a priest's musings on the journey

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Sermonette: Proper 17B - 03 September 2006

Mark 7:1-23; Ephesians 6:10-20

There is so much in these few verses from Mark’s Gospel to talk about, and I can not possibly give it justice in a sermonette. What I can do is briefly comment on Mark’s main point here; but, before I do that I want to point out a few issues that are raised by this text for your own ruminations. First, there is a huge cultural chasm between the Jews of Jesus’ day and us in this passage. In order to fully appreciate this text, one needs to spend some time researching the historical and social background here. There are questions that need to be answered, such as, “Why were the Jews so upset that the disciples didn’t wash their hands before they ate?“ “How would that make them spiritually unclean?“ The heart of this passage is about what makes us pure or impure. I will assume that most of you have a basic understanding of the Jewish purity laws, and if you don’t maybe you can do some study on your own.

In addition to the interpretive challenge of the cultural chasm, this passage also challenges a view that certain of us might have about Jesus and his understanding of the authority of Scripture. Mark is very radical and controversial here; Jesus is differentiating between Scripture and deciding, based on the pastoral concerns that surround him, which parts need to be embraced, and which parts need to be reinterpreted and even abandoned. This suggestion is so radical and controversial that Luke does not even include this in his Gospel and Matthew presents this story as a disagreement between Jesus and Jewish scruples, instead of about how Jesus‘ interpreted Scripture.
In this text Mark, and Jesus, are saying that the purity laws are invalid. It’s not that they are now abolished, but that they were never valid to begin with. Mark is writing this during a period of great tension between the Jewish followers of Jesus and the Gentile followers. Mark is clear, that laws such as the purity code which make no sense, must be set aside for the sake of unity and the inclusion of all people. Our lectionary reading omit’s part of Jesus’ argument here. He says that unclean food does affect the state of one’s heart; it enters the mouth, passes through the digestive system and comes out again. It is ludicrous, Jesus argues, to think food can in any way defile one’s heart/soul. Mark expands this inclusive gospel by showing Jesus feeding the multitudes in both Jewish and Gentile territory. God’s grace and the message of salvation is offered to everyone: the food one eats, the rituals one performs have no bearing at all on the salvation offered by God. The food one eats can not defile a person or alienate them for God.

The heart of Jesus’ message is that it is the things within one’s own heart that makes a person impure. It is our thought-life that produces the seeds of what makes us acceptable or unacceptable to God (or better put, what unites us or alienates us from God). The vile behaviors we choose to enact in our lives do not come from outside sources. We can not blame the devil or our environment for the temptations that draw us away from God. It is our own sinful inclinations that threaten to defile us. According to the Eastern Church, this inclination to sin is like a virus that infects us once we are exposed to the world. It is through the sacramental life of the Church that we are cured and nourished from our sin-sickness and united to the life of God. The Holy Eucharist is the “medicine of immortality” which keeps us connected to the God. However, the remedy for our sin-sickness is not solely God’s doing; we have a role to play as well. We are responsible for nurturing our interior life- our thought-life- so that we are protected from the influences of the world which feed our sinful inclinations and tempt us to make alienating choices.

Nurturing our interior life and the wholeness given to us in our Baptisms is a responsibility that we must diligently pursue with the same care and commitment that we devote to nurturing our bodies. Sure, some of us need to be more diligent about making wiser choices concerning the foods we eat, from a health perspective, but very few of us intentionally starve ourselves and neglect the necessary self-care that keeps us alive. Are we as intentional about our inner life? The Pauline teaching is to defend our interior life against the sinful desires of the flesh by thinking on pure, lovely, virtuous things. The Spirit has given us the armor of truth, righteousness, peace, salvation and faith as a defense against the fiery arrows aimed at us by Satan. However, we are to bolster our defenses by the word of God and through constant prayer “in the spirit”. Our interior life is most sustained by the life-giving word of God and the life of prayer. In one sense it’s difficult to separate the two out, because it’s hard to interact with the word of God unless one also has a healthy prayer life. The Word of God is, of course, Jesus Christ- the logos, the Word incarnate. The revelation of God is known to us in its fullness in Christ. As we enter into the mystery of the revelation of God in Christ and follow His ways and values, we begin to develop His mind, His worldview, His values. We begin to think as He thinks and to see Reality as he does. The Holy Eucharist is our primary connection to this sacred mystery. It is there that we are most nurtured to become who we have been made a new to be in Baptism- it is there that we become the hands and feet of Jesus; it is from there that we are sent into the world as the transforming and reconciling presence of Christ. But, we can not depend upon the Blessed Sacrament alone to offer us the kind of connection to the life of God and to the mind of the Logos that keeps our minds renewed and our thoughts focused on the things of God. In every new moment, we must be diligent and intentional about being open to experiencing the transforming Word of God in our lives. The life of prayer is the conduit to the ever-abiding Christ presence. Prayer is so important to our spiritual life and such a critical way of keeping us connected to God’s life and God’s thoughts that the Pauline School admonishes us to pray without ceasing- that is to in every moment find ways to be aware of Christ’s presence and united to it. That is the only way to nurture our interior life and keep our sinful passions subordinated to Christ’s passions, which should be ours if we are members of His Body.

Praying without ceasing seems like an impossible task. Even those committed to the monastic life do not “pray” 24/7. How do we who live in the world, with all of the demands of living, have a chance to nurture our interior life? The solution to our problem might be found in a redefinition of what prayer actually is. Our idea of prayer as strictly verbal (or even mental) communication with God might need to be re-evaluated. Talking to God through communal liturgies and private intercessions and litanies are only one piece of what the life of prayer is meant to be. It certainly is important for us to talk to God- whether we choose the Daily Office, a Book of Hours, the Rosary, the Jesus Prayer-or some other formalized prayer-, or extemporaneous prayer. However, listening to God and just BEING with God is as important. Those are the pieces that are often missing from our prayer experience. We say our prayers (if we even do that) and then go on about our life, giving only occasional thought to God. We give little attention to what God might have to say back to us, and we pay even less attention to the notion that sometimes God might just want us to be aware that He’s there. Centering Prayer, Journaling, Eucharistic Adoration, and other forms of Contemplative Prayer help us practice listening to the Word of God and Being present with Him. Those practices are wonderfully nurturing; however, our interior life needs to be nurtured with regularity if we hope to develop the ability to be intentionally aware of where Christ is in the NOW moments of daily life. Where is Christ to be found in our environment? How is he speaking to us? Where is he present? How is he revealed in the people with whom we interact (or even ignore)?

I could spend several weeks preaching/teaching on cultivating the interior life and shoring up our passions so that what is within is pure, holy, and Christ-like. In a sermonette I can only raise the issue at best. I would like to offer a few links to some resources that might be useful for those of you who are interested in further reading and reflection. Joan Chittester offers some helpful insights in sermon she preached on 30 Good Minutes. You can find it here- http://www.csec.org/csec/sermon/chittester_4806htm. Other sermons of hers are archived there as well which are worth reading (or listening to). www.spiritualityandpractice.com offers reflections from saints, mystics and contemporary teachers, as well as spirituality exercises. It isn’t all Christian, but it is all useful and can be appropriated into Christian practice. www.centeringprayer.com is sponsored by Contemplative Outreach, Ltd, and offers reflections, articles and teaching on Centering Prayer, Lectio Divina and other contemplative practices by Thomas Keating. www.Practicegodspresence.com is a site dedicated to Brother Lawrence’s book. Practicing the Presence of God.

It would be great for those of you who are more progressed and practiced in nurturing the interior life to share the resources that have been helpful to you with those who are just beginning, or those who might want to try new approaches.
:: posted by Padre Rob+, 8:59 PM


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