the sacrifices. The Pharisees took this a step further since, based on another text – ‘you shall be a priestly kingdom and a holy nation’ (Ex 19:6) – they regarded all Jews as priests. They believed in the priesthood of all believers! So everyone had to obey this rule in order for Israel to fulfil its role of priesthood. Right?

 

In some ways, this passage reads a bit like a family argument. Everyone is Jewish, and deeply religious, and they are arguing about something that seems quite trivial. Yet here it is in today’s gospel reading, and 2000 years later we are still reading it. What’s the point?  It’s a critique of how religious people too often exalt rituals above ethics. The wider picture here is that Rabbi Jesus and his followers had been going around calling people back to God, telling stories about God’s love for the lost, giving hope, healing the sick. And they’re hungry. Yet these religious leaders picked on their unwashed hands to have a go at them. Should they not have had regard for what they were actually doing?

 

The ‘trivial’ moment exposes something much deeper and Jesus confronts it head-on. His accusation is that they are ‘hypocrites’ (Mark 7:6). The word ‘hypocrite’ means ‘actor’ in Greek. It is someone who pretends to be who he or she is not. It is a denial of a person’s authentic self in favour of a made-up persona that he wishes to be. Religious people are very susceptible to this so all of us should take note! There are so many, many examples of this and none of us are exempt. We can do the right things, say the right words, perform the right religious practices – attend church, read the bible, say our prayers – but the reality of what we are, who we are can be quite different. Every so often a minister or preacher or bishop is caught out and we put our head in our hands and wonder what it’s all about, for it spills ink all over what we hold dear.

 

These religious leaders who criticised Jesus for eating with unwashed hands were using this seemingly trivial infraction of his to criticise a man who threatened their status, and they were coming to hate him. In time, their hatred would convince them that it was right to hand him over to the Romans to be nailed to a cross. Their hypocrisy was deadly.

 

The theologian Paul Tillich said that self-integration is one of the basic functions of life. What this means is that in order for us to flourish, we have to find our centre, our heart, and move out from that in integrity, freedom and courage. Another theologian, has described the human condition of sin – or we might say hypocrisy – as being divided against yourself in your very own being. To put it another way, you have a divided heart. That’s why I chose this short prayer from Psalm 86 as a title for this sermon: ‘Give me an undivided heart’ (Ps 86:11).

 

But we must dig even deeper. Jesus goes on, calling the crowd that had gathered and explaining that nothing that comes in from the outside can defile is, or make us unclean, unacceptable to God. No! it is from within, Jesus says, from the heart, that evil intentions come: theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness and so on. This is what defiles us. But what should come from our hearts – and can come from our hearts is (quoting Paul from Galatians): love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self control (Galatians 5:22,23).

 

Let’s take a breather and head back to the Song of Solomon. How many times have you heard a sermon on this book? It’s a love-poem with two characters, a woman and a man, full of intense love, playfulness, beautifully described male and female bodies, plenty of sexuality, mountains and valleys, grapes and figs, goats and sheep. It is openly and deliberately erotic! (unfortunately we didn’t read one of the juicy bits this morning, more’s the pity!) The church has sometimes found the Song of Solomon a bit too hot to handle so has interpreted it as expressing the love between Christ and the church. Well, it will do for that too!! Anything that helps us understand how much Christ does love the church and everyone in it is to the good! But it’s difficult to escape its primary purpose which is to celebrate and affirm human love.

 

How on earth does it connect with the family row we have been thinking about, hypocrisy and the human heart? Ah! The human heart. In the Song we are treated to what an undivided heart looks like.  There is no hint of hypocrisy here, or of a divided heart. Both characters are full of love for one another: there is no other motive, they are not trying to cover anything up.  Their love for each other, fills them: their minds and their bodies as well as their hearts.  It is the very opposite of what we read in the gospel about hypocrisy.

 

I’d like to invite you now to bring to mind and heart for a moment someone you love. Might be a partner, a child, mother or father, a friend. That person might not even be alive now. Just hold him or her in your mind and heart for a moment. How does that feel for you? It is a wonderful thing to love someone. Can you say where your love is, in which part of you? In your mind? In your heart? In your body? Actually, it’s in all of those places. It fills us. It is, I hope, undivided.

 

Reflect for a moment that this is how God regards you. With undivided love. He is not in two minds about you and me. There isn’t something horrible that’s hidden. His desire for us is that, like a flower unfurls its petals as the sun falls on it, so our hearts will open in the warmth and light of his love and we will find out who we are. Which is a beloved daughter or son of God. A brother or sister of Jesus. Yes! Let that in. It is the deepest, truest, most important thing to know. It is the work of our lives to find it, to know it, and to live it. This is the centre, the source from which our lives can flow. In the Song, through the words of the lover, we hear these words, an invitation to receive and enjoy that love: ‘My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away!”’ (Song 2:10)

 

Jesus didn’t find this open heart of love in the religious leaders who rebuked him and his followers for not washing. The men (they were all men, perhaps that was part of the problem) who should have known the love of God, didn’t. What they projected was religious superiority and purity. What was underneath that was fear and murderous hatred.

 

I guess we all live somewhere between these two poles: the open heart of love and some level of hypocrisy. If you want to know where your weak points are, think of what really gets under your skin, makes you react – but not in a good way. By the way, I love that phrase ‘get under your skin’ because often these reactions are in our bodies – we will stiffen up, our stomach turns over, our flesh crawls. What sorts of people might make us react like that? A homeless man begging with a dog? A man with a long beard and a turban? Someone with piercings? A drug addict? Or someone else? Might be something really trivial. I know some of the things that get under my skin and my reactions are not pretty. We will need to reflect on these – why does this person make me react so badly? Why do I want to criticise or rebuke? What’s underneath it? It might be a very unwelcome truth about you or me. Once we see it and are aware of it, we can begin to bring it into the light. Which can be difficult. There isn’t a magic wand, our reactions can be very deeply rooted.

 

This morning we have overheard a family row in our gospel reading and considered what hypocrisy means: pretending to be what we’re not. We have seen how deeply negative thoughts and feelings can hide behind a cloak of ritual, of appearance. And that religious people – that’s you and me – are particularly prone to this. We thought about the phrase a divided heart. Then we reflected on what an undivided heart looks like and read a bit of the love-poem of Song of Solomon to catch a glimpse of what that is like. And looked within ourselves and, I hope, found that at a deep level within us, we know what this means: it is within our human experience. We moved on to think about how the most profound truth about who we are, you and me, is as a beloved child of God, a sister or brother to Jesus. The invitation this morning is this. Firstly, to accept, allow in, to bask in that truth, to find our centre. “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away!” Because this is what we are made for. Secondly to see what it is that trips us up in that other person, and then to lift up the stone and see what crawls out from underneath it. Lifting up the stone brings it into the light. ‘Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name’  (Ps 86:11). ‘My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away!”’ (Song 2:10)

 

Richard Croft