2 September 2012/Proper 17B – Song of Songs 2:8-13/James 1:17-27/Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
None Of Us Are Free, If One Of Us Are Chained
It all seems pretty straightforward: wash your hands before a meal. It is what we tell every child. Every day. It is the tradition. It is our daily ritual. It is the tradition handed down to us by our elders, our parents, our grandparents. Parents look to one another to back them up when trying to get a recalcitrant child to wash up! Then along comes the Good News of Jesus Christ the Son of God – aka Mark!
Every three years we get this very lesson on this very same Sunday. Yet, rarely are we even, in the immortal words of the epistle of James, hearers of the Word, let alone doers of the Word! If we were to stop long enough to hear the Word, Jesus, the Word made flesh, we would make a startling discovery: He does not defend the traditions of the elders. He does not side with the Pharisees. Rather, he defends his followers for not washing their hands before a meal. Get over it, he seems to say. There are far more important things going on! Besides, you should be more concerned with what comes from inside of you – what you say and what you do. God, it is hard following Jesus. It is so much easier to complain about others who are not just like us than to approach them with God’s own Love and Compassion. Jesus means for us to see that everyone is a widow. Everyone is an orphan. We are all homeless. We are all poor wayfaring strangers. We are all resident aliens on God’s Earth, in God’s world, in God’s creation. Not one of us has special standing over another. None of us are free as long as one person is still chained whether by the law, by poverty, by homelessness, or by being held to the standards of others.
The Reverend William Rich put it best one afternoon as we were serving lunch to poor and homeless persons at Paul’s Place, “There by the grace of God am I!” In our most perverse moments we turn that around, “There but by the grace of God go I.” And when we do, says Jesus, it is at our own peril. Jesus self identifies with those on the margins of society and invites us to do the same.
Jesus knows that the essence of Biblical Religion is that We come from Love, We return to Love, and Love is all around – God is Love writ large - capital L-O-V-E. God is at home. We are the ones who are out for a walk. All of life is a homecoming - a coming home to the household of God’s eternal Love and Compassion– which includes love of neighbor.
Jesus, who is the Word, who is the Word made flesh, came to remind us of this.. He would love James’ assertion that true religion is reflected in all that we do. Jesus condones stepping away from the tradition of the elders, aligning himself with the poet-prophet Isaiah who affirms: we are to obey the commandments – Love God with all your heart, and mind and soul; and Love your neighbor as yourself. Make no mistake about it – Jesus chooses to enter a political debate. The Pharisees represent a kind of political as well as religious authority, and Jesus refuses to buy into their interpretation of God’s will.
Jesus was often challenged by these protectors of the traditions of the elders, of what is called the Holiness Code or Purity Code enshrined largely in the book of Leviticus and books outside the Bible. The Pharisees and others were convinced that if you did not wash your hands, if you ate shellfish, if you ate pork, if you wore clothes made from two different fibers, if you had a same sex relationship, you were bringing down the whole scene – their world would collapse – God would be unhappy. Note: Jesus never once sides with the protectors of the Purity Code.
Jesus offers a different view of what makes God happy – a counter-view: Jesus aligns himself with Isaiah and others of the prophet-poets of Israel who declare that the time for sacrifice is over , and the time for love and compassion toward all people, north, south, east and west, Jew and Gentile alike, male and female, slave and free, has come. All people. My favorite theological word is “all.” Not some people, not people who are like us, not most people, but ALL People deserve the dignity and justice of God’s love and compassion. That is, those of us who come from love and will one day return to love are meant to be active, living doers of God’s love all around for all people.
We in Maryland have an opportunity to demonstrate our love for our neighbors, and for our neighbors’ love for one another. We have an opportunity to support love, dignity and fairness for all the families in our state. We can vote For fairness, For love and For Question 6 in November, thus allowing gay and lesbian couples to obtain a civil marriage license. Does this seem to go against the traditions of the elders? Absolutely! So did the abolition of slavery. So did the abandonment of Jim Crow. So did the ordination of women. So did the downfall of apartheid. The list of traditions that are worth abandoning in human history is nearly endless.
Does this threaten “traditional marriage”? I do not see how. It extends traditional marriage and all it stands for to more of God’s beloved children. Does it threaten “Biblical Marriage”? I sure hope so. A cursory reading of the Bible reveals Abraham having a child with his wife’s servant; David having Uriah killed so he can steal Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba; Jacob, who would one day be renamed by God Israel, has not one but two wives, and sisters at that, along with a tent full of concubines; the Samaritan woman who has had five husbands becomes the first evangelist proclaiming the Good News of Jesus – and so it goes. Let’s face it, when it comes to marriage, the Bible is not much of a manual or guide.
The rule of thumb Jesus appears to commend this morning is to extend God’s Love and Compassion to more and more people, all people, and resist all urges to condemn the habits of others, since the very act of such judgment and condemnation allows evil to take up residence within your heart, placing a barrier between yourself and the God who dwells within. Jesus wants all people to be free. Jesus takes a dim view of those who try to restrict the lives of others especially in the arena of love, that most defining characteristic of God.
The Song of Songs imagines a time when the rain, the storms of this life, are over, and the song of the turtledove is in the air -a time when the frozen climate of winter is over and the time for singing has come. It is a love song about the love between God and His people, his beloved. Whenever any of God’s people are freed from the frozen, calcified traditions that have held them back from enjoying the fullness of God’s Love and Compassion, God calls to us, “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away” – let me bring you home into the household of my eternal love and compassion. Jesus comes to bring all God’s children home free of the restrictions the traditions of the elders would impose.
We come from Love, we Return to Love, and Jesus invites us to be a part of God’s Love that surrounds all people on all sides. Even now Jesus waits to see if we will accept his invitation to be his Love that is all around. Jesus waits to welcome us home.
We Come from Love, we Return to Love
And Love is all around
All of life is a homecoming,
All of life is a homecoming,
A coming home to God.