Purity

File:We want white tenants.jpg

“Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” (Matthew 15:10-11)

Watching for the Morning of August 20, 2017

Year A

The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 15 / Lectionary 20

I chose the picture above for our bulletin cover several weeks ago, but it gains added poignancy by the events in Charlottesville last week. The Gospel account is the Canaanite woman, the foreigner, the outsider, the “unclean”, whose request for healing Jesus dismisses with a curt and offensive “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” It is a statement worthy of any white nationalist. What is ours is ours. God owes us his benefices. They are not part of us. To which she responds with that compelling assertion of God’s abundant and universal mercy: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

It is important to include with this narrative Jesus’ challenge to the ruling authorities about the nature of ritual purity: “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” Purity is measured by our treatment of others. Purity is measured by whether we live compassion and faithfulness. Purity is not an outward category of things or people; it is manifest in word and deed.

Jesus embodies the promise spoken through the prophet Isaiah in our first reading this Sunday that God would welcome in his temple all those previously excluded as unclean –eunuchs (the physically deformed or maimed) and foreigners. The psalmist celebrates the harvest and a sees in God’s abundance the invitation for all nations to see God’s goodness and sing God’s praise. And the apostle Paul writes of God’s purpose and plan to have mercy on all.

We keep using religion to draw lines between “us” and “them” – whoever “them” might be. But Jesus relentlessly erases those lines. He understands that the Biblical story begins and ends with a single human family.

The Prayer for August 20, 2017

O God, who hears the cries of all in need,
grant us confidence in your mercy
and persistence in our prayer
that, trusting your goodness,
we might know your saving grace;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for August 20, 2017

First Reading: Isaiah 56:1-8 (appointed, Isaiah 56:1, 6-8)
“My house shall be…a house of prayer for all peoples.” – The prophet proclaims that all those who were unclean – eunuchs and foreigners – and previously excluded from the temple will be welcomed by the God who will gather not only the outcasts of Israel, but all people.

Psalmody: Psalm 67
“Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you.” – A song of thanksgiving at the harvest that summons all people to rejoice in God’s goodness.

Second Reading: Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
“God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all” –
addressing the problem of why so many Judeans have not received Paul’s message of God’s grace in Jesus with trust and allegiance, Paul affirms the certainty of God’s call and election, but sees in their “disobedience” God’s purpose to have mercy on all.

Gospel: Matthew 15:10-28 (appointed, 15:[10-20] 21-28)
“It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles” – Matthew pairs Jesus’ challenge to the ruling authorities’ understanding of purity as ritual purity (rather than justice and mercy in fidelity to God’s command) with the account of the Canaanite woman who shows great faith in God’s mercy: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AWe_want_white_tenants.jpg By Arthur S. Siegel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Where the pious pout

File:Pouting boy in Shamar, Iraq.jpg

Watching for the Morning of July 30, 2017

Year A

The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 12 / Lectionary 17

A mustard seed doesn’t become a tree. It can be a big bush, but not a tree. And it was improper to plant mustard in your garden. It had something to do with the mixing of kinds and the unruliness of mustard. God’s commands to ancient Israel were to keep such things separate. But it’s not like Matthew doesn’t understand this. Matthew does indeed. There is a scandal, here. Like leaven hidden. You don’t ‘hide’ leaven in the loaf unless it’s not supposed to be there. Like maybe someone intentionally desecrating the Passover bread.

Flaunting boundaries. Jesus has been doing this all along. Not just welcoming outcasts, but laying hands on the dead and touching lepers and not observing the fasts, and eating with unwashed hands and sharing the gifts of God with a Canaanite woman (well, those last two stories come after this one, but we who hear the text know something about the audacity of Jesus).

So why does Matthew let Jesus call the mustard shrub a tree? So that Jesus can say that “the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” It is an allusion to the prophetic word in Ezekiel about the splendid cedar that will rise from the broken twig God will plant.

We are still proclaiming the wondrous and unexpected harvest that will certainly come. God’s scandalous kingdom where sinners are welcomed and the dead are raised and the pious pout and fume. But those who see and hear will sell all to possess it. The priceless pearl. The surprise treasure. The dawn of grace.

So Sunday we hear Solomon ask for wisdom and receive all things. We will hear the psalmist sing of the glories of God’s teaching and hunger to hear what is now proclaimed in Jesus. And Paul will describe the creation groaning for that day when the promise is made complete and exult that nothing can separate us from the love of God. And Jesus will tell us that the reality dawning in this audacious Jesus is worth selling everything to possess.

The Prayer for July 30, 2017

O God, whose promises never fail
and whose purpose for the world
will be brought to its fulfillment in Christ Jesus:
grant us wisdom to recognize the riches of your grace
and to live now the joy that awaits us;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for July 30, 2017

First Reading: 1 Kings 3:5-12
“At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I should give you.” – After David’s death, Solomon gains the throne and comes to worship at the ancient holy site of Gibeon where he asks God for wisdom.

Psalmody: Psalm 119:129-136
“The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple.” – In a majestic tour de force in praise of God’s law/teaching/word, the poet celebrates the guiding commands of God in twenty-two eight-line strophes that proceed from Aleph to Taw (A to Z) with each of the eight lines in every strophe beginning with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

Second Reading: Romans 8:22-23, 26-39 (appointed 8:26-39)
“What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?”
– Paul’s argument that God has reconciled us to himself through Christ by God’s favor (grace) apprehended by our trust in his promise (faith) now culminates in an ecstatic declaration that nothing in the heavens or on earth can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Gospel: Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field.” – From unlikely beginnings – a tiny seed, a bit of yeast – comes an extraordinary end, so it is with the reign of God. What is sown looks frail and powerless – a Galilean rabble and a crucified ‘messiah’ – but from it will come an exceptional harvest. Like a merchant finding a priceless pearl or a farmer finding a great treasure, the wise will do all in their power to obtain it.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3APouting_boy_in_Shamar%2C_Iraq.jpg See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

He did not despise

Friday

Psalm 22:1, 16-28

File:Peter Paul Rubens The Three Crosses.jpg24 For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted.

There is a deep underlying tension between our human religiousness and the God of the exodus and Calvary. Our religious impulse is towards what is pure and perfect. Temples and cathedrals of every land are works of extraordinary beauty. We set rules for who is worthy to enter, who is considered pure enough, sacred enough, to come into the presence of the divine.

Every culture needs its rules of purity. They create a measure of social cohesion and identity. They define boundaries. They give a measure of order to the world.

We eat turkeys but not vultures (who feed on the dead) or eagles (who symbolize the nation). Fish eat worms. We eat fish. It is the order of things. (It is what made Chinatown so interesting to me as a child, for there were things hanging in the market windows I never saw in my town’s grocery.)

Fish are “clean” (when they have been cleaned) and worms are “dirty” and belong in the dirt. And what is true of everyday things is true especially of religious things. As children we took baths every Saturday night and wore our “Sunday best” to church.

We have an attraction, as human beings, to what is perfect and pure. An ice skater is “pure grace”. A runner “pure speed”. We exult in the “perfect game”. We are drawn to the beautiful, the pure, the innocent, the brilliant, the exceptional. We turn away from what is corrupt, ignoble, defeated. And we think the heavens must think as we think.

But what, then, shall we do with Jesus? He started so well and ended in such disgrace: bloody, broken, stripped, shamed, mocked, despised. Ugly. Unholy. Defeated. Defiled.

He doesn’t match our human religious impulse. The only way we can hold on to him is by transforming the cross into an act of heroic courage or stripping the body from the cross and focusing on resurrection – ultimate victory!

But it was the crucified who was raised. The shamed who was honored. The debased who was exalted. We see him now through the radiance of the resurrection and the glory of Easter, but on that Friday when the disciples fled, God “did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted.”

Jesus embodied this truth of God. He did not despise the leper he touched and healed. He did not despise the bleeding woman who touched him through the crowd. He did not despise the despised woman at the well. He did not despise Matthew, the tax collector or Simon, the Pharisee. He did not despise the widow’s dead son. He did not despise the thief on the cross. He did not despise his disciples who denied him.

Our human religious impulse clashes with this God of slaves and the crucified. But in the day of our need, we find a life-saving mercy. He does not “despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted.” He does not despise the sick or the lost. He does not despise the broken or the bitter. He does not despise the saint or the sinner.

Our hearts may be turned to love what is pure and holy, but the heart of God is turned to love us. And hopefully, we will learn to follow the command to love as he loves.

+   +   +

For other reflections on the texts for this Sunday from this and previous years, follow this link Lectionary C 12, or Proper C 7

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3APeter_Paul_Rubens_The_Three_Crosses.jpg  by Peter Paul Rubens [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Dirt, dirty, clean, holy

Thursday

Psalm 15

Tetrapylon, Palmyra in Syria

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

It’s an uncomfortable question.  We want to move quickly to the grace of God, the welcoming embrace, the overflowing forgiveness.  We don’t want to ask who is worthy to dwell in God’s presence.

The question of cultic purity was an important one in the ancient world.  There was a vivid sense of the sacred around each shrine.  To bring what was profane into the presence of the holy was a dangerous act, offending the god of that place.  It invited wrath just as an offense against a king invited wrath.

There is behavior appropriate to a football game that isn’t appropriate in court.  To speak out of turn in a legal proceeding, to violate the norms of the court, can land you in jail for contempt.  We make these distinctions all the time.  We raise our hands at school but such behavior would be out of place – or intentionally offensive – if it happened at the dinner table.  When I was a child, I had to wear a coat and tie to church; we had to wear our best in God’s presence.  Saturday night required a bath because you couldn’t go to church unclean.  These are only vague hints of the demands of an ancient shrine.  Paul was almost murdered by a mob of worshipers because of a rumor that he had desecrated the temple by bringing a Gentile into the inner court – and saved only because they had to drag him out of the courtyard before killing him lest his blood desecrate the temple and, as the mob was dragging him out, soldiers stepped in to arrest him.  Purity was exceedingly important.

Many cultures leave their shoes at the door to keep the outer impure world from desecrating the inner realm of the home.  It’s not just about keeping literal dirt outdoors.  The whole concept of ‘dirt’ is symbolic of something out of its proper place.  Dirt in the field isn’t dirt; it’s soil.  It only becomes dirt if you try to bring it into the kitchen where it doesn’t belong.  There is a boundary at the threshold of the house.  Just so, there is a boundary at the threshold of the shrine – a boundary between the heavens and the earth, between the realm of the gods and the world of the common, between the sacred and the profane.  You cannot bring what is unclean into the realm of the holy.

So who can enter into God’s sacred shrine?  Who can enter into the presence of the holy?  There are extensive descriptions regarding purity in the Torah, and the rituals to restore it.  But in answering this question of who may come onto God’s holy hill, our poet does not speak about abstaining from sex, ritual washings, or avoiding contact with blood and what is dead.  The true measure of purity is our treatment of others: refusing to take advantage of a person’s need by charging interest; refusing to speak ill of another; speaking the truth; keeping one’s oath even to your own detriment.  Those who are welcome in God’s holy city are those who do justice and mercy, who live on earth the justice and mercy that is the mark of heaven.

God is a God of grace.  There is welcome for the sinner.  He has made us worthy by wrapping us in Christ.  Yet the true measure of holiness remains: not personal purity but the care of our neighbor.