Pastor Ingrid C. A. Rasmussen’s sermon from August 30, 2015
Listen along here.
The gospel according to Mark, the seventh chapter:
1 Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2 they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3 (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4 and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles. ) 5 So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6 He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; 7 in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ 8 You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
21 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.
Word of God. Word of life. Thanks be to God.
It’s a story that often arises in pre-marital counseling: the crisis of relationship that occurred at the moment when two starry-eyed lovebirds realized that they…fold bathroom towels differently. One uses the corner-to-corner method; the other prefers tri-folds. A friend of mine once told me that she married after a very short courtship. She learned soon after the wedding that her husband wasn’t a graduate student, as he had necessarily made her to believe; he was, in fact, an undercover operative in the CIA. She said that news should have sent her into a marital tailspin, but it didn’t. Her first, disappointed tears, she explained, were shed when she found towels folded corner-to-corner in the laundry room. “How could he?” she playfully exclaimed forty years later.
Of course, this crisis is less about the towels and more about the values that were folded into them somewhere along the way. Values of hospitality, generosity, and kindness were tucked into the creases of these practices by our families and communities-of-origin. The keeping of customs and traditions shapes us, which is why we teach our kids to say “thank you” from the moment they begin to string words together. From these practices, we learn a sense of right and wrong. They are embedded early, which is one reason why it feels like such an affront when they’re challenged later in life.
We meet an affronted people in Mark today. The Pharisees notice that some of Jesus’ disciples are eating with dirty hands. Mark is quick to point out to those readers who may not immediately be put off by this, that all the religious people thoroughly washed their hands before they eat, in accordance with what their elders had taught them. Now, if we do a little digging into the Hebrew Bible, we learn that there is no law on the Old Testament books about the washing of hands. This was a practice that had grown up in and around the religious community we meet in Mark’s gospel.
When I lived in South, I used to make an annual pilgrimage to an East Atlanta eatery called Ann’s Snack Bar, which was famous for two things: its burgers and its rules. The place only had eight seats, which meant that a crowd often gathered outside of the doublewide trailer. There were a lot of unwritten rules at Ann’s, including do not approach the door unless instructed, do not speak to Ann unless spoken to, do not lean or lay on the counter, do not sit or stand babies on the counter, don’t park illegally in the lot, and, whatever you do, don’t curse while eating. Violating any of the unwritten snack shop rules, regardless if you had been informed of the guiding principles, would result in immediate dismissal from the premises. Ann was nothing if not serious.
And the Pharisees were nothing if not serious: it was wrong to eat with unclean hands. Religious people just didn’t do that. Mark tells us that they also didn’t eat farmer’s market veggies without washing them. And they kept their cups, pots, and bronze kettles nice and tidy, just like dad used to. Religious people followed the rules. And, lest you and I be too quick to dismiss these rules as trivial, shared practices were good for the community. Really good. These rituals bound the Jewish covenant community together. It was up to the Pharisees, as the people tasked with interpreting the written and unwritten laws, to ensure that folks abided by the house rules. To be clear, eating with dirty hands wasn’t like folding the towel corner-to-corner or accidentally leaning your elbows against the counter at Ann’s in East Atlanta; it was a big deal. By breaking the practice, Jesus and his people were knowingly or unknowingly challenging one of the very things that held the religious community together.
We in the church know something about this. Every congregation has unwritten laws, rituals, and bans that govern behavior and often surprise newcomers. They vary from place to place. They go something like this: We use three coffee filters and four scoops of grounds in the coffee pot on Sunday morning. We sing “Holden Evening Prayer” during Lent every year. We use a gong and Tibetan finger cymbals each Sunday after the reading of the gospel. We don’t serve doughnuts. We position Easter lilies symmetrically around the cross. We break the bread during the Words of Institution. We don’t break the bread during the Words of Institution. We keep the sanctuary at 64 degrees. We don’t sing “Onward Christian Soldiers.” We begin every worship service with “Holy, Holy, Holy” (and have since 1952).
We might call these the church’s blue laws—the do’s and don’ts of faith communities. They may be unwritten, but they are strictly enforced. Visitors, new members, and new pastors have good odds of violating one or more of them.
Of course, blue laws aren’t only an issue in the church. They surface when you stay at your in-laws for the first time, or move into a new senior living facility, or attend the PTA meeting at the local school, or even join a gym (or so I’m told). In all of these settings, when our traditions are challenged by others’ deeply embedded values, it can be tempting to dig our heels in and to hold oh. so. tightly. to the customs and practices, rights and wrongs that have been life-giving for us and for our people.
But Anthony Bloom, onetime metropolitan in the Russian Orthodox Church, who had equal amounts of wisdom and facial hair, says that if you hold on to something too tightly, you risk limiting the beauty of what you’re clinging to. Additionally, you will risk losing the use of your hands to that object. Poetic as he is, Bloom is not the first to say it; he’s simply paraphrasing Jesus in words that we can hear. Jesus says, “Don’t limit the beauty.”
New Testament scholar Gail O’Day says that “sin isn’t a moral category about behavior; it is a theological category about one’s resistance to God’s revelation.” That means that defilement isn’t so much about washing our hands as it is our want to limit the ways we believe God can and will be revealed. It was a wonder that God would be revealed through societal outcasts, who were forbidden to step foot in the Temple. It was a wonder that God would be revealed through a preacher from Galilee and his ragtag bunch of disciples. It was a wonder that God would make God’s self be known outside of the clean constructs and formidable frameworks that the community had agreed upon. The problem isn’t clean hands, Jesus says. It’s clinging so tightly to practice that we fail to recognize the work of God all around us, in us. The problem is limiting the beautiful means by which God may choose to come close to God’s people.
Today, Jesus comes to all of us aboard the “sin wagon.” You know, the vehicle by which we judge our worthiness and faithfulness—and that of others—based on behavior, and he lovingly loosens our grip. Today, Jesus comes to the insiders and the outsiders, to those of us who are breaking the rules and those of us who will die trying to follow them. Jesus comes to all of us and says, “Forget the sin wagon; your worthiness rests in me. Come and see the beautiful things that God is doing through unlikely people, in unlikely places for the sake of all of creation. Come, let me open your hands. Let me open your eyes to a new vision. Come, let me give you hearts tuned to sing my limitless, wondrous song.”
Thanks be to God. AMEN.