Sunday, August 30, 2009

Today's Sermon: "Washing Up" James 1:17-27 and Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

When you go into the bathroom here at BR Middle School, you’ll notice several signs giving detailed instructions on proper handwashing, including the suggestion that you keep sudsing until you’ve sung the Happy Birthday song twice through.

When you go into the restroom at the chapel atBig Old Seminary the message is similar, although more overtly theological. There, the signs say “Baptize a bug!”

And now the Church of England has just sent out a communique explaining what precautions all parishes should take to protect communicants from the H1N1 flu. The short answer is that, should a pandemic occur, all priests should use lots of hand sanitizer, no one should shake hands or hug, and there will be no common cup of wine at communion. Priests and lay ministers who offer a service of Laying On of Hands should use the Purell between each touch…

It’s a pretty grim scenario, and a necessary one – the Diocese of Virginia and your Vestry are thinking about what we should do to prepare – we certainly wouldn’t want to be guilty of spreading the flu virus when we are trying to serve God’s people through the sacraments.

But how do we align those very good, reasonable and necessary directions about good hygiene with today’s Gospel?

Jesus really tears into those Pharisees who complain about the disciples not washing their hands before meals, doesn’t he? He calls them hypocrites, and uses a quotation from Isaiah to say just how wrong they are. Dissing someone by throwing a Bible verse at them…that doesn’t happen much these days, does it?

What’s going in here?

Suffice to say it’s not about good hygiene. It’s not about Jesus saying you shouldn’t wash your hands before you eat. It’s about looking at what’s really important.

Jesus talks about how the Pharisees worry so much about the laws and traditions that human beings had constructed to define what is clean and unclean that they forget what truly defines purity and impurity.

In a way, it’s a little like that old design edict of the Modernist school: Form follows function. The form of a thing, its rules, if you will, is driven by what it is supposed to do. An automobile that is supposed to be fuel-efficient is designed to be as aerodynamic as possible. Its form, its design, is a result of what it is supposed to do. That’s why a Prius looks like a Prius, and for that matter, why a Hummer looks like a Hummer. Making something pretty or elegant and shiny just for ornamental purposes that have nothing to do with its use is considered wasteful.
So how does this apply to this Gospel reading? Jesus is telling those Pharisees that they are overly worried about the form and forgetting the core function. They are so hung up on the hand-washing rule that they are forgetting about the primary responsibility: loving hospitality. And hospitality is the hidden message in this story – the Pharisees were always talking about the rules of purity, about the washing, about eating with the right people. In this part of the Gospel of Mark, it is early in Jesus’ ministry, but he has gotten some recognition as a teacher and healer of great power. No surprise, then, that the Pharisees come to challenge him – he is working their turf, so to speak. So they attack him on legal grounds. And he is calling them out, telling them they are hypocrites, that they are misguided in their teachings. And no sooner does he finish excoriating the Pharisees, saying “you abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition,” than he turns around and starts instructing the crowd who has been following him, the crowd with whom his disciples have been eating, with those unwashed hands.

What does he say? It’s not about that which goes into your body – the food that these Pharisees might say is unclean, for example. It’s about that which goes out of your heart that can defile, that might be unclean. He uses a very earthy description of what the human body does with the food we eat, and what comes out of us and goes into the sewer – no, he doesn’t mince words. And that serves as an example of the ugly things that can come out of us, out of our hearts. Evil intentions, he calls them. And there’s a laundry list of the many things that can come out of us that are defiling:

Fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.

And in case we shake our heads and say that we wouldn’t do any of these things, consider this: how often have you had a jealous thought about a co-worker and turned that jealousy into a snide bit of gossip? Have you ever told a friend that you wouldn’t be able to join them for dinner because you had a work project to complete, when the truth was that another friend who was more fun invited you to join them? Have you ever taken something that wasn’t yours? It sounds harsh to call them evil intentions, but perhaps we need to be honest about our sins, and we are all at one time or another guilty of some of them. What comes out of the heart with evil intentions is what defiles.

Our hands might be washed, but if our hearts aren’t clean, it’s a pointless exercise. If we worry more about the form of our lives than we do about the function, we’re missing the point about how Jesus commands us to live. And the outcome is worse than swine flu; we’re talking about our souls and eternity, after all.

So after this very dark picture of all we can do wrong from the Gospel, what are we supposed to do? Sit quietly in a corner and do nothing except pray, so we won’t be guilty of any of those bad things? Few of us have that luxury.

The cure isn’t washing hands….we find it in the wise words of the Epistle of James. This epistle is a collection of moral teachings, how to live as Christians until the Second Coming. One of my teachers rightly said that James is more interested in the walk than the talk. And what we hear from James today is precisely that. If Jesus’ words in the Gospel are an accusation of an illness of the soul, James prescribes the cure. “Be doers of the word, not merely hearers. Be slow to anger…If any think they are religious and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to care for the widows and orphans in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

In James’ instruction, being a good religious person is very simple indeed: you take care of those in need and you try not to be seduced by the world by praying and studying God’s word.
If you’re worried about whether touching one of those needy persons is going to make you unclean, defiled in the language of the Pharisees, you’re focused on the wrong thing, on a human-defined law of physical purity, not on what God calls you to do. If you’re thinking that you’ll do something for a needy person because it will make you look good in the eyes of your friends, you’re focused on an evil intention, pride, rather than doing what God wants you to do.
And there’s another possibility that we should spend a moment untangling: if you do something for someone in need because you think you have to do this to win salvation, rather than out of love for God and another of God’s creatures, you’re missing what being a Christian really is.

Bear with me while I unpack this a bit.

If you’ve been coming to our Adult Forum series on Church and State, you’ll remember that Martin Luther espoused a theology of “justification by faith,” a theology that is central to Paul’s Epistles. We are saved because we believe in God and in Christ saving us by dying on the Cross. Luther opposed a theology of “justification by works,” or being saved by doing a whole lot of good works. So it’s no surprise that Luther didn’t like the Epistle of James – he called it “a right strawy epistle” - because in his reading, James was saying you’ve got to do good works to be saved. And a quick reading of what we hear from James today might suggest that. But other scholars make the point that James is closer to Luther, and the apostle Paul, than it might seem at first glance. Yes, we are justified by our faith, but here’s how we as Christians are called to live in the here and now until Christ comes again.

Form follows function. The form of our lives has to follow the function of our belief in God and what God expects of us, just as the form of our liturgy follows the function of our belief in God and in Jesus’ story. The practicality of washing hands only becomes something for Jesus to complain about when it becomes the central focus, when it supplants the disciples sitting among the crowd of people who are following Jesus and breaking bread with them, when it distracts from the sharing of the bread and the word and the hope of healing. It’s not about the hand-washing rules, it’s about paying more attention to the handwashing than to the people and the bread and the moment of community.

So we work at listening and translating that hearing into doing, and doing it rightly. We may risk breaking human rules to honor the teaching that we receive from God. At its heart, though, James is right. It is simple. Love God. Love one another. Express that love through works of caring, of mercy. And pray. Always. Pray without ceasing to be, if not unstained by the world, at least cleansed of its distractions, and from those things that defile.


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