Matthew 23 v 1-7
Have you ever wondered why we go to church? I mean, what is this church thing we do all about? And we do we have all these strange rules about when to stand up or sit down...or about what funny robes we should wear up the front...or what prayers we should say and when. We have rules for what readings should be read at what times of the year.
Sometimes, readings can be a little tricky...like the time when a bride asked her sister to do a reading at her wedding. She asked her to read from the first letter of John, chapter 4, verse 18 - which says "There is no fear in love - because perfect love cast out all fear". Unfortunately, the bride's sister didn't know her bible very well. Instead of reading from the first letter of John, she read from the Gospel of John...where chapter 4, verse 18 says "For you have had five husbands, and the man you have now is not your husband"!
But let's get back to the rules! We have rules about who can celebrate the Eucharist, and who is allowed to receive it. We have whole books of laws and regulations about all sorts of aspects of church life - everything from how a church council should be elected through to whether or not a priest can divulge what they are told in confession.
I wonder. Is this what Jesus had in mind when he founded a church?
Jesus actually gave pretty short shrift to the kind of people who set the rules for worship in his day. As we heard in the reading just now, Jesus said about them:
They tie up heavy loads and put them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. Everything they do is done for men to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honour at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogue; they love to be greeted in the market place and to have men call them 'Rabbi'...
...and Jesus goes on like this for some time. Read Chapter 23 of Matthew's Gospel yourselves. Seriously - you should read it! Jesus calls religious leaders hypocrites, blind guides, snakes and broods of vipers...and sons of hell. The whole chapter is a rant par excellence! And it all boils down to this...the religion of Jesus' day does nothing more than pile on rule after religious rule on the people...rules and religious actions that are often ignored by the very people who make them.
So what about us? Are we guilty, sometimes of doing religious things, or believing certain religious ideas because we think that we should?
Just imagine for a moment that I decided to buy my wife a bunch of flowers. Imagine her happy smiling face as I present them to her. "How lovely!" she says. "And what an unusual gift....from you!" (I'm ashamed to admit that I'm not very good at buying flowers!). Now just imagine how she would feel if I replied..."Oh, its no big deal. They were really cheap. Only cost me 50p at the Summer Fayre". How do you think she would feel? If she thought I was only buying flowers out of sense of duty?
Is that how God feels...when we only go through the motions.
Do you remember last week's reading...about the Good Samaritan? It started with a lawyer asking Jesus what he had to do to gain eternal life. He ended up giving the answer himself, by quoting from what Jews call the Shema..."Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul and all your strength"
What's the point of coming to church if we don't really mean it...if we don't love God? There isn't any point. Is there?
You see, God doesn't want empty rituals and rules. God wants our hearts.
This is what God said to the Jewish people in the time of Isaiah - pointing to their ritual of fasting:
"Do you think this is the kind of fast day I'm after: a day to show off your humility? To put on a pious face and parade solemnly around in black? Do you call that fasting? A fast day that I, God, would like?... What I'm interested in seeing you do is this: sharing your food with the hungry, inviting the homeless poor into your homes, putting clothes on the shivering poorly-clad, being available to your own families. Do this, and the lights will turn on....and your lives will turn around at once!" (Is.58. 5-8 abridged from 'The Message' translation)
God can't stand it when people put on a religious show, but then ignore the marginalised and the poor and the oppressed. God says "I am weary of people like that!"
Do you give money away? Why? Because you think God needs it?
Here's what God says about that, in Psalm 50:
I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens, for every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird in the mountains, and the creatures of the field are mine. If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world is mine, and all that is in it! (Ps 50. 9-12)
God doesn't want your money. God wants your heart. God wants your heart to beat in time with his.
Do I give a percentage of my pay check so that I can get God off my back? Or maybe because I figure that once I've given God my 10% I can do whatever I like with the rest?
Which reminds me of the story of the church which needed repairs done to their ceiling. Week by week, the vicar would urge people to open up their wallets. Finally, when the ceiling was really beginning to sag, a wealthy member of the congregation stood up and said "I'll give three hundred pounds". Just at that moment, a small piece of the ceiling broke off, and struck the rich man on the head, at which point the Vicar was heard to mutter, "Hit him again, Lord! Hit him again!"
When God has my heart, I realise that everything I have I've been given! God doesn't need our money - but he loves it when we give because we want our hearts to beat in time with his. Remember the words of St Paul, in the 2nd letter to the Corinthians?
Everyone should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly nor under compulsion.... for God loves a cheerful giver! But remember this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly. And whoever sows generously will reap generously! (2 Cor 9. 7,6)
If I'm giving out of compulsion, because I think I'm supposed to, or because I think God needs it...I should keep it. God...God doesn't want it.
God doesn't want our flowers. God wants our hearts. Because when he has our hearts, we'll start to care about the things God cares about. We'll start to care about the people God cares about.
You know - when you realise that you can do something about the state of the world...when you realise there is work to be done - and you can do it....then your heart is starting to beat like God's.
So what is church? Is church a building? No. Church is people. People whose hearts are beating more and more like God's.
Maybe you are sometimes turned off by meaningless ritual, narrow minds and weird rules. So am I. And so is God.
Let's be honest. A lot of people confuse religion with God - and then walk away from them both. The point is not Christianity. The point is being a Christian. The point is following Jesus.
Of course, ritual has its place. Our rituals are there to remind us that what we do together is worthwhile. We step aside from the normal run of the mill. We disengage, for a while, from the frankly tedious lives that some of us are forced to live. We dress up, we sing. We parade, we use rich language. We cross ourselves as a reminder of who we follow, and of what he has done for us, and of how he wants us to live.
Because that's the point of our worship. If our worship doesn't help us to connect with the God we worship, we should ditch it. If the rhythm of our ceremonies don't beat to the rhythm of God's heart...then they must go. Do we honestly put on our best clothes for an hour once a week, to stand and sit at the right times and sing all the appropriate songs for God's sake? Or because we rather enjoy doing things the way we like doing them. But God doesn't want meaningless ritual. God wants our hearts.
The point of church is that we come together...to be connected to God and one another...and to be connected to all that is good and true and right. We come together to be encouraged to go on living to the beat of God's heart. We come to remind ourselves what God's priorities are. If we get that right, it won't matter what we sing - modern (like this morning) or medieval (like this afternoon at Evensong). It won't matter what we wear - posh clothes or jeans. All kinds of worship, all kinds of clothing, all kinds of giving will be acceptable to God if we do it to the beat of his heart.
Anything else? God doesn't want it.
NB: The sermon was inspired by, and partly transcribed from, a NOOMA video, called "Sunday" by Rob Bell.