Just so we can get a mild taste
for what we are dealing with here,
allow me to offend you if I can.
- Baptismis meaningless.
- Communionis silly.
- Confessionand Absolution
are an empty gesture.
- Saying the Rosaryis blowing smoke.
- Being Born Againsimply frivolous.
- Going to Church on Sunday–
no redeeming value.
- Being an Episcopalian, or any kind of Christian,
is as meaningful as the difference between Oatmeal and Cream of Wheat.
Now, we need to give equal time to Civil Religion.
- Saying the Pledge is a waste of breath.
- The Oath of Citizenshipa yawn.
- Your political party a big zero.
- Family name?As meaningful as an un-addressed envelope.
- College degree, social pedigree, profession or trade–
just so much information on a grave stone.
If your sensibilities were offended
by even one of those icon-busters
it was only a mild taste
of the flagrant insult
that Jesus represented to his contemporaries.
He was often a very offensive guy,
but still we call him “our boy”
as if he would not offend us too.
Whoever put our Lectionary of Scripture readings together,
did so with the idea of setting up a false contrast today.
By placing this incredibly complex story
from the Gospel of Mark
right next to the prohibition in Deuteronomy –
the one against
adding or taking away fromthe Law–
would have us dismiss the tension
between Jesus and his fellow Jews
as a simple case of traditions and ritual versus Torah.
(Torah being the constitution of original Law).
But it is not that simple
and it is not about ritual versus laws.
There arethreestrong voices
whispering to us
from the Gospel of Mark.
To identify them, and listen to them
as they scratch through two-thousand year old pages,
is to suddenly know something new
about Jesus and about ourselves.
Please bear with me,
this is not about a 2000-year-old argument;
at the end it is about you and me.
The first voice we hear
is from the Pharisees,
the next voice to speak
is from the Greek-speaking Jewish Christians from the early Church,
and the last voice is presumably
The Pharisees were the liberals of their day.
Put aside all the New Testament propaganda
we have heard about the Pharisees being legalistic–
that is just 1st Century name-calling.
Jesus may well have been a Pharisee himself.
In fact, Episcopalians are definitely
the modern-day equivalent of Pharisees.
Let me put it in the religious language
of the Reformation.
Anglicans and Roman Catholics
disagree with Protestants in general,
and Fundamentalists in particular,
about the status of Scripture.
The Protestant view is that Scripture
all by itself
tells us all we need to know,
or can know, about God.
But Episcopalians, Roman Catholics,
claim that the written words of Scripture
must be interpreted – they do not speak
clearly without context, history,
and the traditions of the church
that have grown up around them.
Not only must the words of the Bible
but also the whole history of that interpretation
as represented by our traditions and doctrines
must be utilized in discerning
the meaning of Scripture.
Then, as Episcopalians, we claim
Scripture must be adjudicated
with reason and experience as well as tradition.
It is what distinguishes us most significantly.
That is basically the argument the Pharisees
had with their more conservative contemporaries.
The Pharisees claimed
there were two sources of authority to be considered:
Written Torahand Oral Torah–
that is, the Law of Moses AND
the traditions and interpretations
that flowed from the law.
Lest we think this is some silly and ancient
it is pretty much the political debate that rages
between liberals and conservatives
about the United States Constitution.
Legal arguments about abortion,
the death penalty, and the right to privacy
seem often to revolve around this tension
between written law, its original intent,
and the history of its interpretation.
So, in the Gospel of Mark,
the voice of the Pharisees is represented
by those concerned with preserving
the Traditions of the elders– meaning
the Oral law that is rooted in the Written law.
Their argument goes like this:
In a polytheistic world,
one in which Jewish identity
is taking a beating at every social boundary,
ourtraditions sustain our solidarity and identity.
With their national identity flattened
by Roman military colonialization,
and an influx of people from far away places
that had nothing but disdain for them,
the traditions of the elders,
such as ritual hand washing,
was a reminder that they were a holy nation
and a light to the world.
The Traditions – meaning the Oral Law –
set them aside as a people
and made them holy,
which was Israel’s very reason for being.
So, Jesus, how come your students do not exhibit this concern for holiness?
The Pharisee’s concern was not so unreasonable.
Their argument was perfectly understandable
and we hear the same sentiments today –
even feel that tension ourselves sometimes.
Now the second voice we hear in this story,
and more briefly I might add,
is from the Greek-speaking Jewish Christians
who come along some 25 years later
and get their concerns
edited into the text of Mark.
“You abandon the commandments of God
and holdonto human tradition!”
That is their response to the Pharisee assertion
about the primacy of Oral Law.
The Greek-speaking Jews
who joined the Jesus-movement
afterthe death of Jesus,
as a result of his disciples spreading out
across the rim of the Mediterranean,
were often more conservative than the Pharisees.
They wanted to go back to Written Torah
and get away from all the rituals,
traditions, and interpretations
that had grown up around it.
They are the Martin Luther’s and John Calvin’s
who railed against the power and corruption
of the establishment hierarchy,
picturing it as a wall of barnacles
around the sacred text.
“Back to Basics!” they campaigned.
The third voice we hear is Jesus himself –
at least as far as we can decipher.
The voice of Jesus
comes through loud and clear in his famous proverb:
“Listen! It is not what goes into a person
that can defile; rather
it is whatcomes out of the person that defiles.”
In other words:
Don’t get uptight
because my disciples do not washtheir hands.
Holiness is not breached
by the abandonment of ritual.
Our holiness as a people,
Jesus might have added,
is breached byevil actions
that arise from evil intent.
Cleanse the heart and mind, he would say,
and we will be holy.
So, like Episcopalians
the Pharisees were
making a case for the authority
of theirtraditions and rituals.
The Greek-speaking Jewish Christians,
like the original Protestant reformers,
were fighting the corruption of a powerful caste
of religious authorities and insisting
on the purity and limits of the written law.
His was an insistence upon radical obedience
to the intentof the Law –
obedience to the intent of the Law.
the actual written word,
and the traditions and rituals that grew up
around written Torah,
were neither good nor bad in and of themselves.
Holiness, he asserted,
has to do with changing the intentions of the heart
and the evil actions that may flow from it.
So here is the punchline:
If you want to be a holy nation,
one that is set apart
while still in the midst of the world,
then do what it takes
to transform your hearts and minds
so that your actions reflect that change.
To Jesus, anything less than this
is trivial at best,
and a phony hypocrisy at worst.
So what does this mean for us in 2018?
I am going to resist my temptation
to wander into the political discourse of the moment,
and point instead,
toward the impact of Jesus’ words
on what kind of spiritual community
and spiritual practice we aim toward.
Does our worship,
this thing we do and the Communion we receive,
nurture and challenge us
with an inward transformation?
If so, fine, then do it, Jesus might say.
But if all it is does is sustain complacency
and a false sense of holiness, then stop it.
Just don’t do it.
Does Baptism, and baptismal ministry,
help transform our hearts and minds,
so that we develop and nurture a community of
change agents that embody the love of God?
If so, great, keep doing it.
But if all it does is create
a sense that we are spiritually superior
from those who are not baptized,
then cease and desist immediately.
No matter what it is we do and are a part of,
or think worthy and valuable;
no matter what loyalty, label, tribe,
race, nationality, or sexuality
to which we claim membership and allegiance;
no matter what it is
or who we are, the criteria is clear:
Does is assist and nurture
the transformation of our hearts and minds
away from hatred,
away from resentments,
away from cruelty?
If not, then stop it, leave it, let it go.
Does it assist and nurture
the transformation of our hearts and minds
and toward a passion for equity,
and toward a hope of peace?
Then do it,
and do it with all your heart,
and all your strength,
and all your mind.