Sunday, September 02, 2018

Sermon for Sunday, September 2, 2018 Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 “Cleaning Solution”

I spent a week up in Vermont with my newborn grandson recently. I will state with utter and complete conviction that he is the most adorable baby ever… just as I said the same thing about each of my children when they were newborn and just as I said the same thing about each of my other four grandchildren when they were newborn. Grandmothers, you know?

Like most newborns, Wiley had that little umbilical cord stump, about an inch and a half long, slowly drying up. Sort of yucky to look at, and it was getting - how shall I put this? - ripe before it finally fell off. And when it did, Wiley’s mother said, “well, now we can give him a bath. The doctor told me no baths before that was all healed up.”

Now I had spent a good bit of time with him doing things like changing diapers, but when she said that, a little voice in my head said, “I’m amazed that he doesn’t smell stinky with no bath for two weeks, particularly with those diapers he’s been soiling.” But the only scent that he exuded was that beautiful milky soft smell of newborn baby. Is there any smell like that in the world? It’s better than new car smell, that’s for sure! Yes, we wiped off the dirty bits when necessary, but despite no bath, Wiley smelled clean and sweet.

Would that we could stay that way! We people who are no longer newborn have to follow a different pattern. We need our daily wash-ups, otherwise our aroma will not be sweet. We sweat, we get dirt on us, we eat something that disagrees with us…I go no further down that road – you know what I mean. We have to work a little harder to get clean.

Clean…what is clean? That’s the question that’s posed in today’s Gospel. The Pharisees were offended by what they saw as unclean behavior on the part of Jesus and his disciples, who didn’t wash up before their meal. Now this was a big no-no for the Pharisees, because, as the evangelist Mark suggests, this was part of Torah, the LAW. You were supposed to wash up.

A little sidebar here: this is not about the Pharisees only being about rule-following and being the designated enforcers of the rules. It’s more subtle than that. The biblical scholar Elisabeth Johnson writes:

[The Pharisees] understood that God’s choosing and calling of Israel was a gift. They also understood that God gave them the law as a gift, to order their lives as God’s people. Their observance of the law was meant to be a witness to the nations around them, to give glory to God.
In the book of Exodus, before the giving of the law, God tells the people of Israel that they are to be “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” in the midst of the nations around them (Exodus 19:6). The Pharisees took this calling to be a priestly kingdom and holy nation very seriously. They interpreted the laws concerning priests serving in the temple to apply to all God’s people and all aspects of life. As priests serving in the temple were required to wash their hands before entering the holy place or offering a sacrifice, the Pharisees believed that all Jews should wash their hands before meals as a way of making mealtime sacred, bringing every aspect of life under the canopy of God’s law.
These “traditions of the elders” were seen as a way to “build a fence around the law,” to preserve the Jewish faith and way of life, especially in the midst of Roman occupation. The concern of the Pharisees and scribes when they saw Jesus’ disciples eating with unwashed hands was about something much more serious than proper hygiene. They suspected that the carelessness of Jesus and his disciples with regard to the traditions of the elders threatened to undermine respect for God’s law.”
So they really had a legitimate concern: were the followers of this new rabbi Jesus flouting the law in this, and would this mean that they would flout the law in other ways? For the people of Israel, oppressed by Rome, always under siege, Torah was not only a sign of God’s favor, it was a daily reminder of the fact that they were a particular and particularly blessed nation belonging to God in the midst of this crazy world they lived in. It was a survival tool in difficult times, because it reminded them that they WERE different, and they shouldn’t do things like the rest of the world.
And yet…was this the only way that they could signify their identity with and following of God?
This is the point that Jesus raises in his response to them. The LAW doesn’t stand alone. The LAW is one part of what it means to follow God, to be God’s people. But if it becomes an end unto itself, it’s just not good.
Jesus points out the sad truth: the LAW doesn’t address the state of the heart. God gave the LAW to govern the heart, not just set random rules out there. If you follow the LAW and your heart isn’t it, what good is the LAW? If you’re merely checking boxes, your heart can smell to high heaven even if your hands are washed.
And here’s the thing: the Pharisees have allowed the LAW to become something that isolates them from others, to make them extra special. “We’re clean and they’re not,” we can imagine them thinking.
But are we really clean? And are others really not?
We like to think, because we showed up here this morning, that we’re the clean crew…and maybe we passed by someone walking to brunch over at the restaurant around the corner instead of coming here and we think “we’re good and they’re not.” We may be following the letter of the LAW but is our heart in it?
And Jesus keeps saying, “it’s the state of your heart that matters, not merely adherence to the LAW. There are all sorts of ugly things that might be in your heart other than God, and you might be following Torah in a thousand ways but it’s for naught, because the defiling thing, the ugly thing, is sitting there in your heart making it all smell just like a dirty diaper.”
Well, maybe Jesus didn’t say that bit about the diaper, but you get my point.
So does this mean we don’t have to follow the rules of basic hygiene? Does it mean that we don’t need to show up at church on a Sunday morning? No, that’s not what Jesus says. It’s about the way we take what God has given us – God’s wisdom conveyed through his word, the spiritual joy that we feel in God’s presence, the food and drink for our souls that we share at this table – and how we respond to it. It’s about knowing that, given these gifts, we cannot desire NOT to share what we’ve learned, to offer these gifts to others, to serve…in other words, as our reading from the Letter of James says, to be “doers of the word.” And when we do that, it’s not about mere obedience to a law. It’s also not about measuring whether or not those whom we serve are clean enough to deserve it. It’s not about whether or not they’ve followed the LAW well enough. It’s about the gift of Jesus, given to us despite our own often unclean hearts. If we measured our own worthiness, we might not look and smell as clean as we’d like, but the best way to address that aroma is not a baby wipe, it’s Gospel love. Love without measure of worth, love without judgment, love without shame. Jesus gave it to us, this law of love. Now it’s our turn. And won’t that smell sweet indeed?
Ain't he sweet?