Sermon St John the Baptist, Mildenhall, 2nd September 2018
Trinity 14: Deuteronomy 4.1-2,6-9 & Mark 7.1-8,14,15,21-23
Listen and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. (Mark 6.14-15)
The week before last, I spent on retreat in Alnmouth in Northumberland, and walking along the North Sea shore, I found myself thinking quite a lot about these words: it is not what is outside that defines us, but what comes from the inside. It is not our situation that determines who we are, but how we respond to it.
In this passage from Mark’s Gospel, Jesus specifically speaks about laws and customs around food. The Jewish had and still has rather strict rules about what can and cannot be eaten under certain circumstances, and how food is to be prepared and eaten. In the verses that are omitted from the reading this morning, Mark makes the comment that Jesus has now declared all foods clean.
However, from the specifics of food laws, Jesus now draws a much wider conclusion, and I think one that still very relevant for us today. As often with Gospel texts, Jesus message is simultaneously comforting and challenging.
To start with the comforting part: it can be a great relief to realise that it is not what is outside us, it is not our surroundings that determine who we are. All too often we define ourselves by external factors, so to say, and others do so too: where we were born, how we were educated, how much money we have, and what kind of job we have or have done.
It can be too easy for this to give us a sense of identity that is not at all helpful. What if you lose your job through redundancy or retirement? What if you didn’t have access to education? What if your parents are highly regarded, but not the best parents to you? In those situations, it is very liberating to realise that these ultimately are not what make us who we are.
Unemployment, a lack of education, poverty, homelessness and illness are not things that ‘defile’ people, so to speak. It is not our surroundings or our situation who determines who we are, but our intentions: what do we do in such situations and why? And that can be a real comfort, realising that there is nothing wrong with you just because you find yourself in a certain situation.
Of course, that is also where the challenge comes: status, education, wealth are not things that will make you a good person, and they are not the things that will feed and sustain your relationship with God. It is again what we do with what we have been given, the response we make and our choices from within, that determine whether we grow closer to God, or whether we become too distracted by our earthly riches.
Thus, through this text, we are asked to reflect where we find our identity. Of course, we cannot separate who we are from our particular history and life story. But, first and foremost, we are children of God, made in his image: that is who we are at our core. We are called to be people of integrity, not hypocrisy, and so our choices and responses do matter, albeit that every situation is different.
Similar to the use of food laws, the specifics of our situation are not to be denied, but they are not essential for our relationship with God. We can find God in our work, but that does not mean that without it we cannot find him. We can see God in people near and dear to us, but that does not mean we lose God when we don’t longer see them.
Both the challenge and the comfort apply to each of us. Whether we need one more than the other at the moment, will depend on where we find ourselves. But there is something to ponder for each of us in the light of Jesus’ words. In the words of the Collect for this Sunday:
whose only Son has opened for us
a new and living way into your presence:
give us pure hearts and steadfast wills
to worship you in spirit and in truth;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.