Sunday, August 30, 2009

Thirteenth after Pentecost, 2009

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

So the weather begins to change, with perhaps just a hint of autumn in the morning, and after our little midsummer excursion into the 6th chapter of St. John, and the extended eucharistic meditations on the Body of Christ as the True and Only Life-giving Bread, we now return in our Sunday morning Revised Common Lectionary “Year B” gospel readings to St. Mark—through these middle chapters of the gospel which will carry us along until the First Sunday of Advent, with breaks in the sequence only for All Saints Sunday and then, for us, on our Patronal Feast of St. Andrew at the end of November. I can almost hear the bagpipes in the distance!

In any case, as we re-enter Mark we would recall some of the overarching themes of this gospel: that the Messiah, the Son of God and Lord of All, arrives in such a surprising and unexpected way that few recognize him. His powerful preaching and dramatic acts of healing challenge the settled and comfortable, with reactions of controversy and opposition, but at the same time inspire and comfort the weak, the lost.

Time and time again Jesus faces down Satan and the demonic powers and forces of darkness, reminding us that behind the superficial appearance of day to day life there is a dramatic conflict and contest that we can only begin to apprehend, between good and evil, the forces of life and the forces of destruction, with the eternal fate of each individual hanging precariously in the balance.

And above all in Mark the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus unfolds as an urgent call to the church, the Christian family, to radical discipleship. The message persistently about turning over a new leaf. Turning onto a new path. St. Mark believes with every fiber of his being that we live as Christians at the very edge of history. The turning point, the fork in the road.

That’s what energizes Mark's telling of the story. That at any moment the trumpet will sound, the final accounting will begin. There is an urgency for us--to use that word again, urgency--to fish or cut bait. Time is of the essence.

In a few weeks we will get to the great parables of Mark chapter 13. “Watch therefore—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning—lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Watch.”

This is the hour, then: this is the moment to make our decision for Christ, and to walk in the way of new and eternal life.

So then, this morning here we are back in chapter 7, Jesus and this little commentary on the Pharisees, the rabbis, the religious leaders, with their stereotypical careful and perhaps even we might say obsessive concern with the tiniest and most obscure details of ritual law.

(Always a little bit of a problem for Episcopalian clergy, including yours truly, who are prone to checking the credence table before each service to be sure that the handles of the cruets of wine and water are aligned in the same direction.)

The point is simple: that it is so typical for us to lose sleep over our efforts to get a million little things exactly right, but then to seem essentially oblivious about the really big and important things when they go wrong in us and around us. This passage in Mark perhaps reminding us of the passage in Matthew 7, in the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus talks about how we are so easily given to pointing out the splinter in our neighbor’s eye, while we blithely ignore the log in our own.

The Pharisees in this story are worried about giving each bowl and plate of the ritual meal its repeated ceremonial rinsing. And how critical they will be of the Altar Guild if something isn’t done just so. But when it comes to the important stuff, you never hear a peep from them.

Evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. The really bad stuff. Because they are what corrupts, what makes a mockery of God’s careful, loving, gracious intention for creation. What distorts and destroys. What infects the heart and destroys the soul and leaves nothing but eternal ruin.

About all this, Jesus says, we hear from these Pharisees nary a word. All quiet. Perhaps a concern about upsetting a benefactor? Or like any of us, wanting to be liked. Not wanting to be the killjoy at the party. Not wanting to get controversial. Or maybe just in persistent and profound denial.

Fussing about ceremonial details—I guess that’s easy. Rules about purity that may isolate a few lepers here and there, perhaps. Or women. Other people, mostly. But somehow always a fastidious concern that leaves most of us “insiders” feeling pretty good about ourselves, all things considered. A word of comfort for the already comfortable.

And Jesus says: Hey Pharisees. If you want to see something really in danger of being defiled, just look into a mirror. And if you want to see what it is that is likely to do the defiling, then you need look no further than your own mind, and our own heart. In Matthew 23 Jesus calls these Pharisees “whitewashed sepulchers.” A great phrase. Glistening and elegant containers of great beauty, hiding within the corruption of death.

And the thing is, just to say, this late summer mornings, what is perhaps obvious-- that when Jesus is talking this way, we are meant to be taking it personally. We.

If we don’t feel a bit under pressure as we read and hear these words, if they don’t make us squirm a little, feel like the spotlight has suddenly pointed in our direction, then we’re missing the point. It’s all about us. Calling us, to use that critical word for St. Mark, to come with a sense of urgency to a point of decision.

The message of Mark as he tells us these stories about Jesus is that we’re supposed to stop playing games and living in a pretend world of self-indulgence and denial. If we think things can just go on, the way they are, then we have another “think” coming. We’re only kidding ourselves. This is a gospel about the need to wake up. Here he is: Jesus. And this is the hour; this, the moment to decide.

There is an interesting statistical trend that has popped up again and again over the past decade or two in polls and surveys. Which is that while the second half of the 20th century saw a dramatic decline in the U.S. in reporting of church membership among the general population and of church attendance even among those who continue to report church membership, there has been at the same time a very significant rise in the number of people who report that they are interested in “spirituality.” Books about angels, about meditation, about Yoga, about the mysteries of the East, about healing, about spiritual journaling fly off the shelves at the Barnes and Noble.

But at 11 a.m. on Sunday mornings, things haven’t been moving in the same direction. Some individual churches and denominations may grow, but as a percentage of the total population, church attendance continues a direct and actually fairly dramatic decline.

I don’t know all the reasons for this. I think they’re complex—and certainly worth some serious reflection. And I don’t for a moment discount the sincerity and important of that impulse for meaning and that yearning for a spiritual experience. But I do think that it’s important to say that hearing in these words of Jesus this morning this call to an honest and unflinching self-examination, hearing a call to repentance, to doing something about it, to being as dedicated to the cleansing and reformation and renewal of the inner life as to the cleansing of the ceremonial vessel, about walking from henceforth in a new way, sometimes that’s harder stuff for us. It can be.

Perhaps not the mountaintop of mystic sight, designer-model philosophy of life constructed to meet my personal needs and desires, but instead the hard path uphill, one step after another. Who wants that?

It’s a long list. Not comprehensive. But we get the idea. Again: Evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. Which would be quite a sermon series. I’m sure the pews would be packed to overflowing week after week. (Or they would be anyway, if I promised to “name names.” --Which of course I could do easily just by reading the white pages.)

The point is through Mark, and through this reading this morning, good friends: we have some work to do. On ourselves. Different assignments for each of us, of course. But for sure, not just casual labor, tinkering around the edges, but hard work, and important work. Essential work. And if we don’t get it done, the consequences can be tragic beyond measure. Beyond imagination.

We come to his table this morning not because we are perfect and complete, but because we would find our perfection and our completion in him. It’s a process, with slow parts and fast parts, forward movement and sliding back. Lots of work to do, and the need to encourage one another and to open ourselves to his encouragement. As with him we can accomplish for ourselves what would have been impossible otherwise.

And for us here , the invitation I will read in a moment at the beginning of the Confession, but that we would hear wherever we are along the way, as the invitation to this Table, and to every good and perfect gift of a life holy and acceptable to God: “Ye who do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbors, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways: Draw near with faith.”

And as St. Mark will be telling us week by week this fall: no time like the present.

Bruce Robison

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