The one about Arnold Schwarzenegger and all our fragile pieces.

Pastor Ingrid C.A. Rasmussen’s sermon from September 20, 2015

Listen along here.

The gospel according to Mark, the ninth chapter:

30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. 33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Word of God. Word of life. Thanks be to God.

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It was 2010, and I was completing three years of hard work at Emory University’s theology school in Atlanta, Georgia. The student body was preparing to gather on the lush campus green for graduation. We all knew there would be lots of bagpipes; there always were. We knew the heat would intensify during the outdoor ceremony; it always did. We were just waiting to hear who would be chosen to address the over 20,000 people expected to attend. Whoever it was would find him or herself in good company; former speakers had included the likes of Mikhail Gorbachev, former President of the Soviet Union, and Desmond Tutu, the Archbishop who worked tirelessly against apartheid in South Africa.

The email announcement came. Imagine our surprise when we opened it and read: “Emory University is pleased to announce that Arnold Schwarzenegger will be delivering the commencement address.” Deliver it he did, beginning with what he knew people wanted to hear—that is, his most famous movie lines, beginning with “I’ll Be Back” and closing with “Hasta La Vista, Baby.” Thereafter, he gave a highlights tour through his self-made body-building career. And he closed strong with a discussion of his advantageous relationship with the Kennedys. And, then, just like that, the twenty minute lesson in personal greatness was over, and Arnold’s big, burly bodyguards cleared a path for him through the sun kissed crowd, and he drove off in his shiny, black SUV.

You giggle. My classmates and I did, too. The commencement address was a blatant display of wealth and beauty and esteem and accomplishment and recognition and pride and rightness. It was easy for the divinity students to write Arnold’s speech off—to joke that’s what the university’s Board of Trustees got for refusing to pay their commencement speakers. But, tucked in-between our laughter and overpriced robes and sense of superiority, we quietly knew that we were witnessing something as true as it was silly: in a world that admires the strong, the conversation of greatness is never far away.

Some gospel stories surprise us; Mark 9 is not one of them. Jesus and his eager apprentices are just getting started—just getting into their itinerant grooves, so to speak. For having virtually no experience in the Son of God enterprise, they’re doing pretty well: They’re busily feeding the thousands. They’re healing any sickness they can get their hands on. They’re bringing the dead back to life. They’re taking mountaintop transfigurations in stride. They may not know exactly what they’re doing; they do know they’re Jesus’ great insiders.

You and I are well-qualified to do some Midrash here—to fill in the gaps left by the gospel of Mark’s restrained writer. The conversation about greatness probably began quietly. For these dudes, it wasn’t about celebrity, fortune, or biceps. No, no, they were far more nuanced than that. They quietly wondered about the current direction of Jesus’ favor. They relished in their professional victories. They may have slipped in comments about their children’s accomplishments. And they dreamed of promotions [though we might note that in a company of thirteen with no middle management, there wasn’t a whole lot of room for upward mobility]. It was all relatively innocent—that is, until Jesus reminds them that their destination isn’t success; it’s death. And death doesn’t tolerate the veneers of put-togetherness and greatness that we so carefully tend.

I usually write funeral sermons in my living room. Seated in my favorite spot on the couch, I begin by spreading my notes around me like a fan. Yellow legal paper, scraps of white paper, and an occasional napkin scrawled with words legible only to me. Each of these treasures represents a fragment of the deceased life—her elementary school kickball prowess, her cookie jar collection, her prayer hanging above the kitchen table, her epic failures at forgiveness, her final words to those she loved most; one of my jobs, as the preacher, is to stitch the pieces together into someone we recognize.

I love the days when I am able to do this—not because I relish in loss or am hungry for grief—but because I am reminded that what shows up time and again in the paper trail of someone’s life isn’t magnificence or wealth or greatness. What shows up in death are the familiar fragments—smiles and tenderness, quirks and wrinkles. It’s on these sermon-writing days, cradled in the cushion’s divot created by years of faithful use, that I see clearly that our lives are made up of many fragments—projects and sentences left unfinished. I see that our lives are less like Michelangelo’s David and more like a mosaic in a Rain Garden. The beauty is found in the fragile pieces that come together imperfectly.

Had there been a sick or dying person around during Jesus’ object lesson, I like to imagine that Jesus would have used her and let the child keep playing. But he and his crew had healed everyone already, so he had no other choice than to take the child, and asked his disciples: “Can you love this little boy? Can you accept his fragility? Embrace the beautiful pieces that make him who he is? Can you hold him, though he won’t advance your place in the world? Good, because the truth is that he’ll slow you down. The life we’re leading isn’t about retirement savings and beauty and esteem and accomplishments and rightness and Facebook likes. This gospel has no time for greatness. Are you still with me?”

Of course, it didn’t need to be a child at the center of that circle. It could have been you. It could have been me.

And after the initial embarrassment at being outed by their mentor and the initial disappointment that they weren’t fast-tracking it to success, Jesus’s words must have felt like freedom—the kind of gospel freedom that Nadia Bolz-Weber says “sets ordinary, screwed up people free to be who we are: beloved children of God filled to the brim with inconsistencies.”

It’s one of the marvelous gifts of intimate relationships, of marriage—that is, to trust someone enough to share the fragile pieces of one’s life, and to be entrusted with the fragile pieces of another.

When I first met Anne and Cori, then had just moved into the neighborhood. Their apartment windows overlook the church building. When they looked out the window and saw Holy Trinity, Anne says that she remarked, “We get the hint, God.” They’ve gone from no formal relationship with a faith community to active involvement here in a matter of months. Cori’s been instrumental in the mosaic, she is part of the writer’s group, and she comes in twice a month to send handwritten notes to all of our homebound members. Anne volunteers in the office each week and sings her little alto heart out in the choir. They’re both poets.

I’ve learned a lot about the life of faith from Anne and Cori. Most notably, they are incredibly honest about their fragile pieces, saying that they met on a psychiatric ward, and have accompanied each other through sadness and exhaustion, therapy and hospitalizations these past twenty-three years. They came to Holy Trinity with a level of vulnerability that most of us take years to cultivate. It’s been a gift to be invited into it. And today, it’s a beautiful thing to be able to bear witness to the public promises they make to one another after decades of partnership.

Yes, it must have felt like freedom to the disciples arguing on the way, to hear that God wasn’t interested in their well-tended veneers of greatness. It must have felt like freedom to be forgiven for their vanity. It must have felt like freedom to acknowledge that this life is not grounded in strength and greatness, but, rather, in weakness and grace. It must have felt like freedom to be told that beauty was found in imperfection. It must have felt like freedom for the disciples to hear that God loved them and all their fragile pieces. It must have felt like freedom.

What does it feel like for you?

AMEN.

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The Call to Follow and to Leave Behind, Jay’s sermon from September 13

Mark 8:27-38

27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” 30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. 31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” 34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

When I was in about first or second grade, I remember gathering around the TV one evening to watch the annual broadcast of the movie, The Wizard of Oz. Someone in my family—I’m not sure who—suggested that we adjust the color and tint settings on the television to make the display a little greener. If you remember the movie, it begins in black and white, but then when Dorothy and Toto are whisked away by a tornado to the Land of Oz, everything changes to Technicolor, and we see the vibrant greens of Oz and especially the Emerald City. For my family, after monkeying with the TV, the greens were even more vibrant.

It wasn’t until just last a couple of weeks ago that I learned that what we had done was actually in keeping with the original story of Wizard of Oz. In that book, which is quite different than the movie, the Emerald City is in fact not any greener than any other city. Rather, in that story, when the Wizard first arrived in Oz from Omaha by way of hot air balloon, the first thing he did in Oz after ascending to power was to require all of the Emerald City’s residents to put on green tinted eye glasses. They were made to wear them all the time, so they eventually came to believe that the city was actually green. Even Dorothy and her friends were made to wear the glasses, so they assumed the pavement was made of blocks of green marble, joined together by rows of shining emeralds. They believed the streets were lined with houses of green marble, which had window panes of green glass. The Wizard changed how they saw that city. In effect, he turned the knob of their color setting.

While there are no wizards or green glasses in our Gospel reading today, I think there was a similar principle at play in that time and place. In Mark 8, Jesus and his disciples are in the region of Caesarea Philippi. Caesarea, you might guess, comes from the word Caesar, the name of the Roman emperor. Philip was the son of the evil tyrant, Herod, whom the Romans had placed in charge of the area. It is significant, I think, that they were in a place especially devoted to the Roman Empire, where imperial artwork and statues were everywhere around them, and the phrase “Son of God” might very commonly have been heard in describing Caesar, without anyone thinking twice about it. We could say that the Empire had a certain way of adjusting the tint for the people under its control. Their monuments and processions and demonstrations sought to convince the people that there was only one power that mattered and that the pathway to peace and prosperity could only come through military dominance and brutal violence. There was no arguing with Rome. In many ways, the Empire defined life for people—what power was, what good was, what the purpose of living was all about.

So it’s fitting that Jesus chose this region of Caesarea Philippi in which to invite his followers to remove the tinted spectacles of Empire. The disciples were starting to hear interpretations of Jesus from other people, suggesting things about who he was, relative to the powers that be. Peter rightly called him Messiah, but though he got the title right he was wrong in assuming it to mean something similar to the Roman way of dominance, that Jesus would successfully conquer the ruling forces. Instead, Jesus explained, they were on a path of service, vulnerability, and self-giving love. So Jesus said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan,” which, though quite harsh sounding, is another way of saying, “You’ve got blinders on, and you’re trying to cloud my own vision, too.” Perhaps Peter was filled with too much ambition. Perhaps he was blinded by the success Jesus had experienced so far. But in order to follow Jesus on his particular mission for the world, he and the rest of the disciples would need to let go of worldly concerns for self-promotion and competition. Jesus was inviting them into a very different journey of love and service. It was a difficult one, but it was a path toward a truer, more authentic understanding of themselves, the world, and God.

The American Trappist Monk Thomas Merton wrote about his own spiritual life as a tension between competing “false selves.” We all have those selves, ideas about who we want to be or ought to be, the conditions we assume would make us happy and more complete. Maybe you’ve been tempted to think that your bank account reflected your identity, or your grades in school, or your family, or the things you have accomplished, or the ways in which you have failed. Maybe you’ve come to wrongly believe at times either that you are more important than others or that you are unworthy of others’ love. All of these things result from false selves and are distractions from the authentic self that God wants us to be, that we are created to be. Our true selves, Merton said, is the way we look through God’s eyes, free of worldly assumptions and personal illusions. Our true selves are found in God. Merton wrote:

Trees and animals have no problem. God makes them what they are without consulting them, and they are perfectly satisfied. With us it is different. God leaves us free to be whatever we like. We can be ourselves or not, as we please. We are at liberty to be real, or to be unreal. We may be true or false, the choice is ours. We may wear now one mask and now another, and never, if we so desire, appear with our own true face. But we cannot make these choices with impunity. Causes have effects, and if we lie to ourselves and to others, then we cannot expect to find truth and reality whenever we happen to want them.

Jesus invites his disciples on a path to finding their true selves.

It is often the case the communities need to rediscover their true selves as well. I think our own city is doing that in certain ways. While we have generally assumed ourselves to be progressive and “Minnesota nice,” some Minneapolitans have called this city’s attention to the institutional racism that exists and has existed for a long time. I believe our tinted glasses are slowly coming off in this and other cities. It can be a difficult process, but I hope that we are discovering more the kind of community we are meant to be

This congregation is on a journey of self-discovery, too, as every congregation is. For us, we are learning more what it means to build community where all are truly welcome into this congregation’s life and ministry, where we can be vulnerable with one another by admitting that sometimes life is really hard, where we can share our lives in relationship, and share our authentic experiences of faith with each other. We are growing in ministry for children and youth and learning to be ministered to by them as well. We continue to seek justice in our neighborhood and world, but we are opening ourselves even more to listening deeply to our neighbors so that we can build community together. Again, turning our focus from ourselves to others is a path toward authentic and abundant life.

Finding our true selves in this way—as individuals or as communities—can be difficult. It requires change and often traveling against the flow of the culture. While it may not involve literally picking up of a cross, it is a call to suffering. There is a cost. Now, in this country we do not suffer religious persecution as some Christians in other places of the world do, though it seems we’ve been hearing this claim a lot lately. We are in fact afforded privileges daily because of our identification with the Christian religion. But still there are times that following Jesus might cause us to feel that we are stepping out alone into unfamiliar territory, where we are asked to trust even when it feels that everything we have known is getting left behind. We are called to remove the tinted spectacles while everyone around us might seem to be going about life as if their vision is the correct way of seeing. We are not called to suffer for suffering’s sake. It’s just that the transition into living our real, authentic lives can be uncomfortable. That’s understating it. It can feel like death, leaving an old self behind. But on this journey, Christ is present with resurrection love.

And it is a journey. The early Christians were called People of the Way. It wasn’t that they had everything figured out, but they were doing their best to follow and to learn more as they went. That’s why we need a community of followers to help us. At the beginning of our worship, when we say, “Wherever you are on your journey of faith, you are welcome here,” we mean it. Because we are all on our journey of following Christ better and of letting go of false assumptions about ourselves, the world, and God. Clarity about this doesn’t snap into focus all at once. The culturally shaped lenses don’t fall immediately from our eyes. It takes practice. False selves take time to get developed, after all, so letting go of them does, too. But we return again and again here in our worship to the place where our journeys begin: the strong promise of God spoken to each one of us clearly and without qualification: “You are my beloved child. What matters to me is not your successes and failures. What matters to me is that I love you and you are mine.”

What could we possibly allow to get in the way of following such love?

The one where the Syrophoenician woman finds a home.

Pastor Ingrid C. A. Rasmussen’s sermon from September 6, 2015

Listen along here.

The gospel according to Mark, the seventh chapter:

24 From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone. 31 Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32 They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33 He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34 Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35 And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36 Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37 They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

Word of God. Word of life. Thanks be to God.

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I propose that we stay close to the Syrophoenician woman today.

Syrophoenician: It’s a designation that occurs only here in the seventh chapter of Mark. It suggests that the woman is half-Phoenician—that is, Lebanese—and half Syrian. She is an outsider, a Gentile. The gospel writer simply calls her Syrophoenician; that’s what first century men did. But, today, let’s dignify her with a name. Let’s call her Sarah.

I’ve been uncomfortable with this story all of my bible-reading life: An over-worked messiah named Jesus enters the room. Sarah approaches him and drops to her knees. She begs. Some really harsh words are exchanged. Eventually, healing comes, but we get the sense that it comes at great cost.

Sarah’s story is shocking. It appears without warning or context; one minute, it seems, Jesus is generously feeding the five thousand, the next minute he’s being super stingy with Sarah at his feet. And then, just as quickly as the story began, the writer of Mark’s gospel moves on to the next miracle, without offering any explanation of what becomes of Sarah and her healed baby girl.

In modern-day publishing, we might say that Sarah’s story verges on voyeurism—you know, the printing of sensational images for profit. Mark’s story makes me uncomfortable in much the same way that the magazines lining the grocery store check-out lane do. I find myself not wanting to look. Like the gospel writer, I, too, want to hurry along to the next story. I want to get my milk and eggs and get out of Tyre, so to speak.

I admit to having similar experiences this week as stories and images came flooding out of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. In the last four years of armed conflict in Syria, more than 200,000 people have died in what began as anti-government protests and later escalated into a full-scale civil war. More than 11 million people have been pushed out of their homes. That’s the largest forced migration since World War II.

The crisis has been largely ignored by American media outlets—that is, until a whole host of images of refugees surfaced this week. You saw them—grandmas crawling under fences, boys supporting their fathers, babies being carried on the long, long journey toward safety.

News organizations were forced to decide which pictures they would publish. One thoughtful journalist, Justin Peters, first took the side that the most devastating pictures should be avoided. He later changed his mind, saying, “There’s a difference between publishing explicit images in order to sell and publishing images to illustrate some broader point. Journalism is the act of uncovering stories that would otherwise remain private and showing them to the world,” he writes. “The best journalism…exposes hidden truths and then convinces people to face them. Syria is an ongoing humanitarian crisis that persists, in part, because the world pays it very little attention. [We], as human beings, ought to know about it.”

I wonder if Mark’s writer asked similar questions as he put pen to paper. Did he wonder if he should write about Sarah’s story or if he should let it find its home in the silent annals of history? Did he, in the end, make the decision to illustrate a broader point, so that his community could face the hidden truth together?

I think Mark is saying something about worth and dignity.

The President of the Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia, David Lose, says that some interpreters have asserted that this woman believed in Jesus, but more importantly believed in her self-worth. He says that “[we] have no idea whether this woman believed herself worthy of God’s attention and Jesus’ time. But [we] do know that she believed her daughter was. That is, she was convinced that her precious, beloved daughter who was being oppressed by this [unwelcome] spirit was absolutely deserving of Jesus’ attention and so she was able to go to great lengths to help her, even to the point of arguing with this famous teacher and healer.”

In this way, Sarah’s not altogether different from other caretakers I know—the ones who react quickly when their children stumble on their way to the communion rail, the ones who keep watch over their child’s hospital bed, the ones who find their way into my office and say they’d do anything to feed their children a decent evening meal…and mean it. Sarah’s confidence lies in the worthiness of her child. We are staying close to the Sarah today because, in her, we see faith exercised on behalf of others. It’s a mama thing.

Or maybe it’s a follower of Jesus thing.

Maybe that’s exactly what we invite little Vincent into today—a belief in the belovedness of all people. Maybe when Pastor Jay dips his hand into that water and touches baby Vincent’s warm head, we’re saying that we are mysteriously being united with him, and that, from this moment on, we will support each other as our hearts are continually broken open in compassion for the sake of the whole world. Maybe when Vincent comes up from the font with wet hair, we see that together we are part of the unending life of Jesus that is poured on creation in abundance and joy. And maybe when Vincent is carried up and down the aisle and peers into our eyes, we are reminded that we are a people who don’t look away from doubt and pain. In fact, we look into it and we may even move toward it, because we know that we’ll find God’s grace, mercy, and healing already at work there—in corners usually reserved for Sarah and people like her. This is the life into which we’re baptized.

Just yesterday, after being turned away at every turn, 7,000 Syrian refugees were allowed to walk across the borders of Germany and Austria. It was reported that “they were met with wholly unexpected hospitality featuring free high-speed trains, seemingly bottomless boxes of supplies, and gauntlets of well-wishers offering trays of candy for everyone and cuddly toys for the tots in mothers’ arms.” Reporters said that “even adults absorbed the scenes of sudden welcome with a look of childlike wonderment as Germans and Austrians made clear that they had reached a land that just might become a home.”

Let’s stick close to Sarah and watch where she goes. I think she’ll lead us toward love. I think she’ll lead us toward home. I think she’ll lead us toward hope in a weary world.

AMEN.

The one about blue laws, the sin wagon, and God’s limitless beauty.

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.

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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.