The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:

s053g14  Sunday 20  17/8/2014

‘it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles’  Matthew 15.11

I have been thinking recently about how the prophets used strong language to jar their hearers into recognising the violence religion perpetrated.

I think of Isaiah who described the nation of Israel as like Sodom and Gommorah (1) and John the Baptist who describes the devout who come for baptism as ‘you brood of vipers’.  (2)  I think of Jesus who similarly charges the religious as ‘scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites’.  (3)   And, following Isaiah, Paul describes those who drove him out of synagogue after synagogue, from Jerusalem to Rome as those who ‘exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural’. (4)

None of these can really be described as ‘speaking the truth in love’. (5)

There is a long and venerable tradition of using colourful language to criticise those who parade their devotion and orthodoxy to marginalise, alienate and condemn others.

I once was interested to hear a post-war migrant from England talking about his coming to Australia.   He very quickly realised that if Australians described him in conversation as a ‘whinging pommy bastard’, he was accepted.   It was when his fellow workers ignored him that was serious; it was a sign that he had done something really wrong.   ‘Whinging pommy bastard’ is a term of endearment.   And I suspect that football of all codes is really a culturally acceptable way for males to have physical contact with other males,

The difficulty is working out when strong language is acceptable even when it offends the hearers and of God, and when it is something that defiles and is not gospel.

It is significant that Jesus confronts the orthodox and the devout, happy to offend them,  It is the religious who are charged with ‘evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander’.   It is the religious whose preconceptions that blessings only come to their own spiritual children and so are evil.   By doing so, they bear false witness to a God of affirmation and inclusion, it is they who commit spiritual adultery with idols made in their own image; it is they who have illicit dalliances with the gods of the nations.   They steal from others the primal human dignity conferred to all humanity in the beginning, slander people of other faiths and kill creativity.

The difference between adultery and fornication intrigues me.   Fornication implies promiscuity, and when I think about it, there are lots of ways of putting others down: racism, cultural superiority, misogyny, homophobia, to name a few.  The evils of arian superiority were not so different from the White Australian Policy based around the concept of the superiority of all things British, commonly believed in the early 1900’s.   Yet such sectarianism equally infects churches and denominations.   I well remember attending theological college last century, and the constant war between the evangelicals, the anglo-catholics and the charismatics.   The invariable aspect of each of these is that others are marginalised, alienated and condemned.   Then we were introduced to the ecumenical movement and it became just another way of criticising non-participants.   In many congregations there is a hierarchy of spirituality.   The 8am said traditional service is the pinnacle of authentic Anglicanism.   Then the sung service has to emulate as closely as possible Cathedral worship: ordered, respectful, musically cultured.   Children are entertained somewhere else.   The ‘Messy Church’ movements and ‘Fresh Expressions’ are only tolerated as they feed new adherents into ‘real’ worship, defined as adherence to the Book of Common Prayer and ‘none other except as allowed by lawful authority’.   We look down on free-church worship.   Recently I realised that poets tend to be Presbyterians.   Anglicans don’t encourage such creativity.   The creativity of the authors of the King James Version of the Bible and Cranmer and his associates are the only ones inspired by God.   Suddenly I realise the reason Jesus said: "My Father is still working, and I also am working.”   (6)   Adherence to the KJV and the BCP can mean that those who do so don’t need to concern themselves with the perceptions of others.   They might be too genteel to say so, but others can really go to hell for all they are concerned.

And the difference between adultery and fornication is that rarely do these occur singly.   So, for instance, the dalliance with misogyny is often accompanied with spiritual elitism - or as some readers might think of me, that other most prevalent of spiritual occupations - righteous indignation.   How good we are at protesting the asylum policy of the Australian Government or the pokkie lobby!

Is it any wonder thinking people are leaving the church in droves?   Why should people bother to climb the slippery pole of ecclesiastical advancement?   I mean there are even ‘pro-Cathedrals’ which will never be equal to ‘real’ Cathedrals, just as angels will never become archangels!   As I near retirement, I wonder if I’ll bother attending worship at all!   Why would I bother trying to set up a ‘true’ church when one would only add another denomination to the 41,000 existing ones?  Or why would one bother becoming a bishop charged with protecting the unity of the church when the church is really entirely inward looking?

And constant activity; the neo-colonialism as the ‘church’ is invented or re-invented, can also be an excuse to avoid becoming outward-looking.

What would someone whose spirituality is entirely achieved surfing be interested in such an organisation?  (7)

The difficulty we have is that God is affirming and inclusive of all.   God doesn’t care that there are 41,000 denominations, nor does God care that there are a multitude of others who use a different name for the divine.   God is not perturbed that in modern western society many well meaning people have abandoned traditional religion - after all it was traditional religion that had Jesus killed - and seek to contribute to the well-being of society in community activities.

What did Jesus do other than describe the problem?   The second part of our gospel reading for today gives us a graphic illustration.  The Canaanite woman approaches Jesus; an unthinkable breach of cultural and gender protocol, which affronts Jesus and his disciples, and which the woman herself knows is a transgression of all that common etiquette and morality would dictate.   The disciples advise sending her away, which perhaps spurred Jesus to think again.   He still has no hesitation to call a spade a bloody shovel for he essentially calls her a dog.   Yet he is led to see her faith precisely in this act of the breaching of boundaries and Jesus says to her: ‘Woman, great is your faith!’   Faith is not just found in the couth, that all dressed up in Sunday-best.

I am reminded of that delightful spoof, Psalm 151, set to Anglican Chant.  I wish I had the wit of its author:
11.  But as for me, I am a tasteful E-/pisco-/palian.
  (Yea, Lord, thou knowest: / that was / highly . re-/dundant’.)
12.  The services which we offer before thy throne are / truly. spec/tacular:
  One wonders that thy head does not get too / big to / wear thy. ti/ara!
13.  Thou takest no delight in the / strumming. of gui/tars,
  nor in the / singing. of / ‘Kum-bah-/jah.'
14.  Yea the music of Stanford, Howells, / Byrd, and. the / like
  brings a grin of / pleasure. even / unto. thy / countenance.   (8)

What is the desired outcome of this strong language, as well as this parody?   Well, I suspect it is to jar us into thinking.   What are we doing?   Who are we excluding?   What sort of organisation and church are we supporting?   The strong language gives us permission to question, to question our calling and vocation.   It is an invitation to not take ourselves and our religion so seriously that others are marginalised, alienated and condemned.   In the end Jesus is less concerned about endearing himself to his followers but to get his followers to be affirming and inclusive of others, especially on a corporate level as well as on a personal level.

Would not the whole world be a bit less stressed if the leadership of Gaza and Israel, the protagonists in the Ukraine, Syria, Afganistan and like conflict zones, went home, had a good meal, a glass or two of wine and engaged in intimacy with their significant others (whatever their gender)?   Would not the church be a happier place to be if some clergy and lay people did likewise? :-)   Surely this is the real import of Paul’s words in Romans 1:24-27!   Or in the words of the anti-Vietnam war movement of the 60’s and 70’s: ‘make love not war’.  (9)

1.  Isaiah 1:10-11
2.  Matthew 3.7
3.  Matthew 23:13f
4.  Romans 1:24-27
5.  Ephesians 4.15
6.  John 5.17