Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 29, 2021
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
You already know this, but Galveston is its own special place. Quirky might be one way to describe it. And part of that quirk is how we identify as Galvestonians. Some of us are proudly BOI. “Born on the island.” Of course, this can also mean “brought on the island.” I’ve also learned, IBC, “islander by choice.” Like, someone who moved here of their own volition. Along these lines, I suppose I am an IBSC. “Islander by search committee.”
But my point is that we have a particular pride in where we live. Whether we were born here or whether we moved here, I’ve sensed a type of allegiance or loyalty to this place. And part of that loyalty of being BOI or IBC is to differentiate ourselves from those who are not. It’s a way to differentiate ourselves from the weekenders; from the people in Houston; and especially from the people in Dallas. BOI, IBC, us versus them. These are our markers, they differentiate us.
And that’s not an altogether bad thing. For the entirety of human existence we have come up with different ways to identify ourselves as belonging to one group and not the other. The language we speak, the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the music we listen to, all these things define and differentiate us. And today we hear about people who have differentiated themselves by the way they wash their hands, their cups, and their plates.
That’s the heart of the controversy between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees. Obviously, we know that washing our hands and plates and cups are good things. That’s been engrained in us especially during this pandemic. But more specifically, the way the scribes and Pharisees prescribed the washing set the people of Israel apart from their neighbors. This is part of the whole purity code within the Jewish legal system. These purity codes are not meant to be restrictive, they are meant to be boundary markers, to help the people of Israel define and differentiate themselves from the other cultures and societies around them who don’t wash their hands, their cups, and their plates in those specific ways, “thus observing the tradition of the elders” (Mark 7:3). That is, their elders, their Jewish forebears, as opposed to their neighbors.
So when Jesus is challenging them about these purity codes, Jesus is not saying that it’s good to eat off a dirty plate or that it’s okay skip the hand sanitizer. Jesus is also not saying that the Pharisees are dumb. For too long the Church has read these passages and thought that Jesus is throwing out all the old laws. As if God from the Old Testament changed his mind into the New Testament. But I don’t think that is what is going on here. Rather, Jesus is going one level deeper and challenging them to consider what it is that marks them out as Jews. As God’s people. What is it that defines them? The point that Jesus and the Pharisees agree on is that God’s people are defined by purity. But for Jesus, purity comes from within, not from without. It’s not enough to have the box checked, to be born into it; one must live it.
Think about it. It does not matter whether you were born on the island, whether you brought on the island, or whether you came here by choice. What matters is that you care for this place because you are compelled by a sense of loyalty, by an allegiance. It’s what comes out of you that matters, that marks you as a true Galvestonian. To put it this way – if you were born on the island but leave all your trash on the beach, are you really BOI? Even if you moved here because you love Galveston, but you don’t support local businesses, are you really IBC? The titles, the markers are meaningless if we don’t show them by our actions. It’s what comes out of us that matters.
Now, I want to take this lesson one level deeper. This is a lesson that we, as the Church, need to learn all over again. For far too long now, we have created external boundaries to define ourselves. For instance – there are people who feel uncomfortable coming to the Episcopal Church because they don’t want to or can’t afford to wear a coat and tie on Sunday morning. I know that’s the case because I’ve talked to them. Now, wearing a coat and tie is great. It’s just fine. Some of you have already seen a sample of my bow tie collection. I’m all on board. And I know that we wouldn’t care if someone came to church in their sandals, it is a beach town after all. But we have to be on guard that the external signs that become our defining characteristics. Are you really an Episcopalian if all you do is simply wear the right uniform on Sunday mornings?
That’s an easy one, but we can use that framework to think through any of the most pressing questions of the day. See, I’m not here to tell you what to think. No, my job as your pastor and priest is to help us learn how to think theologically. That’s a more difficult task. So, think about all those tough questions we’re asking. What does it mean to be a person? What does it mean to be a family? Who is in and who is out? We have the theological framework to work through these questions. We have the witness of holy scripture. And today we see that the boundary marker defining God’s people is not anything that appears on the outside. True purity, true Christian virtue all comes from within. We can’t make too much out of anything on the outside, because we discern the marks of Christian character by the fruits a person bears. We must judge by the actions that come from within, not by all the external stuff. The true marker, the thing that sets us apart as followers of Jesus is grace, love, and compassion flowing out of our hearts. That is the boundary. And that is how we should think through all these tough questions.
So whether you are Galvestonian BOI or IBC or some other acronym, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that you care. And at the risk of making a very corny joke, I’ll create some new acronyms. Make sure that you are not an INO Christian. “In name only.” Be an HAS Christian – “Heart and Soul.” Take this as a call, as an opportunity for the Holy Spirit to create good things that come flowing out of you. This business of being a disciple, of following Jesus is not about checking the right boxes or going through external the motions. “For the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (I Samuel 6:7).