Sunday, March 3, 2024

Lent 2 - Sermon

 A sermon preached at St. Luke Episcopal Church, Renton, WA on 2/15/2024.  The gospel passage was Mark 7:1-15 -- disciples eating with unclean hands. 

Dominance and submission – two startling words to start a sermon you don’t hear every Sunday.  They are two fundamental powers present in all human interactions.  The interplay of give and take with these two powers appears any time two people or two groups begin relating.  The range of possibilities are endless.  When they are in an ideal balance back and forth, it’s like a couple skilled at dancing where they are beautifully in sync and stunningly flow across the floor.  But when the two powers aren’t in balance, it can be like my wife and me dancing – where we don’t even try dancing anymore because we have never resolved in almost 50 years who is leading. In all human relationships, there is this dance, so to speak, between who leads and who follows.  In every conversation, these powers are at play.  Who, for instance. has not been in a work setting conversation where “the boss” gives us instructions?  Or when you’re with friends – have you noticed if the conversation is flowing smoothly, it is because each participant takes their turn with about equal time talking and listening?  But what happens to the conversation if one person dominates the conversation?

Groups have these same dominance/submission power dynamics.  Let’s cut to the gospel lesson.  Judaism, at the approximate time the Gospel of Mark was written, had grown their Law from the 10 commandments in the days of Moses to just over 600 commandments covering every aspect of life… from what kettle you could cook vegetables in to who could sit where in the synagogue.  It was a way that the religion dominated their adherents’ lives.  As the adherent, you could be put out if you didn’t submit to the rules.  So, we see the Pharisees, who were basically the beat cops, calling out Jesus’ disciples for their slovenly eating behavior of not having washed their hands. They remind me of a kindergarten teacher scolding their students for not having sung the Alphabet Song slowly enough while washing their hands.

But Jesus jumps in to defend his disciples (shrewdly) by raising a question with the Pharisees about a law violation they themselves were committing.  He had noted that in their stumbling over themselves to prove their extraordinary piety and devotion, they were offering a lot of sacrifices or korban.  Sacrifices cost a lot of money.  So Jesus asks, in essence, with all you’re spending on sacrifices, what’s going to be left for you to take care of your aging parents – and if you can’t take care of them because you’ve given it all to sacrifices, how is that honoring your father and mother?  One of the key jujitsu moves to flip the position of who is dominating is to ask a question.  Here, Jesus asks the question about the Pharisee's incongruity in nit-pickiness.

It does seem to rock them back on their heels, and then Jesus, occupying a dominant position, teaches his followers, saying for the first time explicitly that the dietary laws (that occupied a large chunk of Jewish law) mean absolutely nothing.  What counts in his realm is what comes from a person’s heart.

I want everyone to be clear about the judo move Jesus pulled here on the Pharisees.  They’re in the dominant social position to issue fiats and orders and call people on the carpet for what they deem improper behavior.  And Jesus turns from a submissive adherent to the powers that be to a dominant place of teaching his faithful followers they can ignore the dietary laws in total. All by asking a simple question of the powers that called for an accounting of their own hypocrisy.

This is a skill we would all do well to have in our quiver for all of the times along the Good Way when we might run into the powerful, the bullies, the obtuse, the difficult, and the wrong-headed folks in the world. Have you ever had the experience of being confronted about a belief or behavior that we have then bowed to because their dominance/authority was strong enough that we lost our voice?   It happens to all of us, but I suspect that women and people of color find themselves in these difficult, lonely, silence-imposing tough spots with anyone claiming some kind of authority over us (real, assumed, or imagined.) There are many troublesome tales of rigid churches silencing women or demanding the right belief to be part of the community.  Or mansplainers at work who take your ideas and claim them as their own.  Or bosses who behave as if they own us and presume we will work whatever hours they throw at us.  In the church, there are many who don’t feel it appropriate or okay to ask questions about doctrine and theology or they get ignored and the message is clearly sent that questioning is not acceptable. Flipping it happens when we are brave enough to ask why those behaviors are okay.

I would call what Jesus demonstrates here: “Wild Spiriting.”  He didn’t need 600 laws to tell him what the right way was. As adults, if our hearts are grounded in God’s love, we really don’t need a bunch of rules or authorities telling us how to act, what to think, who to love or help, or how to behave. Love is a powerful guide.  Wild Spiriting uses the dominant spirit of love to call out love-stifling conventions, rules, and societal trends that are just wrong.  Wild Spiriting can guide and direct us in any relationship even those where we can sometimes find ourselves mute in the face of wrong.  Anytime something happens where we come away from it feeling less-than, guilty, or sorrowful about not having said/done something -- Wild Spiriting calls us home and reminds us to whom we belong. Wild Spiriting is where love, kindness, compassion, care, and certainty of God’s blessing upon us is the only license we need to step out of submission & confront the wrong or injustice we see or experience.

So Wild Spiriting and the Christian faith are powered by an alternating current of domination & submission.  It requires the submission phase of observing silence, study, and steady contemplation in prayer and listening to God with the flip into the dominance of getting one’s hands dirty – asking, working, leading, and challenging to broaden the Way/the Good Road/the Path for ever greater equality, compassion, and healing justice. 

Treading this path alone can be challenging.  The powers we face can be very intimidating.  But hopefully, here, in this church – I hope you can feel safe to use your voice to engage and ask questions.  To practice the jujitsu of flipping submission to domination and vice versa. To practice the fine arts of Wild Spiriting – where we encourage, name, report on successes, and get pulled up when all our responses to a sinful world have felt puny/weak. It is here where we’re reminded of our worthiness as God’s ambassadors and children. Never to oppress or flaunt, but to open dialogue, articulate clearly The Good Way, and, with our hearts leading, inspire the changes needed for a more perfect balanced world that can dance beautifully/gracefully across God’s majestic ballroom. 

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