This sermon was preached at Highbury on Sunday, 30th October by the Rev Dr Graham Adams. Graham grew up at Highbury and is curtently Minister of Lees Street Congregational Church, Manchester, and teaches on the Congregational Federation's Integrated Training Course.
Micah 3: 1-12
Matthew 23: 1-15, 23-28
Reflection 1 … heavy burdens
Let’s be clear about one thing to begin with:
Some Christians have tended to see the Pharisees as representing the whole Jewish religion,
so they’ve concluded that Jesus is basically having a go at everything Jewish,
but this doesn’t make sense, not only because Jesus himself was Jewish, but for other reasons too:
first, there were about 7 schools of thought amongst the Pharisees, some far stricter than others,
& Jesus’ argument is clearly with the stricter ones, those obsessed with every little rule –
but secondly, as we see, Jesus doesn’t tell people to ignore what the Pharisees teach:
he says ‘do what they say, but not what they do’, because it is their hypocrisy which angers him.
And thirdly, the Jewish religion is deeply self-critical –
we see this in the passage from the prophet Micah, again angry with religious leaders’ hypocrisy,
the way they exploit the people, take bribes, line their own pockets, suit themselves
while ignoring the suffering of the ordinary people.
Micah has strong words indeed for those who exploit their position –
and warns that there will be consequences (darkness without revelation, the ruin of Jerusalem),
because the point is that the leaders have a grave responsibility to care for their people.
So, by attacking hypocritical Pharisees, Jesus is not attacking Judaism as a whole at all,
but in fact is speaking up for ordinary Jews who are suffering because of their leaders’ behaviour.
So what, exactly, are the accusations?
On the one hand, there is the crucial issue of hypocrisy – of which we are all guilty.
In this case, it was leaders who say one thing, but live according to their own rules,
flaunting their religiosity but not their integrity, taking the best seats at banquets,
expecting special treatment, & demanding for themselves special titles –
all designed to puff themselves up.
In our own way, we are all hypocritical – we do not manage to live up to the ideals we hold;
so we need to be honest and humble about this, & support each other to practise what we preach;
this will also mean forgiving each other – being generous-spirited towards one another –
which is, after all, one of the ideals we profess to believe in.
But on the other hand, there is the more specific problem of misdirecting people to every little rule
in such a way as to overburden them.
The thing was, the Pharisees broadly believed Israel’s redemption lay in its obedience
and that God would rescue the nation if he saw that everyone was fulfilling the law;
so actually this obsessive attention to the tiniest details was driven by fear – the fear of disorder –
because they feared that, if people didn’t stick to every rule, everything would fall further apart.
So they made converts to Judaism even more obsessive than themselves,
and they focused on superficial religious observance – how things seem on the surface –
rather than the core issues, as we’ll come to in a moment.
Essentially, fearing disorder, they turned vibrant faith into something burdensome –
the life-giving power of religion had become a deadweight around people’s necks.
Although our context is very different,
how do we contribute to the turning of life-giving faith into something that burdens people?
Do we ever find ourselves, because of anxieties about the future wellbeing of the church,
expecting that people should fit our mould of the Christian life, rather than find their own way?
Do we find ourselves obsessing about the little details which make church feel like church to us,
whether in one direction or the other, and judging others who hold to different expectations,
anxious that things seem to be falling apart?
Or, from the other side, are we the people who are suffering from a burdensome form of religion,
one which makes us feel guilty for every little mistake, for every unattained goal,
or which traps us in cycles of behaviour we can’t seem to escape from,
where we allow ourselves to play a particular role, to be boxed in to a specific corner,
without imagining that God’s Spirit works to free us up, to make new possibilities possible?
With all the little tasks that need to be done to keep the church’s show on the road,
it can be all very well to expect that religious commitment should be liberating not burdensome;
and it is appropriate to have certain kinds of expectations of one another
because, especially in a Congregational church, we are called to hold each other to account;
so all the different roles need to be taken seriously –
but the point is, essentially I think, as Micah and Jesus remind us, that it’s not about control,
it’s not about exploiting each other, it’s not about boxing people in to burdensome roles,
but is meant to be about enabling one another to fulfil the God-given potential within us,
both for the sake of our own growth & for the common good of church & wider community.
The trick is, I suppose, to find ways of helping each other to fulfil the part we each play
while also being free to grow into new roles, not being stuck in a rut or left unfulfilled
while also remembering that the tasks are only a small part of the story:
what matters most is the vision & mission we share together – to share good news with others.
Reflection 2 … weightier matters
So, if our Christian life is not to become all about the tiniest of details, the little rules we live by,
we need to listen to Jesus’ words: that the Pharisees had been obsessing about ‘straining gnats’
while inadvertently ‘swallowing camels’;
that is, they had neglected the ‘weightier matters’ – the matters of justice, mercy & faith.
That’s where the heart of our attention should be:
yes, share the tasks out fairly & encourage each other, but remember the big issues always:
justice, mercy and faith (or, in the GNB, justice, mercy and honesty).
The thing is, Jesus realised all too well how religion (of any kind) neglects these weightier matters
even though it’s supposed to be their very champion;
we can become well practised in the art of gnat-straining
(I recognise this in my own church – but I’m sure it’s not like that here!)
so we need our attention drawn once again, as much as possible, to the weightier matters.
And these matters, clearly, aren’t just supposed to be the marks of the kind of fellowship we are,
but the very principles by which we live out our lives wherever we are:
So what does it mean to limit burdensome religion in favour of the weightier matter of justice?
In biblical terms, justice is about the wellbeing of society, particularly the place of the vulnerable,
often represented in the OT by ‘widows and orphans’, but also very much by the poor,
& those of other countries who are in need of shelter and sanctuary.
So, we are called to have a clear concern for the common good, the wellbeing of the vulnerable,
to check that the gap between rich & poor does not become destructive to society –
so, for instance, Church Action on Poverty is currently campaigning for fairer taxes:
which largely means ensuring the very rich are not allowed to get away with tax avoidance,
estimated to be worth anything between £40 bn and £120 bn –
imagine if that was collected how it could help protect public services for vulnerable people.
Church Action on Poverty also campaigns for fairer prices for essential goods, fairer pay scales,
fairer credit rates, and for poorer communities to have a stronger voice in decision-making –
if you’d like to know more, there is some information in the porch.
And what of mercy – how might we limit burdensome religion in favour of a focus on mercy?
It’s strange, but I suspect many people think our society is too merciful,
that people are able to get away, literally or figuratively speaking, with murder;
but the difference is this: while justice demands meaningful guidelines for the common good,
it’s still important to instil in people an attitude of mercy as well,
because the alternative, often well represented in some newspapers, is one of scapegoating –
we point the finger of blame, often at foreigners, or some other group who can’t answer back,
without patiently pursuing better understanding of the bigger picture.
An attitude of mercy, a willingness to extend grace to each other, is a mark of our faith:
But then, that brings us to the third weighty matter – faith, or in the GNB, honesty:
it’s not just about standing true to what we believe, or saying what’s on our mind;
it’s also, in the case of faith, about believing in new possibilities, because God does new things,
and in the case of honesty, it includes being honest about our mistakes & our need for renewal.
So, may we focus on these weightier matters, that they may free us from burdensome religion:
may our temptation to strain the gnats of faith be transformed into a focus on the camels.
Funnily enough, these three themes are at the heart of my book Christ and the Other,
which is all about how we grow through our relationships with ‘others’ –
first, we understand our ‘faith’ and grow in faith, not so much on our own,
but through our relationships with all kinds of ‘others’ within our community & tradition,
so we need each other, including those we do not always think to look to for relationship;
secondly, we grow as people of faith through an attitude of ‘mercy’, or hospitality,
not least to those of ‘other’ traditions – so we are to be a listening people,
willing to be shaped by relationships with others beyond our own community or tradition;
and thirdly, we should be people of ‘justice’, committed to relationships with those
who are in effect the ‘invisible others’ in our society and world – the most vulnerable.
It is through these relationships, marked by these weightier matters of faith, mercy & justice,
that we grow as the people Jesus calls us to be.
Prayers – next page
Holding the stone you have been given … reflect with me, in prayer, on our burdens
and on the weightier matters to which Jesus draws our attention – let us pray:
As we hold this stone, or think about it, we recognise we come with burdens –
anxieties, worries, fears, illness, concerns for friends or family-members,
jobs that need doing, tasks left unfinished, words that have hurt us, wounds we bear …
we ask, reflecting on these stones & burdens, that you will help us
either to let go, if that is possible, or to carry them a little more lightly, with your help …
so we pray for others with burdens, too – that we may help to carry their burdens
and as a church, may we be known for sharing the burden of one another’s pain:
so we pray, in the silence, for people known especially to us, in need of your love …
we pray too, as we take your yoke upon us, that we will not see this faith as a burden
but as something genuinely life-giving, genuinely life-affirming, genuinely liberating for us,
so we may be freed from the view we have of ourselves which is limited or battered,
and we may see in ourselves capacities and gifts we had not recognised before –
may your Spirit free us to have life and life in abundance …
but we also pray, as we must, that these stones may be for us the weightier matters
of justice, mercy and faith:
help us to believe in and pursue justice, especially for the sake of the vulnerable in society;
help us to believe in and practise mercy, so we encourage better understanding and compassion;
help us to be people of faith and honesty, recognising our mistakes, more aware of our needs
but also committed to be open about the good news we know because of you …
so help us to free each other of our burdens and focus more on these weightier matters,
for the sake of your kingdom, now and for ever, Amen.
May the God of justice bless us with courage to speak up for the vulnerable.
May the Christ of mercy bless us with compassion for all people.
May the Spirit who nurtures our faith give us life in all its fullness,
for our sake and for the sake of others,
until goodness fills the whole world,