Did you wash your hands? A Sermon for Proper 17B, 2021

Proper 17, Year B

August 29, 2021

We know all about washing our hands, don’t we? Here at Grace, we’ve got signs everywhere reminding us of the importance of that act. We’ve developed little rituals to help us make sure we do the full 20 seconds. If we’re not able to wash our hands, we’ve got hand sanitizer everywhere. Over the last eighteen months, we’ve developed instincts for things like staying six feet away, not shaking hands, all the rituals of sanitizing and social distancing. Many of us have so internalized these instructions and rituals that they have become second nature, even as we learn that much of the things we were told to do and did are no longer necessary. And at the same time, we’re all too familiar with the conflicts over such measures, the way those conflicts reflect partisan and cultural differences; the ways our views on such matters have become identity markers, to the detriment of public health and the suppression of the pandemic.

To hear Jesus debating the merits of hand washing may seem to us a bit strange, even if we might wonder whether there was something there that might connect with our own concerns and controversies. And truth be told, after all of those weeks listening to the conflicts over the meaning of bread in John 6, a switch in topic might be welcome indeed. At the same time, we might wonder whether Jesus is little more than a trouble-maker, looking for ways of generating conflict and drawing distinctions between himself and the religious establishment. Given that in our current context, watching people inciting or welcoming conflict and controversy has become commonplace, with fatal consequences for some, we may be a bit weary of it all, and eager to find other things to talk about in church.

But there’s more to it than that, and in order to make sense of it, we need to spend a little time talking about Mark’s gospel and the context in which this story appears. We are in Mark 7, so we are picking up the story where we left off—after the Feeding of the Five Thousand, after Jesus walked on water, after those trips back and forth across the Sea of Galilee. It’s not quite clear where we are, but I think we can assume we are back in Galilee. 

In any case, Pharisees and some scribes have come to check Jesus out. It’s the second time we’ve seen this constellation of characters. The first time was near the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry when they confronted him about healing someone in the synagogue on the Sabbath. This time, they are challenging Jesus’ disciples about their conformity to ritual practices. 

For us, heirs of two thousand years of Christian polemic against Judaism, this debate seems lifeless, the outcome a foregone conclusion. But in the first century, it wasn’t. We need to remember just who the Pharisees were and what they were trying to do. They were a movement within Judaism that sought to make Torah, the Jewish law, relevant for the daily lives of ordinary people. They wanted to “build a fence around Torah” that is to say, to develop a body of interpretation that would help people be faithful while protecting the Torah’s central tenet. So they developed traditions of interpretation that applied the principles of the law to ordinary life. They also wanted to expand its reach and relevance, so they applied legal material that had originally affected only the priests, to all. That was the case here, with hand-washing.

But it’s also important to remember that they were only one group within 1st century Judaism; there were others who disagreed with their approach. In other words, this debate was alive and there were sound arguments on both sides.

We generally assume that Jesus preached against the Pharisees’ approach. He does so here, but note that he argues against their position by quoting the tradition, the prophets. In other words, Jesus is not trying to abandon the tradition, he is arguing from within the Jewish tradition against the Pharisees’ approach.

It’s important to understand just what the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees was about—interpretation of the law, and especially interpretation of the purity laws. It was not a conflict between external religious practice and inward piety. That’s the way Christians have often understood the conflict and thus they see  Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees as an attack on external practice. When Jesus tells the Pharisees that impurity does not come from the outside, but rather an impure heart leads to sins, he is redefining purity and holiness. Sin, Jesus is saying, comes from within. Evil intentions lead to evil acts. 

The lesson from the Letter of James makes the same point in a slightly different way, “Be ye hearers of the word also, and not just doers.” This letter, well it’s not really a letter, more like a collection of ethical advice, emphasizes moral action. Throughout, the author of the letter emphasizes the importance of faith expressing itself by doing good toward others. 

We don’t think in terms of purity much these days, we don’t even use the term holiness very much. They seem old-fashioned, irrelevant in the contemporary world, not even terribly important in our lives of faith. But to ignore such important categories is to miss something that was crucial in Jesus’ message in the first century, and should remain of central significance to those who would follow him in the twenty-first century. 

Holiness has meant different things over the centuries. In the biblical tradition, of course, holiness was above all something denoted of God. But the real connotation of the term, both in the Hebrew, and later in the form we are also familiar with it—sacred, both terms mean essentially being set apart. That which is sacred, or holy is different from, that which is not. In a sense, what is holy or sacred is God’s, and that’s why when the people of Israel came to think of themselves as God’s chosen people, they use rules of purity to set themselves apart from other peoples. Over time, those purity rules became more important as they came to define the differences between the people of God and others. So in Leviticus, when the Israelites received the laws of purity, the holiness code, it found its meaning with God’s statement “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” 

The question of course, is what all this means. We are called to be a holy people, yet if you’re like me, you probably bristle at the notion. Some of us have good reason to do so. There was a time in the Episcopal Church, maybe some of you can remember it, when if you were divorced, you couldn’t receive communion. I don’t know if that was the practice here at Grace before rules were liberalized in the 70s; I know it was true in churches in South Carolina. 

For the Judaism of Jesus’ day, such purity rules were all about preserving the community over against a dominant and domineering culture. Over the centuries such rules, laws, had become more important, especially as the Jewish community had to struggle to survive as a subject of mighty empires. 

But Jesus challenged that view of things. Such purity rules, as helpful as they were and are in preserving community, went against something even more important to Jesus—the full inclusion of all people among his followers. We will see this more clearly in the coming weeks, but it is no accident that Mark puts this dispute about Jesus’ disciples keeping the purity code right after the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand. For there was no more perilous moment for someone who kept purity laws than eating. And since they were somewhere out in the wilderness, as Mark makes clear, there would have been no way to keep the purity laws concerning the washing of hands, or, of food. 

That’s precisely what Jesus was advocating and living, a move away from a notion of holiness that divides and excludes, toward one that is inclusive—a holiness of the heart, rather than a holiness of rules. What that means for us in the twenty-first century may not be exactly clear. 

Jesus’ words challenge us to rethink our deepest cultural values and some of our deepest aversions. To be the inclusive, welcoming community that Jesus has called us to be means not only eliminating the barriers and rules that divide us but to embrace one another in a spirit of love and forgiveness and above all, to transform the love we experience in our acceptance by God, to the love of others. In our divided and conflict-ridden world, to welcome and embrace difference, to reach across everything that divides us and be witnesses to God’s love, may be the most important thing we can do.

Where can we go? A Sermon for Proper 16B, 2021

Proper16, Year B

August 22, 2021

Have you ever faced one of those life-changing decisions, one where you knew that whatever you did, your life would change forever? It may have been a relationship, a job opportunity, where to go to college. It may have been a decision between remaining in the familiar comfortable place, where you knew who you were and where you stood, and the uncertainty and challenge of a future that held the possibility of excitement and a transformed life, but also might have been dangerous. 

We know all about bad decisions, regretting the choices we made, things that led us down deadends, or trouble. We also know about doors that we didn’t open, opportunities that we didn’t pursue.

We know about bad decisions in the world around us. We see them playing out in society, in government, in institutions like schools or universities as we all struggle with the pandemic and with the challenges we face. The news is full of such stories these days; some of those decisions affect us, our livelihoods, the health and welfare of our families and in the face of those bad decisions, we wonder how we can make right ones.

We are seeing bad decisions play out on a global scale as we watch unfolding events in Afghanistan; the fruits of a twenty-year long military debacle, and repeated bad decisions, or refusals to make the hard decisions. And we see the consequences of those decisions in the lives of Afghanis who wanted to create a better society and better lives for themselves and their families.

Often we can’t know or imagine the implications of decisions we make—how they will affect those around us, our future lives. And in such circumstances, we often don’t take others into consideration when we act, or out of fear that we might make the wrong decision, we don’t choose, which of course is a decision of its own.

I was scrolling twitter last night, witnessing the deep partisan conflict and anger that is endemic to that platform; seeing links to heartbreaking stories of COVID patients, chaos in Afghanistan; witnessing the fear and anxiety of individuals as they try to do the right thing; conflicts over, well just about everything. As I scrolled, I thought about Peter’s response to Jesus in today’s gospel reading, “Where can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Facing a choice, facing a decision, Peter and the twelve vowed to walk with Jesus into an uncertain future.

We are finally coming to an end to our reading of John 6. Next week, we will be back in Mark for the rest of the liturgical year. Today’s reading provides us with a helpful transition back to Mark because it addresses one of Mark’s central themes, and certainly a central theme of that part of Mark where we will find ourselves for the next several weeks. 

Let’s go back and look at what is taking place. The story begins with the feeding of the five thousand. His disciples cross the lake and Jesus walks on water to join them. After discovering that Jesus is gone, the crowd follows him back across the lake, and then begins the lengthy debate, discussion, argument, over the meaning of the miracle and the significance of bread. Now, as the chapter comes to an end, we are told that Jesus said these things, with the culminating statement: “But the one who eats this bread will live forever” in the synagogue at Capernaum, where he had been teaching.

Then we are treated to another shock, or abrupt transition. The crowd with whom Jesus had been debating has suddenly vanished, and only the disciples are left. The controversy is over, or Jesus’ opponents are gone, and in the quiet of the moment, some of those closest to Jesus have second thoughts: “This teaching is difficult, who can accept it?” 

Struggling to comprehend what Jesus is saying, what he is about, the gospel writer observes, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.”

And then, Jesus took the inner circle, the twelve, aside and asked them, “Do you also wish to go away?” 

Peter answered for the group: “Where would we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” 

“Where would we go?” 

Peter and the twelve had borne witness to the conflict. They had listened and watched as Jesus and his opponents argued over the meaning of bread, and the bread of life. They saw as his opponents appealed to history and tradition in their attempt to silence Jesus. They watched too, as their friends, other disciples turned away because Jesus said difficult things. 

We might very well be among those that think Jesus’ teachings are difficult, so difficult in fact, that we refashion them into an ideology that reflects our fears and baser instincts, that contribute to white supremacy and Christian nationalism, that reinterpret the command to love our neighbor and our enemy, so that they refer only to those in my family, race, political party, or socio-economic class. 

Jesus has difficult words for us, difficult teachings. Wherever we stand on the political spectrum, wherever we stand on the burning questions of our day, it is easy for us to view Jesus, his teachings, through the lens of our political and cultural assumptions. We can see that when others do it; when they mold Jesus and Christianity into an ideology supportive of their political perspective. It’s often much more difficult to see when we do it ourselves.

Where would we go? 

As we return to the Gospel of Mark next week, we will see that following Jesus, discipleship means for that gospel, following Jesus to the cross—an arduous and dangerous journey for those who would follow Jesus. We will learn from Mark his perspective on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

In the gospel of John, there’s a rather different emphasis. As I mentioned last week, in this gospel discipleship is all about relationship with Jesus, being with, abiding with Jesus. There’s a poignancy in this little episode, when some of Jesus’ disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. Having tasted that relationship, having abided in him, having glimpsed the abundant life Jesus offers, they chose the easier path, to walk away. 

But Peter and the twelve saw that they really had no option. There was no alternative. “Where would we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

We stand at a crossroads, in this liturgical year as we move from John to Mark, and between somewhat different notions of discipleship. We stand at a crossroads as Jesus asks, “Do you also wish to go away?” We may want to step away from him, from the difficult words that he teaches, back into the comfort of easy answers and complacency, but to do so means also turning our backs on the life he offers us. Behind us lies the familiar with all of its easy answers and certainties. Ahead of us lies the uncertainty of a future, and amid that uncertainty the promise of a life lived in Christ. Where will we go?

Summer of Bread, Summer of Soul: A Sermon for Proper 15B, 2021

Proper15, Year B

August 15, 2021

Over the last months, Corrie and I have streamed a lot of movies and television shows. We are revisiting some of our old favorites, discovering new shows, and branching out to explore foreign productions. Some of them are not very good; some of them we continue watching only because we can’t think of any alternatives. Some of them are capable of helping us forget about the world’s problems. Very occasionally we watch something that really wows us.

That was the case with “Summer of Soul.” It’s a documentary using footage taped in 1969 of a series of concerts in Harlem. Unlike Woodstock which took place the same summer and became an iconic moment of American culture, no one saw the film footage of Summer of Soul until it was masterfully crafted into a documentary for the ages by Questlove, with interviews of some of the surviving performers as well as some who had been in attendance. 

It’s a remarkable film both for the quality and diversity of the performers: jazz, gospel, R & B, blues. There are transcendent moments: a young Stevie Wonder drum solo but the moment that is burned into my memory is of Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples singing “Precious Lord.” Jesse Jackson introduces the song, telling the crowd it was MLK jr’s favorite song and that Mahalia sang it at his funeral, just a little over a year earlier. It’s a hot and humid day, and Mahalia has already been singing; she’s tired, and hands the mic to Mavis, telling her she can’t sing it. Mavis is up to the challenge but as she sings, Mahalia recovers, gets up and joins in an improvisational duet that stops time and summons the Holy Spirit. With the memory of MLK’s assassination still raw, after riots and dashed hopes, that moment and the film as a whole, is witness to the hope, faith, and resilience of an oppressed people.

Watching this film more than fifty years after the footage was made is a strange experience. There’s a sense of possibility, of dreams of change, in the midst of the reality of what had taken place. The fashions, the amazing performances bear witness to the joyous exuberance of a people celebrating their culture and music, celebrating being together. But there’s also the reality that we know how the next fifty years played out—the ongoing backlash to the civil rights movement, the abandonment of the cities and the hollowing out of social programs, the rise of white supremacy.

Strangest of all was the power of the experience, the way I was moved while watching the film, and especially while watching the Mahalia Jackson—Mavis Staples duet. With all that’s going on in the world, all the ways my life, our lives, our world has changed, with all of the troubles, suffering and crises, for a moment to be transported into another dimension by a recording of a performance more than 50 years ago, was unexpected, inspiring, and sublime.

What’s more surprising is that I experienced it in my living room with only Corrie and the cats to share it. In an utterly mundane, ordinary space, beauty and grace, the Holy Spirit entered and for a moment we—Corrie and I at least, probably not the cats, were transported to another plane of existence. 

It’s something we used to experience regularly. The effervescence of experience, shared in a group or a crowd, at a concert, the theatre, even at a sporting event, and of course, in a church. But in pandemic, with our concerns for social distancing, masks, and all, those sorts of experiences are rare indeed. Such experiences, such feelings are one of the reasons we find ourselves taking risks we might not otherwise take in light of the continuing pandemic. We yearn to be with others; we yearn to be transported outside of ourselves and away from the narrow, mundane lives we’ve been living, the fear and anxiety that have dominated us.

As we continue to read from the bread discourse in John 6, I find it interesting that we are given a dialogue in which Jesus and his interlocutors debate the experience they shared earlier—the feeding of the five thousand—and reflect on what it might mean for them. In one sense, Jesus’ conversation partners—I hesitate to call them opponents—seem to be trying to draw an analogy between their experience of receiving the miraculous bread from Jesus, with the historical event of the Israelites being fed manna in the wilderness. It’s a very human thing to do, isn’t it, to look for similar experiences in the past, to interpret the present through the past.

But Jesus seems to be saying something quite different: What you see and experience here is nothing like the manna in the wilderness. The Israelites ate manna and died; whoever eats the bread I give them will live forever. We immediately think of eternal life when we hear such language, but when Jesus and the gospel writer speak of “life” in the Gospel of John, they mean life lived now, abundant life, lived in the presence of, in relationship with Jesus Christ. 

There’s something else I want to emphasize. When Jesus speaks of flesh and says, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abide in me and I in them” we immediately think of the Eucharist, the bread and wine the body and blood of Christ. And rightly so, for clearly that’s one meaning of all of this. But there’s another aspect of “flesh” to which we should pay attention. Remember John 1: “And the Word became flesh and lived among them.”  

This text is about more than the Eucharist. It is about the incarnation, the word made flesh, but it’s also about the flesh-made word living among us, living in us. 

We may want to focus our attention on what these verses suggest about the meaning of the Eucharist. Christians have debated how Christ is present in the bread and wine since the first century. But I think we have more to learn from what else Jesus says here, “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.”

Jesus is pointing to the riches and depth of relationship that are possible in and through him, as we grow more deeply in knowledge and love of him, as we eat more deeply and drink more deeply, as we are nourished by his wisdom. All of that opens up more possibility for dwelling more deeply in him, and he in us.

Even as we struggle with our current lives and the crises in our world—as we learn of the devastation in Haiti, a tragedy on top of all of the other tragedies that nation has faced over the centuries and in recent years; as we watch the collapse of Afghanistan and are reminded again of the failures of American diplomacy and military might, as we confront climate catastrophe, pandemic, and everything else, the noise, the fear, the worries may be overwhelming.

But in the midst of all of it, the cacophony of crisis, Jesus comes to us, in bread and wine, in flesh and blood, in voices raised in song, offering us hope and new life, abundant life. May we find the ears to hear, the eyes to see, the mouths to taste, the life he offers, the life he gives us.

And even if we can’t sing like Mavis or Mahalia, may we reach out our hands to our Precious Lord, so he can lead us home.

Out of the Depths: A sermon for Proper 14 B, 2021

Proper14, Year B

August 8, 2021

As I started reflecting on the readings for today earlier this week, I found myself drawn to the Psalm. It’s a familiar one full of powerful imagery that draws us into the spiritual life of an author 2500 years ago and offers us opportunity to reflect on our own spiritual lives.

 And I thought it might be worthwhile to spend some time with the Psalm, and with Psalms in general to help us understand their role in our Eucharistic liturgy, and perhaps open up new possibilities for our own spiritual reflection and growth.

You may wonder why we recite or chant a psalm each week in our Eucharistic liturgy. Each week, following the first reading, there’s a psalm. It’s not a reading like the other readings, but a response to the first reading, meant to be a reflection on it and to repeat some of the first reading’s themes. It’s meant to be sung, or chanted, or read. When we read it at Grace, we usually read it in unison; but it can also be read responsively, with the leader reading one verse, and the congregation reading the next one. It can also, although this requires a bit more orchestration, be read antiphonally, with each side of the congregation reading a verse.

The psalms are prayers and for most of the history of Christianity, and of Anglicanism, they have been a central part of devotion and practice. Traditionally, if you read Morning and Evening Prayer regularly, you would read all 150 psalms every month. Doing that repeatedly over the years would cultivate a deep familiarity with them, not just with the words, but with the sentiments expressed, the imagery, the theology. In our current Book of Common Prayer, the daily office of Morning and Evening Prayer isn’t quite so psalm-heavy. Instead of a monthly cycle, there’s an eight-week cycle, and some of the psalms, and some verses of individual psalms, are omitted.

I don’t want to go into great detail concerning the history of the book of Psalms. If you know anything about the Bible, you probably know that David is associated with the Psalms. We’re told that David was a musician and some of the Psalms, though not all are attributed to him as author. But in fact, the book of Psalms is a carefully edited and compiled collection, brought together in its current form over many centuries. We know that because it’s easy to see that some of them were written long after David’s death. Psalm 137 for example, begins “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, and there we wept, ere we remembered Zion.”

It’s clearly a lament, written by people who had been carried off into exile after having seen their city of Jerusalem, and their temple destroyed.

“Out of the depths I cry to you, O God, Lord hear my voice”

Psalm 130 may be familiar to you; it’s one of the 7 penitential psalms in the Western Christian tradition as a group often set to music. In the Protestant tradition, Martin Luther translated it and is attributed as composer. “From deepest woe I cry to you…” #151 in our Hymnal.

Many of the psalms have instructions for their use or other information about them provided. Thus, we’re told that Psalm 130 is a “Song of Ascents.” It’s one of a group of psalms so labelled (Psalms 120-134). Many of them begin, like this one does, with an individual’s prayer to God: “Out of the depths, I cry to you Oh God.” You may be familiar with Psalm 121, which begins, “I lift my eyes to the hills, from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.”

What makes Psalm 130 particularly powerful is the place from which the individual cries—“out of the depths.” In the imagery of the Hebrew Bible, the depths mean the sea, a place of chaos, the farthest imaginable distance from God’s presence. And the writer of the Psalm doesn’t seem certain that God can hear him from that place—that’s one meaning of that first verse. I am crying out to God, but I am also praying that God can hear me.

Following that an initial plea to God to hear the psalmist’s prayer, the writer offers a statement of faith in God’s goodness and justice: 

“If you Lord, were to note, what is done amiss…

“For there is forgiveness with you

Then comes two verses that are simple yet powerful in expression:

“My soul waits for the Lord, my soul waits for him

“In his word is my hope”

The image of “waiting on the Lord” is repeated.

We may not think of waiting as a spiritual practice. For us, waiting often includes with it growing anxiety and discomfort—waiting for an appointment, waiting in line, waiting for someone who promised to come at a certain time and is late. Waiting often leads not toward serenity, but towards anger and resentment.

But here, waiting opens oneself up to the possibility of God’s presence, waiting to hear God’s response to the cry of verse 1. Waiting implies hope but also trust that God will speak into the silence of waiting.

And finally, in the last two verses, the individual experience of the psalmist is expanded to all of Israel, or to the whole community. If I wait for God, so too should Israel wait for God; for with the Lord there is mercy, It speaks to us as well.

We know about waiting, waiting in our own lives, waiting in the life of our congregation, waiting as a people struggling against injustice, in the midst of suffering, in a broken world. We wait for the Lord, and the psalmist reminds us that our waiting is not in vain.

“With him there is plenteous redemption

“He will redeem Israel from their sins.”

 A psalm written 2500 years ago, in a particular moment, by an individual struggling with her own faith, and praying to God for deliverance, became a prayer of the Jewish people and then was used by early Christians as well, to express their struggles and their faith. It speaks to us across the millennia, and it can speak for us. 

Often we feel like we are in the depths, alone, tossed about by chaotic times, turbulent seas. We feel we are far from God; that if we are crying out, there is no one to hear us, and we’re not sure that God, if there is a God, can hear us. But our cries can be acts of faith in themselves, assertions of hope that God will deliver us in the midst of our distress and suffering. And so we wait on the Lord, for in God there is plenteous redemption.

I am going to end by reading to you another translation of it, that by the great Jewish literary scholar and critic Robert Alter. Alter recently published his translation of the whole Hebrew Bible. It’s idiosyncratic but reflects his deep understanding of the Hebrew language, of the English language, and of the faith of the peoples who wrote the texts and have lived with hese texts for the last 2500 years:

From the depths I called you Lord,
                        Master, hear my voice.

                        May Your ears listen close to the voice of my plea

Were you, O Yah, to watch for wrongs,

            Master, who could endure

For forgiveness is Yours

            So that You may be feared.

I hoped for the Lord, my being hoped

            And for his word I waited.

My being for the Master—

            More than the dawn-watchers watch for the dawn.

Wait, O Israel, for the Lord,

            For with the Lord is steadfast kindness,

                        And great redemption is with Him

And He will redeem Israel

            From all its wrongs.