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Sermon - 14 Pentecost

In the Name... A few years ago, a Charlotte, NC, man purchased a box of very rare, expensive cigars and he insured them against theft, loss, water damage and fire. Then, after he had smoked them all, he filed a claim that the cigars were lost "in a series of small fires." The company refused to pay, of course, so, the man sued - and won! The judge agreed that the claim was ridiculous, but he stated that the company had failed to define what would be an "unacceptable fire." But, - here's the best part - the company then brought charges against the man for wilful destruction of insured property. This is a true story and a good illustration of what can happen when people get caught up in the technical points of law. In an Episcopalian worship service, it's a good idea to pay attention to the prayer we call the Collect of the Day. It gets that name because the prayer often "collects" our theme of the day's worship. Today, for example, when we prayed for God to "increase in us true religion" and “bring forth in us the fruit of good works”, we were being prepared to hear scriptures about the contrast between the teaching of Jesus and the legalism that reigned in his day. Our lesson from Deuteronomy presented us with that magnificent scene when the Hebrew people were getting ready to receive God's gift of the Law from Mt. Sinai - the Law which, if they kept it diligently and taught it to their children, would give them a reputation among all nations as a people of great wisdom and discernment. But, by the time of Jesus, our Gospel shows us how this noble beginning had degenerated. The Pharisees criticize Jesus for not washing his hands before eating. Of course, cleanliness is next to godliness but the Pharisees aren’t concerned Jesus might be spreading germs. This washing had, for the Pharisees, a religious meaning. You see, the book of Leviticus requires that the Temple priests must be ceremonially clean and one of these ceremonies was that, before offering sacrifice, the priests would wash their hands. In and of itself, it's a really good symbolic gesture. We Christian priests still do this, by the way, in the lavabo ceremony during the offertory. Over time, however, the Pharisees expanded this Temple ceremony to everybody all the time. Their logic was that if priests are supposed to wash before prayer then everybody should wash before saying prayers at home, including grace before meals. So, something that was originally very specific became imposed on people and situations it was never meant to cover. It became a legalism. The Pharisees thought they were being very good boys indeed, but Jesus was exasperated with them. Yes, they did a lot of good things that more people should have been doing, like praying, fasting, and tithing, but, their obsession with outward ceremonies led them to ignore the inward spirit which the ceremonies were meant to foster. For example, they were fanatical about not opening or closing windows on the Sabbath Day because that constituted forbidden work, but, they wouldn't give food or money to a poor man on any day of the week because they believed that poverty was a divine punishment for sins. Sure, they washed their hands before saying grace, but, they also washed their hands of the grace of God. Instead of using the Law as a means to grow closer to God and his people, the way it was intended, they used it to set themselves apart from others. They practiced what is called "holiness by separation." Even the name "Pharisees" means "the separated ones." For them, "true religion" was all about observing rules and regulations which they had made up. Instead of building a community faith, they turned the Law into an individualistic faith. A contest of who could keep the rules more perfectly. Instead of "love thy neighbour" it became "how can I be better than my neighbour?" And this spirit of Pharisee-ism is alive and well in our own time, by the way. We live in such an individualist society that religion has become, for many people, a personal self-improvement exercise. Churches aren’t empty because people are godless, but, because people don't feel the need to be part of a faith community. And this is not just a "liberal" thing. The Gallup organization found that nearly a quarter of people who call themselves "Christian conservatives" never go to church. And their per capita giving to charity is less than that of atheists. But, God's covenant with us as individuals is also a covenant with all of us as his people. God gave us laws to be obeyed and he also gave us a community in which to obey them. And that can be the real difficulty. Someone once defined "community" as "the place where the person you least want to like lives." That bears repeating - community is "the place where the person you least want to like lives." And this is what Jesus says over and over again. It's really easy to love your friends, but who is your neighbour? We need to remember that in the parable of the Good Samaritan, the priest and the Levite were technically following the rules - they were not defiling themselves by touching what looked like a dead body. Their hands were clean. On the other hand, literally, Jesus' hands were always dirty. They touched the sick, the insane, the lame, the dead. They embraced prostitutes, terrorists and traitors. They changed lives - supporting, affirming, welcoming back people who had been made to feel excluded from the family of God. And our hands can be just as dirty. Cleanliness is not next to godliness if it leads us to retreat into an antiseptic cell. “True religion” is a messy business. It's not about separation, but, encounter. It's not focused on how good I am, but on how good I can make others. It's about a law of grace which, if we practice it, will lead us to become known for our wisdom and discernment. May “true religion”, then, truly increase in us and may we bring forth the fruit of good works. In the Name...

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