Tuesday, September 1, 2009

What Really Defiles

(A sermon on Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 preached at St. Matthew's Summer Chapel in Sugar Hill, NH)

I was a pretty good teenager, all things considered. Sure, I got into my share of trouble, but nothing really serious. I did well in school, and for the most part, I respected my parents’ wishes without creating an overwhelming amount of anxiety.

My relationship with my father was a bit strained. He was always looking to bring out “the best” in me, and prepare me for his world: the business world. So life, especially the dinner table, was a series of corrective comments: Sit up straight, elbows off the table, pronounce your words clearly, without food in your mouth, don’t smack your lips...yada yada yada.

For my part, I was a bit of a wise guy towards him. (If I weren’t in church, I’d tell you what I really was...) I was convinced that my father was more interested in creating a “successful me” than caring at all about who I was. So I was constantly looking for hypocrisy in his words, so I could casually, like only a teenager can, throw his words back in his face. I got pretty good at it to.

In preparing this sermon, it suddenly occurred to me that I missed out on a great source of material during my teenage years. Yes, I’m talking about the Bible! “Honor thy father and mother” was drilled into my head so well, that I figured the Bible must be stacked against the teenager. It never occurred to me that Jesus opposed authority on such a regular basis. In fact, you could say that Jesus was the ultimate expert at tweaking the nose of the rule following crowd: constantly telling them that they were missing the point, or being hypocritical. Alas: if I had only listened more careful on Sunday mornings!!!

Today, we have a very clear passage where the “rule followers” are wrong. The Pharisees and some scribes come and point out that Jesus’ disciples are eating with defiled hands. To be clear, this is not about hygiene (although the purity law may have been originally designed for just that.) Their gripe was about a religious tradition of washing: a ritual established from earlier generations that the disciples did not follow (at least, on this occasion).

Jesus bashes these Pharisees, quoting scripture, Isaiah, to say that these guys are hypocrites...abandoning the commandment of God to hold human traditions.

Jesus then gathers everyone around and tells them that nothing from outside the person can defile them (ie: make them unclean). Instead, it is what comes from with the human heart itself that defiles them. It appears that the case is closed: religious customs and practices mean very little, it is one’s heart that matters.

I would have loved to toss that one back at my dad as a teen...

But before we shut the door on this Gospel, we must get to the heart of the matter. What is really being said about religious custom, and what defiles a person?

We must remember that Jesus turns the tables on the Pharisees as an insider: as a faithful, religious Jew. He does not condemn the ritual practice itself, or Judaic leaders as a whole. There is nothing wrong with ritual washing. Douglass Hare points out that the verb translated “defile” in the NRSV Bible throughout this chapter is based on the Greek adjective koinos; its meaning is “to make common,” that is, ordinary. In discussion of Jewish purity it means “render unsanctified, make unholy,” and the corresponding Hebrew verb is translated “to become unclean.” One became unclean in many ways...it was not necessarily sinful action that made one unclean...all sort of things made you unclean, but one was to ritually remove the uncleanness before doing things that invoked God: and eating was certainly one of those things. (Douglass Hare in Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 4, Eds. David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor)

The ritual practice of washing was designed to invoke a sense of sacredness to the moment. When done in community, it is a practice that draws attention to the desire to move towards the holy. It is to remind us that we belong to God, and that God dwells among us, even in the everyday thing of something like eating.

There is a direct correlation here with our tradition of Sunday worship. All of our practices: not just the individual choices of standing and kneeling, or bowing and genuflecting, but every part of our ritual...from the opening prelude to the closing hymn, is designed to invoke the holy, and draw our attention to the sacredness of our common lives together.

Jesus rightly points out that these actions themselves are not the sacred. Doing x, y & z faithfully will not make us clean or unclean in God’s eyes, and getting upset and agitated as to whether or not others are observing and going about the ritual correctly is not only folly, but hypocrisy. Loye Ashton writes that religious hypocrisy is particularly destructive, for it is a denial of our authentic self in favor of the fabricated persona that we wish to be...distorting the rituals that were designed to invoke the holy into idols. (Loye Ashton in Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 4, Eds. David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor)

Jesus says that it’s what comes from within our heart that defiles a person. What makes us common, ordinary, or unclean is acting on the darkness found in the depths of our being. The implication is that the Pharisees raise an objection to Jesus’ disciples not because they are genuinely concerned about the actions of the disciples, but out of jealousy towards those following Jesus...or perhaps because of their own insecurities...or perhaps because of guilt because they are hiding something, or benefiting from a system that lifts up some while keeping others down...or over worry about what it means to their place in the power structure...or something else along these lines. The hearts of these Pharisees have turned away from God and the well-being about their neighbors.

The good news here is that the same human heart that defiles us is also capable of renewing and enriching us. God is concerned about our hearts, and desires nothing but the very best of who we are. When we turn our hearts to God, we additionally love our neighbors and ourselves. We are invited to explore what it would mean to live faithfully from the goodness that is also found in the human heart. Dawn Wilhelm asks: “What kinds of ritual activities or practices might help us develop meaningful relationship with God and our neighbors? How do practices of Sabbath keeping, charitable giving, public worship, private prayer, service work, hospitality, and forgiveness deepen our sense of God’s presence and power among us?” (Dawn Wilhelm in Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 4, Eds. David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor)

How can we treat each other with gentleness and patience? How can we be good stewards of the earth? How can we raise the standard of living of the poor? How can we care for the sick and the lonely? And how can we promote justice and peace without resorting to violence?

Jesus’ words this morning are deceptively difficult and challenging for us individually and as a church. Within them, however, lies the hope of renewing our attitudes and actions so that we might reflect God’s loving intentions for humanity, and the whole world.

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