Saturday, September 5, 2009

a different way of being different

“A Different way of being different”
Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Proper 17, Year B
August 30, 2009 (Preached at All Saints’ & ESC)

A few weeks ago my sister forwarded me an email with the following subject line: “you might be an Episcopalian if.” A few highlights: You might be an Episcopalian if, “when watching Star Wars and hearing "May the force be with you,” you automatically reply "And also with you.” You might be an Episcopalian if, when approaching a row of seats at a movie theatre, you genuflect before entering. You might be an Episcopalian if while looking for a can opener in the church kitchen, all you can find are four corkscrews. If you understand that a Senior Warden doesn’t work at the local prison, and that a primate isn't just a monkey, and that the sursum corda is not a surgical procedure – then there’s a pretty good chance – you’re probably an Episcopalian. How many Episcopalians does it take to change a light bulb? I’m not sure I understand – why would we want to change?

My point is this – all of us are participate in different groups with very specific “identity markers” – that is certain ways of speaking or behaving or dressing that serve to distinguish who is inside the group from who is outside the group. For example, if upon leaving church you run into a person with dark lipstick, black clothes, dark makeup, and multiple piercings – I’m going to go out on a limb and say that they’re part of America’s gothic subculture and not a United States senator. Because sociologically speaking, that’s just what groups do – they adopt identity markers – ways of speaking or dressing or acting that mark them out as different from other groups.

Now, when it comes to defending identity markers, religious groups are hands down the most passionate. And I have to say, as an Episcopalian, I love our identity markers – our prayer book, our liturgy, our lectionary – these have been the tools through which I’ve come to know and to love Jesus Christ. And for that reason, identity markers aren’t inherently bad or wrong. But they can go wrong. Our identity markers go wrong when they make us feel superior; when in being different, we actually start to think that we’re better.

Today’s Gospel lesson isn’t about hygiene or hand washing. Today’s Gospel is about identity markers. To be more specific, it’s a debate – between Jesus and the Pharisees – about what identity markers are supposed to make God’s people different from everyone else. And the Pharisees, like all 1st-century Jews, rightly believed that God had chosen them to be different. After all, the word holy means to be separate. And God had given Israel a very clear command: “be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” In other words, “because I’m God, I’m Different – and I want you to be different too.” And so that leaves us with a question – How? How are we supposed to be different?

Well, the Pharisees had a very clear answer to that question – their identity markers were crystal clear. And the specific identity marker at stake in today’s Gospel is the issue of ritual purity. You see, the Pharisees had strict ways of living, of cooking and of eating that made them different from non-Jews. And these purity laws were really important for people like the Pharisees. You see, the Jews were an occupied people – they were ruled by pagan nations – and because of that the Pharisees felt that their identity as God’s chosen people was under attack. In a confusing world, the purity code was the Pharisees’ way of saying loud and clear – “we are Jews! We are different! We do not live like you do!”

Do you see why they flip out in today’s Gospel? Here’s Jesus – the supposed Messiah, the One they’re supposed to hope in – and Jesus is taking something that marks out his own people as different and he basically says “this doesn’t matter.” “Wash or don’t wash – it doesn’t matter.” And so here’s the question. Is it that Jesus doesn’t think that identity markers are important? Or, is Jesus telling them that they’re making the wrong identity markers important? After all, surely Jesus wants his followers to be different. But if Jesus’ chief concern isn’t whether or not we follow the purity laws of Leviticus, and if Jesus’ chief concern isn’t whether or not our worship is contemporary or traditional – then what is Jesus’ chief concern? In other words, what identity markers are supposed to make followers of Jesus different?

“Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile. The things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: they all come from within, and they defile a person.” In other words, can you hear what Jesus is saying? “You may trust in some external ritual that makes you feel better or different or more pure than everyone else, but your Father in heaven looks at the heart. And on the inside, you’re all the same.” “Do you understand?” Jesus seems to scream! “There’s no light coming from the bulb. And because of that, I have to change it – to give you a new one.” “When it comes to the human heart,” Jesus says to all of us, “you all need to change!”

It’s not that Jesus doesn’t believe in identity markers – in things that make God’s people different from everyone else. It’s that the identity-markers he wants us to cherish are internal and not external. You see, on the surface Jesus’ words to the Pharisees sound harsh – “you hypocrites,” he says, “you honor me with your lips but your hearts are far from me.” But Jesus speaks this way to help us understand that the purity laws were always meant to point to a deeper purity – a purity of the heart. And that purity of the heart, Jesus says, is what the Kingdom of God is all about.

There’s a saying that’s become quite popular in our culture – “just do what’s in your heart.” For the record, that is not the theme of today’s Gospel. Just because something is in our heart doesn’t mean that it’s valid or good. Because in my experience, there is a real self-righteousness within our hearts that just doesn’t want to die. There is a part of us that isn’t at all bothered when others are excluded. Frankly, it makes us feel special when we’re on the inside and someone else isn’t. And according to Jesus, self-righteousness is something that comes from the heart, and because of that, our hearts must change.

The reason our hearts must change is because God does want us to be different. And frankly, religious people only have two choices. One the one hand, we can make our faith primarily about external identity markers. In a scary and confusing world, we can anxiously cling to artificial ways of distinguishing ourselves from them­ – whoever “they” happen to be. Or, we can give Christ our heart and say “take it. I want to change. I need to change.” Those external identity markers we love so much – whether it’s our prayer book or our liturgy – we can see these things as the means to a much more glorious end – the complete transformation of our hearts. And I promise you, if we do that, if we make our lives about listening to Jesus and trying to identity ourselves by what He values – I promise you we’ll be different.

After all, our Lord is Different. It’s ironic if you think about it. The only person that’s ever been free from self-righteousness is also the only one who was completely righteous. And the least exclusive member of the human race is now its most exalted. Make no mistake, our Lord is different – and he invites us to a different way of being different – a way of being different that focuses on the heart. I have to say, it would be an amazing thing to get an email that said “you might be an Episcopalian if” or “you might be a Christian if” – you were known for your soft-heart; if you never spoke an unkind word about another person; if your compassion for the rich and the poor alike caused you pain; if forgiveness was a daily practice; if people were routinely drawn to your warmth, your joy, and your perspective that all of life was a gift. Wouldn’t it be amazing if these were our identity markers – not that we attributed to ourselves – but that others attributed to us? Wouldn’t it be amazing, if like Jesus, the church was committed to a different way of being different?

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