Sermon 8/29/21: School is in Session

Posted on ; Filed under News

14 Pentecost

Psalm 45:1–2, 7–10; Song of Solomon 2:8–13; James 1:17–29; Mark 7:1–8, 14–15, 21–23

“Understand: There is nothing outside a man which by going into him can defile him, but the things which come out of a man are what defile him.” Mark 7:14–15

Thesis: Jesus conducts a master class in teaching, and thereby unmasks the true intentions of some who come to him seeking instruction.

It is that time of year again.  Summer is waning.  Schools are set to open.  Some have begun instruction.  Others have begun but have had to close again or engage in virtual learning because of the coronavirus.  The debate rages in our land about how best to protect our young people from the virus and its variants, so that they may learn.  Because I lack a medical degree, a degree in one of the natural sciences, or a degree in curriculum planning, I am perhaps ill qualified to render judgment on what might best be done to protect our youth, as well as the general public from that virus, should possession of such or similar degrees be the sole criterion to qualify. 

Instead, as a cleric, I reach back to an era, long before earned degrees were the rule of the day, and raise two fundamental questions: a) Is teaching more than devising and executing a curriculum; and b) what motivates those who determine what and how the curriculum should be carried out?  Also lacking a degree or training in jurisprudence, I stand, nevertheless, prepared to speak on behalf of and in defense of the Carpenter’s son, Jesus of Nazareth, who provides a master class in how to resolve a critical issue of our day. 

As a master teacher, Jesus looks beyond the immediate lesson to investigate both the method of teaching, and what motivates our actions.  And he does so in a most unexpected and unconventional manner, a manner that throws his class off balance.  He states simply and clearly: “There is nothing outside a man which by going into him can defile him, but the things which come out of a man defile him.” (Mark 7:14–15)  To contemporize matters, I pose my usual weekly question: What informs or motivates those who make decisions that affect the physical and spiritual welfare of those under their leadership, especially when our youth are affected?  Thus, on this 14th Sunday after Pentecost, I return to school.

Although scholars and experts have reached a truce, as to who William Shakespeare was, I, for my part, cannot resist the temptation to speculate that the Great Bard might have been a monk, or at least that he had begun the study of theology before taking up the pen to write.  My own speculation is fueled by today’s gospel.  That is to say, I marvel how often secular poets and writers seem to capture those fundamentals of the Bible in a language that we commoners understand.

From either a high school English class or a course in college, you will recall that scene from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (Act 1, Sc. 2, line 134), the very beginning of the play, in which Caesar, addressing Brutus with great pathos and clarity, says:

Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus; and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs, and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

Now compare, if you would, Jesus’ response to the Pharisees, the scribes, and to this own disciples.  Jesus had laid the groundwork for Shakespeare’s insightful work:

“There is nothing outside a man which by going into
him can defile him; but the things which come out of
a man are what defile him.”  (Mk 7:15)

Subtle is the distinction that Jesus was making.  He was not negating the necessity of maintaining proper hygiene.  As Master Teacher, Jesus does not ignore the questions about eating without washing up for dinner, nor does he negate the necessity of maintaining proper hygiene.  He challenges his audience to think about the false dichotomy of the inner life and the outer life, concluding that the delineation that they and we want to make is not valid.  If one part is false, and although the other would appear whole and truthful, then the whole is defective.    

However, Jesus—masterfully—does not conclude there.  He introduces another element into his discussion that throw his listeners into mental chaos. That element is worship.  And like the Pharisees and scribes, so we would be nonplussed if someone were to ask us about worship while we sit in this beautiful, serene sanctuary.  With no intention to insult or disregard your intelligence or decades-long experience, I would wager that, if asked about worship, your and my initial response would be marked by describing the uplifting music, the familiarity of our liturgy, the beauty of the vestments and altar hangings, the solemnity with which we approach the altar to receive Holy Communion. 

We would recall the smell of incense, or the glow of candles at Christmas, the procession of the palms marking the beginning of Holy Week, or the lilies at Easter.  I mention these rituals, for they are ones that we have all missed and longed for, but been denied because of Covid-19.  But I believe that Jesus, as Master Teacher, while acknowledging the significance of those things that help to ground us, instructs us, as did he with the Pharisees and scribes, that the worship, true worship, takes place away from this place. 

In a very real sense, one could be, as James writes in his letter, filled with envy, jealousy, hidden bitterness, pride, and a desire to control, with politics not always even subtly hidden.  However, these attributes, because they could not be seen or measured in any real physical sense, did not matter so long as one carried out the correct hand-washings and observed the appropriate laws regarding ceremonial cleanliness.  Ceremonial legalism takes into account a person’s outer actions, but little, if any, account of one’s inner feelings and character. 

You will well understand then, that Jesus, according to the reaction of the Pharisees and Scribes, bordered on committing religious treason when he accused them of being more interested in following human rituals than in obeying the commandments of God; for, in fact, they were obeying, at least outwardly, the commandments of God.  He attracts their animosity further, when he accuses them of using their ceremonies and rituals as a device to get around the essence of God’s law in their private and personal lives. An obedient heart, not religious rules and regulations, determines our fitness to worship the living God.

Jesus understood “pure” and “purity” in ways different from that of his contemporaries, and I dare say, of our contemporaries, and therefore what he says about cleanliness and uncleanness in Mark’s gospel was quite revolutionary, threatening, treasonous.  Jesus declared that the focus on food and ritualistic cleanliness obscures the more important issue.  A heart obedient to God’s will determines who we are.  Shakespeare allows Caesar to repeat the refrain: our destiny, i.e., our behavior and interaction with our fellow beings lies not in our stars, but in ourselves.

I began my ruminations this morning by calling on the Great Bard to take us back to school.  I should like to close by calling on my long-term memory, in order to personalize today’s lesson from the Letter of James and the Gospel according to Mark.  I do so because it helps me to make sense of the mandate of God to be obedient to the Divine Will, but also because the story reminds me that, as God has gifted us each with unique attributes, there is no one way, no one vocabulary, no one approach that will reach or satisfy that inner call to worship, which haunts each of us in our uniqueness.

Here is my story, a true story with real names.  In senior high school, one of my friends, though not a close friend, was Malcolm B.  Malcolm was a gifted teenager.  He and I, along with one other boy, Larry B, had great fun jockeying for the position of first ranking in our class.  As our surnames, though different, began with the letter B, we were known as the 3 B’s who always received A’s.  But Malcolm possessed something that I did not then, and do not have now, namely the ability to look at something and draw it.  I did not envy Malcolm.  On the contrary, I admired him, because he could imagine things that my human eye could not see and draw them.  I loved to sing, and poor Malcolm, as we said in the Midwest, couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket with a lid on it.

Malcolm was driven by a different inner muse.  But Malcolm had a problem.  My fellow student was left-handed in an era when authoritarianism reigned, in an era when teachers used to punish pupils corporally.  If our art teacher were to come along and see Malcolm drawing with his left hand, she would strike him on the knuckles with her ruler.  She would force him to draw with his right hand, because in that era people thought that the only way to write or draw was with the right hand.  Mind you, Malcolm produced with his left hand far greater beauty than I could ever hope for with two right hands.

That wooden ruler hurt, physically and psychologically, and I witnessed tears well up, but never shed, because as boys, we never cried.  Malcolm, overcoming the emotional and physical harm done him, went on to become an accomplished artist, and we as a people have come to understand that it is perfectly fine to be left-handed, to be our authentic selves.  Tradition and the “usual” way of doing things, and fear of bucking the norm, made people think that things had always to be done a certain, traditional way.  You may well accuse me of cloaking my thoughts on the destructiveness of current day political arrogance with reflections on Scripture.  I do readily confess.  However, I am persuaded that Holy Writ challenges us to think and to act in ways that demand rejection of self-aggrandizement and a politician’s reach for political advantage.

What do I conclude from Jesus’ master class?  Our worship, as I have so often said and repeat here, takes place not solely within these walls, no matter how often we define what we do here as worship.  That word is shorthand for what is at the center of our being.  Of a truth, we have a certain liturgical style, one that speaks to our inner individual need, as we stand before God.  And we shall continue that tradition and ask others to join us. 

However, as we so do, we will remain cognizant of the fact that God makes many kinds of people who live in many countries with many different traditions. Even within our own Anglican tradition, we accept differences in liturgical expression.  All of which demands an openness of heart and mind, and an involvement appropriate to the situation.  We will strive always to offer our best, liturgically, though not for its sake, but because to do so points us to a deeper, greater truth.  To worship God in truth is to stand in oneness with our fellow human.  Or, as John in his gospel (4:23) reminds us: “The hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth; for the Father seeketh such to worship him.”

And the Bard has written:
Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

However, Jesus said it first: 
“There is nothing outside a man which by going into
him can defile him; but the things which come out of
a man are what defile him.”  (Mk 7:15)