By Rev. Sarah Buteux
August 29, 2021
Proper 17, Year B
Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile,
since it enters, not the heart but the stomach – Mark 7:18
To watch today’s service click here.
Last week on Substack, Nadia Bolz-Weber came out with an essay on circuit breakers that really spoke to me, (which is saying something since I barely understand what a circuit breaker is or does or whatever). But listen in, because I think this will really speak to you too:
I used to live, (she writes,) in a very old apartment building with super sketchy electrical wiring. Were I to audaciously assume my hair drier could run while my stereo was on, I would once again find myself opening the grey metal fuse box next to the refrigerator and flipping the breaker. My apartment had been built at a time when there were no electric hair driers, and the system shut down when modernity asked too much of it.
I think of that fuse box often these days, because friends, I just do not think our psyches were developed to hold, feel and respond to everything coming at them right now; every tragedy, injustice, sorrow and natural disaster happening to every human across the entire planet, in real time every minute of every day. The human heart and spirit were developed to be able to hold, feel and respond to any tragedy, injustice, sorrow or natural disaster that was happening IN OUR VILLAGE. (But not our whole world).
So my emotional circuit breaker keeps overloading because the hardware was built for an older time. And yet, when I check social media it feels like there are voices saying “if you aren’t talking about, doing something about, performatively posting about ___(fill in the blank)___then you are an irredeemably callous, privileged, bigot who IS PART OF THE PROBLEM” and when I am someone who does actually care about human suffering and injustice (someone who feels every picture I see, and story I read) it leaves me feeling like absolute (I’m going to let you fill in that blank).
I am left with wondering: am I doing enough, sacrificing enough, giving enough, saying enough about all the horrible things right now to think of myself as a good person?
And …the answer is always no. No I am not. Nor could I. Because no matter what I do the goal of “enough” is just as far as when I started.
Sound familiar? Anyone else here feel like an overloaded circuit breaker these days? Can you relate? I sure can.
So much so that when Jesus says, toward the end of this passage: “Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile since it enters not the heart but the stomach” my first instinct is to raise my hand, (which, Oh look, has a phone in it), clear my throat, and say with all due respect: “I’m sorry Jesus, but I’m not sure that’s entirely true.”
I feel like so much of what goes into me these days goes straight to my heart, and “defiled” is a strong word, but I’ll be the first to admit it’s a mess in there right now.
Andrew refers to on-line news outlets as the open sewer of the internet and he goes to great lengths to read as little of the news as possible. I, on the other hand, find myself scanning the headlines multiple times a day in hopes of some good news – some breakthrough or sign that things are going to get better – only to find myself even more depressed than before.
Friends, I don’t think, I know. I know that what goes in my head as I scroll through the news or Facebook – this steady diet of tragedy and injustice, anger and outrage, despair and snark – gets to me.
It shapes me. It colors how I look at the world and other people. It effects my own sense of purpose and possibility. It impacts what I assume about others and how I treat them… and it’s not always good.
And yes I know, at least in Mark’s mind, that Jesus is talking about the type of food we take into our stomach, not the sort of information we take into our minds, but the deeper question in this chapter has to do with how we live faithfully before God.
And I’m here to tell you today that what we consume, how we consume it, and what we do with it –
whether we’re talking about here (our stomachs)
or here (our minds) –
has an impact on what Jesus cares about most…which is right here (our hearts).
The stakes here are high – higher than just getting people to follow the rules – which is why Jesus is so harsh with the Pharisees. When he thinks they are wrong he calls them on it, precisely because he knows how close they are to getting it right.
I know the Pharisees get a bad rap in scripture because they are always going up against Jesus, questioning him, and giving him a hard time. And some of them were really out to get him; that’s true.
But the Pharisees wouldn’t be found arguing with Jesus as often as they are if they weren’t also following him around all the time listening to what he has to say. And I’d be willing to bet that most of them are following him around and listening precisely because they do care – deeply – about their faith.
You need to know that as a religious minority in the midst a very diverse culture, the Jewish community was always struggling to not just maintain the integrity of their traditions and institutions but to keep their faith alive period. Which theses days also sounds familiar.
And they believed that the best way to to do that was to include and enlist everyone. You’d think, because they are always picking on people, that they had a low view of human nature, but in fact the opposite was true.
The Pharisees believed that all of their people, not just the priests, were capable of leading good, holy lives. And so they encouraged everyone to not just uphold the law and the commandments but to go even further and engage in the same spiritual practices that their priests engaged in -like ritually washing their hands and food and kettles and cups – as a way to deepen their faith and affirm their identity.
The word “holy” means set apart. They wanted all of their people to make a point of setting themselves, their hands, their food, and their implements apart from those around them to remind themselves that they were a “chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation,” (1 Peter 2:9).
And I have to tell you… I love that idea. Don’t tell Jesus, but I probably would have hung with the Pharisees. As a pastor I find that spiritual practices – as opposed to secular activities – spiritual practices like keeping sabbath, studying scripture, tithing, communion, pilgrimage, centering prayer, and sacred music, are all essential for me as a Christian. They keep me on track and remind me of who and whose I am.
But imagine if I was the only one around here doing any of those things! Our little community of faith wouldn’t last very long or accomplish very much at all. So a big part of my job is to make sure that you all have the opportunity to deepen your faith by doing those things as well. That’s really all the Pharisees are up to.
The problem for them and for us as religious people, is when our attempts at being faithful lead to shame rather than compassion for ourselves and our neighbor. The trouble creeps in when the practices that were meant to help deepen our faith become the measure by which we judge one another rather than the door through which we invite each other to come on in and do better.
So let me be crystal clear here, lest we slide into anything resembling anti-semitism. Jesus was not taking issue with the laws or traditions of Judaism, nor was he – with apologies to the gospel writer – using this as an opportunity to declare all foods clean and throw a major piece of his tradition out the window. I think that was a stretch on Mark’s part, and we’ll come back to that.
What Jesus was taking issue with was the fact that this particular group of Pharisees were pointing out the rules to Jesus and his disciples in order to shame them rather than help them. So Jesus uses this as an opportunity to remind us all that the point of religion is not to make you more holy but to make you more loving.
Religion is not just about meeting the demands of ritual, going through the motions if you will, but about allowing those rituals to shape you at your deepest level – change you, humble you, and transform you into a more generous and compassionate human being. Religion is meant to make you a better person, not a person who thinks they are better than other people.
When the Pharisees go after the disciples they’re just trying to show that they’re right and the disciples are wrong. They are putting the law before people, breaking its spirit even as they try to uphold its letter. And Jesus wants us to observe both.
Which brings me back to Mark’s little aside about Jesus declaring all foods clean. You also need to know that Mark was hurting when he wrote this. The gospels were written during a very painful time when Jewish followers of Jesus were being cast out of their congregations and gentile believers were joining the new movement in droves.
Those early Christians made a choice to lower the bar of religious observance the better to welcome new people into the faith – doing away with things like circumcision and keeping kosher – to make it easier for new converts to become full members of the community. All of which was beautiful.
But we need to keep those first century dynamics in mind and recognize that in an effort to justify their radical inclusiveness they have a tendency to portray Jesus as being dismissive of his faith, when, in fact, he was calling us all to an even deeper and more rigorous understanding of it.
Mark is using this story, in part, to distance himself from the community that has cast him out. But sometimes, when I think back to those early Christians, I wish they’d kept a little more of the Jewishness that birthed their faith, not less.
I wish we were more rigorous as Christians about keeping the sabbath. I wish we had held on to more of the rituals and traditions of our forebears, like sitting Shiva when someone dies.
Because distinct rituals, when observed well, ground us in our faith and ground us in community. They give us clear directives to follow in times of crisis that tell us what to do when we’re too traumatized to think straight. And I don’t know about you, but I could use more of that right now.
For example, I love that we can take communion together over zoom with whatever is at hand, but I’m a little envious of the hard line my colleagues from more rigid traditions have drawn in the sand. Not just because it has kept their flocks together but because I’m sure it has helped hold them together.
I miss the tiny amount of pomp and circumstance we still had here when we would take communion. I want to hear Rebecca break into, “Softly and Tenderly” on the organ, while I say your name and offer you the bread of life. I want to look out into the eyes of our whole congregation when I offer the benediction. I want people back in church, gosh darn it.
Not because you have to go to church to be a good Christian, but because going to a good church can help.
Friends, when going through the motions becomes an end in and of itself, we have an issue. But when we lose touch with all the motions we have issues too. Too much religion can feel oppressive, but not enough can leave you feeling unmoored. And I honestly wish we had more religion right now, not less, because I don’t think any of us can think straight anymore.
We turn on the news, pick up the paper, or scroll through our phones in an attempt to be good, responsible, well-informed citizens, but I gotta tell you, I don’t think it’s working.
What should be the door into deeper engagement with the needs of the world has become a barrier none of us can surmount.The overload of living in this age of information paralyzes us. The images don’t just collect in our minds, they break our hearts.
We become so polluted with anger and despair that we can’t muster the energy to do the good that is needed right around us or see the good in others right in front of us.
We begin to equate worry with action, concern with care, because it’s all we can do just to take it all in. Our circuits shut down and we have nothing left to give. In despair we shift from the NYT over to Facebook or Instagram, hoping to relax, maybe imbibe a cute kitten or two and see some horrible post from someone who really doesn’t get it.
And then what do we do? We call out that person like we’re some modern day Pharisee, which makes us feel superior but doesn’t serve to make the world any better.
All of which leaves me feeling exhausted and… well…I guess you could say “defiled” …unclean…like my brain and my heart need to be cleansed and renewed. Because they do.
So I want to invite you to join me in trying to be a little more religious in the coming days, not less.
I want to invite you to keep sabbath, to tune out the news and turn off your phone for a 24 hours stretch every week.
Treat your body like a temple and be careful about what you put, not just in your stomach but in your mind.
Take stock and consider if the motions you are going through day in and day out are truly helping you be a better person or just making you feel like you are better than other people.
Maybe it’s time to pray a little more and scroll a little less…time to ground ourselves in the rituals and practices that lead to life and love… rituals and practices we have learned and experienced here.
Throughout the pandemic, I would often close vespers with a quote from Jennifer Finnely-Boylan: “Wash your hands. Protect your heart.”
I think if Jesus were here today, he’d be the first to say, “dear child, by all means, do both.”