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

s117g15   Fifth Sunday after Epiphany  8/2/2015

‘the whole city was gathered around the door’   Mark 1:33

Of course the crowds flocked to Jesus, bringing with them the sick and suffering, at sundown.   Sabbath observance would have forbad them to travel and work until evening.   My guess is that they had spent the day surreptitiously planning to make what might have been a small distance to travel, but informing their sick relative or friend of their intention and making arrangements for transport - a stretcher or whatever - so that as soon as the law allowed, they came.   The account in Genesis has the ‘day’ starting in the evening: ‘there was evening and there was morning, the first day.’  (1)   It is no more unusual than suggesting that each day starts at 12 midnight.   I have often reflected that tv guides usually began their day around 6am. 

Jesus obviously had no difficulty healing earlier than this.   Simon’s mother in law was cured as soon as he and the disciples arrived at the house, and she immediately got to work, ‘making a cuppa’ no doubt.   Again it is interesting to me that the sabbath law: the one person who was allowed to work was the wife.   To quote Exodus: ‘you shall not do any work — you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns’.  (2)  Someone had to feed the husband and the kids.

But come the following morning Jesus had disappeared, already on his way to the next town.   All the God-fearing individuals were going to miss out.   In this sense the towns Jesus visited on days other than the Sabbath were luckier.   They could be healed without worrying about the sabbath regulations.   And I begin to wonder if it is not these sabbath regulations and the fear surrounding them that are the demons that he cast out - the ones who knew him.

The decision for life and health and freedom from fear means we need to turn away from religious constrictions, and if we let the opportunity slip away it may not come again.

Reading again those words recorded in John: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’ (3)  We are saved through our incarnation into life and society. ‘Those who believe in him are not condemned;’ (even though the religious count them as condemned already) but those who do not believe are condemned already, (the religious, condemning themselves to live apart from society) because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.’  (4) ‘And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.’  (5)   Evil religious people still instinctively give good things to their own (spiritual) children.  ‘For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.   But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’  (6)

The Church of England has just consecrated her first woman bishop, as well as a bishop for the traditionalists.   The Archbishop of York did not actually lay hands on the man being ordained because he, the Archbishop, has ordained women.  A report quotes the Archbishop that he is not doing this because of a ‘theology of taint’ but to exercise ‘gracious restraint’.  (7)  

In today’s gospel reading Jesus doesn’t accede to fear but walks away - walks away to others who were not so bound - walks away from orthodoxy and in fact only turns around again when confronted by the Syrophoenician woman. (8)   He walks away because there are ever more people to get to know, to love, to embrace, to affirm.

And so the question to us, we who consider ourselves religious - does our faith inspire fear in us that our affirmation and inclusion of others might somehow displease or offend God, or do we have a faith that doesn’t allow religious scruples to get in the way of real life?

In one sense the Church has let life pass it by.   If the church thinks that God is going to let others suffer because of her scruples then the church is living in la-la land.   In this sense we have to keep up with the risen Christ going off to Galilee.   We have to leave our own personal Jerusalems, our own personal Temples, our own personal orthodoxies if we really want to see the risen Christ at work.

Jesus turns back to Jerusalem because the ancient people of God needed to be freed from their fears, their scrupulous orthodoxy or they would continue to miss out.   We as ‘christians’ may well too need to be freed from our religious scruples lest we too miss out - particularly the way we scrupulously adhere to the labels ‘Anglican’, ‘christian’, ‘bible-believing’, ‘sabbath-observing’.   It is salutary to realise that Jesus was quite prepared to walk away from many in the town who were delayed by their sabbath observance.

But the reality is that life in all its fullness (9) is not dependent on Jesus saying ‘abracadabra' and ‘skedattle’ - we don’t need a priest, guru, or messiah to free us from our religious scruples and embrace other people - we can do it all by ourselves.  

Also it is salutary to remember that the orthodox didn’t want to be freed from their scruples and crucified Jesus for suggesting that real life would come without them. 

1.  Genesis 1:5
2.  Exodus 20:10
3.  John 3:16-17
4.  John 3:18
5.  John 3:19
6.  John 3:20-21
8.  Mark 7:24-30
9.  John 10:10