RCL Year B, Proper 17
The following is more notes than a polished text, from the 7:30 service on September 2.
I’m going to tell you why I started eating vegetarian. It happened while I lived in England, around when mad-cow disease was vividly feared. But that wasn’t why. I had flirted with the idea before, being a young impressionable student in Berkeley, but had always cast it aside because I liked meat too much. In England, however, I met several students at my theological college who were vegetarian because for them it was the right thing to do. They all candidly admitted that they missed sausage and bacon (very important for the British). But it was still the right thing to do. So I read some books, about animal ethics and factory farming and even a book on animal theology, arguing that animals as God’s creatures are to be treated with as much love and respect as human beings. And I was finally convicted, and thought, it doesn’t matter that I’ve always loved pork chops, I need to give this up, if I’m going to live in integrity with my beliefs. So I did. But I was also clear that I didn’t need to make my issue everyone’s issue, so I concluded that I would eat whatever was set before me by someone else, meat or not.
That was some 13 years ago. Since then my practice has wavered and shifted, at times more often eating meat and other times abstaining. For whatever reason it now feels right to eat meat not very often, not to cook it at home but to eat it if I’m served elsewhere, and every so often to choose meat for myself when it sounds good. So that’s where I’ve left it. And as long as I keep to that, I feel at peace with my own actions.
Our readings today aren’t about eating meat. But they are about integrity. There’s the whole argument in Mark about whether Jesus’ disciples are breaking important Jewish law by eating without washing their hands, and Jesus argues that they’re not. It’s not what goes in but what comes out of the person that matters, he says. And then there’s the beginning of the letter of James, telling us to be doers of the word and not hearers only. Walk your talk, in other words.
We get a whole month with the letter of James – I think a lot of the letter is about integrity. There used to be an argument about James being too Catholic, not nice and Protestant like Paul. Grace, not works! How come James doesn’t talk more about faith? How come he doesn’t mention Jesus very much? The book makes Lutherans nervous. But I find it really compelling. I think really it’s both: what happens to you spiritually should show forth in your life. That’s integrity.
But don’t get caught up in things that aren’t really that important. That’s what Jesus is saying in Mark about traditional customs and whether they should be followed. Pay attention to what’s in your heart, he says. What you do in observing customs isn’t as important as what you live out in bigger ways, what it shows about your soul.
It’s very Anglican. Richard Hooker, a 17th century Anglican divine, wrote a very very long book called the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. Among other things, Hooker distinguished between what was essential to the faith and what was non-essential – important distinctions in a still uncertain new Church of England. People were killing each other over whether it was ok to have bishops, or statues in church, and everyone had gotten tired out from that kind of heated intensity. Hooker wanted to widen the definition of the non-essentials, “things which do not make a difference, matters regarded as non-essential, issues about which one can disagree without dividing the Church.” He was saying, there are things that are important to live out because they matter deeply – the beliefs of the creeds, the understanding of Jesus as the incarnation of God, the precepts to love God and our neighbor as ourselves. But there are other things that just don’t matter. So get over them.
So the question I leave you with is, what are your essentials? What is it that you need to be in integrity with as you live your life? James tells us the basics of living the faith are to care for the orphans and widows – that is, the most vulnerable ones in society – and to keep ourselves unstained from the world, continuing in our own integrity. Jesus points out a list of the things we do when we’re not living our faith – pride, greed, lying, envy, etc. The two of them together give us a pretty clear set of markers to steer by: Do that which cares for the least, and keeps you connected most deeply with God. Don’t do that which results in you being mean and nasty. That channel between is what Hooker would call the essentials. Live in integrity with that, whatever that might look like for you and those around you. Let others work out their own integrity for themselves. And let go of the little differences that don’t amount to much anyway. Or as the running mantra goes, run your own race. Don’t worry about what others are doing; stay focused and grounded in your own relationship with God, and the rest will work itself out. It’s a clarifying bit of guidance for us, now and always.