Sunday, August 30, 2015

Hearers and Doers of the Word in Jersey City

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
August 30, 2015

Year B, Proper 17: The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Song of Solomon 2:8-13
Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10
James 1:17-27
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Hearers and Doers of the Word in Jersey City
            Well, we have quite a collection of lessons today, don’t we?
            We began with some pretty gushy love poetry from the Song of Solomon.            
            That was followed with a well-known passage from the Epistle of James, calling us to be not just hearers of the word but doers of the word – challenging us by defining pure religion as caring for orphans and widows in distress and keeping ourselves unstained by the world.
            And then we have today’s gospel lesson, which includes a dispute between Jesus and the Pharisees.
            Some of you have heard me say before that I think the Pharisees get a bad rap in the New Testament.
            We don’t actually know all that much about Pharisees in the first century, but they were a group within Judaism that it seems was interested in making everyday life holy – bringing practices that were used only in worship into everyday life – things like ritually washing one’s hands before eating.
            (Of course, washing one’s hands before eating is good hygiene!)
            It’s hard to know how much of the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees that we hear about in the gospels is historical or reflects later battles between infant Christianity and the Pharisees as they competed for followers during decades after the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
            And, frankly, it seems unlikely that Jesus the Jew really did declare all foods to be clean – especially since we know that the Jewish dietary laws remained a big source of conflict for the early church as it began to welcome non- Jewish members.
            It’s hard to imagine that members of the early church would have fought so hard about whether non-Jews had to keep kosher if Jesus had spoken so clearly on the subject.
            Anyway, one thing we do know for sure – and something that always makes me as a “professional Christian” a little nervous - is that Jesus didn’t really have much use for the religious establishment of his day.
            He condemned them as hypocrites who said one thing but did another, who put heavy religious and financial demands on the people, who loved to put on a good religious show but whose hearts were far from God, as we heard Jesus say to the Pharisees in today’s lesson.
            Jesus reminds the Pharisees and his disciples – and us here today – that what’s going on in our hearts is most important – because it’s our hearts that produce the evil intentions listed in today’s lesson and those other evil intentions that didn’t make the list – and these evil things are what defile us.
            In today’s gospel, Jesus focuses on what’s going on in our hearts.
            And, in the Letter of James, we’re reminded to be not just hearers but doers.
            All of this reminds me of two of my favorite gospel characters: the sisters Mary and Martha.
            I bet many of you – maybe especially the women – remember the story from Luke’s gospel of Jesus visiting the Mary and Martha’s home.
            On one level it’s a kind of mysterious story but on another level it’s so very human.
            Martha is busy, taking care of all that needs to be done to welcome their honored guest while meanwhile her sister Mary sat at the Lord’s feet, listening to Jesus’ every word.
            Martha complains to Jesus, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to help me.”
            But instead of telling Mary to get to work, Jesus says, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
            In the story, Mary is the hearer and Martha is the doer.
            And, the truth is, you and I are called to be both Mary and Martha. We are called to be both hearers and doers of the word.
            It’s as hearers of the word that we allow God – who loves us with a gushy love - to take care of our hearts, nurturing our hearts so that God’s goodness and love flow out of us and into our world so defaced and broken by evil.
            And, I think that, with God’s help, with each passing day we Jersey City Episcopalians are doing a better and better job of being both Mary and Martha, with God’s help we’re doing a better and better job of being both hearers and doers of the word.
            As it says on our Jersey City Episcopal banner, “The Word is getting around!” More people really are finding their way to our churches. More of us are worshiping at our three churches – where, each with our own distinctive style and tradition, we hear the Word of God, extend the hand of peace, receive the Body and Blood of Christ, and are then sent out into our defiled and broken world to love and serve the Lord.
            More of us are hearing the Word.
            And more of us are doing the Word.
            There’s so much happening that I certainly don’t know everything that’s going on at all three of our churches and at Garden State Episcopal CDC, but I know that people are being fed and clothed, children are being cared for, a sense of community is being strengthened, and shelter is being provided for the homeless and the poor.
            Together we’ve been involved in the exciting community organizing effort that’s going on across our city. Together we’ve been trying to get a Family Promise affiliate up and running in Hudson County – to provide much-needed shelter for homeless families, who are often carefully hidden all around us.
            We are doing the Word by extending God’s love to those people the world is quick to dismiss as useless, as losers, as unlovable, as not worth – as not deserving – our effort.
            Together, more and more often, we Jersey City Episcopalians are Mary and Martha. Together we are hearers of the Word and doers of the Word.
            Today as we gather together for our third annual service and barbeque picnic at Liberty State Park, my prayer is that we will continue to deepen our commitment to be hearers of the Word.
            My prayer is that we will deepen our commitment to being doers of the Word, sharing God’s love with a defiled and broken Jersey City, sharing God’s love with a defiled and broken world.
            With God’s help, may it be so.