September 2nd 2018, 15th Sunday after Pentecost
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9, Psalm 15, James 1:17-27, Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23
(In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit)
Growing up, my family ate dinner every evening, Monday through Friday, at 7:00 PM, you could set your clock by it. My mom is a fantastic cook so meal time and family dinner time was always a highlight of the day.
But as we ate together, there was also this unwritten Torah of table manners my brother and I had to follow…
· Chew with your mouth closed, “no smacking”
· Don’t talk with your mouth full
· Don’t chew on your ice, (that crunching noise really annoyed my mom)
· Lift your arm when you eat, (so no elbows on the table, and there were even times when I would bend down to eat my food, and my mom would occasionally gently poke my arm with her fork and say “William, lift your arm when you eat.”
· And if the phone rang while we were eating, let it ring… they can call back after we have finished eating, (today’s post-modern equivalent rule would be – no phones at the table)
Now the whole point of this Table Manners Torah, my mom would argue, is not only to “raise us right”, but also…
so we would know how to act in public. She didn’t want us going over to a friend’s house for dinner and being a slob.
And I get it! I find myself doing the same with my kids, when they giggle at the table with a mouth full of food, or I can hear them chewing too loud, my inner Kay Rose emerges and I say, “Girls, don’t smack your food.”
This morning we put the long Bread of Life passage from John’s gospel in the rear view mirror and we move back into the Gospel of Mark.
In our story for today we see the classic clash between Rabbi Jesus and the Religious establishment of his day, and some table manners get debated.
“Hey Jesus, we notice, not that we are being too creepy, but some of your followers aren’t washing their hands before they eat, aren’t some of these guys fisherman? Gross!”
And so there is this ongoing debate between Jesus and the pastors of his day, a debate and tension that rolls throughout scripture…
“Law” or “no Law”? Are you following the Torah correctly or not?
The debate between purity and defilement.
What makes one righteous or unrighteous?
What is the difference between outward appearances vs. inward holiness?
But before we cast this off as some irrelevant ancient pastime, this is still a part of our culture and world as well.
There are often unwritten rules of who is clean or unclean, who deserves to be an insider or outsider.
- How you appear on Social Media is a big deal.
- How many “likes” or “hearts” you get matters, right?
- In religious circles, in politics and within friend groups, we too play the unfortunate game of “who’s in and who’s out”.
How often do we set up “insiders vs. outsiders” so we can keep a safe distance from those different from us, who vote different than us, or pull someone down just to build up our own ego and self-esteem?
We too play the game of who is worthy or not worthy of being “in church” and who deserves to live the American dream.
And then if we are going to go literal, we use hand-sanitizer in worship every Sunday… because, rightfully so, I don’t want to catch, or give you, the flu.
And so we set up our own “cleanliness laws” to help set up some boundaries, to help navigate some sort of control in an oftern chaotic and dirty world.
And if we are really honest, religion and spirituality are often reduced to rules and behavior. There is this stereotype that if you believe in God it’s really about obeying a set of rules or behaving a certain way. But is it?
My new favorite TV show is The Good Place on NBC,
I don’t know if you have seen it or not, but I absolutely love it.
It’s brilliantly written, it’s funny and it examines the human condition in a fantastic way.
But I confess I was hesitant at first to watch it because it’s depiction of the afterlife is all merit based.
You do good, you get enough points, and you get to go to the Good Place.
You do bad, you lose points and you go to the Bad Place.
The Lutheran understanding of God and faith doesn’t operate that way, so I avoided it… I knew I would get judgey and irritated, I mean I’m a Lutheran Pastor who knows all there is to know about how grace works, right?
But Hannah, my oldest watched it and said, “Dad, you have to watch this.”
I responded, “No, I will get irritated.”
She insisted, “No, dad, you need to watch this, there is a twist.”
I did end up watching the first episode, and she was right, I love it. I can't wait for season three to start later this month.
Not because I believe we earn our way into heaven by being good boys and girls for goodness sake.
But because the show, through humor and the philosophy of ethics, examines the human heart, and focuses on the importance of relationships.
Faith and belief in God, isn’t about checking off behavior boxes and getting an A on some sort of divine standardized test, but rather it’s about the human heart and relationships. This is what Jesus is challenging us with in this story from Mark’s gospel.
This gospel story isn’t a story about Christianity vs. Judaism.
There is a reason our gospel story is sandwiched between the passages from Deuteronomy and James.
We have been taught to view the Pharisees and scribes as self-righteous hypocrites and we who are religious don’t want to be identified as “that type of religious”.
But the Pharisees did not think they were earning their salvation by their obedience to the law. In fact, they fully understood that God choose them and the calling of Israel was a gift. They understood that God gave them the Torah as a gift, to order and shape their lives as God’s people. Their observance of the Torah was meant to be a witness to the nations around them, to give God the glory.
Kind of like Kay Rose’s “table manners Torah”… if I disobeyed or slipped up and didn’t lift my arm when I ate, my mom didn’t love me less, she was just trying to “raise me right.”
The Pharisees took their calling to be a holy people, a witness to the nations for the glory of God, very seriously.
As priests serving in the temple they were required to wash their hands before entering the holy place and offering a sacrifice, and so the Pharisees believed that all Jews should wash their hands before meals as a way of making all meal times sacred, and brining every aspect of life under the canopy of God’s presence.
“Every meal is sacred.” How beautiful is that!
But it seems that the Pharisees who were watching Jesus and his followers were missing the mark. Their observance of the law, and their human traditions, their judge-mentalism was getting in the way and setting up walls between them and what God was doing in and through the Christ. And I think it’s safe to say Christians do this too!
Now let’s be clear, Jesus isn’t against the Torah,
Jesus isn’t against boundaries, all healthy relationships have them.
Jesus isn’t against table manners, and Jesus isn’t against clean hands, Jesus isn’t “pro-bacteria”.
But Jesus is calling out their and our intentions.
Jesus is challenging their, and our, understanding of outward and inward holiness.
Jesus isn’t abolishing the Torah or even “good behavior”.
But he is messing with the boundaries we humans like to place on the Divine.
Jesus is calling for us to examine our hearts and to reflect on the depth and intentions of our relationships.
And notice the list of “evil intentions” Jesus lists at the end of the story… (fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, slander…)
These acts and behaviors break down and damage relationships, and they hurt and damage community.
It’s not just about me and how “clean my own hands are”, but it’s more so about the relationships and communities that intersect with my life and faith.
And so this is a great set up because next Sunday is Rally Day and
“God’s work, our Hands Sunday”.
Over the last 10 years or so our denomination has made a push for its members to get out there and put our faith into action.
Yes, our tribe of Christianity focuses on the grace of God.
You cannot earn God’s love and grace. You have it! No strings attached!
But what’s next? How do we live this? How do we put our faith into action?
And that is really what is at the heart of the Torah and what is at the core of the book of James.
We are called to get out there, beyond these walls and not… sorry mom… not poke peoples arms when they don’t lift their arm when they eat… But to show them God’s unconditional and radical love and grace.
To make a difference in this world, we will get our hands dirty.
So maybe we should call it, “God’s work, our defiled hands Sunday".
I heard someone say recently, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”
There is a correlation between what you believe and what you do.
We have a baptism today!
And Baptism is at the core of how we understand faith and God.
God calls us to the waters of baptism.
We are anointed and washed with unconditional grace, and then we are called to go out into the world to share this love and grace with others.
As baptized disciples of Jesus, we are called to renounce the forces of evil that rebel against God.
To renounce white supremacy, and anything that denies the dignity of any human being.
To work for justice and peace as our Christ does.
And to challenge the boundaries we place on God’s love and grace.
Baptism is the sacrament of God’s Work, Our Hands.
Because it’s about relationships and community, with God and with one another.
And here is the good news, our gospel story shares that Jesus clearly sees the ugliness of human hearts, YET he does not turn away.
Jesus sees right through the games we play and the creative way we filter ourselves, he knows what lurks in our hearts, YET he loves us all the more.
In Jesus own life, he models for us, he shows us, what true faithfulness is by daring to touch those considered unclean, by daring to love those who are social outcasts, by loving and serving and giving his own life for all people; tax collectors and sinners, lepers and demon-possessed, judgmental religious leaders and Pharisees, democrats, independents and republicans… you and me.
And this Gospel, this good news, makes a claim on our lives, our hearts and our hands. And we are called to take our lead from the crucified and risen Christ.
Following Jesus means that like him, we get our hands dirty serving others, caring especially for those whom the world has cast aside.
True faithfulness, real discipleship, is not about clean hands as much as it a heart cleansed by God’s baptismal grace and then shaped by the radical, self-giving love God in Christ.