Sunday, August 30, 2015

Sermon; 14 Pentecost/Proper 17B; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

After a five week detour through John and a steady diet of the bread of life, we are once again back in Mark.  So the first thing I want to do is to get us reacquainted with this gospel.  I won't ask if you remember our last gospel lesson from Mark, because that would be mean.  But I will take some time and remind you of where we are.

The last time we heard from Mark, Jesus had gone to his hometown but was unable to perform any deeds of power there.  Then he sent out the disciples on a mission of preaching and healing.  Upon their return, Jesus took them on a mini-retreat to a deserted place for debriefing.  They didn't get much chance to do that as the crowds tracked them down and Jesus then spent the rest of the day teaching them.  This led to Mark's version of the feeding of the five thousand.

Following that, Jesus and the disciples crossed over to the other side of the sea to the territory of Gennesaret where Jesus healed the sick in the market places.  Those healings in the marketplaces were significant, I said, because Jesus was giving notice that the kingdom of God did not see people as part of a transaction but as valuable people of God simply by their existence.

That brings us to today.  The Pharisees make their way to the region and marketplaces of Gennesaret to look for ways to get Jesus in trouble.  They notice that some of his disciples didn't wash their hands before eating.  This act had nothing to do with cleanliness and everything to do with ensuring one was ritually clean.  In basic terms, it was a way to make sure you didn't have cooties; because over time, a tradition built up that one could by defiled by touching unclean things.  So you would wash your hands to purify yourself ahead of time.

Episcopal theologian Elizabeth Webb pointed out something I want to focus on.  Mark says that the Pharisees do not eat anything from the market place unless they wash it.  Again, this washing had less to do with hygiene and everything to do with ritual purity.

Elizabeth Webb points out that this phrase can also be read as, “When they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they purify themselves.”  This interpretation puts a different spin on the story.

In the first, people wash things from the market in order to ensure they didn't come into contact with ritually impure items.  In the second, people purify themselves after coming into contact with impure things.

The problem generated by both interpretations is addressed by Jesus.  He tells the Pharisees that they have become so concerned with purity rituals and issues that, yes, they may be clean and pure on the outside, but they are rotten on the inside.  They look good to those around them, but they are not all that pure where God is concerned.  By focusing on outward purity, by focusing on traditions people have elevated as law, they in fact miss what is really important to God – to do justice, to love kindness, to walk humbly before God.

The Pharisees had focused their attention on outward appearances while behaving in ways that brought shame and dishonor to God.  They were so focused on purity that they subordinated, or ignored, the ethics and morality of God.  A religion that emphasizes piety and purity over ethics and morality is what Jesus was attacking, and it is one in which I want no part.

It's easy to attack Pharisees from two thousand years away.  Sitting where we are with the hindsight we have, they are an easy target.  And speaking of target, it's not just the Pharisees of Jesus' day who act this way.

A few weeks ago, Target stores announced they would no longer label their toy and bedding sections for boys and girls, but just as “toys and bedding.”  Immediately after this announcement, Franklin Graham called for a boycott of the store by all Christians because the stores were going against divinely ordained gender assignments of God.

The hue and cry that followed from “traditional” Christians covered everything from Target going against the will of God to thinking that if boys and girls didn't know what toys and bedding were for boys or girls, they might get confused and turn gay or transgendered.  Comments against Target included:
This is covering up the fact that they are atheists.
Boys and girls are different – stop trying to push your agenda on the rest of the country.
Target management must not have had mommys or daddys.
Just another part of the feminist plan to neuter our boys.
I know a little girl who refuses to play dress up – she's going to have a rough time finding a husband.

Aside from the issue that these and all other outraged Christians think their children are going to be contaminated and confused because a store doesn't tell them what toys they should play with and and what kind of sheets they should be sleeping on, the real issue for these people is that Target doesn't follow the traditions of their elders in specifying gender labels for toys and sheets.

These people are doing exactly what the Pharisees of Jesus' day did – when they come from the marketplaces they feel the need to purify themselves because they might have been contaminated.

But here's the thing:  nothing from the outside can defile you.  You, nor your children, will become defiled or contract cooties by shopping for toys or bedding in non-gendered aisles.

What will defile you, though, is that which comes from within you.  The effort people have made to be outraged over this, and their willingness to spout off all kinds of hateful comments are what is defiling.  None of those comments or attitudes have anything to do with worshiping God, doing justice, loving kindness, walking humbly or respecting the dignity of every human being.  It is those comments and attitudes that are defiling because they are based not only in hate, but they are based on the belief that ritual purity trumps the law of God.

The focus on ritual purity allows one to declare others impure.  It allows one to develop a sense that you are better than others because you follow the traditions of your elders.  It allows one to draw lines between who is in and who is out.  And if we can clearly delineate who is pure and who is impure, then we can more adamantly defend ourselves and demonize others.

This is what Jesus is attacking – the notion that piety and purity are what God is looking for.  If we focus on that, then we might be more apt to spew defiling comments upon others.  If, however, we focus on the ethics and morality of God – justice, mercy, kindness, love – then there is no way we can be defiled before God.



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