Pentecost 13 August 30, 2009

James 1:17-27                                                                      

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23                                                      

Well, the school buses started rolling by this past week and the air turned crisp, so another summer is drawing to an end. No matter how long we’ve been out of school, fall is still somehow another beginning, isn’t it? It set me thinking of that old saying that wisdom is what remains after you’ve forgotten everything you learned in school. And I wonder if it isn’t true that holiness is what remains when we’ve forgotten everything we did in church? A thought, anyway.

It goes with our focus this morning, which is the last in our summer series on worship: “Being the Body of Christ in the World” – in other words, what happens after the service. We’ve received the Body and Blood of Christ into ourselves. We’ve “become what we are,” in those words of St. Augustine that we used for the title of this series. The whole point of our worship is now what comes afterwards, the formation of our lives in the world. There’s no point in liturgy, no point in prayer, if it doesn’t make a difference – the right kind of difference – in who we are and how we live in the world.

That is, I think, what Jesus is talking about when he says, “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come our are what defile” – going on to list a series of “life in the world” things: “fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.” It’s the moral life, not the cultic rituals, that is the point – the criterion on which God judges us.

I started out quarreling with Jesus about his saying that “nothing outside a person” can defile us, because it seems to me evident that there are lots of things outside us that defile us, that corrupt and degrade our perfection in the image of God. Alcohol, drugs, pornography – they certainly defile a lot of people. The avalanche of commercial advertising to which we’re all subjected everyday – I think it defiles us, making us think we can find happiness by amassing more and more things, by living to satisfy a bunch of “needs” that are themselves generated by the advertising.

Political propaganda – that defiles us. (By political propaganda I mean one-sided, over-simplified communications, whether from the right or the left, that are blasted at us to heighten and confirm our prejudices, not to make us think and respond rationally.) Someone was observing to me last week, where do we get the idea that we need to arm ourselves to the teeth to defend ourselves against the Government, or to protect ourselves against Muslims or illegal immigrants or “terrorists” or whatever? Who sets one child of God against another, leading us to hate and fear and do things like torture or rape prisoners? People who live this way have been defiled by the propaganda of talk radio or politicians pandering for support by exploiting human fears. So things outside do defile us, I found myself insisting to Jesus.

But what I heard Jesus replying was, you don’t deal with life in an impure world just by trying to set yourself up as ritually pure. You deal with life in an impure world by arming yourself to resist and combat the impurities of the world. That idea – if I’m right that it is what Jesus was getting at – is clear enough in the context of his dispute in the gospel passage this morning with the scribes and the Pharisees. The scribes and the Pharisees were the strict religionists of Jesus’ day. They tried to observe every detail of the Jewish law. They were obsessed with avoiding contamination with ritual impurity: non-Jews, forbidden foods, lepers, women during their periods, dead bodies, and so on.

I think a parallel might be made – I would make it anyway – with certain kinds of religious fundamentalism today, Christian and otherwise. I’m thinking of the kind of people who focus on some sin or “difference” other than their own and then rigorously condemn or exclude it: homosexuality is a biggy here, but also Christian fundamentalists condemning Muslims, Muslim fundamentalists condemning Christians, Hindus stoning women who marry out of their caste. These are all attempts, I think, to make oneself ritually pure and, by doing so, to deal with the complex and in many ways corrupt and defiling world “out there” in which all of us live.

The point Jesus is making is that these attempts all end up being hypocritical. They focus us on the other and distract us from ourselves. I think of a friend of mine who was absolutely hysterical when Gene Robinson was elected bishop because he was gay, yet this man was divorced and remarried and had lived with his wife before they were married. Jesus doesn’t say anything about homosexuality, but divorce and fornication (sex outside of marriage) he clearly condemns. We point to the sins of others, and ignore our own sins. The quest for ritual purity is a dangerous one to the extent it substitutes for or blinds us to the important quest, which is to live and enable others to live a moral life in the world.

As we move on into the fall and these coming weeks in the remainder of the Christian Year, we will be dealing, week after week, with what Jesus means by living a moral life in the world. (Remember those green footsteps we had around the room last year: reminding us that we are walking with Jesus, “discipling” ourselves to him?) Suffice it to say this morning that the foundation for a moral life is to take seriously what we profess each week in the Creed: that Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead. In other words, what we do counts – counts ultimately. Our lives have value. We matter. And the measure of our lives is not how much money we make, how many points we score, whether we’re honored at banquets or appear on television. The measure of our lives is Jesus Christ, how our lives compare with the life he lived for us. It is in this that we are called to be the Body of Christ in the world.

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