Homily for 30 August 2915. Proper 17, Year B. Deuteronomy 4: 1,2,6-9. James 1:17-27. Mark 7: 1-8,14,15,21-23
Last week Martin told us that when Paul said that we should fasten the belt of truth around our waists, the word he used which is translated as ‘truth’, alètheia, means openness, reality, authenticity, the opposite of lie or appearance. Martin said: “many people hide behind a façade, never really allowing others to get to know them. Like Adam and Eve covering themselves with fig leaves, many believers dress themselves in man-made realities that are easily penetrated, their weakness quickly exposed in times of intense spiritual onslaught. Paul exhorts us to be honest, to live with integrity and be real with God. Dishonesty is an open door that will wreak havoc in our lives, especially during any kind of enemy siege.” I suppose that’s saying, in short, the trouble with telling lies is remembering which lies you’ve told to whom: it gets so complicated that before long you’ll be found out.
Look at today’s Gospel: Pharisees concerned only about appearances, about doing the right thing, or rather being seen to do the right thing. Do you know people who are always finding fault? Do you know people who are always and only concerned with what the neighbours think? Do you know church people like this?
Look at the Epistle. Paul says: do it, don’t just listen to it, or think about it. JFDI. “If any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.” I’ve preached so often about looking in the mirror and asking yourself what you see? Do you see yourself as you would like to be seen? Or as the Lord sees you?
It’s hard work to sift through our facades, our appearances, our pretensions, our notions. Look at Hyacinth Bucket keeping up appearances. It takes so much energy to pretend, just as it takes so much effort to remember to whom we’ve told which lies. The result is that we don’t have the energy to live life to the full.
There’s a word in today’s Old Testament reading that’s important in this respect: discernment. It comes from two Latin words, dis and cernere. Dis– means apart, and cernere means to separate. In his book God of Surprises Fr Gerry Hughes writes “The words ‘shit’ and ‘discernment’ have the same root – the word ‘shit’ being related to the Old English sceadan meaning ‘to separate out’! The billions of cells in our body continuously practising ‘discernment’ on the food and drink we consume and on the air we breathe. Each cell accepts what it needs for the good of the whole body and rejects or passes on the remainder. Cancer cells could be described as a failure of discernment on the part of individual cells. They ‘forget’ the good of the whole body and concentrate only on their own individual good. As a result, the whole body suffers … In human society, individuals, groups, nations and religious bodies are all liable to act within the narrow parameters of their own immediate interests. Such behaviour brings oppression, misery, starvation and death to other human beings … Discernment is as necessary for survival as air, food and water.”
Sifting through our attitudes and actions to get rid of the masks, the notions, the pretences. It’s such hard work.
Let me tell you a story. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.
I was a regular visitor to the biggest men’s prison in the Republic of Ireland. One of the gentlemen there said something that impressed me very much: “it’s such a relief be found out.” Now he was caught, he didn’t need to pretend any more. Such liberation, lightening of the load. I became aware of the energy we waste trying to put on a show, to pretend to be what we are not. The energy we use and the trouble we go to hide from ourselves and from each other. We become enslaved to pretence.
We – all of us – need to find that same sense of relief in the liberation of being found out. It’s almost completely absent from ordinary lives because we try so hard not to be found out. The result is that we never find true freedom because we can’t bring ourselves to give up our addictions to pretending, even though it costs so much. It’s like being trapped in OCD (did you see the TV programme the other night – a young man weeping because OCD was ruining his life?)
If only we could expose our burdens to the light, as it were, instead of hiding them away. If only we could accept ourselves, warts and all. St Paul, the patron of this church, continually talks about the past he was ashamed of. He does this to show God’s mercy and he uses it to power his own work. It would be self-indulgent of me to do likewise, though I have no objection to doing so, and not now. But I know that until we’ve seen the dark places of our own hearts, the evil that comes from avarice, envy, pride … and so on, we will never be free and never be fully ourselves. Just think what could happen if instead of using energy to keep up appearances, we use it to bring healing and delight to the world, the last mask shed as we emerge from the chrysalis of old habits into the fully adult form, the imago. Imago Dei in whose image we are made.
If only we could pass our burdens to someone else. This is what talking with a trusted friend is about. I like Cardinal Hume’s image of God: someone into whose ear you can whisper all the things you’re afraid and ashamed to tell anyone else, and know that you will not be rejected. If you know of anyone who needs to talk in confidence to someone, tell them that I shall be in the Lady Chapel every Friday between 5 and 6. Nobody will be rejected.
Much of this meditation has been inspired by the writing of Metropolitan Anthony Bloom of the Russian Orthodox Church in London. I finish by quoting someone whom he greatly admired, the Latvian Elizaveta Yurievna Pilenko (1891-1945), later Skobtsova, murdered in Ravensbrück Concentration Camp, who became known as Mother (Saint) Mary of Paris.
It would be a great lie to tell searching souls “go to church because there you will find peace.” The opposite is true. Go to church because there you will feel real alarm about your sins, about your perdition, about the world’s sins and perdition. There you will feel an unappeasable hunger for Christ’s truth. There, instead of lukewarm, you will become ardent, instead of pacified you will become alarmed. Instead of learning the wisdom of this world you will become foolish in Christ.