PENTECOST 14 Proper 17 Year B
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9; Psalm 15; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Christ Episcopal Church
Sunday August 30, 2015
Father Samuel Torvend
Perhaps you have heard the more extreme messages in this political season: Mexican refugees are called rapists and drug dealers (Donald Trump); gays and lesbians are charged with making a frontal assault on the institution of marriage (Jeb Busch); those who suffer impoverishment are accused of sucking the nation dry (Ron Paul); the wealthy, say some, have “screwed up brains” and “profound psychiatric problems” (Bernie Sanders); others call their political rivals “domestic abusers” (Barbara Boxer). It is not the most charitable and generous of processes in this country.
You and I might reflect on these comments and chalk them up to the hyperbole that ensues in every election cycle – except for this: events of the last year and longer have made it clear that our national experiment as a melting pot or a colorful quilt – take your pick – has been plagued by increasing division along racial, ethnic, economic, gender, and religious lines. At times it is little different in the church. Individuals and entire parishes left the Episcopal Church when the Church began to ordain persons of color and then women to public ministry; when the Church revised the Prayer Book; when the Church welcomed gays and lesbians into full participation in its life and ministry. Such actions were and are perceived by some as overthrowing centuries of conventional practice.
It was little different in the world of Jesus. The vast majority of Palestinian Jews were unsettled by the Roman military occupation of their land and lives: all those “pagan” soldiers a foreign body that did not belong in the land given them by God. Yet there was a small number of aristocratic Israelites who collaborated with the Romans and a small number of insurgents who violently opposed them. No love lost between those two groups. And there were the Pharisees, a lay reform movement who, in a time of foreign occupation and cultural anxiety, attempted to strengthen Jewish identity and claimed that there was only one who ruled Israel, that one being the God of Israel, not the Roman emperor. Through vigorous adherence to the laws of the Bible by all the people, the Pharisees intended to create a bulwark against the coercion and violence that suffused life in Roman Palestine. For what they saw in Rome appeared terribly wrong as if this foreign and unwelcome presence were a filthy stain in the fabric of life.
And thus the language of “clean” and “unclean,” of “pure” and “impure” was invoked. While rooted in a physical experience (“Your hands are dirty; go wash them”), these terms were used to describe people’s attitudes, their practices, and their situation in life. “Your thoughts are impure.” “Don’t stain your reputation.” “She comes from a pure blood family.” In that world, then, the one who touched a dead body, who menstruated, masturbated, did not or could not worship, who contracted a skin condition, ate the wrong kind of food, or had to work on the Sabbath was considered unclean and impure. It was a way of separating the sacred from the profane, the holy from the unholy. But as you may well know, the best intentions can produce unintended and disastrous effects. Indeed, the laudable desire to strengthen a people in their common identity could, ironically, serve as the very means to separate them from each other.
“Jesus: why do your disciples eat with defiled, unclean hands?” The question, asked in public, is a ploy to trap Jesus, and to embarrass him publicly with the implication that he and his followers are aligned with all that is impure and unholy. And yet he’s no dummy. He quickly responds, quoting one of the prophets who calls out hypocrites who say one thing but do something else. “Your concerned about following the laws of purity, of separating people into ‘clean’ and ‘unclean,’ insiders and outsiders.” You run the terrible risk of transforming your prejudice into something holy, “teaching a human precept” as if it were the will of God. You run the terrible risk of clinging to the prejudice and stereotypes with which you were raised.
“What is it that really defiles a person?” he asks. Is it not those attitudes and actions that harm others, that diminish the flourishing of life which is God’s desire for all that God has brought into existence? You are concerned about clean hands when you should be spending your time and energy on cultivating the values and practices that serve your neighbor’s welfare and well being: not theft but the sharing of your treasure; not greediness for more but generosity in the presence of real human need; not defaming someone with slander but honoring their God-given dignity; not using deceitful means to win or gain anything, but speaking one’s truth in love, in love.
But what I find most interesting in this exchange is that which remains unspoken but is seen in the company Jesus keeps. For he freely and willingly associates with anyone and everyone who is considered unclean, impure, not good enough, not worthy enough, outside, insufficiently respectable by someone else, by the self-appointed keepers of purity codes wherever and whenever they appear, in the 1st c. and in the 21st c. He keeps company with – a wealthy tax man and peasant laborers; a prostitute who washes his feet and a woman of the despised ethnic group called the Samaritans; a Roman centurion and a Rome-hating insurgent; he purposefully touches the dead, the diseased, the mentally unstable, the glutton, the alcoholic, and the adulterer in order to say: I am with you and if I am with you, the love and grace of God are with you. Oh, yes: you may well need to be healed, put down your weapon whose only purpose is to kill or maim, give back your ill-gotten gains, share your food with the hungry, stop abusing yourself or your relations through drink, or find a life-giving occupation -- for with this one there is always the chance, indeed the call for the loving, the loving amendment of life.
While you and I and just about anyone in this world may be tempted to draw a line that separates us from those “others” whoever they are, we will always find Jesus standing on the other side of that line we are tempted to draw in our minds and in our relationships. We will always find him present with those who are dismissed, marginalized, or different. We will never hear this in a political campaign but let us say it here: he is with the Mexican refugee, the Syrian refugee, with the young black man walking down the street wondering if he will be harassed or shot, with the gay or lesbian citizen who seeks companionship in the form of marriage, with those increasing numbers in our nation who suffer impoverishment and hunger, with the wealthy, and with political rivals. And with you and me, dear brothers and sisters, in our mortal and fallible lives. After all, does he not give his very self, his Body and Blood, to me, a sinner of his own redeeming, and to each and every one of you? For at his font and at his altar there is no express line for the privileged, no wall of separation, no border guard. There is only this: a fierce energy that may yet transform you and me and this battered world with love.