~ Mark 7:1-8, 14-23 ~
What did we do before GPS? How did we know where we are and where we’re going before Google Maps? How did we know how to get there before we had one of these to put on the holder on our dashboard?
Well, we had maps. You’d purchase a map and follow it. I remember when we lived in Los Angeles we had a thick book of maps, highlighting every neighborhood in that vast metropolis. We needed it, often.
A good map can help you know where you are. I used to take backpacking trips in the mountains of Colorado. And I would always take with me one of these. This is a topographical map of a wilderness area in Colorado. It’s old and tattered (OK, it was a long time ago). But it is a very good and precise map. It tells me where trails are, any man-made structures, rivers and lakes, meadows and forests, even the elevation of the mountains. The map is covered with orange lines called contour lines. Every line represents a specific elevation. If the lines are relatively spread out then the slope is gradual. If the lines are close together the slope is steep. If the lines are almost on top of each other you’re standing on the edge of a sheer cliff.
A reliable, trustworthy map is a good thing to have when you’re in the wilderness. And it’s a trustworthy map because members of the U.S Geological Survey, using painstaking measurement methods over many years, made this map. A mapmaker is called a cartographer. Did you know that Mark Chambers is a cartographer?
Well, Jesus was a cartographer. Today’s gospel story is about how Jesus was making a new map for the people of Israel. As far as Jesus was concerned, the old map was no longer reliable or trustworthy. Indeed, the old map was leading people astray.
Of course, we’re not talking about physical maps; we are talking about symbolic maps. Symbolic maps help us get around in the social and cultural landscape. All of us have some sort of map in our head that we rely on to help us get around. That map is probably a combination of religious, cultural, political, philosophical components that provide parameters. These parameters provide some sort of orderly way of living. Otherwise life would be chaos and we would be lost. We have symbolic maps to help us. Some of us have very precise, detailed maps by which we make every decision – something like this detailed topographical map. Others of us have less detailed maps – maybe like a world globe. But know this: We all have a map of the world, a worldview, by which we live.
The Pharisees of Jesus’ day had a map. Their map was a very precise and detailed map of the world. Their map could be called the “holiness” map. At their very core the Pharisees valued holiness. They would champion the line from Leviticus 11:44: “Be holy, as I am holy.” Holiness was based on the idea that creation is a very ordered place; everything has a precise place. Things need to be properly separated; what belongs and what does not belong. You might say their view of the world was all about carefully drawn maps, maps of time (Sabbath traditions), maps of people (priests, sinners, the sick, Gentiles), maps of places (Temple), maps of things (pots and dishes), and maps of meals (how and what one ate). These maps were very elaborate and become more so over time. The Pharisees took great care to guard the lines of the maps in an attempt to keep things separate. So, they created lines outside the lines to keep from crossing over them. Mark’s comment about the traditions of washing hands before eating and washing cups, pots and kettles are examples of these lines to guard against anything unholy entering the body by way of the mouth.
Now, when we read their handwashing criticism of Jesus’ disciples our reaction might be: “Well, duh, of course you’re supposed to wash your hands and clean your pots.” In this time of pandemic, washing our hands and cleaning everything has been impressed upon us all. However, for the Pharisees, washing had nothing to do with germs and viruses. It was all about guarding the holiness boundaries.
From their perspective Jesus and his followers were totally out of bounds. Jesus didn’t observe the map of time when he violated the Sabbath. Nor did he observe the map of people when he dined with sinners and associated with Gentiles. Jesus profaned the Temple, violating the map of places. He ignored the map of things by not properly washing hands or vessels before eating. Finally, Jesus and his followers did not observe the Pharisees’ special map of eating, as we have in this story. According to the Pharisees, Jesus was rejecting the God-given maps and boundaries that structured their worship and life. Jesus tore down the fences the Pharisees had so carefully constructed and maintained. By not washing their hands properly Jesus and his followers were seen to be threatening the entire order of creation.
But why did Jesus tear down the fences? Well, I think Jesus was redrawing the map. Jesus’ view of holiness was not about maintaining carefully built fences. His view of holiness was a matter of the heart. And significantly his view of how to worship and live, according to Mark, was based on mercy. Instead of an emphasis on holiness as defined by separateness, Jesus’ core value is God’s mercy – the forgiveness of sinners and God’s concern for outcasts. So the slogan that would best depict Jesus’ map might be: “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (Ex 33:19). And so Jesus’ holiness is expressed not in careful ordering of people and things but on God’s unpredictable grace. Whereas the Pharisees’ map resulted in exclusion, with precisely drawn lines, Jesus’ map suggested fuzzy boundaries that invited inclusivity. For the Pharisees the strategy was one of defensiveness and guarding against outsiders. For Jesus the strategy was mission and hospitality, going out and bringing in. Indeed, you could say that Jesus was deliberately going off the established trail to find new territory. He was creating a new map of the world.
And so this matter of washing hands and pots and cups ends up being a big deal. Jesus openly challenged the prevailing map down to its very core. And in doing so he zeroed in on where the issue lies—not out on the boundaries but inside, in the heart. If any defilement occurs, and indeed it certainly does occur, it is deep inside everyone, in his or her heart. That is why Jesus’ emphasis is so much on God’s mercy and grace, for without God’s forgiveness we are all defiled and have no hope. In all of this Jesus sought to provoke the status quo so the people would not be stuck in a map that missed the movement of God’s spirit in the world.
There is an old saying that can be applied here. “Beyond the pale” is a phrase that describes going beyond bounds of good taste, morality, or good behavior. Dating back to the 1300’s in England, a pale was a stake which was used for fences. Hence the pale was the boundary beyond which civilization ceased to exist. In England’s case that was Ireland.
Well, in today’s story we see Jesus breaking down the fences and going beyond the pale. He is purposefully drawing a new map that includes in its boundaries new people, in this case, the gentiles. The old map of the Pharisees could never accommodate such people. Jesus’ map, a map of grace and mercy, sought to include rather than exclude, to incorporate rather than expel, and to challenge our presuppositions about the way things should be.
Could it be that Jesus, the cartographer, is still drawing new maps? As he did with the Pharisees, Jesus challenges our maps. One thing for certain: old maps are comfortable. We know where we are, where we’re going – we know the territory. We almost don’t have to think about it because we know it so well. However, those old maps could very well end up being a hindrance, a hindrance to actually live into God’s grace and mercy, a hindrance to living out God’s work of justice and reconciliation.
I believe, in this particular time, Jesus is drawing a new map. In this current moment of our nation’s history I believe Jesus is compelling us to go “beyond the pale” and venture into uncharted territory. Ah, it won’t be easy because this uncharted territory hasn’t been mapped yet. The US Geological Survey hasn’t drawn it yet; it’s still in the making. Indeed, we just might be the ones who will be called upon to draw this new map. But it does mean venturing into uncharted territory.
We Americans have been guided by, living by, a map that has been in existence from our nation’s beginning. It is deeply ingrained into our culture, our religion, our politics, and our individual psyches. It is an unquestioned tradition. But it is a human tradition. Thus, Jesus’ words are apropos: “You…hold to human tradition.” And quoting Isaiah, he says we are “teaching human precepts as doctrines.” Tradition, as comforting as it often is (hey, we Presbyterians have lots of traditions; indeed, we here have traditions we enjoy and honor) – tradition is human made. I saw an interesting definition of tradition the other day: tradition is just peer pressure from dead people. And tradition can go awry, it can go wrong. Sometimes events and challenges occur that force us to see just how wrong a tradition can be.
The tradition I am speaking of is the assumption that Anglo-Saxon culture needs to be in charge. That our national culture is, in fact, based on a white supremacist view of the world. It is a world view that has been with us since our nation’s founding. It is so much with us that we white folk don’t even see it. Indeed, we don’t think of white as a race. Now, People of Color can see it all too well because they live with it every day of their lives. Every day is spent navigating a white world. We who are white just live in it like a fish in water. It is our ingrained world view. It is the map by which we move in the world. But of late that map has come into question. It is an inadequate map. Indeed, we need a new map because the old map is causing too much harm and too much inequity.
Over two years ago we, Noe Valley Ministry, bought into the Matthew 25 Project. Indeed, we were the first church on the west coast to become a Matthew 25 church. In doing that we intentionally chose as our focus “dismantling structural racism.” So over those two years we have focused on that in sermons, small groups, seminars, etc. And some of you may have rolled your eyes at times. “That, again?” Yet, we continue on. This fall, through the efforts of our Anti-Racism Group which has meet several times over the months, we will be introduced to the Grace and Reconciliation Project, a program instituted by the West Bay Region of our Presbytery. Rev. Carmen Mason-Browne, a black minister in our presbytery, will help guide us. She will help us draw a new map of how we as a church and as a presbytery can be about the task of dismantling structural racism.
A new way of going, traveling by a new map, might seem very risky and uncomfortable. Questioning our assumed way of living is hard. But, let me say it again, I think Jesus is leading us into this new map making venture. God’s Spirit is moving to help us become even more a people of grace and reconciliation. Jesus invites to go beyond the pale and venture into this vast uncharted territory. May we dare go there. Amen.