Homily for 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time

(At St. Anthony, Madisonville, July23, 2000)

(Based on Jeremiah 23:1-6; Ephesians 2:13-18; and Mark 6:30-34)

The readings in today's liturgy pick up the thread from last Sunday's prayer. Once again we have an Old Testament prophet like Amos. This time it's Jeremiah. And then in the Gospel St. Mark continues the story of Jesus' ministry, telling us about the return of the disciples who had been sent out on mission in last Sunday's account.

First, Jeremiah. He is a tough one, isn't he? He really lays it on the leaders of the people of Israel and Judah ("the shepherds"). Once again they are charged with abandoning the covenant. In particular he denounces them for scattering the people, driving them apart so that they live 'in fear and trembling'. What's different this time is that in God's name he promises that the Lord himself will become the shepherd, in the form of a 'righteous shoot' of David's line. What is key is that his work will be to gather them back together again. They will live in their own meadows in peace, no longer in fear and trembling.

Then in the Gospel we hear about the apostles returning to report on their journeys. We don't know exactly what they reported, but it may not be entirely unfair to imagine that they were a bit full of themselves (like many enthusiastic young disciples). They told what they had said and what they had done. And Jesus says OK, let's just take time off and see what this all means. But they can't get away from the people seeking Jesus. So, as the passage ends, "Jesus began to teach them many things."

And what did he teach them? We have records in the Gospels of his speeches and sayings, but what was he really communicating?

To discover the answer to that we need to look at the middle reading, the one from the Epistles to the Ephesians. The author tells us that he was breaking down the wall of enmity between "you who were once far off and those who were near". He's speaking of the Jews who had the law and the covenant, and the Gentiles. The wall can be understood as a metaphor for the divide that separated them, but scholars tell us there was a real physical wall that ran through the Temple. It marked off the area which only the genuine circumcised could enter from the outer area which was as far as the uncircumcised could go. There were the insiders and the outsiders. Literally.

You see, the covenant which God had given the Israelites as a gift had gradually been transformed into 'the chosen people', into privilege that made them an elite. It had been further distorted into a purity code. In a purity code there are things and areas of life which are 'clean' and there are others which are 'unclean'. Deal with 'clean' things and you were allowed 'in'; deal with those which were 'unclean' and you were kept outside.

For example, you were unclean if you had a physical disability or disfigurement. Remember the story of Jesus meeting the man born blind. The leaders say, "Who sinned -- this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Jesus had to challenge their thinking: no one sinned, this man is loved by God. Or another: a woman who is menstruating is unclean, you shouldn't have contact with here. And of course you stay away from lepers; that's why they are kept outside the city and have to ring a bell to alert you of their uncleanness. There are foods which are clean and those which are unclean. Remember how shocked Peter is in the story in Acts when he sees the sheet come down from heaven with all the unclean animals on it and is told -- by the Lord! -- to eat. No, never, that goes against all I have been taught! And there are taxes that separate the clean from the unclean. The widow at the gate of the temple has only two coins and can't afford the temple tax.

Jesus' whole life is devoted to breaking down these phony barriers set up by the religious leaders in the name of protecting the Law. His disciples walk through the field of wheat and break off the grains to eat, and the scribes and pharisees demand to know "why do you disciples do what is forbidden?" And he tells them, "Don't you recall how David and his men ate the special breads in the Temple which were reserved for the priests?" He heals a man on the Sabbath and they reproach him, and he says, "The Sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the Sabbath." He touches a dead body, raising a young man to life. Corpses were 'unclean'. And he sits and talks with a Samaritan woman; you didn't do that if you were an observant Jew.

Again and again he attacks the self-righteous, those who had all the answers for everybody else. Those who said "Lord, Lord" and laid burdens on others that they didn't carry themselves.

I have a suggestion. One of our difficulties is that the Sunday liturgies only give us brief snatches cut out of the Gospels. We don't get the story as a running account of Jesus' life. We know, of course, that the Gospels aren't a newspaper account but they are the story of a single life. Some time take out your New Testament and just read St. Mark's Gospel straight through. It only takes about 15 minutes. You might discover that it's the story of a running struggle between Jesus and those who were about the business of defining our relationship to God, the religious leaders of the people. You can watch how the tension builds up. At first when he performs his works or preaches there is amazement; then the people begin to become a following; he's becoming more known; they begin to challenge him more and more directly. And he doesn't back off. In fact he consistently raises the ante. "If you are scandalized at that, what if I tell you that the prostitutes and tax collectors are going to be welcomed into the kingdom before the self-righteous?" They mock him because he eats and drinks with sinners -- and he says in effect 'of course I do; the son of man has not come for the healthy but for those who need healing.'

It all comes to a head in that incredible experience just before his passion, when he enters the temple and turns over the tables of the money-changers and says, "Get these out of here!" I think we can scarcely comprehend the significance of that scene. He is in the holiest sanctuary of his people and he does what can only be called a violent act. But notice what he says to explain it. We frequently hear that he says "My Father's house is a house of prayer and you have made it a den of thieves." It's as if the issue was between prayer and the profane or secular. But that's not what he said. He said, "My Father's house was meant to be a house of prayer for all peoples and you have made it a den of thieves." The issue was not a division between the sacred and the secular but between a temple which was meant to be open and accessible and a system which included the wealthy and excluded the poor.

Everyone is to have access to God, there is no longer 'those who are near' and 'those who are far'. Our God chooses to be near to all without exception. When St. John wants to express the meaning of Jesus' death he tells us that the veil of the Temple was torn in two. We need not live in fear and trembling, God has come to us all, to one people.

There is an irony in these readings on this day. For as even we pray together two sides are huddled together at Camp David. It's 2000 years later and they are struggling painfully to find answers which will allow two peoples to live in peace.

We continue to do it all the time, don't we? We erect walls to divide us from one another. Liberals and conservatives, rich and poor, men and women, whites and people of color, straights and gays. I think that might be what original sin might be all about: our apparently continual need to find ways to build walls, to denigrate somebody else in order to hold our place in the world.

But Jesus came to tear down those walls, to make us one people. At the cost of his life.

I am going to do something now which goes against all my earliest religious training. When we were being prepared for Holy Communion we were taught to keep our heads down, so we wouldn't be distracted. For some time I have thought that as we approach Communion we should look around. We should see the faces of the people approaching the table with us, for these are the people with whom we are about to become one body.