September 2, 2018
Music: Sanctuary Jazz, arranged by Chuck Marohnic, Dan Rasmussen on piano
Cover: From Angela Yarber of Holy Women Icons.
“Wangari Maathai is the Holy Woman Icon from Kenya who won a Nobel Peace Prize for founding the Green Belt Movement, which empowers rural women to plant trees, sustain community, and become entrepreneurs.”
Today we live in a world spread with bigotry, violence, and disunity. When we stand to answer the call of the Imam, our goal should be to foster an environment of peace and harmony, championing common human values of respect and kindness. We should re-iterate the famous call of Imam Ali:
“People are of two kinds: either your brother in faith or equal in humanity.”
–Mohammed Al-Hilli, Arbaeen: The Walk
God Ann Weems
God is the Question with whom we contend
throughout our lives.
God is the One standing there
in the closing of doors and the opening of windows.
God is the Surprising Voice that calls
in the jaggedness of life.
God is the Hand that keeps the world
from snuffing out the stars.
God is the Poem that begins and ends
in a circle.
God is the Circle
that neither begins nor ends.
Qur’an (The Cave) 45-46
Set forth for them a parable of the life of this world: It is like water We send down from the sky. Then it mixes with the vegetation of the earth. Then it becomes chaff, scattered by the winds. And God is capable of all things. Wealth and children are the adornment of the life of this world, but that which endures—righteous deeds—are better in reward with thy Lord, and better as a source of hope.
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
The Pharisees gather around him, along with some of the scholars, who had come from Jerusalem. When they notice some of his disciples eating their meal with defiled hands, that is to say, without washing their hands (you see the Pharisees and the Jews never eat without first washing their hands in a particular way, always observing the tradition of the elders, and they won’t eat when they get back from the marketplace without washing again, and there are many other traditions they cherish, such as the washing of cups and jugs and kettles), the Pharisees and the scholars start questioning him: “Why don’t your disciples live up to the tradition of the leaders, instead of eating bread with defiled hands?”
And he answered them, “How accurately Isaiah foretold you phonies when he wrote,
‘This people honor me with their lips,
But their heart stays far away from me.
Their worship of me is empty,
Because they insist on teachings that are human regulations.’
“You have set aside God’s commandment and hold fast to human tradition….
Once again he summoned the crowd and would say to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and try to understand. What goes into you can’t defile you; what comes out of you can….
“For from out of the human heart issue wicked intentions: sexual immorality, thefts, murders, adulteries, greed, wickedness, deceit, promiscuity, an evil eye, blasphemy, arrogance, lack of good sense. All these evil things come from the inside out and defile you.”
Human Family Maya Angelou
I note the obvious differences
in the human family.
Some of us are serious,
some thrive on comedy.
Some declare their lives are lived
as true profundity,
and others claim they really live
the real reality.
The variety of our skin tones
can confuse, bemuse, delight,
brown and pink and beige and purple,
tan and blue and white.
I’ve sailed upon the seven seas
and stopped in every land,
I’ve seen the wonders of the world
not yet one common man.
I know ten thousand women
called Jane and Mary Jane,
but I’ve not seen any two
who really were the same.
Mirror twins are different
although their features jibe,
and lovers think quite different thoughts
while lying side by side.
We love and lose in China,
we weep on England’s moors,
and laugh and moan in Guinea,
and thrive on Spanish shores.
We seek success in Finland,
are born and die in Maine.
In minor ways we differ,
in major we’re the same.
I note the obvious differences
between each sort and type,
but we are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.
We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.
We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.
This week the lectionary takes us back to Mark’s Gospel. We had spent the last several weeks in the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel reflecting on Jesus as Bread. Jesus is the Bread of Life. The Bread of Truth. The Bread that lasts. The Bread of Heaven. The disciples are learning what is important. What really matters.
Jesus is teaching the difference between the values of the world and values of the kingdom. This teaching is hard to take. It is a bit too truthful for those who are attached to life in this world, and who isn’t at some level? Truth is risk even as it frees. Some of his disciples leave, but the Twelve remain. “Where else can we go?” asks Peter. “You have the words of life.”
That is John chapter six.
The lectionary leaves John and moves back to Mark, the Gospel for Year B of the three-year cycle. Year A is Matthew. Year C is Luke. Year B is Mark. John bounces about in all of them.
In today’s reading in Mark chapter seven, we find the followers of Jesus breaking the rules. They are eating bread with defiled hands. This has nothing to do with germs or with being dirty as we think of it today. These are religious rules and regulations. These are rules designed to distinguish the “in crowd” from the “out crowd,” the “insiders” from the “outsiders,” God’s “chosen” people versus the “unchosen.”
The disciples of Jesus are not living up to the traditions of the leaders and the Pharisees are tattling to Jesus about it.
“Why don’t your disciples live up to the tradition of the leaders, instead of eating bread with defiled hands?” For shame.
They are playing the grand old game of “Gotcha.”
Gotcha is a game you can see played out every day. We play the game in interpersonal relationships, in families, in social settings, in church, in politics, in media, and now social media. The game goes like this:
Person A is saying something that might be a little edgy, pushing accepted boundaries, going beyond conversation that is allowed in polite company, saying something that has some truth to it.
Person B is uncomfortable with what Person A has just said. Rather than discuss what actually is said, Person B finds something else that Person A has done or said that is popular to criticize and pounces on that. Gotcha.
Gotcha is a grand old game. It is played every day.
Person A protests police violence against African-Americans by kneeling at an NFL game.
Person B accuses Person A of being unpatriotic and disparaging our troops. Gotcha.
Person A advocates for universal healthcare, a living wage, and an end to the privatization of public assets.
Person B says Person A’s father was a member of the communist party and pals around with terrorists. Gotcha.
Person A speaks out about the on-going suffering of the people of Gaza at the hands of the Israelis.
Person B finds a way to accuse Person A of antisemitism and holocaust denial. Gotcha.
The disciples are casting out demons, healing, and proclaiming the kingdom of God, a people-centered movement for economic justice as opposed to collaboration with Roman oligarchs.
The Pharisees respond: “Why don’t your disciples live up to the tradition of the leaders, instead of eating bread with defiled hands?” Gotcha.
Let’s ask for sake of argument: why don’t the disciples live up to the tradition of the leaders and go through the Jewish rituals of identity politics?
Maybe they forgot. Maybe they didn’t have time. Maybe they didn’t have the resources. Maybe not everyone in their group is Jewish. Maybe they just don’t think it is all that important anymore.
Whatever the reason, they didn’t. This isn’t the first time that Jesus and his disciples are accused of breaking the rules. It won’t be the last. Despite the claim in the Gospel of Matthew in which Jesus is quoted as saying that not one rule of the law will change (Matthew 5:18), Jesus made a lot of changes.
Jesus is remembered in this way across religious lines.
In the Qur’an, Jesus is remembered as one who had the authority to change the regulations and the rules. He is quoted as saying that he came to confirm the Torah and to allow “some of what was forbidden.” This is from the Qur’an. Jesus is speaking:
‘Indeed I have come to you with a sign from your Lord. I make for you out of clay the likeness of a bird, then breathe into it, and it becomes a bird by the permission of God. And I heal the blind and the leper, and I bring the dead to life by the permission of God. And I inform you of what you eat and what you store in your houses. Surely, there is a sign for you in that, if you are believers. And (I have come) confirming the Torah that was (revealed) before me, and to allow you some of what was forbidden to you. And I have come to you with a proof from your Lord, so fear God and obey me. Indeed, God is my Lord and your Lord, so worship Him. This is the straight path.” Surah Ali ‘Imran 3:49-52
Jesus certainly changed things. That remembrance is why Christianity doesn’t follow the Jewish rules and regulations. Christianity created its own rules and regulations, as equally life-giving, and problematic as the Jewish ones. Religious rules and regulations are just rules and regulations, whether they are Jewish, Christian, Muslim or whatever.
They are no substitute for the higher law, to do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God.
Jesus calls out the Pharisees on their hypocrisy. What is important is not what you eat or how you eat it. It is not what goes into you that defiles you, but what comes out of you that defiles you.
It is not about religious rules and regulations that divide the supposed holy group from the supposed unholy group. What matters is what is in the heart. Because it is from there, the heart, that works of both good and evil come forth.
The challenge for us here this morning is not Jewish rules.
I am speaking to a Christian congregation. Jewish rules or Muslim rules are not in our conscious awareness anyway. But here is the challenge. What are our rules? What rules do we live by that we have elevated beyond Divine rules?
What rules do we regard (for ourselves and for others) more important than what comes from inside out? Do we have rules that protect us from our own intentions of our hearts? Are we satisfied with obeying our rules rather than asking the deeper questions of truth and justice?
Rules and regulations are not bad. It isn’t a bad idea to ritually wash before eating or to observe the Sabbath or to pray the Lord’s Prayer or to recite the Qur’an in Arabic or meditate on your breath or any of the myriad rules, regulations, and practices that religions have developed.
When used in the spirit in which they were intended, these rules and regulations can lead us to examine our hearts. They can take us out of the mundane, the unconscious every day, and into a posture of wakefulness. Religious rules and rituals can be a vehicle for enlightenment and awakening.
They can also become a substitute for authentic self-examination and even prevent us from examining our motivations and intentions. We judge ourselves in regards to how well we obeyed the rules as opposed to how well we examined the intentions of our hearts.
It is worse when we judge others as to whether or not they are keeping up with our rules.
It is most pernicious when our rules are invoked to silence others, particularly, silencing those who are pointing out injustice and calling on collective human good will to hear the cries of the oppressed.
That is what I think is happening in the gospel reading.
The disciples have been healing and proclaiming justice and freedom, and the people are responding. The Pharisees don’t want that. This might mess up their system. Healing needs to go through channels. The Pharisees don’t like Rome either, but they believe they are the ones authorized to manage the oppression. They are the controlled opposition.
Radical Jesus and his disciples feeding people with a bag lunch, healing their diseases, and casting out the demons of Rome’s oppression are actions that are dangerous to the status quo. This truth that Jesus and his disciples are preaching and demonstrating will shake things up not only for Rome but for the Pharisees, scribes and others who all have a role as well in sustaining Rome’s Pax Romana.
The Pharisees ask, “How do we slow this down? Let’s catch them in breaking rules and then we can discredit them in the eyes of the people. Look! They are not real Jews! They eat with defiled hands!”
And so it goes.
But here is the good news.
The Gotcha game is a short game. It may be a victory for the powers of oppression in the short run but not in the long run. Resisting tyranny and restoring justice, the things that Jesus and his disciples were all about, is the long game.
I interviewed Chris Hedges about his new book, America: The Farewell Tour. The last question I asked Chris was to talk about resistance as a spiritual act. This is what he said. I will let Chris Hedges, a Presbyterian minister, have the last word in this sermon:
You know that’s what resistance entails. In order to resist successfully it entails accepting all sorts of qualities that … the hedonism of consumer society tells us we should flee from which includes self-sacrifice even suffering. It’s not rational. It’s not about the pursuit of happiness. It’s about the pursuit of freedom. It accepts that even if we fail there is an inner freedom and dignity that comes with defiance. And perhaps this may be the only dignity and freedom. And in some ways true happiness. …. Resistance is really the supreme act of love. Most of those who resisted successfully, those icons that we all hold up Sitting Bull, Malcolm X, Martin, Emma Goldman, were defeated at least in the calculation of the powerful but the power of their moral presence and their courage is one that sustains resistance and rebellion itself.
And in that sense I do argue as you correctly point out that there is a spiritual element to resistance maybe even a religious– not, not — I don’t mean necessarily in a formal orthodox way. One can in my mind lead the moral or even the religious life without ever being part of a religious group or embracing a particular doctrine. It is about battling radical evil. It’s about becoming a whole and complete human being. It’s about overcoming estrangement. It’s about honoring the sacred. And in the end, it’s about being free because when you carry out acts of resistance at that moment you are a free man or woman.