Sunday, September 03, 2006

Sermon for Pentecost XIII, September 3, 2006

St. George’s Chapel, Indian River Hundred in the Parish of All Saints, Rehoboth, Delaware

Mark. 7, 1-24

I was disconcerted when I looked at the gospel as printed in today’s insert and found that a verse had been omitted by the Lectionary framers. (See my Whatever happened to Mark 7.19?) It is verse 19 which reads, “since it [the food one eats] enters not into the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? (Thus he declared all foods clean)”. The Greek construction here makes it clear that this startling verse is an editorial comment of the Evangelist . This suggests that some decades after the death of Jesus, Christians in some churches, (possibly most churches) understood that Jesus had not only challenged a whole series of ritual actions such as purification rituals, but had gone further and had contradicted the food laws of the Old Testament.

Peter's Vision

There is a story in the early part of Acts about Peter having a vision of a great carpet let down on which were all kinds of animals, many, apparently “unclean” by strict Judaic standards. A heavenly voice commands Peter to ‘kill and eat’, but the Apostle is still firmly embedded in the old taboos, and rather self-righteously puts Jesus right on the matter: “By no means, Lord: for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean”. The voice (presumably that of the risen Jesus) sets the record straight and reiterates the point that Mark’s editorial comment makes, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane”. You may recall that as soon as this vision is over, Peter is called to go and Baptize a Gentile Roman NCO. (Acts, 10.1-23). Mark’s comment and this story, together with much in Paul’s letters tells us that the battle over exclusiveness or inclusiveness was pivotal in the first two generations of Christians.

The missing verse is of central and definitive importance for our understanding of just what it was that Jesus said and did. The immediate issue was about forbidden foods, but lying behind that is a vastly more important perspective. It goes, ultimately, to the understanding of God and God’s dealings with humanity that underlies any religious system. In a book full of insight and wisdom, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, Marcus Borg suggests that two visions lie side by side in the Old Testament, (and, it needs to be emphasized, in many other religious systems). One is the concept of holiness, the other of compassion.

Marcus Borg - Purity Systems

Holiness is a central element in many religions; it emphasizes the otherness of God, the majesty and the over-arching, transcendent Being of God: but all too easily the human response is to require strict rules to mark off all that is not holy: it therefore easily tends to become rigid and legalistic.
Compassion, on the other hand, tends to emphasize the close presence of God with people, expressed in Isaiah’s famous use of Immanuel, ‘God with us’, the reading that we hear at Christmas time: compassion is not so bothered about the lesser details of a legalistic system because the needs of suffering individuals and communities are paramount.

While it is common to see the O.T. as primarily centered on the Power and distance of God, thus favoring Holiness as its central theme, it is important to note that within the collection of Hebrew writings, there is a very powerful statement of the alternative vision. It is found mainly in the Prophetic writings and begins with Amos’s bitter denunciation of social injustice, and also in trenchant criticism of the ritualistic sacrificial system, a system that is dealt with at length in the Book of Leviticus, a section of which is known to modern scholarship as “the Holiness Code”. Following Amos, a whole succession of Prophets denounces the lack of compassion for the poor on the part of the powerful: perhaps, the most complete and succinct statement comes from the Prophet Micah, “What does Yahweh require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God”. (6.8). Here the word “kindness” could equally well be translated ‘compassion’.

Jesus and Compassion

The picture we get of Jesus from the first three gospels, suggests strongly that while he accepted the vision of a Powerful, Holy God, he emphasized the Prophetic vision of the closeness of God. It is clear that he framed his teaching and actions in terms of compassion. Frequently, the writers remark that he was “moved with compassion”, and the Levitical injunction in 19.2, “you shall be holy, for I, Yahweh, your God am holy”. Is offset in the words of Jesus in Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount by “Be compassionate just as your Father in compassionate” (Lk. 6.36).

The records indicate that Jesus presented a new and radical approach to religion. He consistently welcomed to his table fellowship people who were not pure, not part of the holiness scheme; tax collectors, made unclean by so much contact with gentile Romans, Prostitutes, unclean by breaking the rituals of sexuality, and disabled men and women, excluded by Levitical regulation from the assembly of Yahweh’s people. It is also clear that this pattern of behavior was one of the major reasons for his being hounded by the religious authorities.

The Wider Perspective

This suggests that we need to look at the wider picture. A purity system was not and is not unique to the Hebrew people. Many forms of religion have food laws, caste systems, and tight legal restrictions of various groups within society. At random there comes to mind: the Indian mutiny sparked among other things by the use of animal fat in greasing a cartridge (pork fat upset Muslims, beef fat upset Hindus); the depressed status of women in Islam, Judaism and, let it not be forgotten, in Christianity after a brief period following the death of Jesus, and the lack of acceptance by “established” society of racial groups and minorities marked as ‘unclean’ by their sexual orientation. The list could be prolonged, but these examples expose the central point. It is that in declaring all food acceptable, Jesus rejects the purity system as a whole in its much wider forms of operation (the poor are dirty; foreigners smell; homosexuals are bestial and so on). Marcus Borg sums up much of this splendidly when he writes, “Whereas purity divides and excludes, compassion unites and includes. For Jesus compassion had a radical sociopolitical meaning. In his teaching and table fellowship and in the shape of his movement, the purity system was subverted and an alternative social vision affirmed”. (op. cit. p.58).

Paul at his best recognized all this when he wrote, “There is no longer Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are on in Christ Jesus”. (Gal. 3.28). Sadly, we know that this vision has often been severely obscured in Christian history, but it is still the ideal, and calls us to resist those who fear the radical nature of Jesus’ teaching and want to cling to forms of a purity system that imposes inflexible theological boundaries, and sets up, “sharp social boundaries between the righteous and sinners”. (Borg p.59).

Purity Systems Now

The wider conservative evangelical scene in the US is a dismal one: its level of commitment to an out-worn purity system leads it to declare that AIDS is God’s punishment for “dirty” behavior, and some of its leaders declare that since the end of WW II uncounted billions of humans have gone to hell because they did not confess that Jesus alone is the way to God.

Nearer to home, there is a strong conservative wing within the Anglican Communion that goes back to the complicated history of the Church of England from the 16th to the 19th centuries. That whole area needs careful exploration, best done in the context of a study group, but here it needs to be said that while the positions are not as extreme as those found in conservative US civic religion, they still exhibit a tenacious hold on an inflexible approach to both the biblical writings and to Dogmatic definitions of the 3rd, 4th and 5th centuries. Central is the rejection of women’s ministry (though nowadays that is often carefully cloaked) and a refusal to re-think the ethical issues of celibacy, and sexual relationships of differing patterns. This does not sound like Jesus declaring an end to purity systems, and I want to give the last word to our Presiding Bishop elect, Katherine Jefferts Schori, “We need to get busy about healing the world. That’s what we’ve been called to do. We need to stop focusing on our internal conflicts. The mission of the church is the centerpiece”. (Episcopal Life, Front p., Sept 2006). I would just add that central to that mission is the following of Jesus’ radical rejection of legalism in favor of compassion.

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