Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Safety Second

A Sermon on Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

“Safety second!”

That’s what my friends and I would say to each other in seminary. “Hey, I just got this bike… do you think I’m fine to bicycle through Times Square at rush hour?” “Safety second!” “Wait, how does this grill work again? Am I supposed to use lighter fluid?” “Be careful! Safety second!”

It wasn’t a great joke – we were seminary students, not comedians – but the joke was based on the unstated but implied priority, “God first.” Whenever we heard someone who wasn’t in on the joke say “safety first,” we got a kick out of correcting them. “Safety first!” “No, safety second.” Unveiling the “God first” punch line was especially fun if we were talking to a seminary professor or a field education supervisor.

So imagine my joy when my eight-year-old stepson, staying with his dad and me for the month of July, put on his helmet before a scooter ride and remarked, “Safety first.” I taught him the “safety second” joke, and he had a great time sharing it with everyone from my colleague the senior pastor to his vacation bible camp leaders to strangers on the subway. He had some questions about whether God and safety ever actually conflict with each other – whether it is ever actually necessary to choose between “God first” and “safety second.” My stepson enjoys stories of heroes and martyrs who do actually choose God over safety, but we noticed that in our everyday lives, “God first” and “safety second” usually coexist with little tension.

Our Gospel text for today raises questions of what it means to put God first, even as Jesus, in his encounter with the scribes and Pharisees, puts safety second. Our cycle of readings is taking us, step by step, through the life of Jesus as told in the Gospel according to Mark; the last few weeks included a brief detour into the Gospel of John to hear several lessons about Jesus as Living Bread. This week, we return from the Living Bread to the more mundane type of bread, as we find ourselves with Jesus and the disciples eating a meal in the land of Gennesaret, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. And around them are Pharisees and scribes who have come from Jerusalem.

Until I traveled in Israel, I didn’t completely understand the significance of the place names in the Gospels. In particular, traveling in Israel gave me the opportunity to grasp the contrast between the Galilee, where Jesus grew up and began his ministry, and Jerusalem, where he spent his last days and was crucified. The Galilee is a region in the northern part of contemporary Israel, named for its body of water, the Sea of Galilee, which is actually a large-ish lake. To give you a bit of a sense, bicycling around the Sea of Galilee is a popular tourist activity, which takes about a day. To this day, the Galilee is a rural area, with rolling hills and lots of agricultural fields and pastures. Nazareth, the town in the Galilee region where Jesus grew up, is definitely a town, but not a big one, with a couple of bustling streets and a small market.

Jerusalem, by way of contrast, is definitively urban, and was in Jesus’ time as well. The city’s boundaries have expanded since New Testament days, but the center remains similar, a labyrinth of stone streets in a covered market where you could -- and I did -- get lost for hours. As it was in Jesus’ time, it remains a center both of religious observance and of religious and political tension. It is that religious and political tension that will lead to Jesus’ crucifixion, and so when these Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem appear in the bucolic hills of the Galilee, the fact that they have come from Jerusalem is much more than a little geographical tidbit. It is a warning sign that Jesus is starting to get the attention of the religious authorities, and not in a good way.

As soon as these scribes and Pharisees appear on the scene, they have a pointed question, a veiled accusation, for Jesus regarding the disciples, who are eating the meal with unwashed hands. To twenty-first century listeners, people in an age where the existence of germs is widely known, and the sources of germs are widely understood, eating with dirty hands sounds mostly like a safety and hygiene issue. It is a bad idea, but not for the same reasons that the scribes and Pharisees would have considered it unacceptable.

 The Pharisees were members of a religious movement within Judaism, a movement which we honestly don’t know much about. There was a lot of tension between the early Christian tradition and the Pharisees, because both were newish religious movements within Judaism that were open to everyday people, not just the religious elite. The tension between the two movements means that early Christian documents are not considered to be particularly objective, and few other documents mention the Pharisees, so it’s hard to know much about them for sure. The scribes, however, we do know about – they would have been scholarly members of the religious elite. When Jesus attacks them with an accusation of “honoring God with their lips” but not their hearts, he is attacking people who have a lot of power and influence – pretty clearly putting safety second.

For the Pharisees and scribes, failing to wash one’s hands before eating would have been a religious violation: much of Jewish religious practice at the time focused on ritual purity and impurity, and early Christian sources seem to suggest this was a particularly true for the Pharisees. Ritual purity is not about germs and hygiene; it is a different kind of thing entirely – a fact which is illuminated by the verb Mark uses to describe the ritual washing of cups, pots, and kettles: baptizo, to baptize. It is not so much about making things clean of dirt and debris as it is about making things clean in the eyes of God. Observing ritual purity regulations, for the scribes and Pharisees, was a matter of putting God first in one’s daily life and actions; they are scandalized by the disciples’ failure to observe ritual hand-washing practices.

If we don’t pay careful attention, stories like this one can sound like indictments of Judaism and the Jewish tradition, at least as it was practiced at the time. It is easy to hear that tired old theme of Jesus freeing us from the onerous and arbitrary restrictions of the law. But that’s not what this text is saying, or what Jesus is doing. The Gospel accounts make it clear that Jesus knows the law; he quotes the Old Testament with ease, and interprets it with authority. And he knows that there is no religious law or that mandates the washing of hands before meals. That tradition is an old custom by this time, but not part of the Mosaic law. Jesus quotes Isaiah to the scribes and Pharisees, saying that they are, in the words of Isaiah, “teaching human precepts as doctrines.”

The hand-washing tradition is a fine religious observance, I would say also a fine hygienic practice (although ritual washing, like baptism, generally involved a sprinkling of water rather than a good scrub with soap). However, this religious custom that had originated as a way of practicing faith had come to be used as a way of judging, criticizing, and categorizing other people. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus names and rejects many, many religious and social systems that were used to label, demean, and exclude, from ritual washing to temple donations to leprosy. And in many cases, these systems were deeply tied to socioeconomic status: the wealthy and well-born are in, the poor are out.

Our society, too, has a fair number of practices and customs that separate people from one another. We know a few things about labeling and judging. Probably most of us have been on both sides of that coin. From teenage obsession over having the “right” brand of jeans or shoes to the subtle nuances of business attire, our clothing often serves to communicate identity and social status; whether we or not we judge the apparel of others, we are often sized up based on our clothing. The ways we use language, too, whether it’s oral or written, can mark us as younger or older, more or less educated, “from here” or “not from here” in ways that can be used to reinforce racism and xenophobia, sexism, ageism, and class discrimination.

These norms, practices, and customs, from how we speak to what we eat to how we spend our time, sometimes serve to separate “us” from “them,” and to reinforce notions of hierarchy and superiority. This week, more people watched the television show Here Comes Honey Boo Boo than the Republican National Convention. “Honey Boo Boo,” for those not in the know, is a seven-year-old pageant princess from a family that proudly identifies as “red necks.” Their outrageous antics have earned them their own spin-off from the show where they first appeared, Toddlers and Tiaras. The television show has been criticized for the way it portrays this low-income, rural, mostly overweight family; one reviewer notes that the show attempts to make the Thompson family an object of scorn, “something to point and snicker at.” While the audience watches in horror and judgment at the family’s rural Southern culture, others judge the audience for tuning in to such garbage, while some turn up their noses at anyone who even has a television. Meanwhile, there’s plenty of scorn, judgment, and superiority both directed toward and coming from the Republican National Convention.

In the face of all of this, Jesus calls us to a different way, calls us away from judging and labeling, away from hierarchy and arrogance, away from “us” and “them.” Jesus declares that no outward customs – nothing we can see – can “defile,” or make a person less acceptable to God. Instead, he says, “it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.” Friends, the only human heart we can really know is our own.  Since the only heart we can truly know is our own, we have no choice but to turn from judging the behavior of others to focusing on our own habits of mind or heart. We have no choice but to turn from the superficial differences which separate us to the love of God which unites us and calls us away from scorn and arrogance, and toward repentance and renewal.

That is precisely what we try to do, what we are invited to do, when we come to the communion table. We experience, for a moment, a table where all are welcome and no one is turned away, a table where there is no “us” and no “them.” We experience, for a moment, a meal where rich folks and poor folks and somewhere-in-the-middle folks receive the same bread and the same cup, gifts of love from the same God. We practice a ritual that has been practiced all over the world for centuries, with many kinds of bread and many different words and many different practices, all of which are good and acceptable to God, because all of them come from good intention, all come from the intention to put God first. And we experience the grace of God, who knows the intentions of our hearts, who invites us to cultivate the good and let go of the bad, and who welcomes us back to the table every time.
Thanks be to God.

No comments:

Post a Comment