Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost 2 September 2018
(Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9 Psalm 15 James 1:17-27 Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23)
“Religion from the Heart!”
This past week has been one of those times when I found it very difficult to know exactly what message needed to be preached on this Sunday morning. It has been impossible to not be aware of the outpouring of sentiments following the death of Senator John McCain. And so, throughout this week, from a political system that has been so divided and conflicted, I desperately wanted to hear Good News and I wanted to hear hope into the future.
And then I read the Gospel, and it appeared to be filled with the very essence of divisiveness and conflict. So let’s jump in and see what we find!
I think we had a really good preaching series on the windows these past six weeks, but now we are back in the Gospel of Mark. Today we find ourselves in the seventh chapter, and it feels a little like walking in on a family argument. Something’s going on but we’re not quite sure what it is! Something about not washing hands! Sounds like a repeated discussion parents have with their children before every meal!
But guess what? This has a whole lot less to do with hygiene and getting the pesticides off food than it does about faith, integrity and how we get along with each other. How so?
As happens so often, especially in matters of religion, the Pharisees’ problem sprang from good practices gone askew that took on a life of its own.
According to the Old Testament Book of Rituals, God gave Moses the Law as a guide to help form the Israelites into the Chosen People. As we heard from Deuteronomy in the First Reading, these laws pointed a path to life. However, by the time of Jesus, this Book of Rituals had mushroomed into a mountain of rules and a labyrinth of legal trivia, under the influence of competitive, scrupulous, self-righteous, legalistic human beings. In other words, the likes of me and you!
It is the validity of these rules that is at the heart of the controversy in today’s Gospel because these rules determined who was a Jew of good faith and integrity, and who was not, at least as interpreted by these church leaders.
Jesus knew of these rules, but his teachings reached beyond them, beyond the oral tradition, even beyond the written word, because these purity rules created a world with sharp social boundaries between clean and unclean, between righteous and sinner, male and female, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile.
The Law, which was designed to be a path for holiness for all people, became distorted. The church leaders who held the power of interpretation developed precepts that effectively segregated the community. Those who had the wealth and the free time to act holy could cite religious reasons for avoiding the unclean and sinners whose touch or presence could contaminate the holy ones.
By the time of Jesus, these purity laws created an either/or culture, based on setting people apart, segregating people who believed differently, people who acted differently, people who were ill and sick. These purity codes certainly did create community, but two separate communities—one pure; and one impure.
So…..my conflict earlier this week was in realizing that it surely feels as if we’ve created a similar either/or culture today.
And so I wonder, what is the role of the church in the midst of the divisiveness that surrounds us? How might we live into the prophetic role of the church which, I believe, is to undercut the politics of the day by refusing the either/or dichotomy so often found in today’s world?
This next part will sound difficult and challenging, certainly we are convicted. Literature supports the notion that people choose churches based on convictions that our culture has already formed in us. That is why so few Christians know so few Christians who disagree with them or who are different from them. It is why church culture so neatly replicates the polarization of the wider culture. Churches, it seems, are playing chaplain and cheerleader to people whose faith is being formed elsewhere, shaped by something other than the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ.
That is why I believe that churches are not sufficiently forming Christians to be a community where unity amid differences is a more compelling good than all the other “goods” over which we disagree.
We know the stories of lepers, a menstruating woman, tax collectors, a prodigal son who becomes a swineherd, people possessed by demons, people cast out! These all belonged to the community of the impure, the outsiders to which Jesus was drawn.
I truly believe that is why Jesus lashes out so vehemently at the Pharisees; because they are the church leaders. It is not that they are bad people, but their form of religion has become hollow and empty—not from the heart!
So where is the Good News?
In Jesus we find a community shaped, not by the politics of purity and segregation, but by a culture of compassion. The truth of the Gospel can never be formulated into a politic where the Church gets to choose who is saint and who is sinner.
So how do we build a culture of compassion out of the brokenness we experience every day? I know I’ve said this before but I’ll say it again: only when we sincerely confess that “we are captive to sin and that we cannot free ourselves” only then can we begin to build a culture of compassion, because only then will we truly be willing to welcome people who are broken and anguished into our lives. Compassion has so little to do with washing our hands and our cups, our pots and bronze kettles; but it has everything to do with washing our hearts in the love and forgiveness of the Risen One!
It is in Christ alone where we have been set free! It is in Christ alone where we are shaped into the Body of Christ, into a beloved community where all people are welcome and set free to receive the mercy and love of God. Now that sounds like Good News! Thanks be to God! Amen.