Scripture Readings: James 1:17-27

Mark 7.1-8, 20-23

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

On December 7, 1972, a photograph was taken which literally changed the way we look at the world. It was taken by the crew of the Apollo 17 spacecraft, which was returning from the final manned mission to the moon. It is perhaps the most memorable of all the images of the Apollo missions, but it shows, not the moon, but the earth. Taken from a distance of about 29,000 kilometres (18,000 miles) from the surface from the earth, it showed, almost for the first time, an image of the entire planet: a colourful mixture of blue ocean, white clouds, brown and green earth, set in the background pitch black darkness of space. Nicknamed ‘The Blue Marble’, for that is what it looks like, it is one of the most reproduced images in human history[1].

The Blue Marble photograph was a reminder to us that our planet is a small island of life in an enormous sea of lifelessness. Without those blue ocean waters, or the atmosphere which makes those white clouds, there would be no life on earth. And yet we are all too aware that our air is polluted, that we are causing climate change which is making the weather more unpredictable and causing our sees to rise. We have no excuse for not being aware of the fragility or our earth- and perhaps our attitudes are changing. But we are not changing fast enough. We are continuing to terrible things to our planet- we are wasteful, polluting, unwilling to change our ways. The consequences are already being felt- but the price of our inaction and stubbornness might be paid by our children and grandchildren.

But the idea that we humans have a responsibility for our planet is not a new concept. In the very first chapter of the very first book of the Bible, in Genesis, chapter one, we read the mythical account of how God created the earth, sea, animals, birds and fish. Finally, God creates human beings, to whom God gives ‘dominion’ over creation[2]. ‘Dominion’ is a royal term: a king has dominion over his kingdom and his people. Genesis sees human beings as the ‘kings’ of creation. But with that status, and power, comes responsibility. In the Bible, a good king is like: he does not exploit or tyrannise his people for his own selfish ends. Psalm 72, for example, speaks of a king who judges with righteousness, aids the poor, weak and needy, keeps the peace, and rules over a fertile land[3]. So if humans are the monarchs of creation, the Bible is telling us that our role is not exploit and despoil the earth in a selfish way, but to cherish it and to treat it gently so that the good earth will continue to sustain life, in this generation and for the generations to come.

In 1989, the Orthodox Church began a season called ‘Creation Time’, and it’s an idea which other churches in Europe have since taken up. The idea is that, in the month of September, Christian communities should celebrate God’s good creation, and think about what it means to care for that creation. We are called, by God, to look after the earth. Nowadays, we have far more power over nature than the writers of Genesis could have ever imagined; and science has taught us far more about our planet. The Apollo astronauts went to explore the moon, but spaceflight has led us to learn much more about our earth. Satellites today help us track climate change, pollution, forest fires, to see the effects humans are having on the planet. Even diseases can be tracked by satellite (I have a neighbour involved in just one such project). We know more about our planet, and are able to affect our planet, for good or ill, than ever before.

A righteous king, in the Bible, would ensure his people were fed. We often take food for granted in this country, and panic if it is suddenly readily available. The current debates about Brexit perhaps remind us of how dependant this island is on other countries to supply our food. We have a successful agricultural industry, yet we import 48% of our food[4]: your dinner table is a reminder of just how people in Britain are dependent on our interconnected world. Yet even in our rich country, the existence of food banks reminds us that many struggle to feed themselves.

In Mark’s Gospel today, we find Jesus talking about food. The Pharisees and the teachers of the Law, always on the lookout for something to criticise Jesus about, notice that his disciples don’t wash their food in a particular way. This had nothing to do with hygiene. It wasn’t that they thought that the disciples were an unsanitary bunch of people. In fact, it was a religious issue. The religious conservatives in Jesus’ day believed that you should wash your hands and wash your food in a special way, a way set out in religious rules. It was a ceremonial act, a ritual. Originally it had been meant to remind the faithful about who provided their food- the God of created heaven and earth. It was supposed to enable them to remember to always be grateful to God.

As our harvest hymn says,

All good gifts around us
are sent from heaven above;
then thank the Lord, O thank the Lord,
for all his love.[5]

This was what these rituals were about. But the problem was that, too often, those who were most punctilious about the hand washing rituals weren’t really very serious in their gratitude to God.

We’ve also had a ritual about food in our family- one which, I’m sure, many of you may have been brought up with or still observe. At our main meal every evening, we say grace. It’s usually a short prayer, often using familiar words. I suppose it serves the same function as those old handwashing rituals did in Jesus’ day. But supposing Jesus was to come to dinner, and watch us saying grace. I wonder if he might think we in our family were somewhat hypocritical. We say we are thankful to God- but are we really serious about that? After all, I’m never without enough to eat. I’ve never known real hunger. I take my daily bread for granted.

Often in our family prayers around the meal table, we pray for those who do not have enough to eat. But are my prayers just words? Or do I do something for those who do not have enough to eat? The letter of James reminds us:

Do not deceive yourselves by just listening to [God’s] word; instead, put it into practice.

And then he tells us:

What God the Father considers to be pure and genuine religion is this: to take care of orphans and widows in their suffering…

That is the crux of the matter. Is our faith just words, or do we put it into action? What am I doing to live out may faith in a creator God? What actions do I take to make sure the hungry are fed? Does my lifestyle contribute to the destruction of the planet, or to its conservation? Am I living for myself, today, and not for the sake of the generations to whom I will have to pass on this blue planet of ours?

There are so many places in the New Testament where it seems the greatest sin of all is hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is a huge danger in the church, for it’s prevalent in human life. We are used to people being two faced- saying one thing and doing another. But it is more than just individuals. A newspaper might claim to be reporting the news, but what they are really selling is titillation, gossip or outrageous opinions. There are oil companies who boast about their environmental credentials, even as they are digging up stuff to burn and wreck the climate. There are political movements which claim to be of the people, but which are in reality the tools of a few rich men.

Our churches are also infected by hypocrisy. What can be more hypocritical than a church which claims to follow Christ, but which turns a blind eye to the abuse of children? Or a church in which some members are treated as second class citizens because of their gender or their sexuality? Our own denomination, the Church of Scotland, encourages its ministers to preach about caring for the earth during this Creation Time season; but at this year’s General Assembly we decided to continue to invest our funds in fossil fuel companies- isn’t that also hypocrisy?

Jesus often castigated the religious hypocrites of his day. He would certainly find that hypocrisy alive and well in religion, as well as the secular world, today. In the secular world, people or institutions speak of values that they don’t’ put into practice. In religion, many of us could still be described in the words Jesus used of the Pharisees and teachers of the Law: people who honour God with their words, but not in the hearts.

As Jesus speaks about the hypocrisy of those who are so careful about what they put in their mouths, he goes on to speak graphically of what the real danger is. It is not, he, says, what we put into our mouths that is important. Far more important, and much more damaging, is what comes out of our mouths. His words at this point can be translated this way:

… evil thoughts, unlawful sex, thefts, murders, adulteries, covetous thoughts, iniquities, deceit, excess, an evil eye, blasphemies, pride, foolishness- all these evil things come out from within, and they defile a person[6]

…and not just the person out of whom these things come, but their neighbours, society and the church.

The letter of James makes a point about the words which come out of our mouths:

If you do not control your tongue, your religion is worthless and you deceive yourself.

Gossip, lies, slandering others are things which come from our mouths, but which are deadly dangerous. They’re a like a kind of pollution, which affects us all. Christian people who love gossip, or to talk about others behind their back, have really lost the plot. What comes out of their mouth can pollute a church. Or, take a secular example. We seem to be living in a culture in which many people feel bombarded with images of sex and of bodies which are seem impossibly perfect and glamourous. That is resulting people- some of them very young- feeling that their body shames them, or is inadequate in some way. Our polluted media must be partly to blame for the increase in mental health issues people are facing today.

If our words and our actions are polluted by hypocrisy, it’s perhaps no wonder our earth continues to be polluted. Faced with facts, such as the plastic polluting our oceans, or how or use of fossil fuels is changing the climate, we often talk about how things should change. But we are slow to make changes ourselves. The words of Jesus about the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law still apply to us, as our words and action pollute our relationships with others, and our earth, sky and seas.

And yet, in Christ, God is promising a new beginning, a more just world. Our greed and selfishness means that many people in our world often go without enough to eat, for our hypocrisy strengthens injustice and inequality in our world. Today’s Gospel reading come between two stories about there being bread for everyone, enough for all. According to Mark, just beforehand, short of food for a huge crowd, equipped only with five loaves and two fish, Jesus has fed a crowd of over 5,000 people. Mark tells us that ‘Everyone ate and had enough’[7]. And soon afterwards, with only seven loaves, Jesus fed another crowd, and, ‘Everyone ate and had enough- there were about 4,000 people’[8]. These are stories about how the Kingdom of God will be. Justice and fairness will reign, where love will be unpolluted by hypocrisy, and, in God’s grace, everyone will eat and have enough.

Ascription of Praise

The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.

Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. BCO 1994, p584

Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated

© 2018 Peter W Nimmo

Notes

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Blue_Marble

[2] Genesis 1.26, 28

[3] Gordon J Wenham, “Genesis” in Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible eds Dunn and Rogerson (2003), p38

[4] https://www.foodsecurity.ac.uk/challenge/uk-threat/

[5] ‘We plough the fields and scatter’, Matthias Claudius, tr Jane M. Campbell; CH4 229

[6] Mark 7.18,20-23, translated by John Petty, quoted by Frenchack op cit, p377, n.3

[7] Mark 6.42

[8] Mark 8.8-9