Texts: James 1:17-27 and Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
A story is told about a young man who once came to a great spiritual leader and asked him to make him a priest. The spiritual leader stood at the window looking out upon the yard while the candidate for the priesthood was droning on and on about his piety and learning. The petitioner said, “You see, Abbot, I always go dressed in spotless white, like the sages of old. I never drink any alcoholic beverages, only water ever passes my lips. Also, I live a plain and simple life. I have sharp-edged nails inside my shoes to mortify me. Even in coldest weather, I lie naked in the snow to torment my flesh. Also, daily I receive forty lashes on my bare back to complete my penance.” As the young man spoke, a white donkey was led into the yard and to the water trough. It drank, and then it rolled in the snow, as donkeys sometimes do. “Just look!” cried the abbot. “That animal, too, is dressed in white. It also drinks nothing but water. It has nails in its shoes and it rolls naked in the snow. Also rest assured, it gets its daily ration of forty lashes from its master. Now, I ask you, is it a saint, or is it an ass!”
Many people also tend to use superficial means to decide about their relationships with others, whom they will speak to, whom they will meet eye to eye. Generally most of us discover that often the truly interesting people are those we least expect to be so, because we have made superficial judgments about some outward characteristic.
And it is also true that many people judge religion on superficial grounds, rather than by what really matters. Lots of people wonder why they should come to church when it appears that people are more adept at their lip service to the things that Jesus says matter, or that scripture defines as truly important, than in faithful living every day. One of the reasons I love having funerals of church members in the church where they faithfully attended is that it is a testimony of what that church membership meant to them, and of what their faith did for them.
Outwardly, religion doesn’t have a very good name any more. People judge Islam by its worst fanatics. People judge Christianity, as well, by its ways of arrogating all truth to itself, by the way people are battered by selected verses of Scripture, by the way that many Christians live bifurcated lives—washing the outside of the cup, or their hands (as Jesus suggests) but neglecting the weightier matters of justice and mercy and compassion.
So much of popular religion in America today could be captured in the images provoked by a news item I read this morning. It seems that while being hauled to its new home at the Solid Rock Church in Monroe along I-75 north of Cincinnati, a 50 foot tall statue of Jesus—replacing one that was struck by lightning and melted several years ago– got trapped as it was being driven through a McDonalds drive-thru. One outstretched arm of the statue caught on a statue of Ronald McDonald causing it to shift, stand semi-upright and lodge between a drive-thru window and the McDonald Playland. Police said that the statue was too big to be removed even by the “jaws of life.” This image of American religiosity caught between a drive-through window and Ronald McDonald left me laughing all morning.
In fact, a frequent excuse for NOT being involved in religion is that its adherents are often more concerned with the superficial than the real. If you want an answer to give to someone who uses that little cliché, as much a fundamentalist claim of the atheist crowd as any fundamentalist believer, you might offer this answer: Because church, religious places of worship, MAY be one of the few places in our society where alternative futures are imagined, where in community we dare to trust our neighbor, and where we are addressed as persons of worth. By devoting time for meditation, you might just find your life being addressed by the holy and directed to new insights for each part of your human journey. Where else is that going to happen?
Our scripture readings for today refer to issues of ritual purity, and of inward purity. It would be too simple to say that efforts to maintain a kind of ritual purity are superficial. They are such only when they become the ends, and not the means to a greater end. For example, I have great regard for those who keep kosher or Ramadan, as way of reminding themselves of a special identity, and the calling to love God and love neighbor above all else.
In the Gospel reading, which some scholars consider the most important of all the texts about ritual purity in the New Testament, Mark recounts a clash between Jesus and the Pharisees about food purity. Why, asked the Pharisees, did Jesus’s disciples eat with ‘unclean’ hands? Mark includes two parenthetical explanations to his Gentile readers who otherwise might have been clueless. “The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing…” Then, in a radical turn, Jesus declares “all foods clean. Theologian Marcus Borg suggests that Jesus turned the “purity system” with its “sharp social boundaries” on its head, and in its place substituted a radically alternate social vision. The new community that Jesus announced would be characterized by interior compassion for everyone, not external compliance to a purity code, by radical inclusivity rather than by some hierarchical exclusivity, by inward transformation, rather than outward ritual.
Then, the Epistle of James serves as a counterpoint to the Gospel reading. Whereas Jesus is talking about how “uncleanness’ comes from within,” James stesses that good can also come from within a life that has been transformed.” For James, if the “good” never expresses itself, we ought to wonder whether the transformation has really taken place.
Prof. Bill Loader, an Australian, a New Testament Professor at Murdoch University, says: “True holiness is not so much the absence of bad things, as presence of compassion, especially for the most needy in society, represented here typically for the biblical tradition through orphans and widows who were too often left in poverty….Keeping oneself undirtied from the world is not about avoiding engagement where we get our hands dirty.” Rather, he suggests, “it is about refusing to surrender to the dominant values of society, even when they are called ‘Christian’. In the context of the Epistle of James, this relates especially to wealth, and to the way we treat people.”
We shouldn’t let Mark’s seeming degradation of the Pharisee’s mislead us. For the Gentile church, surely the various rituals of Pharisaism seemed to be so much fol-de-rol, and not really important. However, most scholars think now that Jesus had high regard for the Pharisees whose religious system was designed to help persons worship God truly, and release it from the confines of the Temple, and to make it more accessible to all people in their daily lives. With the best of intentions, they applied the law to every aspect of life, and that included being scrupulous about honoring the food they received from God.
The potential problem with using the law in this way is that you can fall over into depending, not on God, but on one’s own individual ability to channel one’s life into predictable routines and so get control somehow….of their own lives, of the wild holiness loose in creation. God gets lost in the very practice of some kinds of religion. People get more involved in keeping to the rules, keeping a prescribed set of beliefs, than in relating to the God who loves and gives worth to every human being. The tools are confused for the end product, when they are instead merely methods to help us find what is really real.
Maybe we aren’t hung up on purity laws and ritual—performing ritual correctly. They aren’t of great matter to us. And I, especially, am prone to telling you repeatedly that believing correctly—all the right things, and doing worship in just the prescribed way—are not what Jesus was about, nor what the aim of the church should be, but rather our focus should be in what results…our relationships and our actions.
On this Labor Day weekend, however, it might be wise to note how, perversely, we have a way of making an idol out of work. Martin Luther called James the Epistle of Straw, because he feared that people would come to believe that they were “saved” or “justified” not by the gift of faith, which is God’s action in our lives, but by our good works that would earn us God’s love. God’s love is a free gift, for Luther, never to be earned.
What Jesus would say to us, I believe, is that your life isn’t the result of the work you do or do not do, but rather the gracious presence of God in your life, enticing you to wonder, joy, awe, and love. If we get too stuck on religious ritual on the one hand, or on work, say, on the other hand, we may wind up like Anthony Trollope’s Miss Thorne, whose “virtues were too numerous to describe, and not sufficiently interesting to deserve description.” We have, in Jesus’ words, abandoned the commandment of God and hold to human tradition. And what is the commandment of God? Love God with everything you’ve got, with every fiber of your being, with every synapse in your brain, with every beat of your heart. Do that….and you will love your neighbor, even when they aren’t very likable.
So, as we prepare for the Fall, perhaps it is time for all of us to think about renewing our covenant with God and taking a good long look at the parts of our lives that we may be using as idols, that we may be worshipping instead of the God who asks to be in relationship with us and for us to be in community with the people of our world. Church is where we get to practice some of what really matters, so that it will carry over and be the energy and imagination that comes out of us in the work that is both gift and calling from the God who loves us. Have a great Labor Day! May it be a Sabbath of rest for our hearts and minds. Amen.