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Love, Love Changes Everything

Speaker: The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph

August 29, 2021

Sermon for Sunday, August 29, 2021
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
Love, Love Changes Everything

This week’s Scripture Lectionary, coming to us from the Gospel According to Mark 7:1-8:

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the people, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the rules of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So, the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” May God grant us wisdom and understanding of this passage.  

One of my favorite Biblical scholars, Dr. Mary Ann Tolbert, Professor Emerita of the UCC’s Pacific School of Religion in California not only founded the Center for LGBTQ and Gender Studies in Religion at PSR, but she also happens to be a foremost scholar of the oldest Gospel- The Gospel According to Mark. In her book first published in 1986 and revised in 1996, Sowing the Gospel: Mark’s World in Literary-Historical Perspective, Tolbert goes into great detail to help her readers understand the complexity, the uncertainty, and the dramatic changes and fears in the world Jesus lived in.

Tolbert concludes her 1986 book by writing, “In a period beset by Star Wars, nuclear weapons, acid rain, widespread famine, revolution, and war, [today we would add pandemic, racism, hatred groups, and Climate Change] Mark’s…analysis of the human world seems like clear-eyed realism. By observing institutions from universities and churches to corporations and governments around the globe, we can easily testify that power, wealth, status, fame, and authority still corrupt humanity and harden hearts to the suffering of others.” Tolbert speaks truth that sounds like it was written for Sunday, August 29, 2021, but she continues with hope and an action step, “Mark’s analysis should be valued, but Christians [and all people] today must work, not individually, but in solidarity with others to bring to fruition this abundant and lovingly created vineyard that is God’s intended [realm]. Our alternative may well be Mark’s other vision of the future (13:19), ‘such tribulation as has not been from the beginning of the creation which God created until now, and never will be.’ We have the power to become responsible tenants or to destroy the vineyard absolutely. Which is it to be?”[1]

Back to basics: What are we doing here? How are we communicating? What matters in life and what relevant thing does institutional religion have to say about living in 2021?  Tolbert says it in a phrase: “solidarity with others.” How do you say it? What are you doing here?

Turns out, the Pharisees were actually absolutely right. They were the public health officials and experts of the day. The Disciples were wrong according to the mandates and best practices of that town. Why then is Jesus so upset? Why can’t Jesus hear them?  You should thoroughly wash your hands before eating, but shaming the disciples and Jesus publicly on social media and on the town Facebook Page wasn’t the communal or the kind or effective or the human way to help them understand that they were out of line with the community best practices and mandates. Especially in the ancient world, before modern medicine, every day was like living within the space of a pandemic! Washing hands before eating wasn’t just ritual but basic common sense.

Notice that Jesus doesn’t disagree with the substance of what the establishment is saying to his followers, but he has an issue with the hierocracy and hypocrisy.

Let’s be honest, how many of you - and please don’t raise your hands because I already know the answer (if you are honest with yourselves) - didn’t break any rules, guidelines, or mandates at all through the pandemic? Didn’t you take your mask off that one time while walking outside? Didn’t you sneak a visit with your grandkids before everyone was vaccinated? It was you who hoarded the toilet paper and bought more than you needed, wasn’t it? I like to say that the pandemic has turned everyone into somewhat of a hypocrite and a judge. It doesn’t mean that should stop our efforts at calling people out to be better or doing better ourselves, but it does mean that our tone may need to change in order to be effective and humble.

William Barclay, 20th Century Scottish Biblical Scholar, once wrote of this story, “[The establishment] saw that the disciples of Jesus did not observe the niceties of the tradition and the code of oral law in regard to washing hands before and during meals…”[2] and so Jesus points out the big picture of hypocrisy and the value of putting people and spirituality before doctrine.

Friends, here is my big picture, the year and years ahead will be messy. You will be constantly wrong and accidentally hypocritical—even the Saints of Guilford—as I am told we fancied calling ourselves for generations at First Congregational Church. The ethics of the future are as murky as Long Island Sound after late August algae blooms: Should I get a booster shot when others (especially in less wealthy nations) haven’t yet had access to any shots? Do I wear a mask indoors where required by mandate but not where they are not mandated? When is it okay to travel? Should I take my kids out of school if I disagree with the teacher or the district? Do I not go back to the office even if it risks my salary? Do I go back to the office and risk my health or the health of my beloved? What about the Rummage Sale? The Harvest Fair? The questions are all existential, and regardless of choice…the judgements and unkindness from other humans will be public, swift, and frequently cruel. Should we go back to or stop in-person worship? Our church returned to in-person worship with safeguards in September 2020—before almost all other UCC Churches. Nobody became sick because of that decision… was that the right decision?    

Ministers are not alone in this ethical muddiness. On Tuesday this week, the Executive Editor of Slate Magazine wrote an editorial article with the long but accurate title: “My Covid Parenting has Reached Peak Inconsistency: Honestly, I Have No Idea What I’m OK with Letting my Kids Do Anymore.” She tells how, “A couple of days ago my 12-year-old son peeked his head into my bedroom while I was working and asked if a new kid who just moved to our block could come inside to play video games. Before I could answer he followed that up with the obvious next question: “And does he need to wear a mask?” Yes, he can come in. And no, he doesn’t need to wear a mask. No rhyme or reason to that answer. It’s just … what came out of my mouth. A few minutes later another head popped into the room. It was my husband asking if I really said it was OK to have this new kid over without a mask. “Ugh yes that’s what I told him” I replied. “But I have no idea! Do whatever you think is best! I don’t know! Up to you!” And then I turned back to my laptop. In the end my husband asked the kid if he was vaccinated (yes) and let him stay mask-free. But neither of us could really say why we made the decision we did or if we’d make the same one next time or if any of our decisions add up to anything comprehensible at all. This is parenting these days for us and too many people we know. Peak inconsistency. Complete incoherence. Just decision after decision based on a little bit of science a little bit of outdated guidance and a little bit of how much time or energy we have to think it through.”[3]

In order to survive in these days and spiritually thrive within it as a community of faith, we have to admit to our own hypocrisy, our own peak inconsistency and move forward as best we can with love. The Pharisees (often nicknamed “the hypocrites” by Jesus) were right in this story… it is best to wash your hands well before meals for everyone’s safety. Oral religious law based in ancient public health. So, I think we are called to ask how they could have nudged the disciples and Jesus to wash their hands or to wear their masks differently? How can we communicate with love first knowing that in the course of all this… we too will need reminders and we too will have moments when we will be wrong and woefully inconsistent?

As I preached about in June, I turn to music for Gospel lessons. I do the same today. Last week, I heard someone say that if you want to understand the needs, dreams, wants, beliefs and what we might call the theologies of the current moment, listen to the lyrics of the Billboard Top 20 songs at any given time. It is a crash course sociology experiment. Pick any day in history, and listen to the popular music for a window into the hearts and fears of people. Theology means “divine or god-thinking.” It means what we believe about the bigger questions. Why are we here? What is my purpose? Why is there is much bad in the world? Why does love hurt us? How can love save us?

This past week, all of the top ten songs on Billboard’s list were about love. The complexity of love, the failings of love, the need for love, the pain of love. Back to basics Lesson 1: Love. We are going to need a lot of love to survive this collectively. By confessing our own hypocrisies, in working to be better communicators of mandates and boundaries, in learning how-to live-in uncertainty… in all of it we recommit ourselves to Jesus who is love incarnate. 

Music reflects the theology of the soul—both spoken and words left unutterable deep in our hearts. I leave you with my chosen anthem this summer that has given me the strength to love people and to let that love change me. It is from a not-so-successful musical by Sir Andrew Lloyd Weber called Aspects of Love. The song, Love Changes Everything, has become Gospel and theology to me as I recenter myself for the long winter head—a winter where I hope we may get back to basics:

Love Changes Everything

Love
Love changes everything:
Hands and faces
Earth and sky
Love
Love changes everything:
How you live and
How you die
Love
Can make the summer fly
Or a night
Seem like a lifetime.
Yes, Love
Love changes everything:
Now I tremble
At your [God's] name.
Nothing in the world will ever
Be the same.
Love
Love changes everything:
Days are longer
Words mean more.
Love
Love changes everything:
Pain is deeper
Than before.
Love
Will turn your world around
And that world
Will last for ever.
Yes, Love
Love changes everything
Brings you glory
Brings you shame.
Nothing in the
World will ever
Be the same.
Off
Into the world we go
Planning futures
Shaping years.
Love
Bursts in, and suddenly
All our wisdom
Disappears.
Love
Makes fools of everyone:
All the rules
We make are broken.
Yes, Love
Love changes everyone.
Live or perish
In its flame.
Love will never
Never let you
Be the same.[4]

[1] Mary Ann Tolbert, Sowing the Gospel: Mark’s World in Literary-Historical Perspective (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 1996), 310.
[2] William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible Series: The Gospel of Mark (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Westminster Press, 1975), 167.
[3] https://slate.com/human-interest/2021/08/covid-parenting-risks-kids-delta-masks-cdc.html
[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Love_Changes_Everything_(song)

The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph

Associate Minister

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