Sermons from St. Martin-in-the-Fields:
Aug 29, 2021 |
The Hazardous Activity of Building Faithful Communities| The Rev. Carol Duncan
The Hazardous Activity of Building Faithful Communities
Sermon by the Rev. Carol Duncan for the fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 17.
Today's readings are:
Readings may be found on LectionaryPage.net
Please pray with me, and with that wonderful music.
Holy One, You gave us birth by the word of truth. Help us be doers of the word, and not merely hearers. Help us look at ourselves in the true mirror of your love for us, so that we may be blessed in our doing. Amen. So you all know what to do now, everybody sit down.
In the car, on the way to my family’s summer birthday gathering, I read today’s gospel out loud. It’s a tough interaction with Jesus, and I wanted my daughter Christie’s reaction to it. She is a deeply faithful Quaker with a close but occasionally disputatious relationship with God. They argue a little bit. My 19-year-old grandson was in the back seat helping his mom connect to Google maps on Bluetooth, so his ears were uncharacteristically available. He heard the part about purity rules and said, “You should preach about washing your hands all the time, and probably about wearing your mask too.” Christie wondered how many sermons today would be based on that counseling. This one will not, although it is good advice. This sermon will consider the hazardous activity of building faithful communities among competing viewpoints and note that even Jesus struggled with it.
In today’s gospel, the Pharisees have assembled to hear Jesus. They are checking out the crowds that formed because Jesus fed 5,000 and cured untold numbers. So here are two communities of faith, the traditional teachers on one side and the shepherdless curious crowd on the other, all seeking clarity. We at St. Martin’s typically root for Jesus and the crowd, because we have inherited their dominant status. Today, I want to give the Pharisees’ side a brief listen.
The Pharisees began at the time of the Maccabean revolt in 160 BCE as a renewal movement. They advocated for restoration of the true observance of the law, and they espoused national independence. They believed in the twofold Law, the written and the oral Torah, and they considered the deep study of Torah to be true worship. They refined the purity rules of Leviticus to apply beyond the Temple, they applied to bring it to the people. Pharisees urgently reminded the Israelite community that it had been given different rules from the more powerful surrounding nations. Those laws are what preserved them as a people, and their God they knew as the true creator, ruler and judge of the world. Pharisees, unlike other sects, believed in eternal life and the resurrection of the body. They expected a future age in which God would act decisively to establish his rule of justice on earth. They thus originated elements of faith that Jesus also taught. Pharisees became a primary force that sustained the Jewish faith after Rome destroyed Jerusalem. They evolved into Rabbis and they changed Judaism from concentrating on animal sacrifice in the Temple to a religion centered in the home and the community synagogue. Through them, God is known in a large part of the world.
The two opposing sides face each other with a lot at stake. Pharisees competed with Jesus for social and political control. As Mark tells it, Jesus responded acerbically toward the Pharisees’ standards of cleanliness. Mark piles up examples of pharisaic practices in an exaggerated manner, as you heard, stacking one on top of the other. This Jesus makes me uncomfortable. Could he have been sleep-deprived and not thinking clearly? First, he calls the Pharisees hypocrites, a damning title. Then, he snubs their oral tradition by citing the unimpeachable Isaiah a little bit out of context. Isaiah had condemned Judah’s leaders but ultimately, Isaiah revealed that God promised to restore them. Following this insult, Jesus addressed his own followers with an unfriendly and hostile list of sins, a belittling shortcut to summarize the law. The same law that the Pharisees try so hard to follow, the law that Moses gave in the first lesson. I mean, that’s God’s law.
This is a family argument. Both sides worship and love the same holy God. Family disagreements are always painful to hear and to be part of.
The Pharisees and Jesus both think that their side has the true version of building beloved community. Community is not simple or easy. Especially when you step back to take the God’s eye view. The tendency that Jesus criticizes in the Pharisees and scribes appears in most religious groups. People attempt to hold on to merely human traditions as if they were divinely revealed. At the same time, the very basic virtues of love, reconciliation and the good news that God has come among us as savior get lost. We find it harder to think about the very real challenge posed to us by the gospel. It is easier to follow the familiar than to transform our hearts. This includes outward behaviors and the inner feelings that give rise to the behaviors such as slander, pride, folly.
So here we are at St. Martin’s right in the middle of this story. We too love God and want what is best for our community. We too may be thrown out of our best selves at times. Sleep deprivation gets to us, stress of the pandemic, immersion in different versions of our history, passion for our friends and our way of being. The question is, can we take a step back? What is the God’s eye view of our current situation?
I urge us to consider the way forward at today’s parish meeting, which I hope you will all come to after this service. I hope we can consider the way forward using the tools provided by James in the Epistle. As he says, “let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger. Welcome with meekness the word that has the power to save our souls. I hope we can each think slowly before we speak our heart.
I pray that we may humbly invoke the God who holds God’s children in our pain, God that mourns alongside all who love and suffer the anguish of being human, the God who became human and experienced the confusing pangs of building God’s beloved community. Amen.
Permission to podcast/stream the music in this service obtained from One License with license #A-701187. All rights reserved.
Video, photographs, and graphics by the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. Episcopal Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, 8000 St. Martin's Lane, Philadelphia, PA 19118. 215.247.7466. https://www.stmartinec.org