Sunday, August 17, 2008

Ritual is Easy

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
August 17, 2008

Year A: Pentecost 14 (Proper 15)
Genesis 45: 1-15
Psalm 133
(Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32)
Matthew 15:10-28

Ritual is Easy

Today we have two gospel lessons for the price of one. First, we heard a bit of a debate between Jesus and the Pharisees about ritual purity. And then second we had this interesting and unusual encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman. If you’re thinking that two gospel lessons in one morning is too much, maybe I shouldn’t tell you that I had the tempting option of deleting the ritual purity part. But, I thought the creators of the lectionary included both of them, so, you know, in for a penny, in for a pound.

Both of these passages are challenging and it might be helpful to put them into some context. Although similar stories appear in Mark’s gospel, these of course come from Matthew. And Matthew and his community had particular interests and themes that are clearly reflected in what we heard this morning. Most scholars agree that Matthew’s community was made up mostly of Jewish followers of Jesus, although there were at least some gentile Christians too.

Matthew is very careful to present Jesus as first and foremost the Jewish Messiah who ultimately offers salvation for the whole world. Matthew probably drew from the earlier gospel of Mark. Much of the wording is the same. But it’s not exactly the same. For example, Mark boldly declares that Jesus “declared all foods clean.” Matthew and his Jewish community are not prepared to go that far and so that bold declaration is deleted in Matthew’s gospel.

So for Matthew’s community the debate between Jesus and the Pharisees about ritual purity is a debate taking place within Judaism. It’s not a debate between Jews and Christians! And it’s probably a debate that continued between Jewish followers of Jesus and other Jews throughout the First Century. So for the first readers and hearers of the gospel, this exchange about ritual purity is not a history lesson and it’s definitely not an attack on the Jews. For the first readers and hearers of Matthew’s gospel the debate about ritual purity is a current event.

For Matthew this debate about ritual purity is part of increasing hostility between the Pharisees and Jesus and probably hostility between the Pharisees and the early followers of Jesus. I know we’ve talked about this before, but it’s worth repeating that although we don’t know as much about them as we’d like, the Pharisees probably get a bad rap in the New Testament. At heart, it seems like the Pharisees were interested in making sure that the everyday lives of Jews were holy. So you have this idea of a ritual hand washing before meals – which is not included in the Torah, but apparently was seen as a ritual to make everyday life holy.

Not a bad religious practice and of course it’s simply good hygiene. As a matter of fact, we even do a little ritual hand washing here in church, just before Lauren or I celebrate the Eucharist. Nothing wrong with it at all.

And, we’re a long way from those early debates among Jews who did or didn’t follow Jesus. But we’re still big on ritual, aren’t we? The Episcopal Church is known for ritual – which is all well and good. But in today’s gospel Jesus reminds us that the danger with ritual is that we can allow the ritual to become more important than what’s going on in our hearts. The danger with ritual is that because we’ve done the symbolic action – we’ve gone to church, bowed and kneeled and blessed ourselves - then we think there’s nothing more to be done. We decide that we don’t have to worry that our lives and our hearts don’t quite match what we’re doing symbolically.

We come here for our ritual each Sunday not as the end of our Christian life but as the beginning. We come here each week to be fed, to be strengthened, to hopefully be inspired, for our Christian lives out there in the world.

To the Pharisees and to us, Jesus says ritual is fine and important enough, but it’s nowhere near as important as the content of our hearts and the way we live our lives.

Ritual is easy. Dealing with what’s in our hearts and the way we live our lives is the challenge.

Which brings us to our second gospel lesson, Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman. Since the gospels are usually interested in depicting Jesus’ power, wisdom and even divinity, it’s rare that we see Jesus learning and growing. But if we hold on to Jesus the human being then there must have been countless moments of learning and growing for Jesus. And here Matthew captures a rare moment of growth for Jesus – moment when Jesus has to match up his words with the way he lives his life.

Matthew specifically names her as a Canaanite to make sure we get that she is not a Jew – she is a pagan. So there are two strikes against her – she’s a woman and she’s a pagan. But despite that, like so many others, this woman calls out to Jesus asking him to cast out a demon from her daughter. And although she’s a pagan, she does address Jesus as Lord, Son of David.

The disciples simply find her annoying. And Jesus acts in a very un-Jesus way towards her, doesn’t he? We’re used to Jesus crossing all sorts of boundaries, but here at first he ignores her. That doesn’t seem like Jesus. And then he falls back on boundaries, telling the woman that he had come only for the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Again, not very Jesus-like. But this woman is persistent and Jesus says maybe the most un-Jesus thing in the entire New Testament when he tells her, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Some commentaries point out that the Greek word used for dogs might be better translated as puppies, and that does soften it a little. But isn’t it shocking to hear Jesus equate this woman (who has addressed him as Lord and who has a disturbed daughter) with a dog?!

But the Canaanite woman responds to the insult with a clever line, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
And at least in my imagination I see Jesus having an “a-ha” moment. Jesus is reminded that God is God of all and he may be sent to the Jews first, but his ministry and message is for the whole world.

Ritual is easy. Dealing with what’s in our hearts and the way we live our lives is the challenge. Our task is to live our lives in a way that matches what we say we believe and who we say we are – to live our lives in a way that matches our rituals. If Jesus had to learn and practice living that way then for sure we do too.

I was reminded of how far I have to go to get my life to match what I say I believe just a few days ago in San Francisco. Many of you know I was away with the six young people and two other adults on the J2A pilgrimage to some of the Spanish missions in and around San Francisco. After the pilgrimage was over I stayed behind in the city for a few quiet days in that beautiful place.

My plan for each morning was to get up early, go to Starbucks, spend some time on the New York Times crossword and then head up to Grace Cathedral where the have a daily 7:30 morning Eucharist.

On Monday everything went according to plan. Starbucks was deserted, the crossword was easy, and it was feast of St. Clare. It felt appropriate and meaningful to celebrate Clare’s feast in the city named in honor of her great friend, Francis of Assisi. I was on kind of a spiritual high.

The next morning it was back to Starbucks but this time things didn’t go quite according to plan. I went at the same time but there were more people including one rather distinguished looking man who was talking to a woman in a fairly loud voice about singers and movie stars. At first I thought they were friends, but when he got up to leave she was visibly relieved. His last words to her were “When you’re in Vegas, just mention my name and you’ll have carte blanche!”
That got my attention for a moment and then I went back to my crossword and immediately forgot about him.

Five minutes later I looked up and he was standing above me. All I wanted was to be left alone. But he says to me that he went outside and asked “the Big Guy Upstairs” who he should turn to and God told him he should choose me. My heart sank. So much for my solitude, so much for the crossword, plus I needed to leave soon if I wanted top get to the cathedral by 7:30. He sat down and began to tell me his story.

Looking more closely at him, although he was clean and neat I noticed that his finger nails were broken and dirty. He told me a fantastic and convoluted story. I’ll spare you most of the details. (I had trouble following it all anyway). But the gist of it was that he was fabulously wealthy, a generous donor to charities, the subject of an upcoming Robin Williams movie and would soon be touring with Frank Sinatra, Jr.

There was just one problem. He needed $28 to get his maroon Bentley out of the garage around the corner. If I gave him the money he would reward me with a cashier’s check for an enormous sum. Although fascinated by his story I was mostly annoyed at being interrupted and I was getting stressed out that I was going to be late for church.

I told him I could only give him $5. He was disappointed and suggested that I must be an alcoholic, a drug addict or a narcissist to turn him down.
I could have given him more money. I could have bought him something to eat and drink. Instead I got away from him as quickly as possible and raced into the cathedral, gasping, just as the service began.

Tuesday was the feast of Florence Nightingale. The gospel that day was from Matthew 25. You know it. Jesus says about those who are condemned, “for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me…”

That familiar gospel reading hit me with new force. I was in such a rush to get to church that I had neglected Jesus right there in that fascinating and disturbed and annoying man.

So I had an “a-ha” moment Tuesday morning at Grace Cathedral. My ritual did not match up with the way I was living my life.

Today we get two gospel lessons for the price of one. But the message is the same. Ritual is easy. Dealing with what’s in our hearts and the way we live our lives is the challenge for all of us.