29th August 2021
Mark 7: 1-8, 14, 15
Outside our back door, tucked around by the clothesline, is a lemon tree. It’s on the East side of the house, and in winter doesn’t get a lot of sun. It is though located close to the main culvert from the bathrooms. And given the age of the house – over 100 years – I suspect there’s some seepage that the lemon tree enjoys.
This lemon tree, year after year, with minimal attention paid to its wellbeing, produces an abundance of fruit all through the winter months and into the Spring and then some. Always. From the partial view afforded by my study window I can count about 20 ripe for picking, and probably half that number on their way.
And the wonderful thing is that this fruiting season dovetails with the time of coughs, colds, and sore throats, and the blessed relief of hot lemon and honey drinks. Actually, regardless of ailments, lemon and honey drinks (maybe with some additives) are a pure and simple comfort libation. Always.
In normal times those of us with lemon trees have more fruit than we need. So, we share them with family, or neighbours, or bring them in a box to the Community Centre with ‘free to a good home’ written on it. Or something like that. Our good fortune to have such a tree is a fortune to be shared. Always.
I can understand how our ancient ancestors in faith, and even some faithful today, would see this lemon tree as part of ‘God’s generous provision’ in a time of need. I have problems with that sort of language when it’s used to infer that a supreme being God has miraculously produced this wonderful tree with its lemons for my specific needs.
But it might be language that, in a roundabout way, is inviting me to be thankful for the little things that make my life more enjoyable, and then to share my spirit of thankfulness with others. The energy and pervasiveness of love (what I call god) works in mysterious ways, and probably likes lemons.
And right now, in this Covid lockdown time, little things are appreciated all the more. And all the more, little things that help are to be shared. Always.
I ventured out the other day to a Countdown store and ran the gauntlet of need, queues, and caution, and received, quite unexpectedly, a liberal sprinkling of courtesy. Supermarkets and their staff are the modern equivalent of ‘God’s generous provision’. I received not just food, but smiles in the eyes, gracious nods of the heads, and even the bringing together of hands, like the Indian Añjali Mudrā. I had the sense that quite literally the staff were being ‘my brother’s/sister’s keeper’. They were looking out for (keeping safe, keeping provided) their customers.
In the readings today I referenced the Cain and Abel story from whence the phrase ‘my brother’s keeper’ came. In this fable the deity is saying in effect to Cain, ‘Yes, like it or lump it, you are your brother’s keeper.’ You might not look like him, you might not like his carnivorous ways, you might not like him full-stop, but as in the orangutan joke you are related, and you need to look out for, look after, one another.
What we do affects others. As John Donne that colourful English poet and preacher once said ‘No (one) is an island’. Courtesy to one another in a supermarket or wherever gives sustenance to our spirits, and breeds resilience. Always. The opposite breeds resentment.
Honouring our inter-relatedness means that the individual’s freedom to choose is tempered by the effects of the individual’s choices on the wellbeing of others. And these days we only too aware that ‘others’ includes non-human life, indeed the life of the whole ecosystem that is our planet.
The second reading today comes from a deadly serious, late first century context when the emergent church and their mother faith are drawing lines in the sand, and getting ready to throw stones at each other. In particular the child chucking at the parent.
And into this tension I’m tempted to throw some hermeneutical levity:
Can you imagine a child saying that the food safety protocols of the household kitchen (like, for example, how we handle raw chicken) and the hygiene requirements (like being told to wash your hands) are null and void? ‘What matters’ says the child (Voltaire’s protégé) ‘is not how I clean or what I eat, but what I say and think.’ And then, being a Sunday School graduate, quotes what’s ascribed here to Jesus.
‘Yeah, right,’ says the parent, who while admiring the child’s mustering of supportive sources, authoritatively decrees, ‘Wash your hands or you don’t eat!’ This is the realpolitik of the kitchen. Always.
Joking aside, in this time of a pandemic where individual actions around mask wearing, handwashing, and using the ‘scanning in’ software, this biblical passage seems anachronistic, dangerously so. Regardless of how we understand defilement – whether something solely of the heart and mind, or not, or both – how we physically act has consequences and not just for ourselves. Our noncompliance, like the challenging child just mentioned, can impact upon the health of the whole family. Not washing his hands doesn’t just make him sick. And in a pandemic, noncompliance affects the health of the whole community and nation.
There is an underlying self-centred blindness in those who refuse to comply with the measures necessary during a pandemic – whether that’s staying at home or getting vaccinated. And organisations that spread misinformation, including churches like City Impact and Destiny, have bought into this self-centredness. They have forgotten that to be your brother’s or sister’s keeper will mean at times doing things that are uncomfortable, inconvenient, and costly – even things that go against your principles – in order to safe-guard the health and wellbeing of all.
Time for a bit more levity. There is an old joke that goes:
Once upon a time an atheist bought an ancient Christian lamp at an auction, took it home, and began to polish it.
Suddenly, a genie appeared, and said, “I’ll grant you three wishes, Master.”
The atheist said, “I wish I could believe in you.”
The genie snapped his fingers, and suddenly the atheist believed in him.
The atheist said, “Wow. I wish all atheists would believe this.”
The genie snapped his fingers again, and suddenly atheists all over the world began to believe in genies.
“What about your third wish?” asked the genie.
“Well,” said the atheist, “I wish for a billion dollars.”
The genie snapped his fingers for a third time, but nothing happened.
“What’s wrong?” asked the atheist.
The genie shrugged and said, “Just because you believe in me, doesn’t necessarily mean that I really exist.”
Which is a joke that I guess atheists, and those who like reason, enjoy, and genies don’t. It’s also a reminder in these days of alternate facts and conspiracy theories that just because you read something you like on the internet doesn’t make it true.
Like the abundant, ever-producing, lemon tree outside my window there are some things we need a lot of in this season of lockdown restrictions and the absence of social interactions:
Firstly, notice the little things and be thankful.
Secondly, let this spirit of thankfulness infect you and change you.
Thirdly, where possible – at a supermarket, on the phone, walking past on the street – share this spirit with a smile. Fourth, make jokes where possible – like the Minister of Covid-19 Response telling us to ‘spread our legs’, and the Director-General of Health’s responsive eyebrows.
Indeed, laugh often. Good laughter builds wellbeing, and community wellbeing. Laughter helps us cope. Laughter builds resilience. Laughter is an expression of faith. Always.
And be sceptical of that which threatens the health and wellbeing of the whole community. Always.