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

s134g12   Sunday 22  2/9/2012

‘avarice’  Mark 7.22

It is hardly co-incidental that one of the chief characters in C.S. Lewis’s ‘The Horse and his Boy’ is the self-centred and self important ‘Aravis’ and her conversion to a rather more human being.

The question about eating with defiled hands, at its heart, is about who may eat, and who may not eat, in the kingdom - and specifically who may not!   And it is important to note that Jesus doesn't answer this question but points out the hypocrisy of the orthodox and the devout, those who pass judgement on the actions of others.    Jesus is not about determining who may be admitted and who may not - that is what the opposition to God are about.  Indeed, of course, it is precisely because Jesus did not support the perceptions of their own superior worthiness and others' lack of worthiness that led the orthodox and the devout to have Jesus crucified.

Jesus did not criticise those outside.   It was those who are inside, those who 'honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me', the Pharisees and the scribes, those who were most conspicuous in their devotion to 'god' who Jesus criticised and who eventually had Jesus killed.

So often the church criticises those who don’t come to church, those who (it seems) do not honour God, but who may well honour God in their own way.   If others honour God by reaching out with justice and equity to all, and rightly reject those who keep God’s affections selfishly to themselves, it’s not rocket science to work out just who is more likely to be following Jesus.  The whole of the gospel story is about this difference in perception.

If we criticise those outside, then guess where they will stay?

I note that eating with defiled hands is something easy to remedy.   One can wash before eating.   Being female, being gay or lesbian, being of another race, colour, culture, or language are less easily remedied.   But Jesus accepts others even when they omit to do things to measure up, things which are quite possible.   Surely he also accepts others when they in fact are unable to change who they are.

And the religion of these people who honour God with their lips, but their hearts were far from God, was mainly concerned with others, whether others measured up to their expectations.   Their religion made ‘god’ into an idol with perceptions remarkably identical to their own.

So that list of sins are not those which outsiders, non-church-goers, commit – they are the sins of sanctified selfishness. 

‘Fornication’ and ‘adultery’ are pejorative terms for turning from a God of acceptance (of which they as the orthodox were fully cognisant) to a critical demon, ‘theft’ refers to the taking of someone’s sonship or daughter-ship of the divine,’ murder’ refers to the death that results from such theft, ‘avarice’ is another term for sanctified selfishness, ‘wickedness’ tells us what God really thinks of the devout and the orthodox who do this, ‘deceit’ tells us that it ever is a human invention, that wrath is not and never was in God’s plan, ‘licentiousness’ means that the devout have taken the liberty of criticising others on themselves.  So often those who go to church ‘envy’ those who don’t bother, they ‘slander’ others, are proud and foolish.

These are all the sins of the prophet Jonah, knowing as he did that ‘you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and ever ready to relent from punishing’ (Jonah 4.2) so he headed in precisely the opposite direction to where God wanted him to be.   He tells God: ‘O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country?  That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning'!  As if God didn't know this and needed to be told!   To trivialise this message - to commend those who believe in the whale and condemn those who don’t - will surely incur the same wrath.

These things defile the orthodox and the devout, for they only see how others do not measure up.   In doing so they defile themselves.

Now some may think that I am drawing a long bow from not washing hands before eating, but it is also clear that Jesus sees this as just one example of a whole lot of rules and regulations that exclude others.   He takes the argument about hand washing to the washing of plates and then to declaring all foods clean.  

By declaring all foods clean Jesus tells us that everything that builds up another person is acceptable.   The nurse who cares for the patient, the teacher who imparts knowledge to students, these are clean.   The politician who treats all people equally, be they gay or straight, rich or poor, influential or untouchable is feeding others with food that is clean.   To encourage others in their thoughts and searching, even when they are questioning orthodoxy, is to treat others as humans rather than untrained parrots, and it is to feed others food that is clean.

Indeed it is far more important that people do these things than whether they call God by the correct name or worship in a manner acceptable to others.   For it was precisely because Jesus treated all people equally that he was killed.   And because we believe in the resurrection we can be certain that Jesus, and God, continues to treat all people equally, despite what parts of the church often teach.

Recently I was reading (again) those words of St John, We love because God first loved us: if anyone who hates another says, 'I love God,' that person is a liar.’ (1 John 4.19,20)   And we apply this to our personal life, yet fail to see that it more importantly should affect the corporate life of the church.   If we say we love God yet suggest that others can’t join in our communion, because they haven’t washed their hands or been baptised, are we not also liars?

And there is little point in criticising those outside the church who keep their wealth to themselves, when those outside are only imitating the avarice of those inside the church!   We occupy no ‘moral high-ground’ at all.

Jesus initiated the feast of the kingdom, in the present, then, 2000 years ago, by his own life and example.   The least we can do is imitate his inauguration, again, in our day and age.   And we do this by renouncing corporate spiritual avarice and open our corporate table to all people, whoever they are.   For if we insist on any preconditions we turn our baptism into entry into a holy huddle, our communion into a demonstration of excommunication, and our baptism and communion are nothing more than fantasies.

And just as Aravis had no insight on her avarice, so parts of the church are blissfully unaware of their avarice as well.   The rather drastic measures Aslan had to take to make Aravis a more humane person might also point to some pretty drastic measures God might have to take to make parts of the church a more humane institution.

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