Proper 17b, 2012: Unclean?

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

  I did not hear too much of a particular type of conversation this week, although we have heard most of it before.  You know the words:  hurricane Isaac struck the south, and in particular New Orleans (I didn’t say that the words are accurate) because of the debauchery sometimes a part of that city.  Hmm.  I think that our gospel writer Mark put his words into print long before New Orleans existed, and still he found the human condition filled with “fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.”  God does not punish, en masse, God’s magnificent creation.  We remember creation:  God created the heavens and the earth, and He saw that it was good…. God created man, human beings, in His image.  And on the seventh day God rested with joy in the beauty of creation.  Let’s be clear:  New Orleans, Columbine, Columbia, – whatever the name, there is not a city that is the cause of hurricanes, murder, or calamity.  Hurricanes come from the power of nature, a nature that God created and that God sets free to function.

God is in Isaac and in every disaster.  God is with us.  God is in the hands and feet of those who are cleaning out St. Peter’s by the Sea in Gulfport.  God is in the hands of feet of those who are reconnecting power lines, cutting tree limbs, raking debris, and providing for those who were without shelter.  God’s strength envelopes people, gives them energy, strength, and hope.  God is not whispering a divine “I told you so” for building so close to a beautiful, powerful, and sometimes dangerous sea.  Sometimes we put ourselves in harm’s way and God stands beside us, loves us, anyway.

What about washing our hands, pots, cups, and kettles?  Jesus speaks to us with the words of the prophet Isaiah:  that we in our humanity remember rules, human constructs, and forget to follow God with our hearts.  Remember that in our ancient world, ‘heart’ is the source of intellect, not emotion.  We are supposed to follow God with our intellect.  Washing our hands is a good thing for sanitation, and perhaps for the obedience of thinking about the source of water and clean water and our food and abundance.  But washing our hands for the sake and purpose of ritual is not a salvific event; it is Jesus who saves us, not we ourselves (from the canticle).  We are not to enslave ourselves to ritual and tradition, but to immerse ourselves in a life with God.

Similarly, washing pots and drinking cups is good; its helps make our “eating vessels” clean.  But washing the outside of a cup does not take out the stains that cling to the inside.  Our liquid is ruined by all that sticks to the inside, not by the appearance of the cup or pot.  So also do we have enough within us to make us unclean – envy, theft, slander, pride – without looking outside of our minds and our hearts for sources of evil.

What about food?  Eating an unwashed tomato fresh from the vine will most likely not make us sick; spiritually, it will not defile us.  [What’s that phrase?  We have to eat a peck of dirt before we die … yeah, that’s the one.]  A garden fresh tomato is a precious gift of God’s creation.  Eating that same tomato in front of someone who is starving, without sharing it, shows greed and evil that bubbles up from within ourselves.  We are not supposed to hoard God’s gifts or God’s abundance.

So it is our cleanness of heart that matters.  We are called to look at ourselves:  not, as James writes, by looking in a mirror and then forgetting what we see, but by looking at how we carry out our faith.  Do we hear the word and do nothing?  Or does our faith in God and in the resurrected Christ fill us with a faith that compels us to DO something/  Religion that is pure and undefiled, “clean,” James writes, is one that cares for widows and orphans and keeps us unstained from the world.

Do not let the world discourage us.  We are supposed to work on our cleanliness in the world, being mindful of those things within us that keep us unclean in our faith, those things that keep us from a pure faith in God.  We need to be on guard within ourselves for those things that lead us away from God.

There is hope in the thought that the evil we find within ourselves is enough, truly more than enough, for each of us to consider.  The evil and the sorrows around us are not meant to be burdens that break us and destroy us.  The evil of the world is not found in food or ritual uncleanness, and it is not ours to carry alone.  We cannot change the fact that natural evil exists and strikes, in storms and calamity.  We are all dust, and to dust we shall return; we do not know the day and the hour at which our death will happen.  Living is hard.  And there is hope in our Lord who says that nothing from the outside will defile us, and those words tell me to give all of that stuff – the pain, the hurt, the feelings of helplessness – to give all of that to God.  Let God keep it, take it, all.

When our burdens overwhelm us, give them away (to God).  When the world is more than we can bear, look no farther than the part we have taken in the chaos; give the rest to God.  If you do not have a ritual in your life in which you give your burdens to God before you sleep, I highly recommend one.  [Give examples of these prayers.]  Seek pureness of heart, strength of faith, and the humility to give the rest to God.

Amen.

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