Immersed in a sea of sweetness

File:Hölzel-ChristusUndDieKananäerin.jpg

“A woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile…”

The message from last Sunday, September 9, 2018, based on the assigned Gospel reading. The other readings on Sunday were Isaiah 35:3-7a, Psalm 146, and James 2:1-17.

Mark 7:24-37: Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 28But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go–the demon has left your daughter.” 30So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

31Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

Grace to you and Peace, from God our Father and our Lord and savior, Jesus the Christ.

The texts for this morning are filled with a remarkable sweetness. The proclamation we heard from Isaiah to “strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees,” begins a few verses earlier with the words:

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
….the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus 2it shall blossom abundantly,
….and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
….the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord,
….the majesty of our God.

I suppose you can listen to the prophet this morning and hear only a backdrop for today’s Gospel. We read that Jesus opened the ears of a man who could not hear, so we look around and clip out a portion of the Old Testament that speaks about ears being opened. But the Old Testament isn’t just a setup for the Gospel. The story contained in the first three quarters of our Bibles doesn’t just set the stage for Jesus. It is, itself, the living word of God. It is full of the same divine voice we encounter in Jesus. It proclaims a God who fashions a good and beautiful world only to see it broken by humanity’s choices. It proclaims a God who remains faithful to the world, seeking to rescue and redeem it despite humanity’s persistent rebellion. It proclaims a God who again and again delivers from bondage and shows us the path of mercy and faithfulness. It proclaims a God who suffers the sorrows of the world and comes to it again and again with mercy and love. And, in words like those of the prophet this morning, it sings a profound song of salvation full of the sweetness of God’s redemptive work.

There is a challenge to us in the Gospel reading for today – because we are still talking about clean and unclean and the wretched way we treat one another – but that challenge is immersed in a sea of sweetness. And there is challenge for us in the second reading when James rebukes the community for giving special privilege and respect to the wealthy while treating the poor like the world always treats the poor. Such is not the “royal law”, James says, and asks that piercing question: What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works?” If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?”

Yet even this challenge is immersed in a sea of sweetness for it sees a community transformed from the way of the world we see around us to become a community that embodies the love of God. It sees a community that lives not in the world as it is, with all its bitter words and deeds, but with its feet planted in the world where the desert blooms and frail knees dance in joy, where every heart is healed, where all creation is radiant with grace and life.

Our texts are immersed in a sea of sweetness. Our psalm sings of a God – the living, active, power and presence and love at the heart of all existence – who “executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry,” who “sets the prisoners free,” and “opens the eyes of the blind,” who “lifts up those who are bowed down,” who “watches over the strangers,” who “upholds the orphan and the widow.”

This is no small thing we say. We are living in a world where there is great violence, intimidation and deceit, but our claim – the Biblical claim – is that the divine power at the center of all things, the heartbeat that courses through all existence, is life and healing, redemption and release. It is care for the vulnerable and deliverance of the oppressed. It is justice and compassion and fidelity and love. It is not greed and pride and selfishness that carries the world towards its destiny, but generosity, humility and the care of others.

It’s very easy to say that God loves us. The words have become almost trite in their familiarity. But think what these words mean! Ultimate reality is focused beyond itself. The heartbeat of the universe beats for others. The foundations of the universe are compassion and kindness. The power and presence at the beginning and end of time is not detached and mechanical, but passionate for others.

We say this so freely that God is love, but ponder what a profound declaration this is: the source of all life is turned outward; it looks beyond itself. This is a radical thought. The gods of the ancient world were great and fickle powers preoccupied with their own passions and desires. Zeus had children by his daughter, Persephone. The beautiful Leto catches the eye of Zeus and he gets her pregnant. His wife (and sister) Hera, enraged, tries to kill the twins to be born of that union. Zeus turns himself into a swan to seduce and impregnate the beautiful Leda on her wedding night to the King of Sparta (the child of that union is Helen of Troy).

Zeus appoints the mortal, Paris, to judge which of the goddesses is the most beautiful and Aphrodite bribes Paris with the promise of the most beautiful woman in the world. So Paris picks Aphrodite, enraging Athena and Hera. Of course, the most beautiful woman in the world is Helen of Troy. Paris kidnaps her as his prize and starts the Trojan War.

The stories are mythic and complex, but throughout the gods are petty and selfish. The God of the scriptures is neither petty nor vain but bends towards the world in love. The God of the scriptures suffers for the world. The God of the scriptures is the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.

The gods of the modern world are also great and fickle powers. Wealth and power can lift us up and, in a moment, turn on us and cast us down. They do not suffer. They do not show compassion. They do not love.

The God of the scriptures loves.

And the God of the scriptures does not stop loving his troubled world.

“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom.”  We are swimming in a sea of sweetness – if we will dare to see it, if we will dare to open ourselves to it, if we will have the courage to live it.

5Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
….whose hope is in the Lord their God,
6who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them;
….who keeps faith forever;
7who executes justice for the oppressed;
….who gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets the prisoners free;
….8the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
….the Lord loves the righteous.
9The Lord watches over the strangers;
….he upholds the orphan and the widow,
….but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
10The Lord will reign forever.

We are swimming in a sea of sweetness. And if we are swimming in a sea of sweetness, what does it mean for the way we live in a broken world? Do we yield to the world’s brokenness or walk in the way of sweetness? Do we embrace bitterness and revenge or compassion and grace?   Do we hide in the bushes of denial and deceit or answer the call to come forth into the divine presence? Do we turn and blame or stand and acknowledge? Do we hoard like the rich man building new barns or live with open hands? Is the woman of Tyre unclean or a fellow traveler in the sea of sweetness?

The ideas about clean and unclean that we spoke about last week continue in our Gospel this Sunday, only now it is not clean hands that are at stake – or the unclean Judeans among those who follow Jesus. Now it is about those outside the community of Israel: a woman of Tyre and a man in the region of the Decapolis. The woman is clearly identified as a Greek. An evil spirit holds her daughter, which the text names specifically as an “unclean” spirit.

Jesus has gone intentionally to the region of Tyre. It’s important we see this in the text. Jesus doesn’t just end up there; he chooses to go to the region of Tyre. From there Jesus goes to the region of Sidon, then to the region of the Decapolis. Tyre and Sidon are ancient Phoenician cities.   With the ten towns of the Decapolis they enjoy special privilege as free cities of the empire. Their allegiance to Greek culture and Roman rule is ancient and strong. They were ancient seaports and wealthy trading centers – and there was a long history with Israel. It was the King of Tyre who had the cedar and skills to build King David a palace and King Solomon a temple. It was a daughter of Sidon, Jezebel, who sought to kill the prophets of the Lord and make Baal the national god of Israel. She taught Ahab the ways of true power, arranging for the murder of Naboth when he refused to sell the king his vineyard. The prophet Ezekiel would name Tyre’s pride when he declares God’s coming judgment: “you have said, ‘I am a god; I sit in the seat of the gods, in the heart of the seas’, yet you are but a mortal, and no god.”

These are not the people who deserve God’s favors.

Nor are those in the region of the Decapolis. Mark’s community lives in the throes of the Roman armies marching against Jerusalem’s rebellion, when the cities of the Decapolis showed their allegiance to Rome by murdering their Judean residents or driving them from their midst.

But Jesus has gone to these places on purpose.

There are people bound there, bound by demons and disease. There is grace to be shown, healing to be done. It is to be expected that Jesus would not be left alone there, that people would come for help. There are wounded everywhere.

And so this woman, this foreigner, this outsider, this enemy, comes begging for deliverance for her daughter. And Jesus says what is likely to be in the heart of every one of his followers: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” God’s gifts belong to God’s people. They are for us, not for those people. Those people are unclean.

The Pharisaic interpretation of Israel’s law saw every outsider as unclean. It makes perfect sense, of course, because they do not have the rules that define a holy people. They do not keep the law. They do not possess the rites of purification. They eat unclean foods. They wear unclean fabrics. They walk unclean streets. Their houses are unclean. God owes these people nothing. We owe these people nothing.

“It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

And we should keep in mind that dogs are not kept as cute pets with nice collars and beds and inscribed bowls for their food. Dogs are mangy animals that roam the streets eating all manner of filth.

“It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

But the woman says simply, “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She insists that the gifts of God should come to all.

Are the followers of Jesus getting it? Do they understand that those we call dogs without thought or shame are also those for whom God cares? Do they understand there is faith to be found there, bold and daring faith? Do they understand that the gifts of God are for all people? Do they understand it is for the world that Christ has come? Do they understand that there are no limits to the mercy of God? Do they understand that all people are their sisters and brothers?

Probably not. But Jesus keeps trying. So now he is passing through Sidon and on to the Decapolis. And once again there is a person in need, a person in these cities whose evils are so fresh in the minds of Mark’s hearers. These cities whose allegiance to Rome is so fixed and sure. These cities filled with those who are unclean. One of these cities was built over a burial ground and distributed to retired Roman soldiers; everything in it is unclean. The possessed man who lived among the tombs was from one of these cities. That’s why there was a herd of pigs nearby into which his demons fled. These are not holy people. This is not holy land. But when Jesus comes, the people bring to Jesus a man in need. They bring to Jesus a man who can neither hear nor speak and Jesus is willing to touch and heal him.

Do the followers of Jesus yet understand? Do they see that we are the ones who cannot hear and whose speech is troubled?

Do they not understand that it is the work of God to open every ear and free every tongue – that our tongues can be used rightly in prayer and praise and care of neighbor rather than for hate and gossip and words that sting?

The crowd cries out in wonder that Jesus does all things well. He does all that is good. He does good to all. Even out here in the Decapolis. Even in Tyre and Sidon. Even in our own hearts.

The crowd cries out in wonder, for they see that we are surrounded in a sea of sweetness.

Amen

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© David K Bonde, 2018. All rights reserved.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:H%C3%B6lzel-ChristusUndDieKanan%C3%A4erin.jpg By Adolf Hölzel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

All

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Watching for the Morning of September 9, 2018

Year B

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

The ideas about clean and unclean continue in our Gospel this Sunday, only now it is not clean hands that are at stake – and the unclean Judeans among those who follow Jesus. Now it is about those outside the community of Israel: a woman of Tyre and a man in the region of the Decapolis. The woman is clearly identified as a Greek. An evil spirit holds her daughter – an “unclean” spirit. The man is unable to hear or speak; he cannot hear the word or speak God’s praise.

Jesus has gone intentionally to the region of Tyre. From there to the region of Sidon then to the region of the Decapolis. Tyre and Sidon are ancient Phoenician cities.   With the ten towns of the Decapolis they enjoy special privilege as free cities of the empire. Their allegiance to Greek culture and Roman rule is ancient and strong. Tyre and Sidon are ancient seaports and wealthy trading centers. It was the King of Tyre who had the cedar and skills to build King David a palace, and Solomon a temple. It was a daughter of Sidon, Jezebel, who sought to kill the prophets and make Baal the god of Israel. She taught Ahab the ways of true power, arranging for the murder of Naboth to gain his vineyard. Of Tyre the prophet Ezekiel would declare, you have said, ‘I am a god; I sit in the seat of the gods,” as he announces God’s coming judgment.

These are not the people who deserve God’s favors.

Nor are those in the region of the Decapolis. Mark’s community lives in the throes of the Roman armies marching against Jerusalem’s rebellion, when the cities of the Decapolis would show their allegiance to Rome by expelling or killing their Judean residents.

But Jesus has gone to these places on purpose. He has gone to these “unclean” people on purpose.

Our readings on Sunday will accent the theme of deliverance and healing. And that is what we find in the Gospel account. Isaiah will speak hope to the exiles declaring that “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped,” and “the tongue of the speechless sing for joy” as God leads them out from bondage. The psalmist will sing that, “The LORD sets the prisoners free,” and lifts up those who are bowed down.” But the anointing and prayer for healing that we might expect from James awaits another day. James will speak to our favoritism, the special treatment accorded to some (the wealthy) while marginalizing others. And this will bring us closer to the heart of the Gospel. For the narrative in Mark describes more than healing, it describes Jesus healing those outside the community of Israel. Jesus brings the gifts of God to those Israel regarded as unclean. Jesus even compares the woman of Tyre with the dogs of the street.

The gifts of God are for all. As we heard last Sunday, the things that render us unclean are not external things but what comes from the heart, the things we say and do that betray mercy and faithfulness. We will hear this again and again in the New Testament – especially in the book of Acts when God says to Peter, What God has made clean, you must not call unclean.” There are no ‘unclean’. The gifts of God are for all.

The Prayer for September 9, 2018

Father of all,
whose ears are open to the cries of every people:
drive out every power of evil,
and open every ear to hear and abide in your Word of life;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for September 9, 2018

First Reading: Isaiah 35:3-7a (appointed: 4-7a)
“Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.” – The prophet announces God’s impending deliverance of the nation from their exile in Babylon and their joyful journey home.

Psalmody: Psalm 146
“The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down…The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow.”
– The poet praises the LORD, a God who comes to the aid of those in need.

Second Reading: James 2:1-17
“My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?”
– The author challenges the community not to show favoritism towards the wealthy but to “fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

Gospel: Mark 7:24-37
“A woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin.” – Following his teaching about what does and doesn’t render a person “unclean”, Jesus travels in foreign territory and heals two who are “unclean” (outside the covenant of Israel): the daughter of a Syrophoenician and a man from the Gentile region of the Decapolis.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cristo_e_la_cananea_di_Alessandro_Allori_detail.jpg Alessandro Allori [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Dirt

File:Brooklyn Museum - The Pharisees and the Saduccees Come to Tempt Jesus (Les pharisiens et les saducéens viennent pour tenter Jésus) - James Tissot - overall.jpgThe message from last Sunday, September 2, 2018, based on the assigned Gospel reading:

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23: Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus, 2they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3(For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 5So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

‘This people honors me with their lips,
….but their hearts are far from me;
7in vain do they worship me,
….teaching human precepts as doctrines.’

8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

14Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”… 21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

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So we have come back to the Gospel of Mark for our appointed texts. I always like to keep track of the big picture, so I’ll remind you that there are assigned readings for each of the Sundays and festivals of the year. These are used by the majority of the mainline denominations with the purpose of creating a measure of unity across the churches and exposing us to the breadth of the Biblical witness.

The lectionary has a three-year cycle – one year in Matthew, one in Mark and one in Luke. Readings from John are scattered through all three years, mostly during Easter and festival days.

We have just finished five weeks on the 6th chapter of John that told the story of the feeding of the five thousand and talked about the meaning of that sign. Now we are back in Mark’s Gospel.

We left off in Mark’s Gospel right before the account of the feeding of the five thousand so that, instead of reading that story in Mark, we read it in John. The feeding of the five thousand is followed in both Gospels with Jesus walking upon the sea – and we touched on the meaning of that narrative a few weeks ago when we noted that Jesus walks on the sea he doesn’t walk on water. Walking on water is a suspension of the laws of physics. Walking on the sea is a demonstration that Jesus strides above every spiritual power on heaven and earth. The sea was thought to be governed by a god or spirit – and the narrative declares that Jesus is not subject to such spirits; they are subject to him.

You remember how Trump violated protocol when he was late to his meeting with the Queen of England, making her wait, then walked in front of her when they viewed the troops. It could have been nothing, but it gave the appearance that he was claiming to be more important than the queen. The story of Jesus walking upon the sea is like this. It proclaims that Jesus ranks above the spirits that govern the sea.

In Mark’s Gospel, these two stories of the feeding of the five thousand and walking upon the sea proclaim that Jesus is the one who stands above every other power with the authority to dispense the gifts of God. John, of course, sees something even more profound in that narrative. John sees that Jesus is the fulfillment of the story of Moses leading the people through the sea out from bondage into freedom. The bread that feeds the crowd is like the manna from heaven – though the true manna from the realm of God is Jesus himself. Jesus is the embodiment of the voice of God that Israel heard at Sinai. Jesus is also the sacrificial meal that the elders of Israel ate in God’s presence on Mount Sinai. Jesus death is the sacrifice that reconciles heaven and earth. And Jesus is the living word of God present in the bread and wine of communion to teach, heal and redeem us and all creation.

Mark doesn’t explore all of this in his telling of the story. He just tells the story and lets it proclaim Jesus’ authority to dispense to us and to the world all the gifts of God. Thus Mark ends his account with the people from the whole region bringing all who were sick to Jesus and all were healed. This is the setup for our reading this morning. Wherever Jesus goes, people bring to him all those who are sick and they are healed.

It is important for us to remember that what is being told to us here is not that Jesus has magic power over the biomechanics of disease, but that he dispenses the gifts of God. Secondly, the word we translate as ‘sick’ is actually the word ‘weak’. These are people who have lost their power. It can mean everything from those who have lost the strength of their legs or eyesight to those who have lost their courage and hope. It’s talking about those who have lost their place in their communities and their ability to assert their proper role.

This is like the word ‘poor’ in the scriptures, which isn’t a measure of economic wealth, but a measure of honor and place. So widows are described as ‘poor’ even if they have money, because they have lost their place in the community. We reflect this idea, too, when misfortune of any kind has happened and we say “that poor woman,” or “that poor man,” or “that poor child.”

People are bringing to Jesus those who are weak and vulnerable and dislocated. They are bringing those who have lost their power and their place. These are the people who live in fear or uncertainty. These are the people who live with pain. These are the people trodden down by the power of Rome. These are people who have lost their land or livelihood. And from Jesus there is healing; there is power. Through Jesus the face of God shines upon them. Through Jesus the life of God touches them. Through Jesus the power of the Spirit lights upon them. They are healed even from simply touching the fringe of his cloak.

The word we translate as ‘healed’ is actually the word ‘to save’. In Jesus they are saved. It doesn’t mean they get to go to heaven; it means their lives are made whole. Their life, their power, their place is restored. Salvation is food on your table and a roof over your head and respect in your community. Salvation is peace in your family and well-being in your home. Salvation is reconciliation with God and the face of God shining upon you. It is peace with God and one another. It is fidelity to God and one another.

And the word ‘to save’ is used in the imperfect tense. In Greek, the imperfect tense describes a continuous action, so being ‘saved’ is not a single event but an ongoing reality. It should be translated “they were being saved.” A new reality was at work in their lives. The reign of God had come to them.

All these people are brought to Jesus and the grace and power of God is restoring and transforming them. They are being filled with hope. They are receiving a future. They are being restored to their communities. Their lives are being made whole. But – and here’s the troubling and fearsome turn – the response of those in power is to challenge Jesus, declaring that he can’t be a holy man because some of his people don’t keep the tradition of the elders. In their eyes this can’t be the one who dispenses the gifts of God because some of his followers don’t follow the rules developed over the ages concerning purity.

It is important we recognize this about our narrative, today. This is not a story about tradition; it is a story about purity. And it is a profound debate about what lies at the heart of Biblical faith. What does God want from us? Does God want purity or justice?

I hope I can convey to you why this is such an earth shattering question – and it is at the very center of Jesus.

The question that is asked in our psalm today is:

1O Lord, who may abide in your tent?
….Who may dwell on your holy hill?

This is a question posed as people are entering into the holy precincts of the temple. You know that there are rules about how women have to be dressed when they go into the Vatican to see the fabulous art that is there. And at an amusement park there is a sign that you have to be this tall to ride the ride. What are the rules for entering into God’s presence in the temple courts?

The answer the psalmist gives is:

2Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right,
….and speak the truth from their heart;
3who do not slander with their tongue, and do no evil to their friends,
….nor take up a reproach against their neighbors…
who stand by their oath
….even to their hurt;
5who do not lend money at interest,
….and do not take a bribe against the innocent.

True purity is about our care for one another. Those who are acceptable in God’s presence are those who have shown care and faithfulness to others, who have followed God’s command to do justice and mercy.

The answer the Pharisees give is to take the purity rules in Leviticus and elevate them as the central focus of God’s law. Leviticus contains the command “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2), and the Pharisees read the law as the means to create a holy people. Jesus, however, sees the center of the law in the command – also from Leviticus – to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).  Jesus sees at the heart of scripture the command to do justice and mercy. He stands in line with the prophets like Micah who said so famously, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

The whole temple complex at the time of Jesus is about ritual purity. Have you touched a dead body? Have you touched blood? Have you eaten the right foods? Did you use the right plates? Did you pour water over your hands before eating? These rules might seem silly to us because they our not our rules, but this is a very important idea – and Biblical faith stands or falls on whether you choose purity or justice.

Every society has notions of what is clean and unclean, what is acceptable and not acceptable. These apply to foods, behaviors, and physical spaces. In the United States we don’t eat dogs or horses or cockroaches. The thought fills us with an almost instinctive aversion. It doesn’t have anything to do with actual cleanliness or uncleanliness, even though we imagine it does; it is a perception learned by growing up in a community.

This notion of ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ is related to things being in their proper place. Dirt in the garden is soil; it belongs there. But soil in the kitchen is dirt; it doesn’t belong there. When things are out of place, they render the place “dirty”. Soil on the kitchen floor makes the kitchen dirty. When things, places and people become “unclean” there are rituals to make them “clean” again. In the case of the kitchen, a sweeping and mopping. It’s not enough to get the dirt back into the yard; the kitchen has to be cleansed.

And the thing about purity is that it only works one way. Drop your toast on the floor and the “dirty” floor – however clean it might be – the “dirty” floor renders the toast unclean. The ‘clean’ toast doesn’t make the floor ‘clean’.

“Dirt” is contagious. That’s why it has to be kept in its place. And that’s why people who are “dirty” have to be kept in their place. What’s at stake in this conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees is not that some of Jesus’ followers are lax about the rules. Some of Jesus’ followers are “dirty”. They don’t belong. So Jesus must be “dirty” too.

The problem with purity rules is the way they intersect with the human community. There are some who cannot keep all these rules. And there are those from outside our community who have a different set of rules.

These rules divide the world between ‘us’ and ‘them’, between those we perceive as ‘clean’ and those who we perceive as ‘unclean’, those who are “good people” and those who are not “good people”; those who are “normal” and those who are not; those who are “acceptable” and those who are not; those who belong and those who don’t.

Trump rose to prominence claiming that Obama wasn’t one of us. He wasn’t born here. He wasn’t like us. He was out of his proper place. He wasn’t “clean”. And so the country had to be purged of everything he touched.

Ugly things happen when we apply these rules of purity to the human community – especially when we think God is on the side of purity. Then you are not just unacceptable in my eyes; you are unacceptable in God’s eyes.

People with money are better able to keep purity rules. They can wear the right clothes, maintain the right appearance, avoid the wrong side of the tracks. In the time of Jesus, people with money had better access to clean water – and had servants to carry the water – for use in the rituals of cleansing by pouring water over your hands before eating. The poor are not so fortunate. They don’t have the resources. And they get stuck with the jobs that are ritually unclean – like working in a tax booth as did Matthew, or tending the pigs for some Gentile master like the prodigal son. The poor tend to be perpetually unclean measured by the standards of privileged society. And some of these are the people who are following Jesus.

“What kind of person are you, Jesus, to allow such people in your group?” Jesus is being disgraced and discredited as a teacher because he doesn’t make everyone observe the rules of purity. Jesus isn’t a defender of the moral sensibilities of the privileged.

It is a much more profound challenge than we might imagine, because our own purity rules are largely unconscious, and those rules that belong to other societies often seem silly to us. Besides, as Americans, we tend to rebel against social rules and traditions and want to be free of them. But the challenge is serious – and Jesus’ response is an even more profound challenge.

Whether a person is ‘clean’ and acceptable in God’s sight is not determined by the rules of ritual purity, but by the things that come out of the ‘heart’ – our words and actions. We are rendered ‘unclean’ by our failure to care for the well-being of others. We are rendered ‘unclean’ by the falsehoods we hold, the lies we tell, the envy we harbor. We are rendered ‘unclean’ when we take advantage of others in the marketplace.   We are rendered ‘unclean’ by the callous things we say and the dirty looks we give to those who are different than us.

We are rendered ‘unclean’ when we fail to “do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with God.”

We are rendered ‘unclean’ not by our pots and absent rituals, but by our very real thoughts and deeds.

But here, before us, is the one who brings the gifts of heaven. Here, before us, is the one who comes to heal and make whole. Here, before us, is the one who comes to forgive and reconcile. Here, before us, is the one who feeds us with the true bread of life and grants us new birth as God’s children. Here, before us, is the one who welcomes us, ‘unclean’ as we may be, and summons us to follow God’s way of justice and mercy.

© David K Bonde, 2018, All rights reserved.

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Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Pharisees_and_the_Saduccees_Come_to_Tempt_Jesus_(Les_pharisiens_et_les_saduc%C3%A9ens_viennent_pour_tenter_J%C3%A9sus)_-_James_Tissot_-_overall.jpg James Tissot [No restrictions or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Scandal and praise

Watching for the Morning of September 6, 2015

Year B

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 18 / Lectionary 23

File:Ilyas Basim Khuri Bazzi Rahib - Jesus and the Canaanite Woman - Walters W59243A - Full Page.jpgThey have no right to the gifts of God. They are not deserving. They are not God’s people. And when the woman asks for healing, Jesus speaks what everyone is thinking: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But the woman will not be dissuaded: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

It is so hard for us to understand the grace of God, so difficult to accept the magnitude of God’s mercy. Jesus has come to be the savior of the world – the whole world, not just us and people like us, not just believers, not just Christians, not just the baptized or the born again or the born again and really living it. The world. People in burkas and tattoos and unwashed jeans and unwashed lives. He sends rain on the just and the unjust(righteous and unrighteous). “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice.’”

And Jesus is touching people, sick people, “unclean” people.

It is a visible illustration of the previous text where Jesus says that what makes a person unclean isn’t anything on the outside, but what comes from within: the way we treat others.

So the disciples might cheer when they hear Jesus speak harshly to the Gentile woman. But they do not understand the character of God – nor the scriptures like Sunday’s psalm that sings of God’s care of the vulnerable and poor, or the prophet who rejoices in God’s deliverance of exiles, or, for that matter, the reading from James that excoriates the Christian community for treating some people (elite members of society, people with money) differently than the peasant poor.

But the woman knows. And the man who can neither speak nor hear but feels Jesus’ hands upon him, he knows. And they join the poet’s song of praise.

And maybe, when we hear about Jesus opening ears, we can feel his hands opening ours.

The Prayer for September 6, 2015

Father of all,
whose ears are open to the cries of every people:
drive out every power of evil,
and open every ear to hear and abide in your Word of life;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for September 6, 2015

First Reading: Isaiah 35:3-7a (appointed: 4-7a)
“Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.” – The prophet announces God’s impending deliverance of the nation from their exile in Babylon and their joyful journey home.

Psalmody: Psalm 146
“The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down…The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow.”
– The poet praises the LORD, a God who comes to the aid of those in need.

Second Reading: James 2:1-17
“My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?”
– The author challenges the community not to show favoritism, warning them that to break any part of the law is to be accountable for all of it.

Gospel: Mark 7:24-37
“A woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin.” – Following his teaching about what does and doesn’t render a person “unclean”, Jesus travels in foreign territory and heals two who are “unclean”, outside the covenant of Israel: the daughter of a Syrophoenician and a man from the Gentile region of the Decapolis.

 

Jesus and the Canaanite woman, folio from Walters manuscript W.592  Credit: Ilyas Basim Khuri Bazzi Rahib [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

What comes from within

Watching for the Morning of August 30, 2015

Year B

The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 17 / Lectionary 22

File:Yemenite boy washing hands, December 5, 1949.jpgThe voice of Moses in the reading from Deuteronomy on Sunday will call us to “give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe.” But Deuteronomy calls us to more than an outward observance; it calls us into the spirit of God’s instructions and commands. It celebrates the wisdom and justice of God’s law. And it understands that the life of the community depends on observing this law, of living within God’s will for justice and mercy.

The psalmist joins that song, describing those who are welcome in God’s holy house not in terms of ritual purity, but in language of fidelity to neighbor: those who speak truth, do justice, and show mercy to the poor.

James, too, sings of the life lived in accordance with God’s word: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

It is so easy for religion to slide into a narrow legalism, by which we are able to imagine ourselves faithful without ever actually living by the Spirit of God: the spirit of compassion, generosity, kindness, justice, truth, courage. Jesus is attacked because some of his followers haven’t observed the ritual washing of hands before eating. This is not a real hand washing related to concerns about germs, but a ritual pouring of water over the hands with an accompanying prayer. It is like someone eating without saying grace. Is the ritual blessing of a meal a measure of the true Christian or are we summoned to live within the spirit of thanksgiving that receives all things as gift from God? Outward forms have their importance in teaching and sustaining the inner life – but the point is the inner life. And by inner life it is important that we recognize we are speaking not only of the individual, but of the spirit that abides in the community. One generous person is good. A community of generosity is the intent of God.

The question what is truly means to be “clean” – to be acceptable before God, to be worthy to enter God’s presence – is deeply important. And Jesus will not let us narrow the definition to ritual practice. He insists that we recognize the will of God for a community that honors God in all things – from the food we eat to the food we share from hearts that are at least seeking to be loving and true.

The Prayer August 30, 2015

Father of lights,
with whom there is no variation or shadow of change:
be our lamp in the darkness
and our eternal rock,
that we may worship you rightly
with lives of compassion and truth;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for August 30, 2015

First Reading: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
“What other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?” – Deuteronomy is presented as a sermon of Moses to the people of Israel at the end of the forty years in the wilderness in which the community is urged to observe God’s wise and just laws.

Psalmody: Psalm 15
“O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?”
– The poet asks who is worthy to enter the holy precinct of the temple – and answers it not in terms of ritual purity, but the just and faithful treatment of others.

Second Reading: James 1:17-27
“Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”
– The author reminds the community that God calls for our inner and outward lives to be aligned and in harmony with the message we have hear from God.

Gospel: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
“There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” – The religious leaders challenge Jesus because some of his followers didn’t observe the ritual washing before eating. It prompts his teaching on purity – not as on outward observance, but the words and deeds that flow from the heart.

 

Image: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Yemenite_boy_washing_hands,_December_5,_1949.jpg