The fact that we have the parish picnic today reminds me of my probably inordinate love of food, and the fact that I have gained way too much weight over the last few years. But how much is too much? What’s the ideal? What’s the norm? My doctor called me obese a while ago, so that’s one indicator, but I see people on TV who are 800 pounds or more and then I don’t feel so bad and I also see people my age who look a lot “worse” than I do and that eases my anxiety somewhat as well. As a kid I always felt too thin, but now I find I suffer from a strange new self-consciousness that shifts the focus from who I am to how I look. Trying to find the ideal or the perfect can become a very unhealthy obsession. It’s not a good mindset to adopt!
I take some comfort in the fact that the Pharisees called Jesus a glutton, because he apparently loved food very much – he loved meals and fellowship and took the attitude of: the more the merrier. But apparently, the Pharisees made an issue out of the way in which he prepared to eat his meals. Today’s Gospel tells us that Jesus was confronted by the Pharisees over something as trivial as the way he and his disciples washed their hands
The Pharisees (for our purposes today we could just call them fault-finders) were religious and spiritual leaders of the Jewish people at that time, and I think there is a kind of sardonic humour at work here as Mark retells this story for future generations. Obviously, for religious leaders to be so picky, so consumed with little things, so willing to jump on people over trifling offenses, seems like a loss of focus, and of the bigger picture. With so much going on, so much at stake, being picky about handwashing seems like a loss of connection with reality, a kind of insanity.
Think about it – suppose you had the Son of God present for just a short time. What would you want to know? What questions would you ask him? I hope to God you wouldn’t waste his time criticizing the way he washes his hands!!
But I think of the situation in 1917 of the Russian Orthodox Church energetically debating the scheme of liturgical colours while the Russian revolution was happening right outside in the streets.
Or more recently, I think of the Anglican Church fighting over largely stylistic issues relating to which Prayer Book to use when vast numbers of people are losing or abandoning faith in God period.
Sometimes those little gestures can mean a lot. Remember when the new Pope (Francis) decided to wear ordinary shoes instead of the usual red papal slippers? That little gesture seemed to symbolize a lot. Or more recently when the legislature in South Carolina decided to remove the Confederate flag, it was seen as a monumental step forward, even though on the surface it was a fairly simple physical action
So with the celebration of the Eucharist, which can lead us to see much more in the small gesture of taking bread and wine – can open up the universe to us in fact – but it can also cause us to become obsessed with how we hold our hands, what kind of bread we’re using, whether we make the sign of the Cross, and who is allowed to receive or not. It can offer all the joyful enthusiasm of the meals Jesus shared with his friends or it can be reduced to the cold lifeless meal of a prison cell.
Today’s readings point us in several directions:
1. That life in general and religion especially can tend to lose sight of the big picture and the big questions and settle instead for being petty, mean-spirited and controlling.
2. (As the apostle James reminds us) genuine faith produces meaningful actions, not token or trivial gestures, and genuine faith does not exist merely to support the status quo.
3. The Song of Songs could suggest that true religion is a passionate thing, like the intense and intimate love between a young man and a young woman.
In the passage from Mark, you can hear the early Christian community saying “we’re not going to be a bunch of elitist snobs.” In the stories of Jesus they chose to remember and tell, you can get a sense of the kind of community they were deciding and hoping to be. They were done with the kind of religion that dismissed and demeaned people.
The word catholic emerged in relation to the Christian Church’s aim to be universal, and no longer limited to the local or the racial or tribal conventions which had defined faith for their ancestors.
There is nothing wrong with washing your hands before eating (and I am quite conscious that I could easily write a sermon extolling the virtues of paying attention to details, and not losing sight of the little things) — that is, unless you begin to see such gestures as something ultimate; unless you are using that behaviour as a means of condemning others; unless you believe that these behaviours make you a better person than someone who is not doing what you are doing.
The fault-finders were no doubt trying to be faithful to their tradition, but the Gospel suggests they were actually trivializing it. In the absence of anything really meaningful, people tend to reduce the scope of their attention and magnify the importance of small things way out of proportion. The Gospel suggests that the Pharisees had turned religion into something that served their own purposes rather than being a means of really serving God; they made the tradition honour themselves instead of using the tradition to honour God in any real way – they found a way to master certain behaviours and to establish those as the criteria by which others would be accepted or condemned. This is not restricted to religious activities but happens in every society at every level of society.
We continue to read scriptures like today’s Gospel in the knowledge that we too need to be reminded not to allow our vision to narrow down to a microscopic dot, that we do not have the luxury of choosing to be blind to a much bigger and more generous way of seeing things.
True religion is a matter of the heart, like a love affair – not a carefully contrived formula or procedure, and to reduce it to mundane and trivial things like the way we wash our hands or the way we cross ourselves in church, is to reduce religion to the level of the banal, and it is one of the reasons why people tend to reject religion, because it often tends that way.
“This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” Jesus says, quoting the prophet Isaiah. Today’s Gospel reveals the origin of the term “lip service,” which is a verbal assurance that you’re going to do something when you have absolutely no intention of doing anything. Jesus was not merely concerned with outward appearances but with what is inside a person – using a rather crude analogy, Jesus suggests that, like a picky eater, they are overly scrupulous about what they allow in, but they are being very careless about what spews out of them (in terms of behaviours).
“Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers …” The apostle James teaches that our religion, to have integrity, has to be made up of inspired actions which make a real difference in the way people relate to each other. Without that, as James suggests, religion becomes “worthless.” Religion is not about catering to and propping up elitism; it is not about trying to guarantee our own status. True religion has to do with having a sympathetic and caring attitude toward the vulnerable and marginalized – James mentions people like widows and orphans, people who were at extreme risk in that world.
Today’s Gospel suggests there are always some people prone to that kind of nit-picking but it points out how bad that looks when it is religious people, especially religious leaders, doing it. There may be times when we have the luxury of becoming very intensely focused on the fine details, but there are times when we must strive again for the big picture, the more global and even cosmic perspective, times when it is irresponsible and even dangerous to spend so much time and energy focusing on really small things when much larger things are at stake.
Jesus is a big picture person and he is interested in the spirit of the law – and he recalled people to a religion in which people would love God with their whole being – every aspect of who they are – their heart, mind, soul, body. And for him, our religious practices are meant to connect us with people, not isolate us or establish different categories of people. That was the kind of faith that could bring reconciliation and transformation to the world, and break through the dividing walls of isolation and ignorance.
Thank God that is what the Church heard and chose to do – and may we choose to do likewise!
(The Ven.) Grant Rodgers+
Song of Solomon 2:8-13 The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice. My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.
James 1:17-27 Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures. You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act–they will be blessed in their doing.
If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 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.
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and 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.) So 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?” He 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; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder,
adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”