Sunday, August 30, 2009

Pentecost 13 (proper 17), Year B, Sunday August 30, 2009

Song Solomon 2:8-13; Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Preached by The Rev. Ellen Francis, OSH

A few of my Jewish friends still keep the traditional kosher dietary laws. One evening, one of my most strictly observant friends joined a group of us at someone’s house for dinner. She brought her own food and utensils, and everything was fine, until we got to desert. There was a lovely cake that someone had brought, and she declared that it was “parve”, so she could have some, but we didn’t have a kosher knife, or a kosher plate, or a kosher fork. We finally coped with the situation by using a napkin and breaking off a piece for her, and she munched her dessert directly from the napkin. Not an elegant solution, but it worked!

There were special accommodations that we needed to make to include her in a way that was respectful of her tradition and beliefs, but still there was a feeling of separation because we couldn’t share our food as well as our fellowship. We realized that it would be complicated to continue to include her in social gatherings.

The purity laws of the ancient Hebrew people started with basic moral laws, such as the Ten Commandments, and gradually also included prudent practices for hygiene (washing hands before eating is always a good idea) and for public health (better not to eat pork if it might carry disease). As these laws evolved and became more firmly established in the Jewish tradition, they began to foster intentional separation between the Jews and all others.

Eventually, the purity laws also separated Jew from Jew. The Pharisees and the Jerusalem Temple authorities kept themselves as much as possible in a state of ritual purity so that they could at any time offer prayers and sacrifices. This was something of a luxury, since the common people would often become ritually impure just in the course of their daily lives.

Jesus had a very different experience of God from the religious authorities and the Pharisees. The Pharisees and religious elite believed that they had a special vocation and position at the Temple in Jerusalem. They believed that they held the key to holiness for all others, and that they were the closest to God.

Jesus had a very different experience of God. In his heart, he knew that he was close to God, even though he was not from a priestly family or a Pharisee. He felt blessed by God even though he was from a small, poor town far from Jerusalem and even though he grew up in a carpenter’s home. It may have been a shock to him, on his first visit to the temple as a child of about 12, to discover that the religious elite held themselves above the common people. He may been repelled by the elitism of the ritual sacrifice. His father, Joseph, would have purchased an animal for sacrifice, but would not have been able to offer the sacrifice himself and perhaps not even put his hand on the animal as a sign that it was his own offering to God.

Jesus had a more open and inclusive experience of God. Jesus felt absolutely convinced that a close and intimate connection to God was possible for all, especially the poor and weak and sick and the marginalized. For Jesus, any barriers to the holiness and sanctity of God would have to be of human and not divine origin. For Jesus, touching a leper was a way of holiness and service rather than an act that would defile and separate him from God. As he preached of the blessedness of the poor, those who mourn, and the meek, so he also did compassionate acts of healing.

To Jesus, God was close enough for him to call him Father. God was close enough to call Jesus “My beloved Son”. To Jesus, God was so close and so loving, that Jesus wanted to teach other Jews that they too could find God in their hearts and in their prayer, and that they need not rely on the religious authorities or special laws of purity to be able to approach God. Jesus did not intend to abolish the law altogether, but to fulfill it in a way that made it possible for all Jews, and Samaritans, and even Gentiles to know God.

No wonder he kept running into difficulty with the religious elite. He was challenging their special privilege and status to the core. He was undermining their position of authority. He was turning their teachings and traditions inside out and upside down. By not doing the ritual washing before meals, Jesus and his followers were demonstrating that holiness is not dependent on external ritual actions, but rather is dependent on the state of the heart.

A priest I know in New York was in charge of a little church that had been founded as a mission many years ago by a much larger church. He was hired to do some innovative things, such as jazz Vespers, and to start outreach programs in the local community. As he started to put new programs and services in place, he found that the clergy at the founding church would show up and take over the services, they would nitpick his work, and be critical, and generally not let him get on with what he felt needed to be done. I met him about two years after he left that little church, and it took him a good half-hour to tell me all that had happened. Then he said that all that resentment and anger were like poison in his heart, and like a kind of defilement. He said that he was learning to let go of the negative thoughts, and learning to forgive.

We all may hold some such defiling thoughts and sometimes we may speak angry, spiteful, and revengeful words. Following in the way of Jesus, however, is the way of forgiveness, even as he was dying on the cross, saying: “Forgive them, Father.” As we are forgiven and as we receive the blessing of grace, so we can learn to fill our hearts with forgiveness and blessing, which will crowd out the thoughts and words that defile and poison our hearts.

When Moses first encountered God, God asked him to take off his shoes while standing on holy ground. Removing his shoes was a ritual act that honored God and led Moses to become aware of the presence of God. There are ritual movements and actions that we still make, such as kneeling at the altar, which draw our focus and attention to the holiness and sanctity of God. There are everyday acts of kindness and forgiveness that are also sacred acts. Such actions express and deepen the holiness of the moment, and help us to fill our hearts with peace. As we approach the holiest moment of each Eucharist, we can bend the knee of our hearts, and receive the grace of God, the forgiveness of God, and the love of God, which is offered to all who trust and believe. When our hearts are full of love and a desire for peacefulness, there is no room for anything else.

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