purity is not holiness
A Sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock on 2023.08.20.A.PR15
One of the real and common challenges to faith consists of those times and those circumstances when God or Jesus -- or the church for that matter -- fails to meet our expectations, when our faith is a source of disappointment and hurt. For many, such disappointment can lead to disenchantment, to the extent that we turn our backs on what was our faith, and in one form or another we leave and quit showing up. So, the basic question I want to raise in this sermon is this: How do we respond to those experiences of spiritual embitterment and dissatisfaction? To put it more directly, how do we handle those times when we feel that God has let us down? I raise these questions because I believe that they underlie what today’s gospel lesson is about. The first thing I need to say is that we have been in a summer stream of very difficult, challenging scriptural readings; and as I have said to you in these last weeks, it’s been awfully hot and sticky to be asked to work so hard on such taxing and perplexing things. Yet, here we are. Can we muster the strength, not to mention the interest, to face what by summer’s standards doesn’t jive with a hammock and a nap? This past Tuesday morning, this same point surfaced in the preaching group I meet with on a weekly basis. Our discussion began on a bit of a persnickety level, specifically focusing on the brackets that the lectionary set around the first half of the gospel lesson. For some reason, the group was dancing around whether that part of the text should be included in today’s gospel lesson. As you most likely know, those brackets mean that the encapsulated part of the scripture need not be included in the worship experience. There are many reasons for this, one of which is that the full lesson may be too long or that it adds too many elements for a focused presentation. As it turned out, my colleagues and I were mostly perplexed about making a clear connection between Jesus’ proclamation about kosher foods in the first half of the lesson and the tense encounter with the Syrophoenician woman in the second portion. Not to your surprise, I am sure, I argued against eliminating the bracketed portion of the lesson. As scriptural detectives, I wanted us to explore the possibility that the medium might also convey a message: that is, the form of this lesson (with its two demanding , independent stories) held an important clue to the meaning of what Matthew had to say. So, with brackets included, the question stands: How do we respond when God doesn’t do what we want or expect God to do? In other words, when we’re disappointed in God, how good are we at letting God be God in our lives? And to the extent that we do give God a chance to be God, what does it take for us to absorb and live what God has to show us – hot, humid, rainy summer or not? My own response to these questions is first to focus on each of the two stories that lie within the full gospel lesson, and then to identify points of connection (if any), over which the likes of us may travel and grow. Hence the title and point of this sermon: “Purity is not the
same as Holiness”. My own discovery about what these two stories have in common is an unexpected, even outlandish radicalness. And what I know of you and of myself, we don’t do “radical” real well! So it is easier to complain about the lesson’s length or its apparent obtuseness than it is to deal with its sharp cutting edge. Case in point: When Jesus calls the crowd to himself and like an appellate judge begins to render his verdict about what are, in fact, the Hebrew “Purity Laws”, everyone is scandalized, especially the Pharisees. The effect of Jesus’ judgment is akin to him saying, “It’s not a matter of eating bacon or not, but the point is the reason a good Jew might eschew pork or consume it." It is, Jesus seems to say, a matter of what is in your heart about God. What is your motivation for keeping the Law and the tradition or for getting rid of it and ignoring it all?” To what clearly might have been a rhetorical set of questions, Jesus quickly fills-in the agonizing blanks but in a most unexpected and disturbing way. He essentially reiterates the tradition which says that God’s creation is “good” and is given to us for our well-being. When it comes to the point of the Law and its purpose, people are to live in creation as a way to thank God for this gift of life. To live with gratitude’s awareness means that God’s people are to keep their hearts “clean” (unclogged, if you will) so that knowing the Holy One will always “renew a right spirit” within us. Remember not eating fish on Fridays? There were those who practiced this as a form of devotion, a way of remembering their relationship with God, and some continue to do so even though the “law” has changed. Yet, there were those who observed the discipline simply in order not to break the law. Were their actions a reflection of their heart’s grateful connection with God; or were their actions done from a sense of necessary duty? Open my lips, O Lord; and my mouth shall proclaim your praise. Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence; and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Give me the joy of your saving help again; and sustain me with your abundant Spirit.1 What is at the center of who and what we are unavoidably sets the stage for what we do. Purity for purity’s sake is not the same as Holiness (being in Communion like the one we see in Christ). Yes, rules matter, but they are not a substitute for relationships, especially a life-giving relationship with God. Purity is not the same as holiness. What we allow into our hearts is what comes out of our lives for better or for worse. Guard your hearts, Jesus says. On to the second story. Curiously – and perhaps rather unexpectedly, it has the same “punch line” as the first. In terms of the story of the Syrophoenician woman, I always remember the words of my homiletics professor in seminary, who also happened to be a lawyer. On one occasion, Mr. Muehl opined soberly that he thought that the story of the Syrophoenician woman was the most difficult passage in the New Testament. To wit: What are your responses to this interaction between Jesus and the gentile woman? Was Jesus mean to her? Worse yet, was he initially responding to her out of the bigotry of his culture, religion, and time? Or was he simply so tired of groupies who only wanted a selfie with him and not to learn from him? These and other questions point to some of the difficulties with this gospel story. How to parse this scene? Surely, it raises many disturbing questions that challenge what we expect of Jesus and our faith in him. Yet, as I say, one of the elements that connects these two stories together lies in their radicalness. In the first story, Jesus charges against going through the motions of the Law, using the tradition, the God-life as cover. Never break the law, never ask a question, be a good boy; be a good girl. You will have your reward of being at least appearing unblemished. At the very least, don’t get caught! Jesus challenges this self-serving orientation and with a clean heart positioning: namely, honor God; try to please God with your life and know holiness – the incorruptible reality of love and life from God. The radical thread that connects the first story with the second comes through the figure of the Syrophoenician woman. The quintessential “outsider”, the ethnic barbarian, the impure “other”: she nonetheless confronts Jesus and asks him for help. Yet, as an “outsider”, what right does she have in doing this? One may respond to this question by saying that she is a mother – a good, devoted, and persistent mother, who evidently would do anything – even risk humiliation -- for the welfare of her child. Even in the face of what many see as Jesus’ blistering dismissal, she remains steadfast to the need. So, when Jesus says that what he is about is for the covenanted people of God, she adroitly takes up the image of not wasting food on “dogs” (ouch!) by saying that even the dogs crave the crumbs from the table. She reveals an awareness that even the Twelve lack. Was Jesus mean to her? Was he testing to see if she (an “outsider”) saw what the “insiders” failed to see? The God-life in the flesh. This woman (a member of “them”!) had the awareness and faith to ask for and to receive what Jesus alone could give. For the record, I believe that Jesus felt caught with the woman and her request, just as he did with his mother at the wedding in Cana. In both instances it was neither the time nor the place nor the context for him to be revealed fully as God’s Son. While as a matter of first things first, Jesus did come to tend to the “lost sheep of Israel”, appearing to those sacred partners who were charged to shine with God’s light for the world, he also knew that it was not his time – at the wedding or with the Syrophoenician woman -- not now, not here, but only on the Cross and with the empty tomb. As T. S. Eliot insightfully puts it, I said to my soul, be still and wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love, for love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith, but the faith and the love are all in the waiting. Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought: So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.2 Nonetheless, as God’s Incarnate one, Jesus allowed himself and his life’s purpose to be jump-shifted by this impure, pagan – who unexpectedly turns out to be so radically holy (that is, aware of God). “Your faith is great.” The Lord said to her in light of her testimony. “Let it be done for you as you wish.”3 And it was. Perhaps the moral of these two stories is that when we are disappointed in God, when God doesn’t do what we expect or want, we might need to realize that we might need to be disappointed because the “god” we’re looking for, the “god” we’re willing to know and follow is just too damn small, which also means that what we expect is also too small for the Creator of heaven and earth. Amen.
1. Preces/Opening Sentences of Morning Prayer, Daily Devotions. p. 137. 2. T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets. 3. Matthew 15:28