Sunday, February 12, 2012

God's Punctuation (Sermon 2/12/12)

Epiphany 6 (NL, Year B)
12 February 2012

Mark 7:1-23

            Some of you may remember George Burns and Gracie Allen. Some of you may have heard of them. Some of you may have no idea what I’m talking about. Burns and Allen were a comedy duo couple in the first half of the last (20th) century. He was the straight man to her comedy lines and they were very successful on the radio, on stage, and on television. Their television show was on from 1950- 1958. After having some heart trouble, Gracie decided to retire. George attempted the show without her for one year, but it didn’t work without Gracie. She died of a heart attack in 1964. When George went through her papers, he found a note she wrote to him, which included the line, “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.”

            Never place a period where God has placed a comma. George Burns took this reminder from his beloved that his life on earth wasn’t over yet. He went on to continue acting, directing, and writing until he died at the age of 100 in 1996, always missing Gracie, but continuing to truly live his own life. Never place a period where God has placed a comma.

            I was thinking about this phrase with regard to our text today because it is hard to know if the Pharisees thought there was a period at the end of the law or a comma. It is too easy for us to immediately make the Pharisees the villains of any gospel story in which they appear. The organ music ratchets up, “Dum dum dum”, and we practically see them holding their capes up and cackling.
            That’s not exactly the most accurate picture. What is that the Pharisees are upset about in this chapter? They are not thrilled that the disciples are not washing their hands before they eat. It’s not just that the disciples aren’t hygienic, but that they are not performing the rituals of cleanliness before eating and not just for their hands, but also their dishes, cookware, and so forth.

The Pharisees are a reform movement. (What, reformers already?!?) They are trying to help people understand and live out the written and oral laws. Why do those laws matter? As the saying goes, “cleanliness is next to godliness”. Both the written law (Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) and the oral tradition are aimed at keeping the community of the Israelites pure. When the Israelites are wandering in the desert, they have with them the Tabernacle of the Lord. This is where presence of the Lord dwelled, God’s RV if you will. The Lord is holy. The presence of the Lord is holy. Where that presence lives needs to be holy. The people who enter that presence better be holy. And it helps if the people around them are… holy. Laws about cleanliness, sacrifice, and punishment are also about keeping the community holy so that the presence of the Lord can and will remain there.

Cut to the Pharisees at the time of Jesus. Part of their mission is to help people understand and follow the myriad rules for cleanliness so that they will continue to be a holy people and, thus, so the presence (and, possibly, the favor) of the Lord will be with the Hebrew people. This does not seem quite so evil, when you consider the oppression of Rome and the long history of struggle to survive.

Then Jesus enters the picture and he touches dead people, women who are bleeding, and a leper. He eats with Gentiles and sinners of all stripes. His disciples were not chosen because of their success in Hebrew school (shul), but on their willingness to follow. Furthermore, he is teaching these disciples (and everyone else) to disregard the laws that regulate cleanliness and, thereby, holiness. This Jesus is not just a threat to the power of the Pharisees. That’s not their problem. The way they see it, he has the ability to destroy the holiness of the community by making it impossible for God to dwell with God’s people.

Where they see a period, Jesus is a comma- a place where God has broken into the story and is altering the narrative. The story is still the same, but now God is telling it through Jesus in the world.  Jesus tells the Pharisees that it is not that the laws or the traditions are wrong, but that they are going in the wrong direction. By continuing to focus on minutiae as holiness, the Pharisees are missing the forest for the trees. Is it right to allow your elderly parents to have a leaky roof because you financed a new wing to the church (synagogue)? Is it right to proudly carry your beautiful offering of birds past many hungry beggars? Is it right to have prayed a formula perfectly and then to be so proud of how much better you can do it than others? This is the point that Jesus makes to the Pharisees and that he makes to us as well.

These are some of the questions for us as individuals, as a congregation, as part of the Church catholic. Are we worried about the mechanics of our spiritual life or are we actually concerned with our own actions? Let’s say no one here has any sexual sins, thefts, murders, or unrestrained immorality on their record. That leaves greed, deceit, arrogance, envy, insults, and foolishness. If anyone here is totally free of those, I invite you come forward and take over because I may well have done two or three already this morning.

            Does how you live from day to day reflect the idea that God is still acting? In Mark, the purpose of Emmanuel… God-with-us… Jesus is to give us a deeper understanding into God’s desires and actions. But it’s not just touchy-feely, it’s a deep, gritty, too bright revelation that God is present at all times and God cares about us doing the right thing for the right reason.

            The very traditions and habits we think are helping us to live faithful lives may very well be getting in the way of living in the way God is calling us. That includes our attachment to this space, our feelings about the order of worship, formulas we’ve developed for spiritual practices, the excuses we give for not having spiritual practices… all these things can become the minutiae of holiness that prevents us, like the Pharisees, from seeing Jesus right in front of us.

            Never place a period where God has placed a comma. By embracing the idea 1) God continues to act and 2) God continues to bring us to a deeper understanding of God’s written word, we are living into the truth that we are known and loved by a living God. Through the Holy Spirit, we are called out of the distraction of details. We are called away from the habits of religiosity that can themselves become idols, gods of false hope and comfort. We are not defiled by what comes into us, but by what we do and we must be honest with ourselves about the wrongs we do. God already knows them. We are called into wholeness, into holiness with the God who made the whole world a tabernacle. We reflect the holiness of that relationship by how we treat the world around us. We are participants in this relationship, not performers hoping to get the motions right to appeal to a God who appears and disappears on a whim. We are participants in the relationship, which means our input matters. We are living with and in a living God.

            George Burns’s life wasn’t over when Gracie Allen died. There was a comma. God continued speaking through his life for over 30 more years.

            God’s presence is not limited to the tabernacle of the ancient Israelites or to physical body of Jesus. God’s presence is in the world, in every place, through the power of the Spirit. That same Spirit that continues to refresh us with deeper understanding of God’s revelation… That same Spirit continues to shape us… cleanses us… makes us holy places where God can and does dwell…

            The God of creation has not stopped creating… The God of our salvation has not stopped saving…. The God of renewal has not stopped reforming… A light still shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.

Never place a period where God has placed a comma.

God is still speaking.


** "God is still speaking" is one of the mottos of the United Church of Christ (UCC). They also quote Gracie Allen. Having recently spent sometime with UCC clergy, I've been turning over the idea in my head ever since. 

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