Sunday, August 16, 2020

Disobedient and Defiling

Preached on 16 August 2020 In today's gospel, we come into the middle of one story, and leave with another. We pick up the first after Jesus has contended with the Pharisees again, their bone to pick this time being that, against tradition, his disciples do not wash their hands before eating. And Jesus condemns them once again for their hypocrisy and for making up rules to escape from their holy obligations, but then he continues into the statements we hear today. “It is what comes out of the mouth that defiles;” that is plain enough, isn't it? The lies we speak, the slander we utter, the excuses we offer: these are the pollution we spread. Our acts of infidelity, of wrath, of treachery, of contempt, of theft: these are what alienate us from God, and thus from life. I would think that, for us, this observation is so ingrained and so obvious as to be hardly worth making, especially for the overwhelming majority of Christians who were never subject to the laws of Moses and its rules of ritual purity. And yet, in this world of sin, the opposite is so often taught. We live in an angry, deceitful, contemptuous, greedy age, in which lying, cheating, violence, and just plain rudeness are exalted. We have created a new American religion of Politics, with its own rites of ritual purity, and in its name spew all manner of invective. And then there is the other great American God, Money, for nothing must interfere with Sacred Business and Commerce. Now, Jesus spends a great deal of time preaching about money, and many of the parables use investment as a metaphor for the work of the kingdom, and he even commends a dishonest servant for using his cheating of his master in order to win him friends. But we cannot serve God and Mammon; greed in our hearts issues forth and defiles us as certainly as any other disease of the heart. We are so enmeshed in this world of sin, that without the Spirit upon us, it would seem hopeless to prevent our self-defilement. And here the words of Paul as we have just heard them make a strange claim: that it was meant this way. One hears, in the story of the Jewish kingdom, a depressing litany of kings who did not do as they were commanded, and before that, the story of the Israelites on the way through the desert is, if anything, worse. And in the end, the kingdom was split, and then each part destroyed in turn; but as we are told through the prophets, the Lord God did not abandon his people. In time, they were gathered back to Judea, and then, in the reign of Herod, God became, through the Son, incarnate in humanity, and brought salvation once and for all. Their disobedience was against God's will, but their disobedience came to serve God's plan of mercy. Therefore, when we sin—for who can fail to do so?—we are yet made clean through Jesus, even we who are not of Abraham's seed, and our sin provides the occasion for the glorification of God through this mercy. Which brings us to the second story. The Canaanite woman has the rare distinction of arguing with Jesus and winning. And she bluntly acknowledges that she is outside God's people, and yet Jesus extends God's mercy to encompass her. Or is it a stretch? Her argument, after all, is that God's grace is great enough to extend beyond his own people the Jews, to which Jesus agrees. But what is it that leads him to agree? It is her faith. Faith is what extends the reach of salvation; faith is the vehicle of grace. And ultimately, faith is what has brought all of us, Jew or gentile, into the body of Christ. And yet, faith without works, as James says, is dead. By this he does not mean that we earn salvation through our acts, but that in knowing that it is what comes from our mouth that defiles, we seek what purity we can, in acts of worship not only on our lips, but in how we live, in charity and harmony with each other and those around us. Our religion must not be empty observance and pious sayings, but needs be manifest in every word and deed by which we help—or harm—those about us. Therefore, brothers and sisters, we do the work of the kingdom of God, and look to its ultimate fulfillment on the last day, when every defiling word and deed will come to reckoning.