A Place at the Table + Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

Song of Solomon 2:8-13

Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10

James 1:17-27

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

 

What a privilege to be here.

I’d like to begin our time together by saying thank you. Thank you to everyone at Grace Memorial with whom I have interacted over the last several months as we have done the work of discerning that we are called to do ministry together, to serve and love God and neighbour together. Thank you to the search committee and to the vestry – it is a bit of a cliché to say that something was a pleasure. But this search process was a pleasure. The conversations and meals and prayers that I shared with the search committee and vestry left me with energy and inspiration and hope. That’s a big deal.

Thank you to the Diocese of Oregon for their support throughout this search. Thank you to Father Stephen and to Mother Esme and Sue Jensen for their leadership, for helping this parish to be so vibrant. Thanks to the staff – K and Allie and Ellie and Tom and Mariann and Linda have made their expertise and their generosity available to me, they have helped me to start to figure out how things work at Grace during this time when my eyeballs are spinning in two different directions.

And thank you. Thank you. Back at the start of May, when Phoebe and Amiel and Miriam and Timothy and I came to visit Grace, some of you knew who we were and why we were here, and you welcomed us with enthusiasm. And some of you had no idea who we were or why we were here, and you welcomed us with enthusiasm. (There are Episcopal parishes at which visitors report that they went to coffee hour and no one talked to them. Grace is not one of those parishes. That’s something we can feel good about that.) Our family is grateful to you. We can’t wait to share with you in the adventure of faith.

So.

For the first time in more than a month, we have returned to the Gospel of Mark. We were last here way back on July 19th when Mark told us about Jesus being chased around by the crowd as though he was a rock stars, about Jesus healing everyone who was sick. And then, just as Mark was about to tell us the story in which Jesus feeds 5,000 people, we abruptly took a five-week detour into the fourth Gospel and John told us the story instead. I’m not sure why the architects of the lectionary (the schedule of readings that we follow from one Sunday to the next) made that decision, except that John’s account is longer than Mark’s and it features Jesus’ extraordinary and mystifying and wonderful meditations on bread.

As we return to Mark, Jesus has just performed the miracle with the five loaves and the two fishes. Everyone is stuffed, they are filled up like they had eaten seconds at a wedding banquet. After that great meal, Jesus walked on water and he healed the sick. It is in the context of these miracles – the aftermath of these miracles, if you like – that the conversation that we hear today takes place.

Jesus and his friends are sitting down for a meal. The Pharisees and the Scribes show up and they are appalled to observe that Jesus’ friends are beginning to eat without washing their hands first. Now, this is well before germ theory is invented, so the Pharisees and Scribes are probably not anxious about anyone catching influenza or a cold. But even if their understanding about why hand washing matters is different than our own, I want to suggest that their visceral reaction, their disgust at these unwashed hands is something that we can understand, something with which we can even empathize.

Jesus’ friends include a whole lot of people who do physical work, who spend their days working with animals. We can well imagine that their hands are filthy. Throw into the mix that, as the Pharisees and scribes explain, washing one’s hands is a sign of piety, a sign of devotion to God (notice that, in a few minutes, as we get ready for the Eucharist, I will wash my hands), and it makes even more sense that they are shocked at seeing these folks walking right past the and towards the table. Imagine watching someone going straight from cleaning a toilet to digging into the communal bowl of chips at the Super Bowl party, and you have some sense of the yuck that these folks are feeling.

It makes sense that they are disgusted. It is reasonable that they are disgusted.

I want to emphasize the reasonableness of the Scribes and the Pharisees’ reaction, the reasonableness of their disgust, because there is a big temptation to read this story in such a way as to make the scribes and Pharisees into its villains. This might even be the standard reading of this story: the Scribes and the Pharisees are the ones who just don’t understand compassion, who are so fixated on the law that they just don’t get the Gospel. As the children’s song, I Wanna Be a Sheep declares:

I don’t wanna be a Pharisee,

‘Cause they’re not fair, you see.

The problem with that reading is that, well, it’s lazy. And through its laziness it draws us into a place that is dangerous in two – or depending on how you count, three – significant ways. First (and maybe this is obvious), it invites us into a place of anti-Semitism, a place in which the church has spent a shameful amount of time over the centuries. The “Pharisees as unfair” readings tells us that these folks – more or less the Ancient Near East’s equivalent of observant Jews – are obsessed with Moses’ law, a law that Jesus has made unnecessary and maybe even silly. At best, the reading draws us into a kind of smug contempt of our Jewish brothers and sisters. At worst, it leads us into violence, it leads us into the holocaust. And that brings us to what is either the second problem with that reading or another aspect of the first:

It ignores Jesus’ Jewishness. Listen to Luke 4:16: Jesus went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. The Gospel writers don’t spend a whole lot of time telling us about Jesus’ Jewishness or his religious observance because they take it for granted. It is no more necessary for them to keep on saying, “Jesus was an observant Jew,” than it is necessary for them to say, “If Jesus didn’t drink water, he got thirsty” or “Jesus couldn’t hold his breath for more than about a minute.” Of course Jesus was an observant Jew. What is implicit in this story, is that as an observant Jew, Jesus himself was among those who washed his hands before he ate. His personal piety, his personal practice, is really similar to the Pharisees. This is not, in other words, an argument between a Christian and some Jews; Jesus wasn’t a Christian. It is an argument between faithful Jews.

Last of all, the problem with the Pharisees and Scribes as villains is that it makes this story into something little more than a pat on the back for you and for me. Here is its self-congratulatory message: unlike the Pharisees, you and I get it. We are the ones who follow and listen to Jesus, we are the ones who are doing faith right. Why can’t those Pharisees and scribes, why can’t those other people, understand that?

Let’s see if we can put that seductive and common reading aside for a moment and hear this story again. Let’s watch once more as Jesus and his friends sit down for a meal. Let’s watch as Jesus washes his hands and some of his friends do not. And then let’s listen as the scribes and the Pharisees, these Jewish people of deep faith and devotion raise, their thoroughly reasonable objections to Jesus, another Jewish person of deep faith and devotion. Maybe they take him aside to speak to him quietly, to say, Jesus, you’re forgetting to remind these people to wash their hands. And then let’s listen as Jesus responds to them with startling anger, as he yells at them. We can imagine spit flying out of his mouth. (And by the way, if you need another clue to Jesus’ Jewishness, notice that, as he yells at them, he is quoting the Jewish Bible, the prophet Isaiah.)

You hypocrites.

The people honour me with their lips,

But their hearts are far from me.

You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.

Holy smokes. What is going on?

Well, there’s good news and there’s bad news. Actually, let me amend that: there’s good news and there’s good news. But the second part of the good news might be hard.

The good news is that Jesus invites everyone to eat with him. Even people who are woefully under-qualified. Even people who don’t know enough to wash enough to wash their hands before sitting down at the table. Even people like me and you. If you don’t know the Bible all that well, you’re still invited to dinner with Jesus. If you get lost in the Book of Common Prayer, if you’re not sure when to stand and when to sit and when to kneel, you’re still invited to dinner with Jesus. If you don’t feel all that confident singing in church, you’re still invited to dinner with Jesus. If you’re not sure if this whole faith thing even makes sense, if someone like you even belongs in church, you’re still invited to dinner with Jesus. If you have done things which you regret, things for which you struggle to forgive yourself, you’re still invited to dinner with Jesus. If you have hurts that you fear may never heal, if you wonder if you are irreparably damaged goods, you’re still invited to dinner with Jesus.

And now here is the good news that is hard. Are you ready? Brace yourselves. The good news that is hard is that Jesus invites everyone to eat with him. Even the person whom you like the least, even the person whom you respect the least, even the person whom you cannot forgive. Even the person who holds church in contempt, who holds you and me in contempt, who holds Jesus in contempt. Everyone, everyone, is invited to dinner with Jesus.

Now, let me be clear. The point of this story isn’t that washing your hands doesn’t matter, that going to church doesn’t matter. No. These things absolutely matter, Jesus himself washes his hands, Jesus himself worships in the synagogue every week as was his custom, Jesus himself integrates prayer into his life. The point of this story is that, by doing those things, we don’t make God love us. Nor by doing them do we prove that the people who aren’t doing them have forfeited God’s love.

And that is hard. It is hard to give up on the seductive notion that there are rules we can follow that will make God like us. And it is hard to give up on the seductive notion that we, inside the walls of this church, are doing things right, unlike those other people who, right now, are riding their bikes or doing yoga or sitting in a coffee shop or sleeping in.

As my friend and teacher, Bill Ellis, says, we don’t go to church in order to be saved. We go to church because we are saved. We don’t serve God in order to make God love us. We serve God because God loves us. Being here is a response to God’s totally gratuitous gift of life and love and freedom. Indeed, everything we do for God – hand washing, tithing, service, prayer, song, the meal that we served together in the parish hall on Friday, you name it – is a response, it is a way of saying thanks for what we already have.

Jesus doesn’t lose his temper often. But he does blow his stack when we make worship, this act of joy and gratitude, into an attempt to buy God’s love, into an attempt to prove that we are saved and others are not. Thanks be to God, Jesus doesn’t stay mad for long. After the feeding of the crowd and the walking on water and the healing, this might be the fourth miracle, that Jesus doesn’t stay mad with someone who misunderstands the Gospel as much as you and I do. After just a moment of anger, Jesus smiles and he says to you and me: Sit down. Wash your hands first. Or not. There’s a place for you at the table.