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Pentecost 14 Proper 17B RCL August 30, 2015

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

Our opening reading is from a beautiful series of poems. Christians usually think of them as being about the love that exists between God and the community of faithful people, or between Christ and the Church. Our psalm for today is a song of celebration for a royal wedding.

The Letter of James is one of the most down to earth parts of the Bible. It is about putting our faith into practice, We might say that this letter tells us where the rubber meets the road. It all begins with God’s love for us. “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above,” writes James, Everything begins with the generosity of God, who showers us with gifts. God does not change. God’s love for us is always there. God’s grace is always available to us. God gives us life itself. We are the first fruits. That is, we are placed here by God so that we can share God’s blessings with others.

What are we called to do? First, we must be ready to listen. always open to hearing what others might want or need to say. We are called to be more ready to listen than to speak. So often, especially in this fast-paced world, everybody wants to get a word in. As humans, we want to be heard. We want to get our point across first. But our Lord is calling us to be good listeners first and foremost. So, we are called to be “quick to listen, slow to speak.”

We are called to be slow to anger. Anger is a normal human emotion, but we are called to practice “restraint of tongue and pen.” Elsewhere, Paul calls us to aim for the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. So we are called to weed the garden of our souls, get rid of all the stuff that gets in the way of our spiritual growth and make room for the word of God to be planted in us, because that word has the power to save our souls. The incarnate Word, Jesus, has the power to transform us.

Then we get down to the meat of the matter. We are called to be doers of the word and not hearers only. It is comparatively easy to listen to the word of God, listen to the call to be people of compassion. But to live that twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week is a tough challenge. We will need generous doses of grace from our loving God to do that work.

When we look deeply into God’s vision for human life, when we look to the living Word, Jesus, and use him as our model, when we truly study his life and his ministry and try to model our lives on his, and let him live in us, that’s when our actions are in harmony with what we profess to believe. And we will be truly blessed.

And then James deals with a very small part of our bodies which can do a great deal of good if handled well, but a great deal of damage if not properly bridled. That, of course, is the tongue. As we know, our tongues are small, but, in this passage, they are compared to horses that need to be bridled. We all know what it is to let some words slip out and then want to take them back. Like horses unbridled, our tongues can trample over people if we let them. Our tongue needs to be speaking words of compassion, and our deeds need to match those words.

The bottom line is that we are called to take care of those who are the most vulnerable. This letter calls us not only to talk the talk, but to walk the walk.

Our gospel for today is extremely complex, and I hope we can think about it carefully. Jesus and the disciples have just fed the five thousand, and they have crossed the Sea of Galilee to arrive at Gennesaret on the northwest side of the lake. They are in Galilee, but some of the Pharisees and Scribes have come up from Jerusalem. We have to be careful not to make caricatures of these authorities. They were not evil people. They were deeply concerned about ritual purity, a concept that is quite foreign to us. Some scholars tell us that things in Galilee were a bit looser than in the areas nearer to Jerusalem.

Jesus and the disciples are having a meal. They have not washed their hands. The Pharisees and Scribes do wash their hands before meals, and the text tells us that this is the tradition of the elders. Scholars tell us that this is a tradition rather than the law. In any case, the Pharisees and the Scribes challenge Jesus and the disciples by asking why they have not washed their hands.

Jesus calls them hypocrites.This may not be the best analogy, but I am trying to find an example of a tradition that at one time could really stir up strong feelings among Episcopalians, so I am going to turn to liturgical matters. The comment of the pharisees was like telling us that we didn’t really believe in God because we were using Rite One instead of Rite Two, or the other way around. Our liturgical practice is not a reflection of whether we believe in God. It is a tradition. It is not the Law. Peter later had a vision of different foods, clean and unclean and God told him there was nothing that was unclean. But that was later.

Now, we all know that it is a good idea to wash our hands often, especially before eating. But Jesus was trying to focus on essential spiritual matters, not on tradition or even hygiene. Our inner attitude, the attitude of our hearts, is at the center of it all. This takes us right back to the Letter of James.  What comes out of our mouths reflects the contents of our hearts, the Spirit within. On a literal level, what goes into our mouths can certainly hurt us, especially if it is infected with salmonella or Listeria. But on a spiritual level, the question is, do our words and actions reflect our belief in Christ?

Lord Jesus, help us to love you with all our hearts and to love and serve others in your Name. Amen.

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