MCC Seattle, Wash.
Readings for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost: James 1:17-27, Mark 7:1-24
I want to start off by saying that there are no bad guys in Mark 7:1-24. The Pharisees and the lawyers that confront Jesus about the behavior of his disciples do so from the stand point of their own deep belief in God and their desire to live godly lives according to their own history and traditions. They don’t know anything different than what they have learned and been taught. They haven’t had their minds and hearts opened to the revelation that perhaps there is more to being a godly person than they have ever imagined.
It is truly frustrating to work with fundamentalist type religious persons, especially when it comes to interpreting scripture and applying scripture to the way we live and worship today. I doubt it was any different for Jesus in his day.
A fundamentalist will tell you that there is only one way to interpret a particular passage of scripture – his way, of course – and that his own interpretation is based on a literal reading of the scripture passage in question and 2,000 years of Christian practice and application. They make it sound like they have all the answers and that anyone that questions how Christianity has historically interpreted scripture and believed about God and what God desires all of us to do – that anyone that questions that so-called ‘historical’ truth, be must therefore be evil and in direct league with Satan or so seduced by evil that they don’t even know they are wrong.
I’ve been accused of being demon possessed more than once because I had a different opinion from what I was told was the standard, operating procedure for all Christians, including me, whether I believed it or not. Of course, that always means I have to believe it their way. When one points out that Christian history is full of many different ways of believing and interpreting, hence our different denominations, they will tell you that they have the superior position on the truth.
The most frustrating thing about dealing with these fundamentalist types is that they aren’t open to examining the scriptures any differently than they have already decided, nor in discussing any options in interpretation except for their own. They are not interested in your helping them to any new revelation about their own set of beliefs and applications of those beliefs to how they live, or more importantly to how they think you should live. In their way of thinking anyone who opposes them or offers a different interpretation of the scriptures must be in league with the devil and therefore they don’t have to respect you, or listen to you, or do much of anything with you, except to condemn you to hell, because in their way of thinking, that’s where you are going anyway.
As an example of this kind of thinking meet let me introduce you to pastor Steven L. Anderson of Faithful Word Baptist church in Tempe, AZ, who said from his own pulpit less in July 2009, “The biggest hypocrite in the world is the person who believes in the death penalty for murderers and not for homosexuals. The same God who instituted the death penalty for murderers is the same God who instituted the death penalty for rapists and for homosexuals – sodomites, queers! That’s what it was instituted for, okay? That’s God, he hasn’t changed. Oh, God doesn’t feel that way in the New Testament. God never ‘felt’ anything about it, he commanded it and said they should be taken out and killed.” And that’s just one recent example; there are more.
Over the years I have found that it isn’t worth it to argue with such persons. You won’t be able to change their opinion or their interpretations of scripture. I am willing to tell them what I believe, how I read and interpret the same passage of scripture, but I will only discuss it politely and respectfully and lovingly with then, and when they start arguing with me, or condemning me to hell and calling me a demon – because of my different way of thinking from them – then the conversation is over. I will turn my attention toward those who are willing to investigate a different way of thinking and believing. Jesus takes this same approach in dealing with the Pharisees.
These Pharisees from the local synagogues in Galilee where Jesus has his ministry headquarters are very interested in what Jesus has to say and how he and his disciples are living their lives. So they have been following them around, suspiciously listening to what Jesus teaches, seeing the miracles Jesus performs, and seeking evidence for whether he is from God by how he and his disciples conduct their everyday living.
They think that if Jesus is truly from God then the evidence of that will be reflected in how the disciples live. And they are right about that. The evidence of whether you are truly a child of God will be reflected in the way you speak to other people and care for them. It’s that simple.
However, there are problems with the assumption that we reflect our godliness in our behavior. The Pharisees and lawyers are only looking for the evidence of outward behavior that is consistent with their own belief system and traditions which tell them that people who believe in and serve God will only act in particular ways, and that they will do certain things at certain times in certain ways, and if they don’t, then they conclude that those aren’t very godly persons.
That’s well and good if everyone agrees on what those things are. But as we have seen in our own time not everyone agrees. Some of us believe very differently about what it means to love God and live according to God’s Will and Way.
Hence, in Washington State we are facing Referendum 71 designed to cancel the law passed by the legislature and signed by the governor that gives domestic partners all the rights and responsibilities of marriage without the name. Why? Because there are those who believe that God demands that they call you and me evil because of who we love and they do not believe we need what they call ‘special rights’ and what you and I call ‘equal rights.’
On this particular day in the scripture story the Pharisees are joined by religious lawyers from Jerusalem, probably also Pharisees. Jesus is a threat to their power and their influence which they believe comes directly from God through the traditions and scriptures handed down to them from their ancestor Moses. They are the good guys – at least that’s the way they see themselves.
They attack Jesus’ disciples because the boys did not follow the traditions of preparing and eating a meal correctly, nor did they wash their hands in the ritual manner that was required in order to reflect the truth of God’s presence in your life. Moses said that God is holy and therefore we should be holy. To the Pharisees, that meant doing things in very particular way and order so that you could honor God the right way. They had a whole list of things that they had decided people had to do to build a protective fence around their lives that would remind them that God was holy and that God demanded that they be holy also. Some of these rituals were quite complex. Some were very expensive to carry out. The requirements to wash your hands, to prepare food in a certain way, to only use certain kinds of pots and pans and other utensils, which also had to be washed and prepared in particular ways, were more than most poor people could afford.
Many of the disciples and most of the crowds that surround him are from what would be called the lower class and therefore can’t afford to follow the prescriptions for holiness that the Pharisees do. Therefore, according to the Pharisees, who don’t make any allowance for your financial ability to follow their traditions, the disciples are not holy or pure, and therefore they are not godly persons. It’s only logical to reach that conclusion if you are a Pharisee or a religious lawyer from Jerusalem. Isn’t it obvious to everyone? What is there to argue about? The evidence is clear. There can be no other interpretation.
That’s when they get surprised by the answer Jesus gives. For Jesus sees things quite differently than they do. He begins by telling them what the prophet Isaiah said: “These people mouth all the right words, but their hearts aren’t in it. Their worship is just one big charade. They invent rules to suit themselves and then teach those human made rules as the word of God.”
The issue Jesus is attacking is this long list of rules that the religious leaders have added to the Torah, their scripture. Think of this way: Our church has a set of bylaws that govern our way of operating. There are lots of things stated in the bylaws, but often those bylaws are open to wide variations in interpretation and application. So our church has established a set of SOPs: Standard Operating Procedures which tell us how to apply those bylaws to governing ourselves as a congregation. Those are our traditions. The traditions of the Jewish people are their SOPs for following and applying the Torah. Jesus is saying that sometimes those SOPs aren’t really consistent with the Torah and may in fact be contrary to the real truth that God wanted them to know and do. In fact they have taken some of those SOPs and made them of higher authority than the scriptures they were meant to interpret and apply.
In verses 9-12 of chapter 7 of Mark’s gospel Jesus brings up how they interpret and apply the Torah’s commandment to love your parents. The Torah clearly commands that you to care for your elderly parents out of your own wealth and income when they are no longer able to provide for themselves. But the SOPs said that if you pledged your wealth to the Temple, which is to God, in other words, you wrote a will that said when you died all your wealth would go to the Temple, then you were no longer obligated to use your wealth and income to care for your elderly parents. They and your responsibilities to them could be ignored.
This is why Jesus says: “At the end of the day, you are more concerned about your own rules and traditions than you are about what God actually wants of people.”
What does God want of us? Well the scripture passage from James 1:17-27 gave us a good understanding of that. The author of James was telling us how to be and live as Christians.
Jesus elaborated on that many times. In Matthew 23 he told the Pharisees and Lawyers: You have neglected the more important matters of the lawjustice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced these, without neglecting the rest.”
Jesus is referring to Zechariah 7 which reads, “This is what God Almighty says, ‘Administer true justice, show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. In your hearts do not think evil of each other.'”
Jesus often used the Holiness and Purity Codes for shock effect. When Jesus told his followers that they had to ‘eat his body and drink his blood’ it was extremely offensive to them for those two items to be in the same sentence much less the idea of having both items together in a meal. That was completely against their holiness and purity codes, especially those that dealt with Kosher eating.
Jesus knows how important the Kosher rules were and he uses those rules now to teach his lesson. He doesn’t argue with the Pharisees and lawyers. He knows he isn’t going to change their understanding or opinions. So he turn away from them and to the crowd gathered around him, full of the widows and the orphans of society, those people living on the edge of respectability and acceptability. The great ‘unwashed’ as some have said, those people that the Pharisees and lawyers would not hang around with for fear of the filth rubbing off on them from the people they considered beneath them and outside of God’s love and acceptance.
Jesus says, not so politely, “The things that really pollute people are not the things they put into their mouths, but the muck that spews out from within them. If you are looking for the cause of evil, look inside of yourselves. Evil intentions are conceived in the human heart, every one of them.”
Mind you, you could read another four-letter word for excrement in place of muck if you wanted to and you would be closer to the way Jesus said it that day in his own language.
Using the idea of the kosher food laws he tells them that it isn’t what they put into themselves that keeps them holy, but what proceeds from their very hearts, from their souls, that is the proof of their godliness. The presence of God living within them will be proven by what they do, and what they say, especially in regard to how they relate to other people, even those that they consider to be out of God’s grace and blessing, the poor, the widow, the outcast, the prostitute, the sick.
Jesus keeps proving to the Pharisees and the religious lawyers exactly what he is talking about through the miracles he performs and the people he cares for. They bring him a prostitute they expect him to condemn to death according their rules and laws, but instead they find him giving her forgiveness and shaming them. He heals the blind and the handicapped, the sick and the lepers, all of whom they believe are the way they are because of evil in their lives. But Jesus tells them that they are wrong about that and by healing these people Jesus proves that there is no sin in their lives, nothing that keeps them from the blessings of God. The holiness code said you can’t touch a dead body, but Jesus resurrects a young girl by touching her body and becoming unclean himself as he resurrects her to new life. These are amazing sermons in action!
Jesus is constantly calling into question the Holiness and Purity Codes and telling everyone that it isn’t the rules that are important, but how much they love God, and how much they demonstrate that love by loving others.
Why are the fundamentalists so upset with us today regarding marriage? Because we are calling into question their interpretation of modern day holiness and purity codes. They are trying to uphold their understanding of what it means to be a godly person, a godly society. And so are we! They say that we can’t possibly be holy because we are so far out of what they believe a person who is a Christian could be like that we must be demon possessed to even believe we are Christian. We are not living up to their ideal of what their modern holiness and purity tell them a Christian is. According to them we are defiled and filthy because of whom we love and how we love them. In this way of thinking they aren’t much different than the Pharisees and the religious lawyers of Jesus’ day.
I proudly say, “I am a Christian. I am gay. I am deeply in love with my partner Mark. God is blessing and has blessed our relationship. There is nothing about our relationship that is evil or sinful. I will not be shamed by anyone who believes otherwise and I will boldly tell them that. I will work for justice and equality for couples like us regardless of what anyone else believes.”
As gay Christians we must stand up for what we believe in – not just about marriage equality, but about all the justice and mercy issues that cause people to be pushed to the edges of our society.
Homelessness is a problem. Many in our own congregations are homeless or in transitional housing. Some in temporary or transitional housing may become homeless. What are we as a churches doing about homelessness? Are we blaming the victim for their circumstances he or she is in, or are we helping people to new life and hope? What would happen if we found the funds through grants and donations to open homes for homeless gay and lesbian and transgender persons where they could live without fear of hatred or misunderstanding or violence? Could we help people get off the streets and into good jobs and their own homes by teaching them the skills they need to get jobs, by providing them with social service help to wind their way through the red tape governmental agencies seem to use to prevent them from getting the help they need?
Believe me when I say that I am exhausted and frustrated with trying to get through all the red tape to simply find out how to help someone in our current system dealing with homelessness. How do you think the homeless person feels about having to navigate this seemingly hopeless system? A very large number of those living on the streets are LGBT persons. 40% or more of homeless youth are known to be LGBT youth in the Seattle area alone. Where do we begin to help with this problem?
What about those living with AIDS and HIV? What can we do to make sure that our modern day society does not treat such persons like the lepers of Jesus day were treated? How can our churches get involved in ongoing projects and actions that call society to act to treat and heal this disease? What about the Transgender? How can we help ourselves and our society understand Transgender persons and come to love and accept them as just another normal variation of the beautiful human Rainbow Creation God has created?
Perhaps you have your own problems with accepting people that you believe are outside of God’s holiness and purity. Who would that be? Who is it that calls into question for you the issues of whether they are or aren’t in relationship with God because of who they are or what they do, or how they think, or what language they speak, or what religion they profess, or what political party or persuasion they belong to? We all have people we think fall outside of God’s grace and holiness.
The question we have to ask ourselves today is what are we going to do about it? Are we going to reexamine our thinking and our beliefs like Jesus challenged the Pharisees and the lawyers to do in order to get ourselves closer to what God wants, or are we going to ignore Christ’s challenge and stay put behind the fence we have erected to protect our own thinking, our own beliefs, our own way of living regardless of what God wants from us?
This is especially true about life within our own congregations. Look around you during worship service this week! Who is it that you don’t want to be a part of your life as a church? Who do you have trouble relating to because of his or her being so very different from you? We cannot become the Body of Christ if we are divided and angry and upset with each other.
I started this sermon off by saying that the Pharisees weren’t the bad guys. There are also no bad guys or gals in your church, unless you’re talking about a very different subject than what I am this morning. Mother Teresa put it this way: “Keep in mind that our community is not composed of those who are already saints, but of those who are trying to become saints. Therefore let us be extremely patient with each other’s faults and failures.”
We have to learn how to love each other. We have to learn how to have mercy towards each other. We have to learn how to forgive each other and move away from the past and into the future that God wants to give to you and me and to our churches. We can’t get there together if we can’t become the loving, forgiving, welcoming, inclusive Body of Christ that I know God wants us to become.
It’s time for school to start again. If we were enrolled in God’s own Holiness College this semester, then we would all be taking Christianity 101. Taught by Jesus Christ himself the course guide summarizes the class this way: “Learn how to Love God, Love yourself, and Love each other.” What grade would you like to get this semester? What grade will you get?
Indiana native Rev. H. Ray Neal served as associate pastor of MCC Knoxville and pastor of MCC Seattle. He earned bachelors and masters degrees in elementary education from the University of Indiana and a masters in religious education from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.