Trinity 4

A Sermon preached by Fr James Heard at St George's and St John the Baptist on Sunday 28 June

Carl Jung, the psychoanalyst, had a dream when he was a young boy. He saw the cathedral in his home town gleaming in the sunshine, a wonderful vision of glass and stone. But something troubled him and, looking up, he saw God sitting on his ‘throne’, and an enormous faeces falling from heaven, which smashed the cathedral to dust. Jung was surprised at his reaction to this dream: he found it enormously releasing! He writes: “I felt an enormous, indescribable relief. Instead of the expected damnation, grace had come upon me… I wept for happiness and gratitude.” Reflecting on it later, he wrote of his father’s ‘faithful but powerless’ position ministering in a church which he thought of as ‘purified to the point of sterility.’

Sterile places are those where nothing can live or grow, and Jung was concerned that the church of his day was so concerned about pushing ‘dirt’ out, that it left no place for people to do their ‘dirt work’.

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day were also very concerned with dirt, with defilement, and as a result they had a very particular understanding of who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’. They controlled the mechanisms whereby those who were defined as unclean could find cleansing. And they exerted a huge amount of social control. So, if you wanted to keep within the religious boundaries, you had to act in the right way, you had to speak the correct language, avoid certain people and things, only then would you be accepted as part of society.

Having such demarcations meant that those who transgressed, those who stepped over the boundaries, were in danger of being rejected and labelled as ‘other’, as ‘unclean’, as ‘dirt’.

In the way Jesus challenged the religious boundaries he was, and is, considered so subversive. We see this in today’s Gospel reading. Note the key reference to touching – to the woman who touches Jesus, and to himself taking the little girl by the hand. The woman was considered ritually unclean, such that everything she touched became unclean. As for the child, touching a corpse was even worse. Jesus, however, is not contaminated. On the contrary, the spotlight is on Jesus ignoring these purity laws, setting aside such primitive taboos about bleeding women and dead bodies. In these down to earth, practical miracles Jesus graphically overcomes these ancient, almost instinctive and natural fears, that keep people from one another. Jesus challenges his followers to identify and disown any such rituals by which we are accustomed to avoid being contaminated, as we fear, by outsiders and outcastes.

The theologian Miroslav Volf in his book Exclusion and Embrace, describes exclusion as the primary sin. And he suggests ‘embrace’ as a response to the problem of exclusion. Salvation comes when we take the costly step of opening ourselves to the other, enfolding her or him in the same embrace with which we have been enfolded by God. Its what Jesus consistently did.

Jesus challenged the Pharisee’s manipulation of the law to suit their own purpose, which seem to be about exclusion, keeping out the ‘other’. In contrast, Jesus’s living and teaching about the kingdom of God meant throwing open the doors of God’s grace all who had ears to hear. People who were previously marginalised are invited, they are embraced by Jesus into the community. Jesus doesn’t stand apart from pagans so as to stay pure; in this radical reversal, instead of sin and impurity infecting Jesus, it seems his purity somehow ‘infects’ the impure, sinners and the Gentiles. Jesus reverts the relationship.
The problem of what to do with our dirt, or brokenness, is one that still faces us. The church Carl Jung experienced growing up seemed to advocate hiding it, denying it, submerging it into our subconscious. And it is very tempting to repress, ignore or deny our dirt. Indeed, s
o much of religion has taught us to deny or hide our shadow, which forces us into a clash or split within our very being. If we begin by distinguishing between ‘holy people’ and ‘unholy people’, we end up with what we have now, which is an exclusionary religion. We don't have a strong passion about what we are for, but we just know what we are against, what is wrong, what we must not do, and who is sinful.

I remember growing up and being consumed with fear about what was sinful – swearing, going to the cinema or theatre, sneaking a peek at page 3 of a certain national newspaper whilst doing a paper round. One of our young people became pregnant when she was 17 and because the church leaders thought she would contaminate us she was excluded from attending to church.

Jesus teaches us a different way. Just as we grow and mature by ultimately accepting and forgiving our own failures, people like Jesus and Pope Francis, are able to say about others, "Who am I to judge?" (Luke 12:14). That's quite the opposite of religion as exclusion!

Richard Rohr, the Franciscan friar, worked as a prison chaplain for fourteen years: ‘I met people who had done things that are wrong, sinful, immoral, or "bad"; and yet when I drew close to a particular life, I found that the human heart was most often either sincere, mistaken, or afraid. Inside of that frame they sought apparent good but not the true good. It did make them do some stupid things, for which they are now suffering because evil is its own punishment. But, in fact, the human heart has a kind of tenderness, sweetness, and littleness when you draw close to it, even in its fragility and fear.
Remember, sisters and brothers, Jesus is really saying that we are punished by our sins rather than for our sins. Human sin, failure, and imperfection is something to be wept over and pitied, not something to be abhorred or hated.’

None of us know the wounds that every human being carries and why they do the things they do. As the Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, stated, "Be kind to all, because everyone is fighting a great battle.

Jesus challenges us all to face up to whatever sinister prejudices and irrational beliefs that set us apart from our fellow human beings. The challenged for us as individuals and as a church is to explore what our dirt boundaries are. What or who is it that we consider unclean, or other– the beggar on our street, the men drinking beer on park benches, those from different backgrounds/cultures that we don’t understand. I wonder what are the things that we use to define inclusion and exclusion. And are we willing and ready to step over our boundaries? Are we ready to embrace ‘the other’? Because what seems totally clear from Jesus’ life and teaching is that the call to love one another never comes with caveats about who is deserving of love.

Holland Park Benefice