Sermon for Sunday, September 2, 2018 | Pentecost 15
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
I wonder if you caught this question asked of Jesus: “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders?” It’s a question that could slip by quickly and yet we need to dwell on it for a moment or two as it is a clue to the larger context in which this story takes place. And what we need to consider is the phrase, “the tradition of the elders.” That phrase refers to what scholars call a Great Tradition that was sustained by religiously devout urban dwellers at the time of Jesus. The Great Tradition was a body of oral and written customs created by religious leaders – by human tradition, says Mark – religious leaders, Pharisees, committed to maintaining the purity of Jewish religious practice in the face of Roman imperial occupation and Roman religion. I wonder if you recognize the conflict inherent in this situation: first, there were the Roman occupiers who worshipped the emperor as if he were a god – something a faithful Israelite could never do; second, there were those committed to keeping a “pure” religious practice as a way of sustaining faith in the God of Israel; and third, there were the disciples of Jesus who clearly did not abide by the customs of the Great Tradition: who failed to wash their hands and, as we know elsewhere in Mark, plucked grain on the Sabbath – a day devoted to no work, no plucking of grain. And to add another dimension to this conflict story, we hear Jesus call his critics a group of hypocrites – a clear insult. But wait: there’s more! He goes on to teach that nothing you eat can defile you, make you unclean in the eyes of God – even though some foods were strictly forbidden to people like Jesus who were of Jewish descent.
Now, you might be thinking, and rightfully so, Why are we discussing apparently arcane details in ancient religious practice? After all, we’re Christian and can eat anything we darn well please. We don’t have approved and forbidden foods. And most, if not all of us of us, have been taught to wash our hands before eating. And given that Episcopalians are generally polite, we wouldn’t dream of calling anyone a hypocrite – well, at least to their face. What, then, does Jesus say at the end of this story? “It is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come … and all these evil things defile a person.” And so I wonder: Is Jesus suggesting that human beings, that you and I, can become so focused on other people’s behavior that we fail to look within, fail to consider the intentions of our hearts that just might diminish the flourishing of life in others? For we must know that our words and actions as well as our silence have a social effect. Well, that might be one dimension of his message and could be perceived as a lesson in good human relations. But is anyone ever arrested, tried, tortured, and executed for offering lessons in healthy relationships? I don’t think so.
Could it, then, be this: that Jesus is pointing to the practice – so alive in his culture and so deeply alive in our own – of the willful separation of people into binary categories – of friendly and unfriendly, of like-minded and different-minded, of religious and religion averse, of respectable and disrespectful, of morally “clean” and “unclean,” of insider and outsider? For we must know that avarice – the addiction to wealth – and pride – the notion that I or my group is somehow superior to other human beings – both evil intentions, says Jesus, can and will tear apart the fabric of a family, a community, or a nation. And when these categories that separate people are normalized in a society, the one who calls them into question will be meet with fierce opposition. Here, then, is Jesus who allies himself with those who are perceived to be religiously averse, the disreputable ones, outsiders and “unclean” – what, in the last election campaign, Donald Trump called “scum” and Hillary Clinton derided as “deplorables.” What does Jesus teach with his words and actions? That God is with those who are shunned by the powerful, the seemingly religious, and the proud insiders who somehow never grasped the first and significant claim of our holy book: that all people – not just one’s like-minded friends or people who look or act like you or me – are created in the image of God and thus deserving of your respect and mine. To claim that God is with those perceived as deplorable and scum and to publicly criticize those who think it normal to live in a society marked by such terrible divisions – well, that alliance and that critique would certainly place you on someone’s list of suspicious characters, would get you in trouble.
And so I wonder if you have ever experienced or experience now being on the outside of what is said to be “normal” and unchanging; if you know what it means to be perceived as different and thus disreputable; if you have felt the cruel strategy of discrimination because of gender or orientation, of race or ethnicity, of economic status or profession, of age or unemployment, of disability or depression, of being told that you just don’t measure up to what Americans love to call “your full potential”? If you experience or have experienced any or some or much of that penchant to divide, to be placed on the other side of someone else’s line of acceptability, then remember this: you are not alone – for the Lord Jesus, with his wounded hands and feet, is with you, his risen presence sustaining and supporting you. How do we know this to be so? There is no barrier to the altar table of his generosity, to the free giving of himself into your hands and mine; no questions asked to test any one’s “worthiness” or “holiness” or “acceptable measure of faith.” There is only this: the invitation offered to you and me to engage any voice or any force in our society that is willing to call any of God’s children deplorables or scum.
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 honors 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.” Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”