"Outside a person"-A Sermon for Proper 17, Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
So, in my household with two young children, who over the past few years have transitioned from toddlers, to preschoolers, to now elementary aged kiddos…hand washing has taken up more space in my life than I ever imagined possible. Though we have come a long way in our home, there was a time, not that long ago, when I was entirely happy if hands were washed only after going number 2. When I was at that emotional low point, I was willing to forgo hand washing before meals, after playing with the dog, after rooting around in the backyard, even after going number 1. Just hearing the water run in the bathroom sink after the girls had been in the bathroom for a period of time that was clearly a number 2 length of time, was a delight to my ears. I suppose I am one of those people who thinks a reasonable amount of exposure to dirt and germs really does benefit one’s immune system…rather than just being a saying to assuage a parent’s guilt at not being more insistent about personal hygiene…or maybe some of both.
And that very unusual sermon introduction is all to say that personal hygiene has little to nothing to do with our Gospel lesson from Mark this morning. The concern the religious leadership had with the fact that Jesus’ disciples were eating without first washing their hands was not out of an abiding concern for their physical wellbeing…about exposure to germs or bacteria that might make them terribly sick. Before the advent of modern science, they had no earthly idea that pathogens, that could make someone sick or worse, could be transmitted from hand to mouth and then into one’s digestive or circulatory systems. Perhaps God knew something about human biology when God gave the Torah to Moses, which indeed includes many rules that govern how and what his beloved people consumed when eating. There may indeed be divine wisdom found therein that keeps the bodies and minds of God’s people healthy and whole. But the religious leaders confronting Jesus in our gospel lesson today knew nothing of the sort. Instead, their concern expressed about Jesus’ friends and followers eating with defiled hands was all about religion, and more specifically, about following their religious traditions, as they had been handed down over the centuries and over many generations.
And before getting into Jesus’ sharp rebuke of the religious leadership’s criticism of his disciple’s, I will say that a strong commitment and desire to follow God’s law, as received in the Law of Moses or Torah…which is contained within the first five books of our Old Testament…is not in and of itself problematic. The Law of Moses is indeed a lasting gift of love given to God’s beloved people. Jesus does not throw out the Torah when he sums it up in the Great Commandment, as loving God and Neighbor with all our heart, strength, soul and mind…he is, as he says, simply summing it up. From what I can tell, Jesus was both a student and follower of Torah. For the rules and regs, or said more appropriately, the laws and commandments, contained within it lead to social cohesion…to living with one another in respect and fairness. The Torah defines and orders a sort of communal life that leads to health, wellbeing, and mutual flourishing…even to this day in many Jewish communities. For the Torah, in its divine intention, creates healthy boundaries for a shared life that respects both the individual and the good of the whole…again…leading to the physical, emotional, and relational flourishing of all…rich, poor, the widowed, orphans, citizens, refugees, and resident aliens. Indeed, the Law of Moses is a lasting gift lovingly given, through Moses, into the hearts, hands, and minds of God’s beloved people. So, what has gone so wrong…what lies underneath Jesus’ strong critique of his own religious leadership.
Well, let me first return to hand washing for a moment. So, if the first century religious leadership in Israel has no idea of what value there is in handwashing for our physical health, then why do it at all? Other than literally removing visible dirt from hands that both tastes bad and we instinctually know is kind of gross, what spiritual, if not physical, benefit might there be to use such a valuable resource as water to wash hands? Well, to begin with, the tradition of stopping one’s self for just a moment to pour water over hands before one gobbles up a meal set before her or him…provides space, just like praying before meals, to be present in the moment remembering that every good gift, including the food which is about to be received, comes by the grace of God. The God of life and love who created the abundance of the earth, in which, a seed is planted and then rain and sunlight causes it to grow and produce good fruit that fills us up. The God of life and love who formed our bodies from the earth…bodies that have strength to sow and reap and put food on the table…all of this is indeed a divine gift for which we should pause and express thanks. Thus, the water, which is the elixir of life, used ritualistically, poured over hands, is intended to draw our hearts and minds heavenward…that we may be filled with overflowing gratitude for the life-giving abundance of God’s love in our very midst…providing our daily bread, for body and soul, and every good thing we need to live a life of substance and meaning. Further that love, God’s love, that fills us with all manner of good things is then to overflow in the care and concern of others…all others…maybe most especially those who are most in need and who live the most vulnerable sorts of lives. This is the spiritual, and I would argue good purpose, behind the tradition of hand washing passed down among the Jewish people in Jesus’ day. It provides a moment for revelation and remembrance…that God’s love is in our very midst…providing every good gift required by body and soul to live a life fully alive…to live a grateful life…that then forms and informs who we are and how we live with others.
And the same is true of our own religious traditions…if they are slightly different. Though I could point this out with all of them…I will mention foot-washing in particular as it also uses water. When we wash each other’s feet on Maundy Thursday, about 4 days before Easter, we are doing what Jesus commands…that…like he did for his own disciples…we should also wash each other’s feet. Now, in doing so, we are not really resolving foot odor or removing harmful bacteria or fungus from each other’s feet…I shouldn’t have said that…now none of you will ever come to a Maundy Thursday service again…but it’s true…foot washing in a religious context is not about hygiene. Instead, we are saying to each other…see how much I love you. See how much I care for you. The act of foot washing is a sign and symbol…and moment to pause and be present in the present…allowing the overflowing love of God in our own lives to flow into the life of another, as we gently care for their feet. The act is a promise, that whatever may come our way, we will love and care for each other…for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and health…no matter what. One of the lovely things I have noticed about foot washing on Maundy Thursday at St. Julian’s, and this is not in the rubrics or “rules” of the prayer book, is that, after we wash each other’s feet, we hug each other. So whether talking about hand washing before meals in the first century or foot washing every holy week right here in this space…and really the same is true for every single one of our religious traditions…taking communion…baptizing people…putting on beautiful vestments…crossing ourselves…whatever it might be…the purpose of it all…is to point us heavenward…to remember and realize that God’s overflowing love that provides every good gift needed for our bodies and souls to be fully alive is in our very midst. And, in doing so, when we connect with God, spirit to Spirit, in the midst of these beautiful and life-giving religious traditions, God takes our hearts in God’s hands and he fills them with his overflowing love…and we become…we are shaped…we are formed into love filled, grateful humans…through whom that love, God’s love, can overflow…flow out of us and into the lives of others…all others.
This is, of course, what Jesus means when he says it is what flows out of us that makes us unclean…not what goes into us. Jesus is not talking about practicing good hygiene or eating clean. Instead, he is suggesting that our religious traditions and practices should fill us with good gifts, rooted in God’s love, that then flow out of us like an unstoppable flood of goodness and gentleness and kind words and loving acts of generosity that are other directed. And if this is not the life flow that we are experiencing then Jesus suggests that our religion might be worthless…all turned in on itself…tasteless and unfulfilling…not good for ourselves…and certainly not good for those we live around and with.
And, to answer the question I posed much earlier, this, in my mind, is what has gone so wrong with Jesus’ own religious leadership. They have clearly lost the divinely intended meaning and purpose of their own religious traditions. The flow of God’s love from within them and then out to others…which their own religious traditions are supposed to nurture and foster…has become all stopped up and terribly corrupted. Instead, they have turned their religious traditions into a means of controlling others, consolidating their own power and positions of privilege…placing them firmly, and probably quite comfortably, in the seat of judgement and condemnation. And when religion, as it has in every age and every place, becomes a means of propping up some people over others…a means of judging others as wrong or unworthy…valuing some lives more than other lives…cutting off the flow of God’s love moving from inside us to those outside of us…then I would agree with Jesus it is worthless…or at the very least lost its way…a religion that has become painfully disconnected from its divine and spiritually edifying purpose.
And before we take a deep breath and think…if not say…thank goodness I am not like them…like Jesus’ own religious leaders…who condemn the actions of his friends and followers. I think the best use of Jesus teaching is to instead take a hard and honest look at ourselves…our lives and our own religious traditions and practices. And the best way I think we can do this good and challenging spiritual work, following Jesus’ own wise words, is to look first and foremost at what comes out of us. So…when those who live around us…those who are both directly and indirectly impacted by the words and deeds that flow out of us…what do they hear and what do they see? For our lives speak volumes about the efficacy of the religion we practice and the spiritual traditions we share.
And, even if just from time to time…for we are a good lot here at St. Julian’s…we find that what is pouring forth from us doesn’t reflect the God of love…if instead we find things flowing from us like hate, anger, or a desire to quickly rush to the judgment of another, or words of criticism directed toward those at home or work, or even negative self-talk directed at ourselves…then my very first suggestion…and I am indeed preaching even to myself here…is not to walk away from the faith we hold dear or the religious practices we hold in common. For like the Torah, when faithfully lived out in the lives of our Jewish brother and sisters, I don’t think the problem is with the life-giving traditions and gentle disciplines of the Church, which embody Jesus’ teachings.
Instead, I think, if what flows from us doesn’t reflect the person God has created us to be, we should enter ever more deeply into our faith, the traditions and practices, that have been so lovingly handed down to us. I think we should pray more, read the bible more, get a spiritual director, receive the sacrament of bread and wine even more frequently. I think we should give even more of our time and resources to God’s work in the world. I think every time we wash our hands or get in the shower we should remember the vows made at our own baptism. I think we should make a greater commitment to sabbath time for rest and renewal through play and reflection. I think we should dive ever, ever deeper into the living faith and life-giving traditions that we are so blessed to inherit…until we are filled all the way up, to the point of overflowing with God’s love. Hearts and bones made so full of gratitude for all the good gifts God provides our bodies and souls…that they can only overflow, like an unstoppable flood pouring out of us, more and more, words and deeds, that speak of love alone. Amen.