Proper 18 / 14th Pentecost — 10 September 2006
40th Anniversary of Ordination to the Priesthood
Trinity, Iowa City — 7;45, 8:45, 11:00
Prov 22:1-2,8-9,22-23 Ps 125 James 2:1-17 Mark 7:24-37
“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Actually, I have a supplementary text for this morning also, and it comes from a few verses earlier, from last Sunday’s Gospel, if you may remember;
“Whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer.” (Thus he declared all foods clean.)
Well, actually, you probably don’t remember, because as it happens this verse was excised out of the passage appointed for the Gospel last week, and we didn’t hear it. It turns out that the Episcopal Lectionary Gnomes who appointed the Prayer Book readings are close cousins of the Ecumenical Lectionary Gnomes who appointed the Revised Common Lectionary; they both leave this verse out. You may have noticed in the lessons insert last week that there were a couple of elisions (…) in the printed text. Well, one of them was this. At least the RCL admits that we weren’t getting our full money’s worth.
(In the interests of full disclosure, I must say that I picked this point up this week from SimonSurmises, a blog by Fr. Simon Mein, retired chaplain of St. Andrew’s School in Middletown, Delaware: a very good piece entitled “Whatever Happened to Mark 7:19?” But I digress.)
As some of you may be aware, this Sunday is the 40th Anniversary of my ordination to the Priesthood. (How time flies when you’re having fun!) It’s not my plan to recite a retrospective of my life in ordained ministry; in any case a lot of it would be reminiscent of some of the points Fr. Hulme made in his sermon last Sunday, and the rest of it would be kind of boring. On the other hand, I have been around the Episcopal Church for a long time. Not as long as some of you, but longer than a lot of you; I was raised in the Episcopal Church in an active church family; was an acolyte from a young age, at the age of ten I used to stand in the narthex after Mass selling copies of The Living Church, I regularly participated in youth events, and I was generally pretty savvy about what was going on in the Church. Those were the good old days of the High-Church/Low-Church wars, and my view of the Episcopal Church was definitely not through rose-colored glasses. Throughout my ordained ministry, and throughout all the years leading up to my ministry, this ol’ Episcopal Church has been through a lot, and a lot of it not very pretty, a lot of it mistaken, a lot of it infuriating. Funny thing, though: somehow or other the grace of God keeps shining through. Somehow or other we keep discovering — and being found by — the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
But I said I wasn’t going to get just into a retrospective of my own ministry. By instinct and temperament (possibly by talent, but I’ll let others make that judgment!) I am a historian, with some focus on historical theology. So my retrospective tends to go back a bit more like two thousand years. (Or even four thousand, if we want to go back to Abraham.) And one of the things I have known for a very long time — and I think we’ve tried to tell you, though I’m not sure we’ve been very successful, because a lot of people seem not to know it and to be greatly dismayed when they find it out — is that this whole ol’ Church has been through a lot for two thousand years (and the People of God for two thousand before that), and a lot of it not very pretty, a lot of it mistaken, a lot of it infuriating, a lot of it profoundly corrupt, a lot of it simply evil. Funny thing, though: somehow or other the grace of God keeps shining through. Somehow or other we keep discovering — and being found by — the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
There’s a myth — no, not a myth, because I prefer to reserve the word “myth” for a more technical and more positive meaning — a delusion that the Church of Christ has been this shining, pristine religious institution throughout the ages, up until about a week ago last Thursday, when all of a sudden it went to hell in a handbasket. Folks who subscribe to this delusion often appeal to “Catholic Tradition.” This of course is utter nonsense. (There are some more self-proclaimed-evangelical folks who prefer not to appeal to Catholic Tradition but to “Biblical Christianity.” This also is utter nonsense.) Oh, I think there is such a thing as Catholic Tradition, and such a thing as Biblical Christianity, but I have my doubts as to whether the folks who like to use these phrases really understand what they mean. An awful lot of what we regard as “traditional” (as in, “we’ve always done it that way before”) is profoundly faithless to the Gospel. Those who view with such alarm the current consternations of the Church seem not to be aware of past, to say nothing of current, corruptions of power, racism, sexism, oppression, justification of abusiveness, complicity in war, exploitation of the poor, persecutions, crusades — these folks need to chill out!
Funny thing, though: somehow or other the grace of God keeps shining through. Somehow or other we keep discovering — and being found by, and being delivered by — the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Last week in the Gospel reading Jesus was running afoul of the Pharisees over the food laws (and the Lectionary Gnomes allowed us to dodge Mark’s narrative sledgehammer in 7:19, “Thus he declared all foods clean”). In today’s reading we get the ethnic and religious purity issue. (Ew! Syrophoenician!) (I trust you do realize that at the beginning of this episode Jesus has his tongue stuck very firmly in his cheek, Irony Mode On, as is clear from the way he plays it out.)
About the time I was being ordained forty years ago a lot of us were just discovering the German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhöffer, and something he wrote in one of his letters from the Tegel prison in Berlin has stuck with me ever since, at least in my better moments: “Christ is no longer an object of religion, but something completely different, truly the Lord of the world.”
The Church has done some dreadful things in the past; whatever the infallibility or indefectibility of the Church might mean, we can’t deny the truth about our past. We don’t know what great mistakes we may (or may not) be making in the present, or what new follies we may commit in the future. Funny thing, though: somehow or other the grace of God keeps shining through. Somehow or other we keep discovering — and being found by, and being delivered by — the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Jesus did not say, “I have come that you may have religion, and have it more abundantly.” When they said of Jesus, “He has done everything well,” it wasn’t because he increased their piety. It was because “he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak,” the lame to walk, the hungry to be fed, the grieving to rejoice, the dead to live.
 “Christus ist dann nicht mehr Gegenstand der Religion, sondern etwas ganz anderes, wirklich Herr der Welt.” 30 April 1944.
© 2006 William S. J. Moorhead