“Words & Actions” Colchester Federated Church, September 2, 2018, (Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23) Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

There was this hilarious show on the BBC called Rev.  It chronicles the life of a priest in the Church of England serving a small inner-city parish in London.  Father Adam smokes and drinks with homeless parishioners, has a habit of taking off his collar and cursing at construction workers who harass him, and has a good heart but says and does some questionable things as he tries his best to serve his diverse and quirky congregation.

The Archdeacon in his Diocese decides that Adam could use some help in his small and declining congregation.  He arranges for a dynamic, young priest to join the congregation for an internship to bring new life and ideas.  This new priest named Abi ends up adding a family service that’s well attended, a member decides that he finally wants to be baptized—by Reverend Abi, of course.  And when asked to reorganize the church office, she does so with perfection which causes Adam to have a meltdown because he can’t find anything.  On the one Sunday Adam has off because Abi gave Adam and his wife tickets to a Christian festival, Adam sneaks into the balcony and spies on the worship service that Abi’s leading.  The church is packed and people are moved to tears during her sermon.  Adam returns to the parsonage dejected, depressed, and envious.

Later that week, Adam goes into the sanctuary alone to pray and finds Abi already sitting at the piano playing beautiful music.  He hides behind a pillar and prays in silence though the audience hears the words he lifts up to God: “Lord, why have you sent this woman?  I should be able to love this woman but I can’t because I’m jealous of her because she’s cleverer than me and kind and hard-working and she brings the liturgy alive and she fills the church.  I bet she speaks Hebrew as well, and Aramaic.  Why do I find her so irritating?  It’s pathetic.  It’s because I’m scared, isn’t it?  I’m scared I’ll be sidelined . . . I’ve got to rise to the challenge.  I’ve got to try and love her.  Love does not envy.  I want her to go away, please make her go away.”[1]  Envy has a way of bringing out a side of ourselves that just isn’t pretty.

Now over the next several weeks, we’ll be turning to the Gospel of Mark in the Lectionary.  Today we kick off this exploration of Mark with Jesus teaching about what actually defiles a person.  This question arises out of disagreements within the various Jewish groups at the time.  Some of the Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem are gathering around Jesus and they notice that some of his disciples are eating without ritually washing their hands first.  They ask Jesus what’s up with this and then he challenges their understanding of what it means to live an authentic life of faith.

According to The Jewish Annotated New Testament (which is a helpful resource for being sensitive to interfaith understandings in our modern times), the issues of keeping kosher and following the rules of ritual purity along with the circumcision of Gentile male converts to the Jesus Movement were two of the most contentious issues that rose up quickly in the Early Church.  Mark explains the ritual practices of Jews around food to his audience knowing that the Gentiles who were coming to the Jesus Movement didn’t understand what the issues were.  The Pharisees were known for observing the tradition of the elders—traditional understandings of how to practice the Jewish faith that were not found in scripture.  This handwashing ritual is an example.  There are diverse opinions about how to practice Judaism just as there are diverse opinions about how we practice Christianity.  And the Pharisees can’t help but call out Jesus’ disciples when they see that they aren’t adhering to these purification practices that the Pharisees believed were important to keep.[2]  To give them a little bit of a break, it’s not a bad idea to wash our hands before we eat food.

Though Jesus challenges their worldview by saying, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile . . . for it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.  All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”[3]

Our hearts have the capacity to show forth great love.  And our hearts have the capacity to cause serious harm.  If an evil intention is festering inside of us it can come out in damaging ways.  It can harm another person and harm ourselves in the process.  It ends up that our words and action both have consequences.  We hopefully know or at least can consider what our Achilles heel happens to be.  It’s interesting that in the long list of evil intentions some of the seven deadly sins are named (perhaps using different words) but they are there.  Lust, greed, envy, and pride are named by Jesus in this passage as the things that can come out of us and defile.

Moreover, we may not use “defile” as a regular word in our vocabulary, but synonyms are: spoil, sully, mar, debase, degrade, profane, violate.  When we say something that is meant to cause harm or cut someone down, that does damage not just to the person we’ve harmed but it damages ourselves too.  When we do something that is meant to cause harm, we debase that person and ourselves.  Our words can heal.  Our words can wound.  Our actions can heal.  Our actions can wound.

That’s why that scene in Rev. feels important as we consider the scribes and the Pharisees and Jesus and the disciples.  Professional jealousies are a real thing.  Clergy aren’t immune.  We’re jealous of colleagues who have bigger buildings or smaller buildings.  Old historic churches on the town green or modern churches that may be harder to find but don’t have as many maintenance issues. We’re jealous of praise bands or pipe organs.  And we’re especially jealous of fellow clergy who have packed sanctuaries on Sunday mornings versus the few and the faithful who can barely keep the lights on or pay their pastor.  We compare and feel inadequate and those jealousies can come out.

We’re human.  It happens.  It happens among clergy.  It happens within congregations or feeling jealous of that other church down the road.  It happens in families.  It happens with friends.  We see something that we don’t have or that we don’t like and the internal dialogue of nastiness may begin inside of our hearts.  But Jesus is calling us to go deeper and to change our hearts with good intentions.  If what comes out of a person can defile, can what comes out of a person redeem?  Of course.

UCC Minister Robin Meyers analyzes the situation like this, “One of the most remarkable discoveries that a serious student of the Bible makes is that in the New Testament more people get mad over God’s generous treatment of those who don’t deserve it than they do over God’s harsh punishment of those who do.”[4]  Think of the Prodigal Son and his older brother.  The woman who washes Jesus’ feet with her tears and dries them with her hair.  Peter and Jesus’ conversation on the beach after Christ rose.  We can be so envious that we sit back and begrudge the mercy of God.  We ask ourselves if so and so is worthy of being special or liked or even forgiven.  It’s like Adam said in his prayer, “Why do I find her so irritating?  It’s pathetic.  It’s because I’m scared, isn’t it?”  Fear is often at the heart of those evil intentions that Jesus is talking about with the Pharisees.

Though when we’re feeling envious of someone, we can get to a healthy place of emulation.  Emulation takes the nastiness out of envy because there’s no hostility when we try to emulate someone.  There’s no desire to have this person we admire fall from grace or somehow face punishment for doing good in the world and being a person worthy of modeling ourselves after.  Instead of encountering someone who is talented by begrudging their gifts, we can take a step back and be amazed by them.  As Myers says, “When we meet someone who is possessed of great talent or great gifts, or who just seems to have an ‘enviable’ amount of contentment and peace, we want to be more like them.  We want to learn from them, to model ourselves after them, to live as they live.  This desire is not sinful envy; it is good envy that motivates us to emulation.”[5]

What would have happened if Jesus had these kinds of encounters with his fellow Jews and the desire was emulation and not envy?  It could have fundamentally changed the Christian relationship with Judaism.  The parting (and there would have been a parting since we Christians hold that Jesus is the Messiah and God incarnate) would have been more civil.  Instead, history played out the hostilities and jealousies with the Romans and Jews persecuting Christians and then Christians persecuting the Jews throughout Europe and the Middle East, not to mention the Crusades with Muslims.  We know how it went down and there’s no changing the past on a large scale or much smaller scales.

Though if we are grounded and know who we are and what we believe we’re not going to be so jealous of anyone else.  That applies to us on personal levels, professional levels, church levels, even religion levels.  Jesus reminded us that true devotion to God is about love after all—love of God, love of neighbor, and love of self.  It’s not what goes into a person that defiles, it’s what comes out.  If love comes out and our words and actions are aligned to be loving, maybe everything would be different.  May it be so with us.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Rev. Season 2, Episode 2.
[2] Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler Editors, The Jewish Annotated New Testament, Mark 7:1-23 Washing the hands and the commandment of God footnotes, 73.
[3] Mark 7:14-15, 21-23, NRSV.
[4] Robin Meyers, The Virtue in the Vice: Finding Seven Lively Virtues in the Seven Deadly Sins, 43.
[5] Robin Meyers, The Virtue in the Vice: Finding Seven Lively Virtues in the Seven Deadly Sins, 38.