A Sermon for The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 17), Louise Browner Blanchard, Associate Rector, Mark 7:1-8, 13-14, 21-23,
If you were able to see the moon rise last night, you saw a stunning sight: a gigantic “supermoon” that loomed so close it looked like you could touch it. Even as the night wore on, and the moon appeared its more usual size, it seemed to burn blazingly bright. That’s because last night’s moon was almost as close to Earth as it will get this year (next month, it will be even closer).
It was breathtaking–one of those sights that simply compels us to look at it. We can’t really think about anything other than what we’re seeing, and yet what we’re seeing is huge in more ways than one. It reminds us of the awesomeness of God’s creation and beckons us to contemplate our places in the universe and life’s essential meaning. For however brief a time, we understand that we are all part of something greater than we often realize, united by our common humanity, and called to recognize that we are all God’s children.
Astronauts looking back at Earth from the moon or elsewhere in space describe a similar, yet even more profound impression, because they are actually looking back at us. They are struck by how tiny and fragile Earth seems, a beautiful blue ball “hanging in the void.” Boundaries between nations, and the conflicts that surround them, disappear. The realization of our oneness is overarching and overwhelming.
Most people in today’s gospel were not thinking in such cosmic terms. Jesus and his disciples had been traveling throughout Gennesaret, and wherever they went, people seeking healing had been laid in the marketplaces. Mark’s gospel claims that if they even touched the fringe of Jesus’ cloak, they were healed. Probably hundreds, maybe thousands of people were healed, and the Pharisees and scribes had come to Genneseret to see what was going on.
The first thing they noticed was that some of Jesus’ disciples had not washed their hands before eating, according to the rules that the Pharisees followed, and, of course, they point that out to Jesus. You can almost see the thought bubble steam up from his head: “Are you kidding me? My guys and I have been in every village, city, and farm in Genessaret healing people, and you’re giving us grief about washing hands? You’re just looking for something to pick on!”
Out loud, Jesus responds more smoothly, quoting scripture to make the point that the integrity of how we worship God lies in the reconciliation between what we say and do, on the one hand, and what is in our hearts, on the other. It isn’t dirty hands or eating on the sabbath or associating with unsavory characters that condemns us. It might, however, be the hardheartedness of people who claim to be faithful and upstanding, and yet berate and mock and persecute others.
This point is important enough to Jesus that he gathers the larger crowd to make it. He wants them to understand that “nothing outside that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” He’s not talking about bodily functions, but about what’s in our hearts and the consequences thereof. He lists some of them: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. The list is representative, not exhaustive, but we get the idea: actions and thoughts and the consequences that result in destruction and violence, that dehumanize and marginalize and oppress others, and that turn us away from compassion and mercy for our fellow creatures and love for our God. Even the disciples have a hard time understanding what this means and how it works.
And, let’s be honest, so do we. There are commandments in scripture and rules that flow out of those commandments. We have laws and standards. How do we know when something unequivocally requires our obedience and submission and when it doesn’t? We, like the Pharisees, long for concrete answers. The Pharisees came to believe that if they and everyone around them lived in a state of ritual purity, they would all achieve holiness. They started with the commandments that Moses handed down, and they expanded upon and extended them. But somewhere along the way, they lost Moses‘ accompanying admonition to wisdom and discernment. The rules became more important than the purpose for which they were intended, which was to love God with all our heart and soul and might.
Later, Jesus fleshes out that overriding commandment by linking it to love of neighbor and self. In combination, he says, “There is no other commandment greater than these.” One way to think of it is that we’re all in this together. We only fully realize the depth of God’s forgiveness and love for us when we realize that it extends to all of us…and that we all need it.
Each of us has faults that we can identify pretty easily: we may be selfish, overly sensitive, or short-tempered; we may drink too much or spend too much money; we may have betrayed a trust or broken a law. But the more difficult soul-searching for most of us is how the zeal to get things right can cause the very things we get wrong. The Pharisees yearned to honor God so thoroughly that they wound up spurning those who were precious in God’s sight. Too often, our noblest intentions lead to self-righteousness and hardened hearts, and we forget that we’re all in this together.
It’s not a good time to forget, although the sheer number of issues that face us every day on every level tempt us to do so. The challenges confronting our families, communities, nation, and world bombard us: internet security, affordable healthcare, gun violence, income inequality, racial tensions, immigration, and more. We want to believe that if only the rules are obeyed and the laws are enforced, then everything will be fine. The message of this morning’s gospel, however, is that only when we broaden our perspective and view our rules and laws through a lens of compassion and mercy do we serve God and find the peace that otherwise eludes us.
”Overview Effect,” Wikipedia: the Free Encyclopedia (Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 5 Aug. 2015), Web, 29 Aug. 2015.
 NRSV Mark 5:56.
 See Megan McKenna, On Your Mark: Reading Mark in the Shadow of the Cross (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2006), 99.
 NRSV Mark 12:31.