Sunday, August 30, 2015

Proper 17 B - Aug 30, 2015

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Scott Borden, OHC
Proper 17 B – Sunday, August 30, 2015

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
James 1:17-27
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Br. Scott Borden
It’s tempting to hear this Gospel passage from Mark as a dispute between the faithful and the faithless – between the disciples and Pharisees. But this is a dispute among faithful people. The Pharisees were not unfaithful – they were extremely devout, extremely faithful, just like the disciples. The issue is how they live their faith.

This passage combined with the letter of James forms a challenge for those of us today who are both faithful and devout: How do we live our faith – and more to the point, do we live faithfully in the manner of the disciples or of the Pharisees…

In Mark, Jesus calls us to listen. Jesus is emphatic: "Listen to me, all of you, and understand..." The listening part is not so difficult, but understanding…

But the Letter of James has some very useful coaching: "… be doers of the word, not merely hearers who deceive themselves." So understanding the word must involve action. Perhaps the words of Father Huntington apply: Love must act. And we know that God’s word is love.

Martin Luther famously hated this Letter of James because it seems to encourage a doctrine of works righteousness; that our salvation is somehow obtained through doing good works. For Luther it was all about God's grace being given to us in spite of the reality that we don’t earn or deserve it.

I'm happy to ignore Luther for the moment and turn instead to John Wesley. The same controversy of salvation through works or grace was still swirling nearly two centuries later, but Wesley saw a different order of things. Good works, what Wesley called sanctified living, were not a precondition of grace, but rather a response to it.

According to Wesley, when we become aware that we are the recipients of God's grace through no act of our own, we cannot help but respond in sanctified living. And the longer we live in the knowledge of God's grace, the greater our joy will be in sanctified living. We must be doers of the word, of love, because otherwise we are merely hearing the word, not understanding it. Without action, faith is dead, the words are empty. Love must act.

According to James, those who hear the word without acting are like folks who study themselves in the mirror. In contemporary terms I think James is talking about narcissism. Narcissists are interested in how things appear, and most especially in how they, the narcissist, appears. Or as a silly pop song of a few years back put it, it isn’t how you feel, its how you look… Lovers of God, followers of Jesus, on the other hand, are interested in who needs food and who needs help, not in how things appear.

It is easy to read this Gospel passage as a story of opposing groups – the good and faithful disciples and the narcissistic Pharisees. That may have been a good way to read the story – back then... But I think the richness of this story today lies not in reading it as a story about two unfriendly groups, but rather as a story of inner conflict. We are Pharisees and we are Disciples who hear and understand.

In the church today there are many who, as James says, are quick to speak; quick to judge; quick to condemn; quick to exclude, not so quick to listen... I can spot those people from miles, even oceans, away.

It’s a bit trickier when I’m the one too quick to speak, to judge, to condemn, to exclude. Once we have our mouths running, listening becomes much more difficult – even for me...

The direction of our action must be love. James tells us that our anger does not produce God=s righteousness. In my experience, my anger produces self-righteousness. Frighteningly, much of our present political discourse seems to start in anger that billows forth into self-righteousness and narcissism.

How easy it is for me to spot self-righteousness… in others... How much harder to spot my own self-righteousness. And yet it’s there – and it is not Godly. My anger does not produce righteousness. This is a humbling reality.

It’s not that we don=t get angry. Certainly there are many things in this world that should make us angry. Certainly Jesus got angry. Anger can move us to action. The problem is that anger must not direct our action. Love, God’s love, must direct our action. Otherwise the result will not be righteous.

With this letter of James ringing in our ears what happens when we go back to Mark?

It’s a fairly standard set up in Mark – Pharisees are yammering away: AYour disciples do not love God because they do not keep God’s law... they do not (insert offense here)...@ This time the offense is Athey do not wash their hands before they eat.@ (I had a 2nd grade teacher who would have quite liked these particular Pharisees...). The disciples, in the eyes of the Pharisees, are defiling themselves and thereby defiling God.

So Jesus tells us how we truly defile ourselves – not with what we eat, not by failing to follow rituals, but with what is in our heart and what comes forth out of our mouths.

We wrestle with Pharisees all the time. They are the people who know how everything ought to be done and are happy to tell us... From politicians to televangelists to health and fitness gurus and more. There is a great chorus of Pharisees chiding us for the ways we fail to metaphorically wash our hands.

Listening to the Pharisee Chorus is easy, and perhaps even fun. It provides clarity and certainty. But the Pharisee Chorus is not the choir of angels… It sings a siren song that says examine yourself, look at yourself, improve yourself, love yourself. Don’t look away from yourself.

When I examine my heart, what do you know? I have my own Pharisee Chorus which really does know exactly how everything ought to be done to please God – not only what others ought to be doing, but what I ought to be doing as well. This chorus is never helpful. It is never Godly.

The lyrics of this Pharisee Chorus are based on some sort of code, or law which defines what God does and doesn’t like – a holiness code. The duty of the Pharisee is to clarify the code, to fanatically follow the code, and at every opportunity to impose the code on others. This is what my personal Pharisee Chorus does... each of us can hear, if we listen closely, our Pharisee Chorus singing away. Listening to this chorus is narcissism. We are at the center – at the spot where God needs to be.

And we all know how big a fan Jesus was of the Pharisees Chorus...

The more we listen to our Pharisees the less we can hear Jesus... the less we can be hearers and doers of the word… the more we stand and look at ourselves in a mirror… the relationship between faith and narcissism is powerful, for they are in some ways shadows of each other. They are both forms of worship – but faith worships God while narcissism worships self.

And here is what narcissistic worship leads to: We can loudly proclaim our belief in the sanctity of family while at the same time allowing children to go without proper nutrition... We can proclaim that we believe in justice for all while accepting a legal system that completely fails entire segments of our society. We can proclaim our love of God’s creation while failing to address our addiction to burning cheap fossil fuels and thereby despoiling our planet. The list goes on and on.

We abandon Jesus in favor of human tradition. We honor God with our lips, but our hearts are far from God.

To hear God’s word is to act on it – we cannot be hearers without being doers for they really are the same, just as loving God and loving neighbor really are the same. God help us to step away from the mirror and to share God’s love with brothers and sisters.

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