Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Yesterday morning Don and I watched John McCain’s memorial service, live from the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. It was full of meaning as only an Episcopal funeral can be: The stunning and poetic words of The Book of Common Prayer, the beauty of that magnificent cathedral, the glory of good music, and the solemn import of Episcopal pomp and liturgy. I was once again proud of our church.
And I was very much moved by the many people that McCain personally chose to provide remembrances. Each did their job well, showcasing many different aspects of this brave military man and accomplished statesman. With each speaker I was reminded of the strength of character of this man: Of his ability to stand strong for his side of a political argument, while at the same time not ridiculing or belittling his opponents. He was a man of honor.
There were many worthy quotes from the day’s speakers; I will remind you of only one, from former President Barack Obama.
He said, “So much of our politics, our public life, our public discourse, can seem small and mean and petty, trafficking in bombast and insult, in phony controversies and manufactured outrage. It’s a politics that pretends to be brave and tough, but in fact is born of fear. John called on us to be bigger than that. He called on us to be better than that…. Perhaps…we honor [Senator McCain] best by recognizing that there are some things bigger than party, or ambition, or money, or fame, or power. That there are some things that are worth risking everything for. Principles that are eternal. Truths that are abiding.”[i]
Thanks be to God for strong and wise leaders like John McCain. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.
Today’s story from Mark sounds a little bit like a family argument doesn’t it? The Pharisees and scribes are upset that Jesus’ followers are not washing their hands properly before they eat. There was a set religious tradition of purification that had been followed for years, and the disciples are ignoring those rules.
The Pharisees and scribes are worried about this upstart Jesus—concerned that he is challenging their way of life. Of course, they’re right. The officials believe he is not honoring the traditions of the elders of the faith; they are threatened by him.
And Jesus is so artful in his response to the Pharisees. He quotes Isaiah, which shows his respect for the faith. Yet he makes it clear that he is harkening back to God’s way, not just to the traditions of the elders. He is holding not to traditions that have been developed through the centuries—rituals about purification, for example—but rather, to the way of God. He quotes Isaiah, saying, “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.”
Jesus understands that the Pharisees have become so wrapped up in the rules of the faith—rules with well-meaning, but ultimately human, origins—that they don’t see what God really wants of the people who are faithful.
In verses that are omitted in today’s reading (why they are omitted, I’m not quite sure), Jesus is queried by the disciples about what he means. In verses 18 through 20 (reading from the Common English Bible translation), Jesus answers the disciples by saying,
“Don’t you know that nothing from the outside that enters a person has the power to contaminate? That’s because it doesn’t enter into the heart but into the stomach, and it goes out into the sewer…. It’s what comes out of a person that contaminates someone in God’s sight.”
Now, one can imagine that the rules about cleanliness came about to protect the people from bacteria—something the people of Jesus’ day would have absolutely no concept of, but the effect of which they would have known well. I am guessing that, in order to get the people to observe these rules of hygiene, over the years they had become infused with religious significance, to the point that their real aim had become obscured.
Jesus’ point is clear: we would be better not to spend our time worrying about human rituals and rules whose origins have been obscured, and instead focus on what comes forth from us—the fruit we bear.
If we think about our own religious rituals, today’s gospel reminds us not to get too hung up on those things we do that are not essential to our faith. The fancy term for these things is “adiaphora.” For example, one might ring bells at certain high moments in the Eucharistic prayer. They are nice, but they aren’t necessary. They are adiaphora. Likewise, crossing ourselves, venerating the altar, bowing at the name of Jesus—all of these have meaning for some of us, and certainly they have value to many of us, but they are not vital to our faith. We should be careful that we don’t get so hung up on ritual that we lose focus on the things that are life-giving.
But I am more interested this morning in thinking about how we might look to Jesus’ response to the Pharisees to help us learn how to relate to one another better. Have you ever had someone respond to something you said in a way that seemed totally out of sync? Maybe you said something quite innocently, and got back a fiery response? A response that seemed to be at a different level of intensity than your initial comment? In those situations, I often suspect that my conversation partner is probably responding to their perception of the situation, and not to mine. Looking back on these kind of exchanges, I often realize that the reaction was coming not from the actual incident at hand, but to other things going on in someone else’s life.
The trick at those moments is to be chance stepping into the other person’s shoes long enough to get some understanding of their worldview. I remember that Don often quote his former boss, Texas Governor Ann Richards, who said, “people do things for their reasons, not yours.”
Certainly this approach is helpful to me as we try to understand much within our current political atmosphere. I have to confess to you that I often find myself utterly unable to understand the position of those whose politics differ from mine. Perhaps the key is not to just hear their words, but to try to understand where they come from—to try to see their fears, their dreams for the future, their worldview. To honor the other by striving to understand, rather than only disagree.
I don’t necessarily think this will change my mind about how I will vote in the future, but perhaps it will help me become more tolerant. It may help me to better see the humanity of my political opposites, and to be a little less willing to dismiss them, along with my dismissal of their views. It will help me to understand where their heart is.
Heart is an important concept in this passage—in verses 1 through 23 Jesus uses the word three times. In Jesus’ day, the “heart was thought to be the center of [a person’s] will and decision-making abilities; to turn one’s heart away from God, or to have it filled with evil intentions was a grievous sin.”[ii] Jesus reacts to the questioning of the Pharisees by suggesting that, to judge another, we should focus not on minor things, but instead on character – on the intent of one’s actions.
The evils that Jesus lists have their root in negative intentions. They all start with malice. Jesus suggests here that we need to think about the impetus for another’s actions—that we focus more on the “why” than the “what.”
And we must be willing to recognize that the actions of others may not always mean what we think they do—nor that people say or act as they do for reasons we can understand. And that means that, as a community, we all need to be a little more patient with one another, and perhaps a little more forgiving.
We humans are complex creatures; and we each live in our own worlds, in our own understandings of the world.
And before we try to understand the meanings of the actions of others, we must seek to understand our own intentions; where is our heart? We must dare to be honest with ourselves about our own whys. And then we must strive to understand the motivations of others; acknowledging that we can never fully know another’s reasons and rationales.
But even as we try to understand others, I thinkwe must also dare to hold those in authority to higher standards. It is time for us to expect the best from all of our leaders, be they leaders of the government, or of the church, or any others. We must insist that, in everything they do, they will operate out of the best of intentions, and never from those evil intentions that Jesus enumerates: “fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.” [Mark 7:21b-22]
And finally, we must always be forgiving, of others and of ourselves. It makes me think of one of my most favorite hymn texts: “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea.” The same hymn goes on to say, “For the love of God is broader than the measure of our mind, and the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind…” In the original poem that this text come from, the verse goes on, “But we make his love too narrow by false limits of our own; and we magnify its strictness with a zeal he will not own.”[iii]
My prayer is that we will all move toward the wideness of God’s mercy, rather than the narrowness to which we are inclined. That we will lead with our hearts, and that we will help build a world where that approach is expected and honored. That’s what Jesus modeled for us; Jesus’ way of love is all about being people of the heart.
For followers of Christ, this is the thing worth risking everything for. May we have the strength, and the courage – and the heart – to risk walking the way of love. Amen.
[i] The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/01/us/politics/barack-obama-john-mccain-funeral-eulogy.html?action=click&module=Top%20Stories&pgtype=Homepage. Accessed September 1, 2018.
[ii] Wilhelm, Dawn Ottoni. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 4, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, p. 23.