Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Depending upon your history, this may seem like a strange remark for me to make, but I love monasteries. The rhythm of work, rest, worship, and play appeals to me. There is a female community out near Crozet and the nuns there make cheese. Our Lady of the Angels. That’s how they support themselves financially – making and selling cheese. They have all the things you might think of when you think of nuns – black and white habits, old women (and some younger ones), ornate crucifixes, a quiet setting. And they also have barns and cows and a website and order forms. They share work shifts and I’m sure they start early in the morning. But when the bells ring for worship they stop what they are doing and head for the chapel. That’s one of the things I love most about monasteries: the daily rhythm of work, rest, worship, and play. When the bell rings, they stop milking cows and walk up to the chapel. They move on to the next part of the day. Unlike most of the rest of us, who struggle to finish projects before our deadlines, making us late for dinner or late to class, the sisters fold themselves into the daily communal rhythms, moving from one thing to the next at the appointed times.
There is a men’s community near Winchester, in Berryville. Holy Cross Abbey. They sell fruitcake for a living. Like Our Lady of the Angels, they also host people for retreats at the monastery. Their web site notes how many rooms they have to offer – 15 – for individuals making private retreats for a weekend or a few days. But they have one more guest room and this is what they say about it: “…a sixteenth room is kept for the solitary traveler-of-the-roads who may appear at any time, or for someone in sudden great need” (www.hcava.org). Monastic communities really get hospitality.
Have you heard about the Rule of St. Benedict? It’s a slim little book written in the mid-sixth century, teaching monastics how to live together in community. There are directions for daily living – when to pray, eat, read devotionally, worship – and for how to live together – doing laundry, who sleeps where. The Rule is responsible for that rhythm I find so appealing, for the way sisters and brothers respond when the bell rings.
It’s also the Rule that sets out the standards of hospitality for monastic communities: Receive the stranger as Christ. At all times, monastics are to be on the lookout for the stranger who knocks at the door and to welcome that stranger as Christ. Here’s that 16th room in Berryville.
I know not everyone finds monastic life as interesting and appealing as I do. I know a lot of folks think nuns and monks follow rules that hem them in and repress them. I know that everyone doesn’t think a ringing bell and a 16th room are emblems of right living. I know.
Some folks see monasteries as places of empty rules. No sex. No talking. You could even welcome the stranger in an empty way: Oh, hi. Come on in, I guess. Third room on the right (yawn). There are all kinds of rules and all kinds of ways to live with them.
How’s the first week been? Some of you are returning and seeing familiar faces and others of you are still trying to learn a huge number of new names and street names and bus routes. I suspect that even for the brand new among us, you’ve already begun to establish some patterns. You eat breakfast at O-Hill and lunch at Newcomb, perhaps. You have found the best time to shower when there is still hot water left and the person in the suite who leaves hair in the shower hasn’t showered yet – and you make sure to arrange the rest of your schedule around that good shower time each day. You know both the fastest way to class and the most scenic, and you take one way when you’re late and the other when you have time to amble.
Maybe you’re still developing patterns in the new place. Maybe you’re still thinking back to the patterns and traditions you had back home with those friends and that church and your family. Maybe you’re already anticipating folding yourself back into familiar traditions at Thanksgiving – Aunt Hilda brings the cranberries, cousin Gomer has the most boring stories.
One of the things that always surprises me is how quickly people acclimate to new places, patterns, and traditions. At the Wesley Foundation our student leadership group, the SCC or Student Coordinating Council, was having a meeting many years ago now. It was the second semester and we were pulling out the calendars, looking at dates, and talking about upcoming programs and events. I don’t even remember what event we were discussing at the time. What has stuck with me from that meeting is the first year student in her second semester who, while trying to make her point about the event, said matter-of-factly, “We always do it this way.” How quickly we establish our new patterns and rituals!
Living by rhythms, rituals, and rules helps us remember what we’re living for. Are they empty and rote? Or are they transforming our hearts and lives?
In our passage tonight from the gospel of Mark, Jesus’ adversaries seem to be concerned with Jewish purity rituals, the rules of the day. They confront Jesus when they see his disciples eating without washing their hands, which was considered to be ritually impure. Maybe this was a real concern of theirs. Maybe they were just looking for some way to discredit Jesus and his teachings. In any case, Jesus tells them that it’s not the practice that makes for purity. He quotes Isaiah: “This people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Mark 7: 6). Maybe today he would paraphrase Isaiah with something like, “People are singing plenty of praise songs, but their hearts and lives are not praising me.”
After arguing with them he calls the whole crowd that has now gathered in closer to him, and says, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a man can make him ‘unclean’ by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him ‘unclean’” (Mark 7: 14-15). This may have sounded strange to the Pharisees and the scribes but we’ve seen enough of Jesus to know this sounds about right. We’ve seen Jesus hanging out with a leper (Mark 1:41) and being touched by the bleeding woman (Mark 5: 30-34). He hasn’t been worried about his reputation or the part of town he hangs out in and he certainly hasn’t been concerned about “catching” impurity from any of the people he’s met (NIB Commentary, Vol. VIII, p. 607).
Jesus describes what happens to food once you eat it and says, See? That can’t defile you. It’s not what’s outside of you that makes you unclean; it’s what is already inside you. It’s what you allow to grow inside you that can make you unclean…or that can transform you heart. Examining our hearts and asking Jesus to transform what’s in need of transformation inside us is harder and deeper and more faithful than following a rule without living it. It’s easier to say praise words than to embody them. It’s easier to simply follow ritual practices than to transform your heart (NIB Commentary, Vol. VIII, p.608).
This is a tricky passage and talking about rules can be hard. It matters what comes from within us more than what comes to us from outside ourselves. But don’t get me wrong. There definitely can be a relationship between what is inside and what is outside.
We have all sorts of cravings – for sex or food or drink or pleasure in general – that we satisfy inappropriately. We’re hungry and we eat junk food instead of food that really feeds our bodies. We feel lonely for companionship and intimacy but instead we try to satisfy that longing with only nakedness and sex. We want to blow off steam and relax after a long week but we get so drunk that it stops being fun, ending up with a hangover instead of a relaxing Saturday morning. We want to know God but we sometimes settle for just going to church, going through the motions, praise that’s only on our lips.
It matters what we do with our bodies and our hearts and all of us have the same rule: to live lives transformed by Christ. However that ends up looking in your life – this week, this month, this degree – depends on what’s been coming out of you lately. Where are you in need of transformation? When you talk to other people do you hear pride and jealousy coming out? When you buy your groceries or wait in line at the Pav are you impatient and superior with the cashier? Do you hear yourself making excuses for behavior you want to stop? Do you observe yourself being careless or greedy? What’s been coming out of you lately? Where are you in need of transformation?
Do you think maybe those monastics are onto something? I know it doesn’t fit our popular conceptions of monks and nuns as ever-pleasant and kind people, but I sincerely doubt that every time the front doorbell rings at 2am the monk in charge of the gate jumps from bed singing and smiling and saying, Gee, I hope it’s another Christ-stranger! Just like all of us they are human. They get tired and have bad days and really need a good night’s sleep. They don’t always feel like offering hospitality.
And that’s where the best rules and the best lives take shape. That’s where transformation begins as a seed in the hardened heart. That’s where a Rule can be life-giving instead of stultifying and empty. When a monk who is tired gets out of a warm bed on a cold night to see who’s at the door, ready to welcome whomever it is, the night is automatically less cold. When someone decides to make a tithe, she arranges other decisions around that rule: I’ll limit my Starbucks trips. I’ll only eat out once a week. I’ll make more of the Christmas gifts I give. There are probably many days when she wants to go to Starbucks and doesn’t, when it really feels like a sacrifice. But she keeps to her practice anyway. So that simple decision to tithe creates a more generous and thoughtful person who is integrating more of her faith into more of her daily living. That’s not an empty rule. That’s praise coming from deep within a heart to rest joyfully on the lips. That’s transformation in process!
That’s what Jesus wants for his disciples. That’s what he wants for us now.
Thanks be to God!
© 2009 Deborah E. Lewis