Sermon 28 February 2016

That which comes out of a person

As I grow older I recognise more and more that one of the greatest single influences on my life was my dear old Dad. I wouldn’t have said that when I was a pious evangelical teenager who believed that sin had something to do with smoking, drinking, bad language, bad company and wearing make-up. I still have my doubts about smoking. Dad was a loveable rogue. He caused my family a great deal of grief. Everybody loved him and he let everybody down. Occasionally (like often) he would risk part of his wages on a ‘dead cert’ – a horse that would turn out to be merely a dead loss. Next he would back more horses to try and recoup his losses. Then he would spend the remainder of his pay packet trying to get drunk enough to face an angry wife. Finally he would run away because the pubs don’t sell enough alcohol for such a task. We would be left without anything and it would take weeks to get on an even keel. Then just when things were becoming stable for us Dad would come back with promises that ‘it would never happen again’.

Dad never went to Church and in my stupid sanctimonious way I was quite glad that he didn’t. On the other hand he was very proud that I did. It is hard to believe that I’m talking about a man who was younger than I am now. For suddenly his body began to take revenge; revenge for too much alcohol and tobacco, for sleeping rough in all weathers and for going without food. This was the consequence of an army life which encouraged neglect of body and soul, of over-drinking in Cairo , of terror in Palestine , of a long retreat before Hitler’s forces in France and of collapse in the sea at Dunkirk . This was the result of taking heavy labouring jobs at Belfast Coal Quay and of the relentless blame of a family for their poverty.

So he was grounded and spent the last few years of his life pottering about the house. He actually started going to church with me on a Sunday evening. Then one of my Sunday School teachers persuaded him to join the bowling club. Shortly after this my Mother told me that Dad had come home one night very depressed. He told her “All my life I have looked up to Christians. I thought that I was not good enough for them. Now I find that in their conversation that they are just as bitchy and backbiting as everyone else”. I don’t know what Dad heard that night at the bowling club. I had grown up with the church and cliques and cabals were part of the horizon which had become natural to me. Willowfield church was a pretty good congregation but it was salutary to hear how someone from outside actually saw us and I thought of the words "see how these Christians love each other".

Perhaps it would have been more appropriate if I had thought of Christ’s words from the Gospel: “It is not what goes in but what comes out which defiles a person”. Because that is what my father observed – although he would not have made that judgement – the defiling, the soiling of what should have been true and beautiful and a church that should have been the instrument of salvation actually becoming an obstruction.

It is what comes out of us which defiles us. Each of us can remember that word spoken in anger or bitterness that we would give anything to take back. How often have we added our pennyworth to a gossip session? How often have we jumped on the bandwagon when someone’s character is being attacked? Then there were the lies; lies to get us out of a difficult situation; lies told to exalt my standing in other’s eyes; lies told to gain advantage over another; lies told to hurt. Oh no one thinks of them as lies at the time but facts can be assembled and even the truth itself manipulated to serve our purposes.

What I have had to say is painful and yet this Gospel is still good news. It is good news because when we consider what is being defiled we still come back to the message of God’s love for us. If we were bad people whose souls were ugly and wicked, children of the devil then there would be nothing to defile but the reason things like lies, backbiting and spite defile is because God loves us. He has made us in his image; he has taken our humanity to himself and he has declared it very good. Defilement is the marring of that beautiful image. If God is love and we are created to be like him then every time we behave in a bad way towards his creation we are covering his image and we are preventing others from seeing him.

The woman who anointed Jesus, with none of the advantages of established religion, saw the truth and beauty in Jesus and asked, even demanded, the help and healing that he had to offer. The children of the table lied and mocked and crucified that which could have saved them. The good news is that the healing is still being offered. Each of us can ask for it. It is not our efforts that will overcome our defilement but our return to Him who is our true image and likeness.

John Gribben CR