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The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 17B)
30 August 2009

A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Andrew C. Blume

Lord of all power and night, who are the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of thy Name, increase in use true religion, nourish us with all goodness, and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Deuteronomy 4:1-9
Psalm 15
Ephesians 6:10-20
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23.

The passage from this morning’s Gospel is not an easy one. It goes to the heart of two very important questions that have faced Christians from the beginning: who may and does share in the love of the God of Israel and, as a consequence, how are we to live our lives? Our long running summer theme of table fellowship, of meals is once again at the heart of this problem

This question about hand washing and about what foods may and may not be eaten—this part is in the verses that our lectionary omits—goes to the heart of an argument within the Markan community and about arguments the Markan community had with those around them. This argument, at its deepest level, is about Jesus’ authority and Jesus’ identity as the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed one of God and what he has the power to bring about. For Mark, Jesus was indeed God’s Anointed, the Christ, who speaks with true authority; and when he speaks, the powers of the cosmos, like the demons, respond to him. Jesus has the authority to pronounce profound shifts in God’s work of salvation, to make available God’s love to more people.

Jesus came so that the whole world might have a relationship with the God of Israel. A relationship in community with the God whose nature is pure Loving Kindness had been only available to a few, to those descended from Abraham, who had made a Covenant with Him. Jesus Christ opened up a relationship with the Lord God of Israel for everyone else and this is a relationship separate from that which God has with the Jewish People. Indeed the heart of Jesus’ message was addressed to the Gentiles and proclaimed that they did not have to follow Jewish law and tradition in order to participate in God’s plan for salvation.

Nowhere in this morning’s Gospel, however, does it suggest that Jesus himself does not follow the Law and, specifically, the traditions about hand washing. Indeed, we know that Jesus observed the Law and many Jewish traditions. The dispute we hear about this morning arose about “some of Jesus followers” who seemed not to be following the particular Pharisaic practice of hand washing. In fact, the practices of the Pharisees—which were designed to have lay Jews live as priests and style their households on the Temple—were not the universal practice of first century Judaism. Jesus does not condemn Law and Tradition and no where does he declare the Law null and void for the Jews. The Law is for the Jews who were, and are, without question, an integral part of God’s plan for the reconciliation of the world to himself.

Rather, in the eschatological age, Jesus, speaking with the true authority of God (and not of people) declares that now others, who may follow different practices, will be able to enter into relationship with the God of Israel. Now others (indeed everyone else) will have access, not just at table but in all aspects of life, to the nourishing love and compassion of the God of Abraham and Isaac, the God of Moses and Elijah. Gentiles now have their own access to God through Jesus, not through the Law, but by taking on the faith of Christ and believing in him and living lives accordingly. In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus radically expands who has access to God’s grace and God’s love and who can share the table fellowship of God, the table fellowship about which we have been hearing so much this summer in our readings from John’s Gospel, setting the stage for a great expansion in Jesus’ ministry. And we know that those who share meals with Jesus—as we do each week in our celebration of the Mass, where the priest takes, blesses, breaks, and gives the bread—enter into a profound and intimate relationship with the God of Israel.

Jesus now shifts his discussion to the larger issue of those things that do separate us from God, since now the separation from the God of Israel no longer has to do with the distinction between Jew and Gentile, about who eats what and how. Jesus tells us that nothing we eat, nothing that, quite literally, goes into our stomach can make us impure to the extent that we are outside of God’s love. Rather, it is the tendency, that each of us has in abundance, to act for our own self-interest rather than for the advancement of Love, that lead us away from God.

The vice catalogue that Jesus recites at the end of the passage represents a list of sins that take us out of relationship with God and with each other. They are things we do that set us apart from our communities by breaking the bonds of trust and relationship. They are what we do when we put our own idea of our needs before God’s idea of our needs. They are the things we do when we put our own idea of happiness before that vision of happiness, reconciliation, and love which God has shown and taught us in Jesus Christ.

The Good news, however, is that “nothing can truly separate us from the love of God.” The Good news is that God calls us from this self interest into a life of love and relationship with him and with each other. He calls us constantly back to the table, back into fellowship with him and with each other. He calls us back to the place where we can be nourished and loved and reminded of our true calling, which is total participation in God’s loving purpose, which is for creation to be its best self, for human beings to be their best selves, and to reconcile all things to God.

Yesterday I watched the funeral Mass of the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy. I was deeply touched by the vision of a man who was at the same time deeply flawed, intensely human, and yet moved by God in Christ, moved by the Sacraments with which he was nourished, to a life of service dedicated to the poor and disenfranchised, a life of service to those without a voice, without power, a life of reconciliation with
those whom he loved and who loved him. Whether or not you agree with him in the details, it was a life of service dedicated to that expansion of God’s love, of society’s love to those who had and have been left out. Senator Kennedy was far from perfect and yet, he heard and responded to God’s call to move beyond himself, move beyond his own flaws, flaws with which he wrestled constantly—flaws with which we all wrestle constantly—to action that materially benefited others, materially benefited God’s work of inclusion, God’s work of reconciliation, God’s work of justice and peace. Senator Kennedy’s life shows that nothing can separate any one of us from the Love of God in Christ Jesus, nothing can separate us from the healing power of communion with God and community in the Sacraments, and that each of us, no matter how much we may mess up from time to time, has within us the ability to hear and respond as best we can to God’s call to be his ministers.

We are called each day to use our freedom, respond to the love we are offered and unite our purpose in life to God’s purpose. This is the real meaning of Atonement, the complete melding of our work with God’s work. Indeed, this is something that we can not do on our own or alone. We can only do this with God’s love and with the support and encouragement of the whole Body of Christ, united in love and nourished by the sacramental meal that is now available to all.

Andrew Charles Blume+
Feria, Saturday, 29 August 2009


©2009 Andrew Charles Blume