|6:00pm||La Nativité du Seigneur, Messiaen|
Sermon preached at Eucharist on the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity (17 September 2017) by Reverend Helen O'Sullivan, Chaplain
The Chaplain considers the nourishment of the Eucharist and that 'fullness is not achieved by trying to avoid stuff but by getting stuck in and getting our hands dirty'.
The weak eat only vegetables - who can hear that verse and not smile - except perhaps the vegetarians amongst us!
Paul is warning his hearers not to be judgmental, but immediately and rather comically giving himself away by using pejorative language which leaves us in no doubt that, whilst he might be willing to accept that people can see things differently, by calling a particular habit ‘weak’ he too, like us, thinks that some ways are better than others; well he is only human after all.
Trying not to pass judgement on one another needs to be our daily struggle because as humans beings we are all too sure that either; we are right and the world would be a much better place if everyone thought like we did or we are inferior and have little or nothing to offer compared to the qualities of others.
Thus we see ourselves and those around us as either part of the solution or part of the problem and our energies tend to be directed towards finding ways of securing our situation in life. Finding a formula for either staying on or getting onto the right track:
observing Holy Days not observing Holy Days
what to wear - what not to wear
what to do and say - what not to do and say
how to pray - how not to pray
All these incidental practices become the focus of so much energy and aggravation, as much in our own day as two thousand years ago and long before that too. And they breed the same intolerance as they did then and with the same potentially devastating consequences.
And it’s the same in secular society.
If I do X then Y must follow; whether we are talking about a fashion or a political philosophy, the result we are looking for is some form of reward, whatever form that might take; financial security, physical fitness, social popularity, worldly acclaim, how often these seem now to be more highly prized after than inner peace or indeed eternal life.
It doesn’t matter what the particular goal is, the problem with this way of thinking is in believing that if only we follow this path, regime, pattern of practices, or rules - the rewards will follow.
Paul’s first example is of eating and of course in the Jewish tradition, the body of law around food was and remains substantial, and what may have had roots in health, wellbeing and the avoidance of disease, came to be entirely associated with religious ritual and spiritual purity and the rewards that these bring.
Recently you might have noticed a great deal of hype around the fashion of clean eating and the rewards it is supposed to bring. The idea is that we are what we eat and that eating processed food is not only unhealthy but immoral/unethical and purity of body, mind and spirit is to be achieved by avoiding ingesting anything complex and only eating those foods that are available locally and in season. Reading some of the literature you’d be forgiven for thinking that you had stumbled on a new religion.
Keep the clean eating regime in our day and you can have a clear conscience as well as a clean bowel, and you can keep death and decay at bay, or so they would have us believe.
In much the same way that keeping the ritual food and cleansing laws in the Jewish tradition was thought to ensure long life and prosperity.
The fascinating thing though is that sitting alongside this regime of purity in the Jewish tradition was the system of sacrifice, and there could be no sacrifice without quite a lot of blood, and blood in this system defiles. So at the heart of a complex system of religious purity, through doing this or avoiding that, is a system of sacrifice which depends on messy and defiling bloodletting.
If we look at the New Testament scriptures, Paul is not alone in questioning this way of thinking and living as again and again these notions of righteousness through religious practices are challenged by Jesus and by the apostles in both the way they lived and in what they taught.
Paul in this passage from Romans is warning us that we have our focus on the wrong goal. Abstaining from this or eating that, observing this day and not that, if they are the goal then we are barking up the wrong tree.
So if the message is so clear in the scriptures, that the focus of these disciplines can so easily be misguided and even detrimental to our souls as well as our bodies, why is it that so many of us get so easily hooked on these regimes and caught up in trying to attain the purity they promise? What is at the heart of these systems; ancient and contemporary?
Well I think ultimately it comes down to a very human need to feel in control and especially in control of our destiny and our mortality.
What a challenge then that Jesus, the epitome of purity; sinless and righteous, has a disinterest in religious routines and Sabbath rules, and constantly is found engaging in activities that defile him: touching the dead and allowing himself to be touched by women, mixing with Gentiles and not observing Sabbath regulations.
What effort then should be made by following a particular form of religious practice if our Lord was himself rather undisciplined and often ritually defiled and if, as we are told time and again in the scriptures and particularly in Paul’s writings, it is not through religious observance that we are saved but through defiling blood that we are made clean by the blood of the Lamb in the sacrifice which we celebrate at this Eucharist.
I’m not very often to be found citing Paul’s theology, but on this point we are definitely singing from the same hymn sheet. Whether we are people of faith or not, striving first and foremost to attain a purity of living, either through abstaining from or observing practices, might indeed gain a few things temporal, but eternal life is not about quantity but quality. Eternal life should not be thought of as an endless series of moments but as fullness. And I believe this fullness is not achieved by trying to avoid stuff but by getting stuck in and getting our hands dirty.
Holiness is not about avoiding being defiled, rather I think it is about being refined until we are pure. Having the edges knocked off us, the impurities washed out through our encounter with God in the sacraments, most particularly of Baptism, Holy Communion and Reconciliation. Now of course these take the form of religious ritual, but in participating in the sacraments we participate in the very nature of God: cleansing, renewing and restoring.
I believe that a pure heart is a humble and contrite one, one that marvels at the undeserved love that is nevertheless unconditionally poured upon us. And the only reasonable response to that love is not to restrain ourselves in order to avoid being tainted by living, but to throw ourselves into life which is a messy business.
For all Paul’s human frailty, and poor opinion of vegetarians, he has one thing dead right - trying to avoid this or that so that we feel better about ourselves is not the point. As Paul says, we do not live to ourselves and we do not die to ourselves, if we live we live to the Lord and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. It is before our Lord that we stand or fall and we will be upheld because the Lord is able to make us stand.
And so today we find ourselves invited to this Eucharist to ‘take and eat’ to ‘drink this’ by the Lord himself.
This truly is clean eating, food which nourishes soul and body. So let us eat and drink not only in remembrance but so that by sharing this sacrament we might come to share in the divine purity of Christ who shared our messy humanity.