Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Loosening Our Grip: A Sermon on Mark 7:1-23

“That’s not how the story goes,” I said to the Canadian pilgrim next to me as the doors to the tomb slammed shut. It was very early in the morning on the first day of the week after the Sabbath, just like the gospel story. On that day in 2019, I had ventured alone from my hotel in Jerusalem, through the Damascus gate, winded my way through the empty and narrow streets of Old City, and into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where tradition says the empty tomb of Jesus is located. The wait was too long the day before and I was looking for a different ending to my ten-day pilgrimage. After taking the Eucharist in front of the open tomb, I was third in line when an ecumenical argument broke out between two priests responsible for their tradition’s worship on opposite sides of the sepulcher. Whatever the dispute, one priest presumed it was enough to shutdown visitation. My fellow traveler leaned over to me, “Did we just get barred from Jesus’ tomb?” This marked the end of my Jerusalem journey. Despite the disappointment, I logged the homiletical illustration and kept walking. But I did not forget. 
I did not forget what happened when tradition and the things of worship become so front and center, idolized even, that they shut out those who longed merely for a glimpse into the sacred possibility that death is not the end. I did not forget what it felt like to be on the outside, not even permitted simply to look inside. I did not forget this was the witness of multiple church traditions on the same grounds where the one who called us to a radically inclusive love rose from the dead and rolled away the same stone these priests now put back. 
I hope I never forget what happens when we abandon the commandment to love and extend welcome in favor of a tight grip on human tradition.  I believe this morning's gospel story will help me- all of us- to remember to loosen our grip so we can receive and extend God's grace. After all, we cannot hold hands with clenched fists.
This morning's lectionary is somewhat challenging, as it warrants some familiarity with the context of first century Palestinian Jewish life and Temple practices in the shadow of an oppressive Roman empire. But the story is also playfully written. Mark 7 is a beautiful illustrative spiral that moves from a small center of characters to a larger crowd and then back to a smaller center again. Mark offers a literary pulse that reminds us of the expansive love found in Jesus’ newly organized community. 
We begin with the small center of Pharisees and scribes, those who held fast to the Torah and others charged with drafting legal documents related to who could be granted access into the most sacred of Temple practices.  Mark says "they noticed" that Jesus' disciples were eating with unclean hands. The Greek here is 
κοιναῖς (koinais), the same word can be translated not only as defiled, but also common. It's the same word used for the type of Greek in which Mark writes his gospel. Koinonia Greek. Common Greek. Street Greek. The Pharisees and scribes are concerned because those who follow Jesus are not doing their religious tradition and liturgical practices right- not washing up before worship. They are, in the minds of the institutional leaders, flippant and irreverent in their common approach. The disciples are then given the same kind of side eye some may give millennials and teenagers for texting or Instagramming in church without realizing they just may be participating in worship in their own and more common way- possibly capturing an image of the sanctuary that catches the light just right and pairing it with a quote from the preacher. NOW is your moment🙂
"Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders," they ask the Teacher, "but eat with common hands?" It's in that moment I imagine Jesus finding a rock, hiking up his robe with traditional prayer tassels just visible beneath the fringe, and taking a seat as familiar to ancient students in the presence of a teacher.  Jesus then quotes Isaiah, whose writings called to mind how a time of exile when these traditions affirmed a belonging to God and need to care for a the marginalized as they lived in captivity. Jesus follows with maybe the most potent verse of the whole Markan passage, "You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition." It's as if Jesus was saying, "Remember- love is law. The rest hold loosely." And if they were not taken back in that moment, Jesus leans forward and calls out the collusive practice of Corban- an ancient religious and economic tradition and legal loophole to defer assets to the Temple instead of to their family. The economic practice is so obscure and debated among scholars that this section of the lectionary splices it out altogether.  Yet it is important- the same critics of Jesus' common and ordinary disciples are the ones who use the Torah to evade responsibility to even their parents and elders, the economically vulnerable, and give it to the religious institution instead. Their grip is so tight on preserving tradition that they miss its foundational goal- to create rhythms of mutual care and welcome in a world dominated by narratives of violence, power, and exploitation. Your tradition is void of God, Jesus tells them. 
This first small pulse of Mark's narrative is followed by Jesus' call to the crowds, quite possibly a mixture of Jewish and Gentile people. The heartbeat is louder here, although shorter in address, "Listen to me, all of you, nothing from the outside makes you unclean by going in. What comes out is what can pollute a person." Listen to me, Jesus says, in contrast to these scribes and Pharisees and their marginalizing obsession with now exclusionary traditions. My way includes the common folk like you. You can participate. Here you can find belonging without knowing the words or rituals and other religious insider speak. You can feel the relief. Maybe you, I hope, have experienced it before, a moment of intense and uncommon welcome when you needed it most. 
The story then pulsates once more, as Mark tells us Jesus leaves the crowd and takes the conversation inside the house. Here things get real fast, much like when I call a family meeting when my kids just don't seem to get the messaging of our family motto- "don't be a jerk"- or more pastorally every morning before school, "you are loved to love."
Inside the house, which is another subtle reference to Temple throughout Mark (think of the hole in the roof of a house where two friends lower a paralytic to the feet of Jesus speaking once again to the scribes), Jesus declares all foods clean and calls for reformed hearts that cease all forms of greed, exploitation, slander, and anything that mirrors exclusion- to include beloved traditions and worship practices once held so very dear and sacred. Again, love is- and always has been- the goal of the law. 

Friends, I could continue to nerd out on the context of this lectionary gospel and its beautiful heartbeat and potent pulse that speaks into our times as much as theirs. But I offer you just one more. If you opened your Bibles, you would notice the NRSV jumps from versus 15 to 17. Yes, sixteen is missing. It is believed that ancient manuscripts were not consistent. What did the questionable line say? "Let anyone with ears listen." 
I wonder if readers and interpreters throughout history recognized the importance of this text and wanted to underscore the riddle's central role in our call as disciples. It is Jesus' call to listen and hear the widest of welcome yet. And I wonder, was the Syrophoenican woman, who shows up in next week's lectionary, one who had such listening ears. A Gentile woman, unfamiliar with Jewish traditions, brings her demon-possessed daughter to Jesus. She confronts the Messiah’s own practice of welcome and dares Jesus to extend her daughter the same favor he  has to the insider Jewish people. And Jesus is moved to empathy and exorcism. This one of my favorite stories. Have fun next week, O preacher.
Faithful of Morrisville, do you have the ears to listen to the pulse of Scripture's proclamation to each of us, a pulse that moves our circles of welcome wider and wider, even beyond the limits of our traditions and sacred practices? Do you hear Jesus' unconventional call that breaks through barriers of who is considered in and not content with anyone being left out? Do you hear Christ's call to loosen our grip on what once was and “how we used to do things” so we can grab ahold of what is becoming, as terrifyingly unfamiliar it may be? 
I read a great article this past week by Christina Colón, titled, "What Is Church Now?" 

"If the pandemic showed us anything, it's that people can worship from anywhere, in anything, with anything- even apple juice and Ritz crackers. Why should the future church not be the same? As we reemerge, pastors [and congregations] face a moment... to ' practice that resurrection,' to find innovative and impactful ways to be the church in their communities. We can lament and grieve what was lost...'But can we also make room for something new?'"

There has been so much trauma over the course of these last two years. I am with you in what feels like endless and unresolved grief felt in our congregations. It is real and must be recognized. I also believe new openings in our communal practices and liturgical traditions have been cut so our worship is starting to feel more common. Sure, complicated. Unconventional, without question. Exhausting and sometimes frustrating, with the tensions between virtual, in-person, or hybrid gatherings over zoom, no doubt. But I do believe, we are seeing a new awakening in terms of what matters when it comes to our worship and work and witness as the people of God. I believe the pandemic has not been completely wasted when we have loosened our grip on what counts for the church and embrace fresh possibilities to make who we are and what we do more accessible than ever to those who have for too long been on the outside looking in. We also have an opportunity to be so commonly compassionate in a time when every day we learn of yet another natural disaster, manifestation of racism or xenophobia, thousands of God’s beloved fleeing their homes looking for refuge after a twenty-year war, food insecurity in our own neighborhoods and cities, or the perpetual rise of covid variants that can be minimized by the common practice of mask wearing and vaccinations. I guess what I am saying, are we willing to look towards what we consider the purpose of our traditions and the pulse of our practices? What might we need to hold loosely? 
As your Associate Presbyter in this Presbytery, every time I have felt wearied and wondered if what we do has any meaning anymore, I learn of another way the Spirit has moved through the faithful with ears who have heard and responded to Christ's call. I preached in a church where a ZOOM screen was set up next to the table for Eucharist to make space for both on-line and in-person, masked worshippers. As I looked out there was a visitor who was there for the first time just because she was looking for a church still doing communion safely to remind her of Christ's love that extends from her home country of India all the way to the suburbs of Philly. During the prayers of the people, a virtual participant shared their 25th anniversary of sobriety. Don't even get me started on how I well up every time I see a child lift a cup of juice and piece of bagel in front of their computer, participating in the sacrament in a way previously considered taboo in a sanctuary. 

I have seen ministries in southwest Philly transform their parking lots, no longer being used as much given their virtual worship, into lush gardens of fresh produce. In a part of the city where access to nutrition is so limited and sparse, they have an abundance and give it out freely. Another congregation continues to furnish their unoccupied manse to house the influx of refugee families whenever the city alerts them of a need. Then, this past week, we distributed our second wave of Covenant Fund Grant dollars to partnerships with hospitality networks, new forms of Christian education for children, coffee houses and ministries to young adults with various disabilities, collaboratives to provide programs to senior adults who have felt isolated for so very long, and opportunities for churches to extend community and welcome to LGBTQIA+ students at the University of Pennsylvania. Friends, this is what happens when disciples of Jesus throughout your presbytery loosen their grip on what once was and remain open to fresh practices of the resurrection. And it is happening in this Bucks County Congregation, too. Do you have the eyes to see and ears to hear this common welcome that is as much for you as it is for your neighbors near and far? 
Before we close, let's go back to Jerusalem where Wajeeh Nuseibeh sits at the entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Wajeeh is a Palestinian Muslim whose family has held the key to this ancient Christian church for centuries. Why? Christians fought so much over their traditions and practices that they had to give the key to an "outsider" so the place of Christ's tomb would not become a perpetual battle ground. So every day for 500 years, members of his family have climbed a tall ladder with an ancient key in his grip to unlock the towering doors for pilgrims, patrons, and priests alike. I'll never forget shaking his aged hand and sharing my words of gratitude to this practitioner of God's common grace. Wajeeh Nuseibeh's family has modeled welcome and love when the church lost its way, prioritizing tradition over God's universal commandment to love. What about me? What about you? What about each of us? May our eyes and ears be opened afresh to Christ's greatest commandment to love God and neighbor as ourselves. May we hold traditions, even those most beloved that once served a sacred purpose, loose enough so we can grasp keys able to create new openings for God’s gracious welcome. In so doing, we just may honor tradition best. Amen.