This reflection was shared as part of devotions at the Gloucestershire Circuit Meeting 22nd May 2022.
Mark 7: 1-8
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’ He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
“This people honours me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.”
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’
As Julie and I prepare to pack up our home ready for moving to a new appointment in a new place, there is obviously sadness at leaving behind the people we have come to know and work with over the last 8 years many of whom have become good friends. Yesterday I was reading the information for prospective candidates for the ministry and it talks about the cost of entering itinerant ministry and how difficult it can be to pack up home, leave friends, family and support structures and move to a new location and a new appointment amongst people who we meet as strangers.
But as I thought about this I realised that while our discomfort is real, how does it compare to the distress of those who have been forced to leave their homes through no choice of their own, leaving behind their whole lives, not knowing where they will end up and when they will see loved ones again, if ever. We have all heard and seen the awful events in Ukraine and the stories of those who have been forced to leave, not knowing if they will ever be able to return. They are dependent upon the generosity and hospitality of strangers, and vulnerable to the prejudices and hostilities of others. Of course Ukraine is the place at the top of the media agenda right now. But is just the latest in a long list of places from which people have been forced to flee – we might remember Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan, Eritrea and others.
A few of weeks ago Julie and I spent a week in Northern Ireland visiting the Corymeela Community. We met with a group of people with whom we had travelled to India on pilgrimage a couple of years ago – the theme of which was ‘Borders’. We continued thinking about this theme as we experienced the work of the East Belfast Mission and met with people who had been instrumental in the peace process that led to the Good Friday agreement and the laying down of arms by the paramilitary groups 20 years ago. And the realisation that the tensions still exist – they have not gone away and they need to be carefully attended to.
The reading from Mark’s gospel speaks of difference. In this case it is the differences in purity laws and traditions around eating. They have not washed their hands in the ritual way expected of the Jews. The laws and traditions are what set the Jews apart from other people. But every people have their own ways and traditions. Difference that marks out their particular identity. The Pharisees and scribes are not happy with Jesus not conforming.
Such difference, and the expectation of conformity can be what leads to the erection of barriers, the formation of a border, a line of demarcation. A border can be a wall, a fence, maybe a locked door or gate. An obstacle to separate. This tends to happen when difference has been allowed to become a reason to hate, a reason to need to to keep peace.
Or a border can be almost non existent – a dotted line on a map and no more. We saw this a few years ago when we drove through Europe to Italy travelling through 6 or 7 different countries with no sign of a border other than a sign at the side of the road. The realisation that people can live on a border – sharing schools, hospitals, shops, community. They may fly different flags but difference can be accepted and embraced. It can be a spark to creativity and enrichment of life. But It takes a willingness to love instead of hate, to build trust. Trust can take years to build, but be lost in a moment.
Whenever we move from one place to another, even if it is a fairly short distance, whether it is by choice or not, we take a risk: – the risk of being accepted or rejected, of being welcomed or sent away, of being accepted for who and what we are or of being expected to conform, of having our needs met or of facing prejudice, of being loved or hated.
In a few weeks time, a lorry will carry all our possessions from one place to another. We will be strangers, at least for a time, but we will set up home in a secure place with all our familiar things around us. But what of those who are refugees and have to leave all behind? How does that feel? Refugees carry nothing but their vulnerability, relying on the hospitality of strangers.
How then can our churches be truly places of love and hospitality, welcome the stranger, be places of sanctuary? What kind of hospitality enables us to build a truly inclusive congregation or community? Which of our practices help to create insiders and outsiders? Jesus cuts through boundaries and separation. He was prepared to eat with anyone! He expressed solidarity with the marginalised by sharing food with them.
In writing this reflection I drew on the following resources:
‘Hospitality and Sanctuary for all’ – Inderjit Bhogal
‘Words of Hope – thoughts and reflections from Amos trust’
Note also Refugee Week 20-26th June 2022 – resources;