Sermon for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost - September 2 2018

Sermon for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B
September 2, 2018
The Rev. Evelyn Wheeler, Rector

Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Jesus said: “Listen to me and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile.”

There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile.

In our own era, when we are so aware of all the chemicals in our food (that might introduce toxins into our systems instead of nourishing our bodies), when people worry about vaccinations causing disease (instead of protecting them against it), when the very water we drink and the air we breathe may be filled with things that are bad for our health, this saying of Jesus’ sounds ludicrous to our ears.

Now we could just make the statement metaphorical – that the world is a place of evil, that the devil is roaming around, and we need to be careful what we’re exposed to spiritually or intellectually or politically. 

I don’t think that’s what Jesus was aiming at, though.  Because his statement was in response to a complaint by the strict constructionists and ritualists of his day, who washed their hands and their food before eating it.  It wasn’t that they were concerned about hygiene.  It was a way to mark the food as sacred, set apart, and therefore holy.

It was a sacramental sort of ritual for them.  And it bothered them that the disciples, the rough fishermen and artisans, didn’t follow the same rituals.

So when Jesus said there is nothing outside that by going in can defile a person, he was telling them the ritual was pointless, meaningless, and useless.  Especially since the ritualists didn’t follow other important precepts: to seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly.  It was definitely a case of form over function, for them, he said, a case of “cleanliness is next to godliness,” as it were.

Nope, there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile. 

Why not?

Now here, I could say, this was a pre-industrial society – a pretty obvious conclusion that pollution was not a serious problem then the way it is today.  But I think there’s more going on here. 

Since the conversation is concerned with what is sacred, what is holy, I think Jesus is also saying that we are surrounded by the sacred and the holy.  The problems are not “out there” – they are “in here” – in our hearts, our minds, our points of views, our judgments, our emotions – those are all inside usWe’re the problem.

And, since this is Creation Season, I’d like to spend a bit more time on the idea that what is “out there” does not defile – that the rituals that mark what comes in as holy or sanctified are pointless.  Perhaps those things are already holy, they are already sacred.  How can I say that?

Well, if we go back to the Book of Genesis, we see the seminal statement that all things are created by God, and they are good.  Indeed they are very good.[1]  That right there is a strong hint how God thinks about what God has made.

And it’s not the only indication we have.  Robert J Schneider, a professor at Berea College, says “there is a consensus among biblical scholars that the revelation about creation in the Bible refers primarily to the relationship between the Creator and the creation, and that … this relationship … is both intimate and covenantal.”[2]

Here is Schneider’s argument:  The first story we find in Genesis is of a transcendent God who is able to create everything from nothing with only a word; but in the second story, God is in intimate contact with the world. Transcendence and immanence (or presence) are the attributes of God vis-à-vis creation that we find in just the first two chapters.

But it’s not just in creation.  Look to the later chapters of the Book of Job, in which God extols the wonders of creation, and God’s own joy in creating, not just the majestic horse or the soaring hawk but even the scornful wild ass.[3] 

We also find that God is not just the Creator – not just the one who wound the clock at the beginning of time and now it’s all running on its own.  God is also the sustainer of creation.  Not only does Psalm 104 rejoice at the creation of the earth, noting that “You have set the earth upon its foundations, so that it never shall move at any time,”[4] and of the monsters of the deep, singing: “There is that Leviathan, that you have made for the sport of it!”[5] but the psalm also portrays Creation as depending on God for daily events:

10 You send the springs into the valleys;
        they flow between the mountains. 

11 All the beasts of the fields drink their fill from them,
        and the wild asses quench their thirst.

12 Beside them the birds of the air make their nests
        and sing among the branches.

13 You water the mountains from your dwelling on high;
        the earth is fully satisfied by the fruit of your works.

28 All of them look to you
        to give them their food in due season.

29  You give it to them; they gather it;
        you open your hand, and they are filled with good things.

30 You hide your face, and they are terrified
        you take away their breath, and they die and return to the dust.

Finally the Bible presents God as not just creator, not just sustainer, but as the One Who Renews, the One Who Saves.  Isaiah tells us that “God will create rivers in the desert and strengthen crooked paths.  [God] will make a new thing.” Having made a covenant with the Israelite slaves, God makes a new one with the exiles in Babylon, and vows to renew both the people of God and, as is written, creation:  “I will open rivers on the bare heights, and fountains in the midst of the valleys; I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water. I will put in the wilderness the cedar, the acacia, the myrtle, and the olive; I will set in the desert the cypress, the plane and the pine together, so that all may see and know, all may consider and understand, that the hand of the Lord has done this, the Holy One of Israel has created it.”[6] 

So we see that Creation carries the message of salvation.  Let’s not forget what John the Evangelist said:  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”[7]

The New Testament thus echoes the ideas of the Old – and salvation comes to humanity and to all creation by the same means: the incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ.  As Paul wrote to the church in Colossae: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him.  He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”[8] 

Furthermore, “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”[9]

So whether it’s the Hebrew texts we call the Old Testament, or the Gospels and proclamations in the New, we see God as creating, not just at one time, but each day, and not just then, not just now, but until the last day when all things are made new. 

“There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile” because   Creation is already holy and sanctified and beloved of God.


[1] Genesis 1:31. “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.”

[2] “I: What the Bible Teaches about Creation” on the blog Science and Faith: Perspectives on Christianity and Science (undated).  Downloaded August 24, 2018.

[3] Job 38-41; Job 39:7, 20, 26.

[4] Psalm 104:5

[5] Psalm 104:26

[6] Isaiah 41:18-20.

[7] John 1:1-4.

[8] Colossians 1:15-17.

[9] Colossians 1:19-20.

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