(A sermon for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost B–September 2, 2012–Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23)
He’s seven years old, and his hands are not always clean. I could say it about almost any seven-year-old I know. But this one is special to me, and when he climbed up beside me on the sofa with his mama’s iPod Touch, inviting me to play Tic-Tac-Toe, I had to be careful not to show my delight. And I had to be careful not to show my dismay at the smudgy surface of the electronic device we were about to share.
My grown-up sons were once that age, and I remember wondering how they managed to acquire a layer with the texture of fine silt. Our standards for cleanliness clearly differed, despite my motherly efforts to indoctrinate them in the ways of civilization. We all have expectations and traditions we hand down from one generation to another, and the expression “Cleanliness is next to Godliness,” is a trope for a reason. Keeping things clean turns out to be a smart, evolutionary protection against disease.
And in this era of hand sanitizer, or what another little boy I know calls “Hanitizer,” we’ve all got our guard up against infection. We hold tense discussions about how and whether to serve Communion during flu season. We keep the Holy Hanitizer near the Table and watch as the pastors appear to consecrate their hands before they bless the bread and cup.
I’m not making fun of this. As the person who looks at the glass before she puts water in it, whether it came out of the home dishwasher or the church dishwasher, and who will send a dirty glass back in a restaurant, I hope you will accept my credentials as a person who cares about hygiene.
Fortunately, that’s not what Jesus was talking about anyway.
We can tell from the parenthetical nature of verses 3 and 4 that the gospel writer didn’t much care about the details of the dispute. He knew his audience would be unfamiliar with Jewish practices and gave them just enough to go on, to perhaps make the conclusion of the story comprehensible.
It may sound like Jesus is saying that human rules about cleanliness don’t matter, because nothing can contaminate us on the way in…but those of us who have eaten something that made us ill or caught a virus of any kind will know that’s not a literal truth. Jesus is not running down a practice because the practice is in itself wrong, but because it represents a way of life that misses the message about our relationship with God.
Imagine a community where the rules matter more than the people, where the rules favor people with the leisure time or the domestic help to perform every detail laid down by the authorities.
Imagine a community where the law is the law because it’s always been done a certain way, and that was good enough for our grandparents, so we don’t need to know why!
Imagine almost every human community, anywhere and anytime.
We are creatures of habit and hierarchy, we human beings, and although every generation has its revolutionaries, on the whole we like to see things stay comfortably familiar, even when we are not the ones who enforce the code of conduct.
This is especially true in churches.
We don’t know what led to this encounter in Mark’s gospel. Perhaps Jesus and his friends had gotten a reputation for not keeping to the hand-washing codes. Perhaps the scribes and Pharisees set out to trap them in their non-compliance. Somebody, somewhere, noticed and told on them. The religious leaders have come to challenge him for being different, for not being a slave to their rules, for compelling by love rather than controlling by laws.
And while we may want to identify with the disciples, the very location where we sit on a Sunday morning—in the pew we’ve always used, maybe even for generations in one family, right?—suggests we are more like the Pharisees, the religious establishment. It can feel comforting to control our surroundings, to know where everyone belongs and that everything is in its place.
In the first church I served, there was an argument over serving Communion by intinction. A Deacon insisted we must serve juice in little cups because that was the way Jesus did it. We don’t have to do things one way for long before it becomes the only way. And when someone asks why, we often do not want to answer, because we often do not know.
Bruce H tells me that in his childhood church, no one walked directly in front of the altar. When he was a little boy, he was taught to walk all the way around to avoid the possibility. No one explained why. He concluded that walking in front of the altar would land you in Hell! I imagine the real reason was less drastic, but he drew his own conclusion. And we may miss something about those more formal times, even if the reason for the formality was never explained to us. Bruce still walks around the long way.
Are we compelled by love? Or are we controlled by laws?
We tend to like things the way they are. We don’t like it when someone asks why or tells us why not.
Jesus did both those things, and it made the authorities angry. They defined faithfulness by performance of actions. The established rules kept order. Each person knew his or her place. Almost every imaginable human situation and condition had a rule or a punishment attached to it. They had been doing things their way for such a long time that they couldn’t see how far they had drifted from the intent of God’s Law. The Law was meant to preserve the community, both the relationship of people with God and the relationships of people with each other. Instead it had come to divide the people by rank and to lose its focus on relationship with God and others. Obeying the Law meant pleasing the human authorities in order to maintain a position in the community.
If you were ever a seven-year-old on a playground, you’ll know what I mean.
In every human system, there is a pecking order. There are people with power and rules for behavior and codes of relationship. Challenging the established order requires risk-taking. The unwashed hands of the disciples were not a sign of laziness or disrespect for God. Their unwashed hands were a political and theological statement, an act of righteous indignation against the people who by name were the spiritual leaders of the community, but who in fact were the social oppressors.
You see, being unclean or contaminated or defiled meant being closed out from the community. It meant being shut out of worship and commerce and family life. Sometimes a person could make it right. But sometimes a person could not. And the religious authorities had the power to keep them on the outside.
Jesus objected. He came to show us a different way to live in community.
No unclean hands or unwashed dishes or unconsecrated meat for dinner could make a person dirty in the eyes of God, Jesus said. Your system is broken, he said. It’s broken. God cares about how we regard God, not how we respect human authority. God cares about what is in our hearts, not on our plates. God cares about how we love, not how we look.
We can’t be contaminated by anything from the outside. It’s our intentions that cause trouble: our ways of thinking, our treatment of others and our lack of care for ourselves.
Are we compelled by love? Or are we controlled by laws?
I’m pretty fussy about keeping my hands clean. I looked hard at that iPod before I took it in my hand. Its condition was actually a little revolting. But the smile on the face shyly offering the Touch shone brighter than the smudged screen. Nothing from outside can make us dirty, not where it counts. Compelled by love, I played Tic-Tac-Toe…and after he beat me a dozen times, I washed my hands.
In the name of the One who loves us, even when our hands are not clean. Amen.