a sermon for the fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 17B/Lectionary 22]
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
When I was in high school I was on the swim team. Swim meets were long, sometimes all-day events that kept large teams from several different schools inside a gymnasium together. And one thing I remember is that each school team would stake out an area of the bleachers or the pool deck that was away from the competition area and hang out together as a team, doing things like listening to music, finishing homework, eating snacks, and stretching while the different races were held. There was rarely a lot of mingling between teams because we didn’t really know people from the other schools. Plus, they were our rivals. You didn’t want to fraternize with the enemy. I remember there was one team we swam against from time to time that really stood out. They would begin each meet with this really loud and elaborate ritual together that was like a group cheer. When they’d do it, the whole place would get quiet and watch them. It was kind of weird, but it was also kind of cool because we knew it intimidated us. That cheer was their hallmark, and it had the effect of making all the other teams feel like we didn’t have as much school spirit as they did. We had some group bonding customs, too, but nothing as remarkable as the customs of Page High School in Greensboro, NC. And we thought their school spirit helped. They always dominated in the water.
In Jesus’ time, all day and every day in society was like a big swim meet. Out about in public and also in private settings people were grouped almost constantly by visible and sometimes peculiar traditions and customs that they practiced. Jerusalem and the region around it was fairly multicultural, a place where different peoples and religions often lived close together, so it was important to have ways to distinguish your group from another’s. We get to hear some of that in Mark’s Gospel this morning. He goes into great detail about the customs that some of the Jews of Jesus’ time practiced. You get the impression that these rituals were a little elaborate and made them stand out. It’s like they go overboard on washing things. Their hands. Things they buy at the market. Bronze kettles. Mark is the only gospel writer who gives us this background detail, and it is probably because the community he was first writing for did not have many Jewish Christians in it.
In any case, some Jewish leaders from Jerusalem, the capital, come to Jesus and his disciples and notice Jesus and his disciples have different traditions, especially when it comes to this overboard washing. Some of his disciples are not washing their hands before eating. They are not following the tradition of the elders, which is kind of like saying they are not doing the funny cool cheer that makes them seem better than every once else. And if Jesus is a rabbi, a teacher of the faith, a keeper of the tradition, then this is odd. The Pharisees want answers.
The tradition of the elders is what the people of the time would have known as the Great Tradition. Religious elites, people like the Pharisees, were expected to adhere to a very strict interpretation of purity codes. Purity codes governed how to keep yourself undefiled from things in the world, things like certain foods and dead things, and bodily fluids. Common people, like the people that Jesus would have had as disciples, were not expected to follow the Great Tradition. Fisherman and people who made their living farming were constantly coming into contact with things like dead fish and birthing animals and manure. They followed something called the Little Tradition, which was like a watered down version of the Pharisees’ Great Tradition. But both the Little Tradition and the Great Tradition rules about clean and unclean did something else: it defined in groups and out groups. People who could keep themselves ritually clean in the proper ways, especially in the Great Tradition, were considered more holy, more acceptable, more powerful than those who couldn’t. These laws and codes helped to make sure that all the groups of people were kept in all their little sitting areas during the big swim meet of life and that no one intermingled. Correctly used, the laws could remind someone of their need for God. But more often than not they were employed to enforce honor and shame on people.
Jesus pulls the rug out from under the Pharisees and all that. Jesus pulls the rug out from all of our attempts to categorize people to their disadvantage, to shame them, and he does it in a clever way. He doesn’t say that there’s no such thing as being clean and unclean. He just redefines where uncleanliness comes from in a way that makes us all able to look inside ourselves. The digestive system, Jesus explains, has nothing to do with true cleanliness, nor do the hands and the skin. It is the heart where uncleanliness comes from. It is things like thoughts and ideas and intentions where evil can take root, and we all have that capacity. Then he gives a list that surely would have impressed the religious experts in front of him. This list is derived straight from the Ten Commandments, the law that stands at the center of Jewish practice and identity. Religion often tries to use laws and rituals in order to hide these universal inclinations.
It is good to have Jesus remind us where our brokenness comes from, where we need to look in order to find the sources of uncleanliness. It’s why we take a few moments of self-examination during the confession and forgiveness at the beginning of the worship service. In that time we silently search our hearts for ways we’ve let God and others down over the past week, ways we’ve hurt others, or ignored them. We don’t list through all the yucky things we’ve touched or the “wrong” people we’ve gotten too close to. In so many ways we still are learning to live in the world that Jesus envisions—one where we see fewer and fewer in groups and out groups, one where we don’t label people in a way that sets them lower or higher than we see ourselves. One where we realize we all have the same kind of heart.
As good as that all is, we can still let our inner uncleanliness become labels, and we can still distance ourselves from others we see as morally impure, can’t we? We can also begin to loathe ourselves and feel unremitting shame if we are aware in an unhealthy way of how ugly our own hearts can be. I was reading something on Twitter this week about a young man who was still working through some bad memories of the church he grew up in. Apparently it was a very legalistic, moralistic Christian church that taught things like secular music was bad and certain people were going to hell and that questioning any church authority was a sin. But yet he found himself liking secular music, and he had questions he wanted people to answer. This young man described that experience as trauma. It had made him hate parts of himself.
That’s the nature of sin, isn’t it, though? To traumatize us and eventually get us to traumatize each other with rules and religious codes. Sin makes us fixate on ourselves, or, what’s worse, to excuse away our own imperfections while pointing out everyone else’s. Jesus is right about religious groups and people. We have a tendency to honor God with our lips but in our hearts we are far away from him.
In doing away with these cleanliness codes, and focusing our minds on our own inner brokenness, Jesus opens us up to love and forgiveness. It’s like cutting through all the red tape of religion and churchiness and simply bringing God’s compassion and reconciliation straight to us, where he means them to be. It’s about getting us to see our common humanity, the sisterhood and brotherhood we share with one another as God’s children. We don’t fixate on our cleanliness and uncleanliness at all because we’re too amazed by God’s mercy. Eyes of faith help us see that God plants the cross right in the middle of human messiness. Deceit, wickedness, folly, slander, envy, theft, murder—Jesus becomes a victim of the entire list of vices he himself names in order to show us they have no ultimate power over us. The hope—God’s hope—is that his people then become known for that kind of love, that kind of sacrifice for the stranger, that kind of service to the neighbor. In the wide group of humanity, those who follow Jesus are so forgiven and so free that people see they are open to all, open to expanding and letting more people in. Jesus teaches us we’re the one group that should realizes there really are no groups. Our cheer is inviting, not intimidating. It enlivens. It rejoices. Others will look at us and ask, like they did to the ancient Israelites, “What other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him?”
Just a couple of months ago our church office got a call in the middle of a weekday from a truck driver who was hauling a bunch of food that had been rejected by its destination grocery store. The food was fine. I think some packages were damaged and didn’t meet deliver standards. In a pinch, he had to offload it somewhere and continue to his next delivery site. Not wanting to trash it, the trucker got online and searched for churches that were nearby. We came up first, so we got the call. Hanne, our office administrator, told him to stop on by. She called several members, all of whom dropped what they were doing and helped him unload the goods in our parking lot. Within an hour or so all of the packages were in our kitchen waiting for food pantries and partner organizations like Moments of Hope to distribute food to those in need. Someone that day asked him why he came here. “Because,” he explained, “I figured churches knew what to do with a load of food like this better than anyone else.”
That, my friends, is the kind of thing to be known for, especially in a day and age when churches and denominations are increasingly viewed in a negative light, known for bigotry and hypocrisy. I’m so thankful for the people who responded that day, who demonstrated so clearly what the truck driver was expecting—a people whose hearts are not far from God at all, not far from the One who multiplies loaves and fish and distributes them to the people. I’d call that a faith so sure of Jesus’ ability to purify and heal that it habitually looks out in the world in service. They are doers of the word, not merely hearers. That’s the group with the best cheer of all, and by God’s grace we’re a part of it.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.