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The 15th Sunday After Pentecost; Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23

In late July, the day June and I returned to the mainland from our Newfoundland holiday, we stopped for a short visit with a couple now living on Cape Breton Island, at whose wedding I officiated just about exactly 18 years ago. They are one of the few couples I “married” with whom I keep a connection, for various reasons, but mostly because I really came to like both of them as really good people. But that visit triggered a memory that part of their wedding arrangements was needing to have the rehearsal two days before the wedding, because I had a commitment the night before. And that connected, a few weeks later, with today’s Gospel.

That night I was a guest at a dinner hosted by the Primate and the Bishop of Toronto for the Provincial Secretaries of the Anglican Communion, who had been meeting in Toronto in the previous week. The Provincial Secretaries are the senior bureaucrats of the independent national Churches (the Provinces) that make up the Anglican Communion. While it may be the Primates that decide what should happen between and among the Provinces, it is the Secretaries that make it happen (or not happen).

The hot Canadian church issue of that time had made it onto the agenda; the lawsuits from the residential schools which would potentially seriously affect our Church’s finances and our continuing participation and financial support of the “Partners in Mission” programme. This programme was and still is a major source of people and money for aid and development in developing World Churches, in partnership with Churches from our developed World. Canada has been a major supporter, both expert and financial, and this was threatened, with legal fees and anticipated settlements eating up our financial resources.

At that dinner, the Provincial Secretary of the Church of Uganda, George Tibeesigwa [The Rev. Canon Dr. George K. Tibeesigwa] gave a remarkable talk about what he called “cupboard love”.

Child: “I want a cookie.”

Parent: “Look in the cupboard.”

And there is a cookie in the cupboard, and the child knows the parent loves it, because every time the child wants a cookie, it is supplied from the cupboard. Until one day, the cupboard is empty. Then the child throws a tantrum, and whines and kicks and screams, and complains that the parent doesn’t love it, because it is not getting a cookie. And course the parent, wanting the child to never feel unloved, makes sure there are always cookies in the cupboard. That’s cupboard love, love based on the cupboard being full!

And then George said the love that other Provinces had for the Anglican Church of Canada was not cupboard love; that whether our cupboard was full, or empty, they were with us, would support us, pray for us, and do whatever was in their power to assist us. All the other Provincial Secretaries stood up, and shouted “Amen”. There were only 7 Canadians in the room, and none of us had dry eyes, including the Primate and the Bishop.
It was a remarkable declaration of unconditional, Christian love. It was a moment of total grace!

We have (finally) returned to the Gospel of Mark, and again Jesus is in conflict with the scribes and Pharisees. The issue is washing hands before eating. By itself, of course, this is not a bad idea. In early Jewish religious law, washing, apart from hygiene, had become a symbol of internal cleanliness, a ritual washing from sin. At one time there was balance between the practical and ritual value of washing, but as often happens in religion, by Jesus’ time the ritual had become all, and not to wash before eating was a major religious offence.

This had happened with countless other regulations. They originally had both a practical or moral value, and a ritual value. Following the regulations allowed the community to live in harmony and peace, and the regulations were followed to show love for God, who had given the law, and who loved the people. It was this balance which moved the Psalmist to sing, “In the way of your testimonies I delight, as much as in all riches.” But by the time of Jesus, this joy in following the ritual law had turned into joyless nitpicking!

As always, Jesus cuts through to the heart of the matter. It is not what enters a person’s mouth, nor whether it was eaten with washed or unwashed hands, that determines whether a person is clean or unclean. It is what comes out of a person, how a person acts, how a person lives, how a person internally relates to God, that matters. It is the heart, not the following of rules to the letter that justifies a person with God. The only thing that matters to Jesus is a person’s intimate relationship with God, and if a person lives the righteousness that follows from that, all they do will be in accord with God’s will.

But what of us? Certainly, we don’t worry much about ritual cleanliness. The following of religious discipline is not high on most people’s priorities. For that matter, one wonders how many of even the “Ten Commandments” inform our life. However, we are not free from ritual rules, with which we justify our lives as worthwhile and valid. Following these gives us a sense of righteousness. From our childhood, we have learned this “tradition of the elders”; from the beginnings of our lives we were taught this gospel of the world. It is followed to a greater or lesser degree by all members of our culture; it is taught by all the institutions which shape our lives; parents, schools, the media, and yes, even the churches. To a greater or lesser extend, all of us have learned “cupboard love”; we only think ourselves worthy, loved, if we can deliver out of our cupboard of performance. And this “tradition of our elders” robs us of the full life God intends for us.

So, here goes; see how many of the following apply to your “traditons”.

“Be Perfect!” We convince ourselves that we are worthy only as long as we don’t make a mistake. The road to success and happiness lies in our ability to do things perfectly. Not merely well – perfectly! In school, there is always a higher grade; for each there is a perfect weight; our fitness could always be better. There are books on the perfect career, the perfect marriage, the perfect parent, perfect health. There is the perfect Christian, and within that the perfect Anglican – or whatever. The underlying message is never “Be the best you can be”; and never, never, never, “You’re Ok just as you are”. Whatever happened to “I’m not Ok, and you’re not Ok; but that’s Ok!” Lot’s of cookies stocked in our cupboard, and not much grace here, is there?

“Hurry Up!” Not only do we have to be perfect, we have to be fast. Just count how often you “hurry up” in a week. We have fast food, drive-through lube jobs, the one-minute manager and the 59 second employee. We want church over in under the hour, pizza in 29 minutes or free; detective shows on TV take one hour from commission of crime to sentencing with time out for ads. We have power breakfasts, and with speed reading, like Woody Allen, we can read “War and Peace” in twenty minutes and say that it’s about Russia. Meanwhile, whatever happened to the Psalmist’s “Be still [literally, have leisure], and know that I am God.”? More cookies for the cupboard!

“Be strong!” Never feel what you feel, only what you ought to feel. Big boys don’t cry. Ladies don’t get angry. Christians are always nice. Don’t be a wimp. Get over grief at the funeral. Ignore your body, it’s others that have heart attacks. Forget about the model of Jesus who showed that it is from weakness and surrender and death that resurrection comes. Lots of strong cookies needed in our cupboard.

“Please Others!” For Christians, this has almost become canon law. I can only feel good about myself as long as I ignore my needs, and look after yours. Pushed, it means never having an opinion if someone might not like it. It means never confronting. It means being nice even if you get an ulcer. It means being a doormat, and virtually guarantees being a victim. Again, it means ignoring the model of Jesus, whose only purpose in life was pleasing God, and who had no difficulty challenging and confronting others. Instead, with all this pleasing of others, our cupboard fills up.

“Try! Try hard! Try harder!” This becomes a good substitute for doing something. The harder you try, the less you do – ask any procrastinator. Once you’ve done something it’s done! Keep putting it off and the fun of “trying hard” can go on forever. I’m trying hard to clean up my desk, house, garage, whatever. I’m trying hard to get to church every Sunday. I’m going to try hard to keep up my contributions. I’m going to try hard to exercise, or read, or relax, or pray, or whatever. “Trying” is usually an excuse for doing nothing. Either we are doing it, or we are not. Example; two frogs are sitting on a log, and one tries hard to jump into the pond. How many frogs are sitting on the log? You get the picture. It seems to me, from the Gospels, that Jesus didn’t try but did a lot! We stock our cupboard with trying hard.

We might want to have fun with this “tradition of the elders” of our time. See how we might be living by it. And then, let’s not forget the core message of today’s Gospel, “If we are justifying our lives by any means other than the unconditional, the totally unconditional love of God, we are in trouble.” If the free grace of God as shown in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is not the foundation of our self-worth, then, in some degree, we are living under the curse of the law, under “cupboard love”, and refusing the grace of the Gospel.
God does not care how full or how empty our cupboards are, he just loves us.

Copyright ©2018 by Gerry Mueller.