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Pentecost +14 B

Dirty Hands and Dish of Red Herrings

Mark 7:1-23

by Rev. Elisabeth R. Jones

There was a lot of physical interaction in this sermon, with volunteers taking on roles as Pharisees, Crowd, and Jesus’ crew. I’ve tried to convey the light-heartedness and the group participation that ensued, but that’s not easy in text-only format! ERJ

Well it’s an odd sermon title, I’ll grant you!
Doesn’t tell you a lot does it?

Let me explain: at Cedar Park we tend to follow the ecumenical and international “Revised Common Lectionary,”
which is a three year cycle of Scripture readings from Old Testament, Psalms, Letters and Gospel.
Each year of the cycle focuses on one of the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Luke, and this year, Mark.
Mark is a short gospel, not enough for 52 weeks, so the lectionary flits
frequently to the Gospel of John,
which has the annoying effect of breaking up Mark’s fast-paced, no holds barred narrative of Jesus on the move.
I took advantage of one of those Johannine diversions
to spend four of the past 5 weeks exploring the Psalms
– thank you for indulging my passion!

But now, today, this first Sunday of September,
both the lectionary, and we, return to the Gospel of Mark.
And boy do we return with a vengeance!
As one commentator writes,
it’s as if we’ve walked into the middle of a family dust up.
And hearing the sharp tongued sarcasm and attack
coming from the mouth of Jesus in righteous high dudgeon,
we’d be forgiven if we want to slip quietly back out again
to find a saner, safer text elsewhere!

What is all the fuss about?
What stung Jesus like a wasp to set off this diatribe?
Was it really an argument about dirty hands? Really?
And what on earth is all that “Defilement” about?
And if it is a family argument, are we part of the family?
Does it still have anything to do with us, 2000 years and 8800 km away?

One way to test that is to get inside the text.
I need some volunteers to set this up
3-4 “Pharisees”
4 + “Disciples” + Jesus – seated on the steps
“the crowd” – that’s all the rest of us.
Describe what each group are.

This group here ( congregation) you are the 99%, the ordinary people of the Galilee region. Most of you own the clothes on your back, a pot or two, and if you’re fortunate, you may even own the tools of your trade, as farmhands, carpenters. If you’re a fisher, you may own your net mending kit, a fish knife, but very few of you own the boat you work on, or the fields you hoe and weed. The countryside is naturally arid away from the lake and the Jordan, so every drop of water is precious, contained in great cisterns in the ground, or stone vessels set to catch rainwater from the roof of the homes you either own or squat in.

This group here,(Jesus Crew) includes a tax collector, (hand out calculator)a political activist hothead zealot (a separatist in fact!), two fishermen, one of whom owns the boat he fishes with (props). And one is a Nazarene carpenter turned healer and gospeller of the Dream of God, an empire or kingdom of God that has nothing to do with Rome.

This group here (Pharisees) – well they could be theologians, people like me in a former life, used to counting angels on pinheads, studying the minute differences between Latin, English and French translations of Koine Greek Gospel texts… people who are professionally concerned with the particulars of religious practice. They take their faith seriously, especially in a region dominated by imperial forces that deride their religion. They aren’t bad people, any more or less than the people there (crowd).

They are all Judeans – descendants of Moses and the Israelites. They’re family. You’re family.
But like family, not everyone sees eye to eye on everything.

This part of the family (Pharisees), aren’t from around here. (They’re from Toronto!) They dress differently when they worship, they have different rituals about food and eating, than either of these two branches of the family. (Hand them Purel bottle)
In fact these two groups are far more basic in their faith. Synagogue on the Sabbath, that’s the key thing. That and “honouring father and mother” keeping the big 10 , but as for Levitical purity codes, that’s for ‘soft hand’ city-dwellers, temple priests, theologians. Mark calls them Pharisees.

So when this group here (Pharisees) see that group there sitting down on the ground, grubby hands dipping into a dish of red-herrings. (Pass the jar of goldfish to the Jesus crew), this group here are horrified- being as how they are soft-hand city dwelling theologians! (Look horrified!) … who have developed a whole liturgy for ritual cleansing, of hands, of food, of everything, as a way of honouring the purity of God. (Pharisee group spontaneously offered Jesus’ crew their Purel!)

And what about you folk here? (to the crowd)
Which side of the argument do you think you’d be on? (the side of the Jesus crew).

All are God-honouring Judeans, but they do it in different ways.
But do we have to have an argument about it?
Perhaps it would be okay for you folk (crowd) and you folk (Jesus crew) to pat your city cousins on the back, laugh a little nervously, shuffle them out of harm’s way with a gentle “No offence guys, it’s just not what we do around here, water being so precious and all,” and being as how we’re about 1900 years from knowing anything about germs and listeria.

But no.
Straight from fish to fury, Jesus calls down the wrath of the prophets
on these city-dwelling God-fearers.
Calls them hypocrites – accuses them of false faith, of setting up humanly concocted religious traditions as God-given edicts. I suspect he even waved his dirty hands, holding ‘defiled food’ in their faces to get his point across.

Okay I think you’d better sit down again….
But what is his point?
It’s so easy with this passage to get distracted by the dirty hands,
the family infighting about what’s clean and what’s not
… surely a family argument that is no longer ours,
but oh so tempting to nit-pick at it anyway, to avoid the real point.
Dirty hands are a red herring.

And there are more:
Many a preacher has gone down the road of berating various religious traditions,
humanly concocted shibboleths, in our own Christian tradition,
from papal infallibility, to episcopacy, to communion in tiny cups or common cups,
to women or not as clergy, to “chancel prancing liturgy,”
you name it, it could fall under Jesus’ sharp tongue.
And while it’s perhaps a good idea to realize that,
and to hold our holy habits a little less firmly,
it’s a red herring too!

It’s not Jesus’ point,
merely a rhetorical ploy to get to the point,
to the heart of the matter.

And the heart is the matter.

What goes on inside the human heart,
and how it affects our intentions and our actions,
is going to have far more impact upon the coming kingdom,
than dirty hands and red herrings.
Say it again:
the human heart condition is crucial
for the fulfillment of the Dream of God,
the transformation of a broken world
into one of blessing,
and the healing transformation of each one of us,

Mark’s Jesus is not a mild-mouthed man.
He is a man of passionate conviction,
with a world to transform, and very little time to do it,
so there is no mincing of words here.

He paints a far dirtier picture than the image of his disciples’ grubby hands,
by cataloguing in comprehensive detail all the calumnies
the human heart is capable of:
physical, ethical, sexual, moral, spiritual,
political, economic, verbal….
Nothing is left out,
which means that none of us is left out of his list.
(all groups, point).

Back with a vengeance, Mark’s Jesus has our attention,
our family feuding over finger food forgotten.
It’s time to look inside.
Here, at the heart of the matter,
the heart of the Gospel,
for it’s here that God will find us,
and heal us.

Let’s sing.

© Rev. Elisabeth R. Jones September 2012

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