Rev Tom Mumford
In the name of God who is Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Let me tell you a story:
A friend of mine, a priest, was being interviewed for a post to be a residentiary canon at one of the most historic cathedrals in the land.His interviewer was a formidable character, known for his unpredictability and left fieldquestions, so my friend was well prepared. ‘Tell me’, said the interviewer, ‘what is the thing that people most mistake about you?’ Now this was not a question my friend was expecting, but he paused, thought for a moment, and responded: ‘That I’m religious.’ But this man was a priest. A serious one at that. He’d been in parish ministry for 30 years, been a hospice chaplain, a Rural Dean, he’d been round the block a few times. ‘You’re not religious?!’ his interviewer asked, shocked… ‘No,’ he replied. ‘And I don’t want to be!’ …this is not the first time I’ve seen something of the face of Christ in this person.
In our gospel reading this morning, there is an air of threat and aggression in the ‘gathering’ of the Pharisees and scribes around Jesus. The religious leaders loom, and it is not long before conflict breaks out.
Such as it is with ‘religious’ people. I’ve never much enjoyed their company.It was the same before I was a Christian, and from what my friends outside the Church tell me, it’s the same for them. Religious people are stifling. They stifle your growth, your fun. They take pleasure in telling you what to do, how you should be. Their understandings of life are narrow, and therefore their stipulations of how to live are
restricted, arrogant…naïve. “Religious” people leave you feeling bad about yourself, without much hope, and little joyful expectation. Rather than seeking your flourishing, they seek your changing – your changing into someone you’re not…often someone like them.
In our Gospel reading today, as is typical of all four accounts of Jesus’ life, the Pharisees and the scribes (the Sadducees in other places) are the “religious” people. Here they are the keepers of the “rules”, constantly seeking to catch Jesus out. They always ‘gather’ around him… but not so that they can follow him…not even to listen and debate, but to see if he takes a step wrong. To see if they can lure him into a trap. This “religiousness” is a part of what eventually puts God incarnate on the Cross.
But Jesus is different. He’s not like them. Jesus is a Jew as well, a Rabbi, but he doesn’t seem to be “religious” in that sense. His way of teaching the faith seems to point to a different way.
‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders?’ the “religious” people ask. Jesus’ response is scathing. He accuses them of hypocrisy and turns to Isaiah as proof.
Isaiah, Jesus says, prophesised about their approach to religious practice:
‘This people honours me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
This, it seems, is an accusation against a religiosity that makes ‘human precepts’ into doctrines. Mark even reworks the closing words of Isaiah to make Jesus’ intention clear: Whereas Scripture has Isaiah accuse the people of Jerusalem of vain worship: “teaching human precepts and doctrines”, Mark heightens the distinction between divine teachings and human commandments, using instead: “teaching human precepts as doctrines” Jesus then hammers his point home: ‘You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition’, accusing them of following the letter, rather than the spirit, of law. And this ‘religious’ behaviour is all too common. It is true both of some in the church and even of the world of politics. Too many people pursuing an apparently pure version of whatever they think is right. Too often ignoring nuance, or truth. All too often to the exclusion of those they don’t like. But it can also be displayed in a different way – those in authority not exactly practicingwhat they preach. Those whose message seems to be more ‘do as I say’ rather than ‘do as I do’. (On the latter point, I’m well aware of the ways in which I, the preacher, can fall fowl of this myself.)
But this must not be our way.Because we follow the Way, that is God in Jesus Christ.And this Way, is one of radical inclusion, radical forgiveness, radical love. Christianity is not a set of rules compiled to keep you in order, or under control. It is a way of life, a way to be, a way to love. It is a Way of walking closer and closer in step with the God who made us and loves us, and always comes to us with an abundance that us as human beings can hardly even comprehend.This is why, after all, the earliest Christians were known not as Christians, but followers of The Way.
As we will see through Mark’s gospel as the church year continues (in fact as we see throughout all the gospels), there is steady progress of narrative, that sees Jesus push beyond the boundaries of the closed religious system of the time. It pushes beyond the “religious,” beyond the elite men, to include and embrace the women, the poor, the marginalised. Later in the Christian story it even pushes into the Gentile world and beyond. And so I wonder where it seeks to push next, in our day? I wonder where God’s love is seeking to push, who it is seeking to embrace in Sudbury? I wonder where have we might be guilty of pushing back?I wonder how this group of Christians, right here, can be a part, can follow a way, model a way, of love and life in all its fullness, and in doing so bring more people in Sudbury into relationship with God, around the altar. Because the Way of Jesus Christ, the Christian life, is more important than ‘religion’. It is about flourishing, it is about becoming more fully who we are, it is about living more truthfully, more truly, more freely, all flowing out of a living relationship with God who is the life giver.
I know it might sound a bit odd, but I don’t think Jesus was “religious”. And you know what, for the sake of the gospel in this land, I don’t want us to be either.