The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost — The Rev. Katharine Flexer

Kate Flexer headshot

The Rev. Katharine Flexer

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost: September 2, 2018

Song of Solomon 2:8-13  |  Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10
James 1:17-27  |  Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church

Doesn’t it sometimes feel like all we do at church is eat and talk about food? Who’s bringing snacks to the meeting? I need a chair for the BBQ. Let’s break bread together. And now, time for coffee hour.

Well, this foodie thing goes way back – meals have been central to our faith and practice for thousands of years. If you’ve been attending church regularly over the last weeks, which I know you all have, you know that we spent several weeks with the gospel of John just talking about bread – Jesus as the bread of life. Now we finally move off of that topic, and we hear about a conflict over handwashing and eating customs, on how to eat rather than what to eat. The Pharisees and scribes, always ready to point out flaws amongst Jesus and his followers, now zero in on handwashing. We might at first wonder what the issue is – we do usually wash our hands before eating, and it sounds a little gross to think that those disciples weren’t doing that, wandering around in the dirt with fish and all that. But in this story, of course, the washing has less to do with soap and more to do with religious custom. Religious tradition has it that observant Jews should wash their hands before eating – but some of Jesus’ disciples are not doing that. Ha! say the Pharisees – Gotcha – you people aren’t following God’s law!

First off, it’s important to give the Pharisees a break. We often paint them as the foil to Jesus, the obnoxious enemies, the hypocrites – and Jesus is usually responding to them like that. But the Pharisees in reality were a set of people trying hard to live the way they believed God wanted them to. They were trying to follow God’s law in a time when the whole political structure of Rome was set against it, to live righteously in the midst of a pagan empire. They knew that the Law God gave them was a gift, and they were trying to live it out, to be a witness to the nations around them and give glory to God. I can think of many different observant religious groups today trying to do just the same thing.

Jesus, however, calls the Pharisees hypocrites. At first it’s a little unclear why. They were talking about customs and rules that were an accepted part of their tradition. Judaism, like Christianity, had and still has a great deal of written and unwritten tradition about right behavior and practice. A whole host of practices and rules had collected around things like eating that weren’t necessarily there in the original scripture. So it’s possible that Jesus was arguing for a return to scriptural basics, dropping the accretions of tradition and going back to the original Law.

This could be one of those moments when we claim Jesus as Anglican – which of course we like to do. One of our 17th century theologians, Richard Hooker, wrote about distinguishing between what was essential to the faith and what was non-essential – important distinctions in a still uncertain new Church of England. People were killing each other over whether it was ok to have bishops, or statues in church, and everyone had gotten tired out from that kind of heated intensity. Hooker wanted to widen the definition of the non-essentials, “things which do not make a difference, matters regarded as non-essential, issues about which one can disagree without dividing the Church.” He was saying, there are things that are important to live out because they matter deeply – namely, what is in scripture: the beliefs of the creeds, the understanding of Jesus as the incarnation of God, the precepts to love God and our neighbor as ourselves. But there are other things that just don’t matter. So get over them. Jesus could be saying something similar. Handwashing customs are not the most important thing, guys. Let’s focus on what is.

Or maybe Jesus is getting even more radical. He might be saying something about rule-following itself, the whole attitude of those who base their religion on doing the right religious thing. Scripture itself does contain many rules about what is and is not clean, after all, the Law as handed down from God. And yet here, and in other places, Jesus seems to be teaching something that almost sounds like breaking those rules, or disregarding them as unimportant. This, then, could be a moment when we see Jesus as a wisdom teacher, one with those who go deep into the truth underneath all our rules and customs. I’m in the midst of reading a wonderful book by the Franciscan writer Richard Rohr called Falling Upward, on the second half of life. Rohr makes the point that in our first half of life, we learn the rules and succeed by following them, but that this shifts, or should shift, later in life. We begin to realize that the rules aren’t everything, that mistakes and failures are what grow us spiritually and allow us to love more deeply. (Baby boomers, this is different than your instinctive breaking of the rules, fighting the Man with everything you do. Just clarifying.) But our world is set up according to first half of life needs – including our religious institutions – and so there is always the potential for conflict. Jesus the second-half-of-life guy might have been coming up against first-half-of-life rules.

But whether Jesus is being Anglican, or speaking wisdom, or being both Anglican and wise, he seems to be making the same point: put the emphasis in the right place, and stop focusing all your time and energy elsewhere. The emphasis should be on aligning your insides and your outsides, not just focusing on outer behavior. Or in other words, live with integrity.

The letter of James today says, ‘Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers….’ Religion is not just listening to the word, or following the rituals, but caring for orphans and widows, the most vulnerable ones in society, living righteously in that way. Not living our faith looks like the whole list of things Jesus talks of – pride, greed, lying, envy, etc. How we live shows where our hearts are, whether we are dwelling in love for God and neighbor or not. What we do in observing customs isn’t as important as what we live out in bigger ways – that’s what shows our soul.

This week with John McCain on everyone’s mind, integrity is in the news. There are a lot of paeans to McCain’s integrity in staying true to his principles in a time of increasing partisanship. Whether he lived up to that integrity throughout his career is a matter of debate – he was a flawed human being like all of us – but now, in our political climate of so many compromised and craven people in leadership, we clearly need to remember him that way. I find myself searching for models of goodness to look up to – which is why I’m so glad nothing terrible has come to light yet about Mr. Rogers. A few weeks ago Jim and I saw the documentary about Fred Rogers, a man whose integrity of life seemed to be truly intact. But I was struck with one story in the film, told by Francois Clemmons, who played Officer Clemmons on Mr. Rogers’ show for 15 years. Mr. Clemmons is gay, and told a story of going out to gay bars in the early years of the show, in the late ‘60s. When word got back to Fred Rogers, he made it very clear to Clemmons that he was never to be seen in such a place again. The film leaves it unclear whether Fred Rogers himself was homophobic, though in later interviews Clemmons says he was not. But whatever Mr. Rogers thought of Clemmons’ orientation, it was also clear that he loved him deeply, the kind of love he preached on his show: I like you, just the way you are. Personal views on who is and who isn’t following the rules didn’t affect the unconditional love he practiced – the deeper rule of what Jesus calls us all into. There’s true religion – and wisdom.

As always, what Jesus is teaching and calling us into is harder than it looks. It is easier not to live in love of God and neighbor – easier to avoid relationship, to avoid the harder tasks of caring for others and letting them interrupt our lives. It’s easier to just go along with the rules of our culture: consumerism, achievement, associating with the right people – than it is to focus on God and what God might be calling us into. We need what St Benedict called conversion of life – a daily practice of turning away from what keeps us from God and others, and turning towards God, always asking – is this that I am spending my time on leading me towards love of God and neighbor? Or is it distracting me away into other things? Is it resulting in the fruits and blessings of the spirit, or is it leading me into something else? It’s the practice of discernment – something that goes better with friends to help us.

And so we need a community of others striving toward the same goal, mentors and spiritual directors and elders further along the path, newer believers and children to keep us honest. Especially when the world around us gets more and more distracting and distracted – and integrity so rare and unseen. Jesus tells us, get your hearts in line with what your lips are saying, and so get your lives and behavior in line as well. Be the whole person God created you to be – genuinely strive for the kingdom of God, embody the presence of God here in this world. Be whole, and so be healed, and live. May God grant us real integrity and love.