Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Meaningless or Important?

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23, 14th Sunday after Pentecost B, August 30, 2015

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

You have heard the phrase, “You are what you eat.” My cousin D, who is in his mid thirties, learned this the hard way this week. While at a ball game, he ate two corn dogs, garlic fries, pork nachos, a hot dog, and a hot chocolate. The next morning, on Facebook he wrote, “it’s interesting: you eat a lot of [junk] food, and then you feel like [junk]. D learned that he can no longer eat like a teenager.
That is a sad reality that most people learn in their thirties. You are what you eat. When you eat healthy food, you feel good. When you eat unhealthy food, you feel bad. But the point of the matter is this: what you eat only impacts you. Well, if you ate a whole Magic Mountain, maybe the people around you might feel a bit uncomfortable too.
For the most part, personal decisions about food only impact the person eating the food. Jesus says, “There is nothing outside of a person that can defile him by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles him.” (Mark 7:15 NET)
He goes on to say that it is our evil words and deeds that do the most damage. I think a major reason for this is that your words and deeds impact others. You can make a person’s day by saying something nice, yet you can ruin a person’s day by saying something cruel. A corn dog might give you an upset stomach, yet a degrading comment can give someone else an upset heart. 
Here, Jesus is setting priorities. The Jews back then- and even some today - followed strict laws regarding food preparation and consumption. Many foods, like pork and shellfish, were off limits. Others, like dairy and meat, were not allowed to be eaten together. This is why a bacon cheeseburger is the ultimate dietary sin.
A young Jewish man named Moshe recently told his story of this on the Moth podcast. He describes his childhood in an ultra orthodox Jewish community as being like Amish but with electricity. He wasn’t able to read secular books, watch tv, or eat non-Kosher food. His rabbis threatened that the Lord would directly punish him if he disobeyed any of these rules. Because then he would know that the Lord is God. So everyday, Moshe would look over his shoulder wondering if the Lord would smite him.
When he was fifteen, he began to question his orthodox Jewish upbringing, and his parents were going through a rough divorce. So Moshe decided to leave the fold. He went to Long Island to spend some time with his aunt and his brother. But Moshe had only known his orthodox Jewish community, so he wasn’t ready quite yet to break all of his childhood habits. 
When it came time for dinner, Moshe wanted to eat Kosher food, but his aunt’s kitchen was filled with only secular food. So, they hopped into the car and drove around Long Island looking for Kosher restaurants, but they all were closed. Then Moshe suggested getting a Kosher frozen pizza, but even those weren’t available. 
Moshe secretly wanted something not Kosher, but he was too afraid to admit it. Then he came up with a solution: if he didn’t know that it wasn’t Kosher, then maybe he could eat it. So, his aunt went into a pizza place to get him a slice of mushroom pizza. Moshe stayed in the car. The entire time that she was in the pizza shop, Moshe was afraid that the Lord would smite her. He was afraid that his pizza slice would be cut with a knife that had touched pork. He was afraid that something would go wrong.
Then his aunt came out of the shop just fine. They went back to his aunt’s home, and he greatly enjoyed that slice of mushroom pizza. He wouldn’t admit it out loud because he was still afraid that the Lord would smite him.
Moshe never returned to the orthodox Jewish community. He learned that he could still be faithful without following every dietary law. Because he could love the Lord while eating a slice of pizza. 
These laws were created for many reasons, one of which was to separate the Jews from their foreign neighbors. During the exile, when the Jews were trying to find out how they could still worship the Lord in a foreign place, they turned to these dietary laws to set them apart from their Gentile neighbors.
In Jesus’ time, this separation from community was no longer necessary. From Jesus’ perspective, dietary restrictions including the washing of hands was adiaphora - or not relevant to salvation. There is nothing wrong with washing hands before a meal - in fact that is good hygiene! We wash our hands today not because God commands us to but because it is common sense.
The Pharisees questioning Jesus were following the letter of the law without considering the spirit of the law. Jews were blindly following dietary restrictions without having their hearts set on God. And that is where Jesus found the problem. What is the point of washing your hands before dinner if you are going to proceed to bully your dining companions?
Jesus reminds us that our words can hurt people more than they will ever share. Our offhand comments can cut deep. Our neglect of others can be the most dangerous. 
So, what can we do? We can help the people of Nepal through our noisy can offering. We can love our neighbors in word and deed. We can feed the hungry through the Salvation Army dinner. We can clothe the naked through donations. We can encourage Princeton’s firefighters and police this Rally Day. We can do the work of God. 
We can do this, not because Jesus commands us to but because Jesus enables us to. We can do this because Jesus gives us the inspiration, the strength, and the encouragement to do so. Thanks be to God! Amen. 


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