Proper 17, Year B
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
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.
We Christians love to criticize the poor Pharisees. They are the law-bound “bad guys” of the Gospels, the foils for Jesus’ clever repartee, the Jewish leaders whom the evangelists portray as driving our Lord to his death on the cross. In today’s Gospel, we watch the Pharisees go after Jesus based on their belief that their ritual actions can set them apart from the chaos and sinfulness of the world. They believe that they can find a place of peace and purity by following the teaching of God in all of its most intricate detail.
How we love to watch them squirm under Jesus’ keen eye and sharp tongue. We Christians know that it’s God’s grace that saves us, right? We know that God loves us and that Jesus died to make us holy and free. We’re not bound to the Law like they are. Or so we like to think.
Come to think of it, though, we Episcopalians sure do like our rituals. Try to imagine for a moment the church tradition that you hold most dear to your heart. Now, imagine that Jesus is blatantly ignoring it, saying that it doesn’t really matter in God’s eyes. Say his disciples are singing annoying praise songs instead of your favorite Episcopal hymns--or vice versa. Say the disciples are up at the altar mangling parts of the Eucharistic prayer, without Jesus saying a word. Say they’re leaving out the Confession of Sin, or forgetting to ring the Sanctus bells, or serving communion to non-Christians, or calling God “She,” or using grape juice in the chalice. Maybe they’re even dumping the leftover Host in the garbage can, heaven forbid! Whatever would bother you the most, big or small, pretend that is what Jesus is letting his disciples do in your church. Wouldn’t you want to confront him?
“Hey Jesus, why don’t you and your disciples follow our Episcopal traditions? You’re taking all of the sense of God’s holy presence out of worship for me! Go hang out with the Baptists or the Catholics if you want to do things differently! But don’t mess with my relationship with God.”
I think that we can hug our holiness just as tightly to our chests as do those Pharisees. Maybe we have more in common with them than we think?
Sometimes, can’t even integral Christian practices like prayer become ways that we try to control God and assure our own salvation? I have a friend who grew up being forced to join in a long family grace every night before supper, even when his family was out eating at a restaurant. All four children would have to hold hands and bow their heads, and their father would sternly pray a rote blessing in his loud pastor voice over the food, while at neighboring tables, heads would turn and other diners would roll their eyes. This pastor’s children felt that they were putting on a show, rather than offering sincere thanks to God. As adults, all of them now refuse to pray at the table. Now, I’m a firm believer in the practice of daily prayer, and in the importance of giving thanks as a family at mealtime for the blessings of our lives, but sometimes the form can overshadow the content. Sometimes the outward piety can throw a deadly damper over what the heart can feel.
And then there’s the Jerry Springer effect! Just flip TV channels, night or day, and you will be greeted by dozens, if not hundreds, of reality TV shows that portray the worst of human behavior. There are the shows where the incredibly wealthy tromp with a sense of entitlement through their dissolute lives. There are shows where ignorance and helplessness are held in derision for laughs. You can’t watch Jerry Springer, or Dr. Phil, or The Bachelor, or The Duggars, or Housewives of New Jersey, without saying to yourself, “Those folks are ridiculous. Maybe I’m not so bad after all. Maybe my problems aren’t so bad, either. Compared to those folks, I’m pure as the driven snow. The search for purity can be found in other places than in ritual hand washing.
The word, “pharisee” is from the root verb, “to separate.” The Pharisees, the “separate ones,” strove to improve their relationship with God by holding themselves apart from regular believers, by going above and beyond everyone else in their obedience to God’s commands. When Jesus tells them that product of their rituals ends up in the toilet, and that their impurity comes from the inborn corruption of their hearts, don’t you think that he might say the same to us? When we try to shore up our own sense of worth by setting ourselves apart from our fellow human beings, Jesus directs us back into the chaos of our own souls. If you think that you will find favor in God’s eyes by comparing yourself favorably to your hapless neighbor or to the latest selfish reality TV star, warns Jesus, then you are fooling yourself. Look first to the evil that is in your own heart.
Back in 2003 when there was so much turmoil in the Episcopal Church over the election of Bishop Gene Robinson, I had a vision. I stretched out one Sunday afternoon on the sofa, exhausted by the anger and tension that I felt in church that day, and I saw in my mind’s eye a long, winding staircase, descending down as far as I could see. The stairs were packed with people, all treading fearfully and gingerly down the steps. We were all so closely packed together that we were terribly afraid of tripping and falling. With rigid postures, contorted features, hands grasping at invisible railings, we pushed our unwilling feet downward to a safe landing that no one could see or even imagine. Everyone was frowning, eyeing the others and waiting for someone to fall, waiting to point an accusing finger at anyone who might slip on the steps. We desperately wanted to give a name to our gloom, to be able to crow, “See, I am right to be afraid!” as someone else fell off into the darkness. I saw Adam and Eve on the staircase, too, fleeing Eden, their hastily-assembled animal-skin robes flapping against their bare ankles, their sin nipping at their heels. They were afraid. I saw ancient sailors on a wooden boat, gripping the mast and fighting the downward slope of the deck, convinced that they were arriving at the point on the map where the flat world breaks off into a dark void. Their legs shook with exhaustion and terror.
Today’s Gospel, like my vision, seems a bit grim. It isn’t comfortable to look down into the darkness within our hearts. But Jesus is merely trying to push us into right relationship with God and with our neighbor, not to condemn us to darkness. What I came to realize about my vision is that the staircase never ends. It turns in a circle, a spiraling strand, both rising and falling like the waves of an ocean, around the heart of a merciful God. Our God is the same God of whom the Psalmist writes: “Lord, you have searched me out and known me; you know my sitting down and my rising up … you are acquainted with all my ways.” Our God is the same God who loves us, darkness and all. The same God who sent his only Son into our lives so that he could know them even more intimately.
Barbara Brown Taylor, in her sermon on this text, explains that even Mother Theresa, that paragon of selfless love and virtue, once replied that she engages in her work of love because she knows that there is a Hitler inside her heart. “Does that shock you? [writes Taylor] It did not shock Jesus. He knows the full potential of our hearts for good and evil. He just wishes we knew it too.”
Jesus can see through the games that we play with ourselves, just as he sees through the religious games of the Pharisees. Don’t flinch from his piercing, yet loving gaze. The answer never lies in separation. Pope Francis has declared Tuesday, September 1 as “World Day of Prayer for Creation.” I would like to end my sermon with a prayer for the earth, written by the Pope. It is a call for an end to the separation that we impose upon ourselves.
“All powerful God, you are present in the whole universe and in the smallest of your creatures. You embrace with your tenderness all that exists. Pour out upon us the power of your love, that we may protect life and beauty. Fill us with peace, that we may live as brothers and sisters harming no one … Teach us to discover the worth of each thing, to be filled with awe and contemplation, to recognize that we are profoundly united with every creature as we journey towards your infinite light. We thank you for being with us each day. Encourage us, we pray, in our struggle for justice, love and peace.” Amen.