Boundary Crossings, part I
Speaker: The Rev'd Jim Quigley
Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23
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.’
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.’
The Collect of the Day:
Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.
Boundary Crossings, part I.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
A couple of years ago I came across an article written in 1990 by David Steindl-Rast called The Mystical Core of Organized Religion. It’s a brief and brilliant essay which argues that at the heart of all religions in the world there lies a core mystical experience of profound truth, goodness, and beauty. We want to hold on to and preserve these experiences (take pictures of beautiful sunsets), but our mind refracts. Over time we start to interpret the truth and make commitments to goodness. Over still more time, and as our intellect, our will and our emotions inevitably process and try to preserve the mystical, the basic elements of religion are thus born as truth becomes doctrine, goodness becomes ethics and beauty becomes ritual. Eventually, and under the influence of historical developments and circumstances, our doctrines morph into dogmatism, our ethics devolve into legalism and our rituals turn into ritualism. We imagine less and obey more - we start to color inside the lines; we think and act only according to the rules that have been handed down to us.
I should tell you now that I’m experiencing something like a conundrum this morning because the passage that we have just heard from chapter seven in The Gospel According to Mark is part one of a two-part story that will continue next Sunday and in thinking about my colleague preaching next week I don’t want to over-reach or over-preach! The story begins when Jesus and his disciples are joined by a group of Pharisees and scribes. A debate between Jesus and the Pharisees quickly ensues after the Pharisees observe that some of Jesus’ followers don’t practice personal hygiene and eat without washing their hands. According to the Pharisees, Jesus’ disciples are not following the tradition of the elders and by eating with defiled hands they are digesting food that will result in their ritual impurity. We should note here that it is only some of Jesus’ followers who are not following the tradition of the elders and perhaps more important, the accusation of defilement is leveled at Jesus’ followers, not at Jesus himself. Not yet anyway. Those accusations will come later, of course, but it’s a curious detail that allows us to conclude that what is happening here is only the beginning of a process that will lead to questions about Jesus’ own understanding about what is holy, sacred, or profane. About what is clean or unclean, and ultimately about who is holy and who or what is not. Unholy and therefore undeserving, we might say. You’ll have to tune in next week for part two of this story, which gets even meatier, and when the words Jesus will utter will sound more righteous than these Pharisee’s, leaving us also to wonder about his priorities or just what kind of God Jesus believed in. Spoiler alert here - thanks to a woman, he gets it!
So, in trying to stay in the lane I’ve been given today, Jesus responds to the accusation by the Pharisees that his followers are not adhering to Israel’s purity regulations - which have come via the Pharisees interpretation of divine law - with a keen sense of irony. Against the accusation that his followers are defiling themselves by eating, He quotes from the book of Isaiah, the prophet who denounced the Israelites for honoring God with their lips and not with their lives, in effect worshipping Yahweh in vain and teaching human precepts as doctrine while abandoning the commandments of God. A faithful rendering of Jesus’ response to the accusation by the Pharisees might go something like this: “You do know that it’s not so much what goes into a person that defiles them as much as what comes out, right?” More, Jesus deflects the Pharisees charge about his followers by contrasting their keyword “tradition” with the truer call to obey the commandments of God, not religious tradition. The commandments being the core.
To be sure, and as the New Testament makes abundantly clear, neither Jesus nor his followers’ step blithely across traditional boundaries of their religious thought and practice, and neither should we. In the Book of Acts, Peter, who is criticized and challenged by his companions in faith for eating with the uncircumcised, explains that his own choice to violate tradition came because of a rooftop vision in Joppa… If you know the story, that’s when Peter saw a sheet being lowered from the heavens and on the sheet were four-footed animals and beasts and reptiles and heard a command from God to get up, kill and eat. “By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean. The voice said to him again, a second time, ‘What God has made clean, you mut not call profane.’” All of this resulted in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on a Roman household and that’s when Peter’s friends exclaim, “What, you ate with the Romans!!?” Because of that rooftop vision, for Peter, and by divine command, Jews were no longer clearly marked off from Gentiles, something that threatened the very identity of the circumcised as being the chosen people of God - THE HOLY ONES. It’s hard for us to understand the magnitude of the revelation Peter experienced in first-century Palestine, and even harder to understand how what sounds like common sense can be so very threatening to others (the faithful?). God loves them, too? Perhaps it’s helpful here to remember the not-so-distant past when according to our own tradition, sexual identity prevented a whole host of people from being ordained as ministers or pastors in our church, a reality that is alive and well in many Protestant denominations. Neither the Roman or the Orthodox churches have come to accept that sexuality and gender are irrelevant to a call to proclaim the Gospel - truth, beauty and goodness.
This, I think, is what this and next week’s readings from the Gospel of Mark compel us to consider and think about. Mind you, I have no particulars in my own mind here, and I am not suggesting that we become, as many like to say these days, spiritual and not religious. I honestly don’t believe that there is such a thing. And while we are in a church, let’s not limit our consideration to St. Alban’s or the Episcopal Church but to all our venerable institutions, our schools, and our homes. What are the traditions we must we begin to leave behind? Where, or how, has our own faith, yours, or mine, become hide-bound, self-righteous, unwilling, or resistant to change, clinging to tradition or convention? Whose rules do we blindly follow and where are we drawing our own lines when it comes to our compassionate response to the needs of the world? When, where and how might our pragmatic sense of self-preservation outweigh the core call to holiness?
In the essay by Steindl-Rast, the hope, or the faith, is that our hearts can purify, and that the heart of all our religions might become the religion of all our hearts. Perhaps we shall conclude this morning with the prayer we prayed in this service where we began. Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.