August 30, 2015
Song of Solomon 2:8-13
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.
The Scribes and the Pharisees, the keepers of the religious traditions, have come to Jesus and asked why his followers are not washing their hands before they eat, and not washing stuff they got from the marketplace? This seems like a strange question. In our house, we are trying to get little hands washed every time we can. And as we look forward to allergies and cold and flu season, hand washing is a lovely and important thing. But this seems strange because we are looking through 21st century glasses.
The problem in Mark is not a question of hygiene. They did not wash hands because they had a well developed theory of germs and illness, although there may have been a very real understanding that people who wash their hands do not get as sick as others do. But many of the practices of the Jewish people were designed to mark who was Jewish as opposed to the rest of the world. The people of God ate differently than the rest of the world. They bathed differently than the rest of the world. They worked differently, taking a Sabbath day. They prayed and offered and read and dressed differently.
The problem the Pharisees and Scribes have is about religious practice. They see that the disciples of Jesus eat with unwashed hands, meaning that they are “defiled.” The word defiled means that we are talking religion and not hygiene. It means common, profane, secular, unclean in the sense of the rituals of Judaism. It is not about the dirt. It is about the religious ractice and observance.
So what is the problem? In the words of Jesus, the Pharisees and Scribes have set a tradition up to be doctrine. They have made this practice a part of whether or not someone can participate in the religious life of the community.
The early church did this: one of the first documents about how to be church said that prostitutes should find other work or be kicked out of the church. Sadly, the church does this. Modern examples include: if you do not give 10%, if you do not vote a particular way, if you do not dress appropriately, if you have visible tattoos, if you do not know how to sit quietly for the one hour we give to God, if you do not fall in love with the right gender, then you really have no place among the congregation.
And Jesus says, no, these are stumbling blocks that people have set up, not the requirements of God.
Isaiah looks at the practice of piling on requirements and traditions and rebukes it, a rebuke that Jesus quotes in this morning’s lesson:
This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.
The problem is not that traditions are inherently bad or good. There is much to be learned from the study of history and tradition. As my junior high science teacher used to say, “Education is the shortcut to someone else’s experience.”
The problem is not whether or not to wash hands, to wash stuff from the market, or to do the dishes. These are good things. The problem is what are the requirements to be a part of the community of faith? What requirements does God place on us to be able to pray and sing and worship and serve God?
The prophet Micah looks at the desire to buy God’s grace by doing and being and giving just right, and says,
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
Or to use the words of Frederick Buechner:
“Believing in [Jesus] is not the same as believing things about him such as that he was born of a virgin and raised Lazarus from the dead. Instead, it is a matter of giving our hearts to him, of come hell or high water putting our money on him, the way a child believes in a mother or a father, the way a mother or a father believes in a child.”
And it is then the things that we do – the things that affect our family, our neighbor, our friend, our enemy – the things that come from our hearts that make the difference.
What if, for just a moment, for just this time together in worship, we set aside our worry over every jot and tittle of the law, we hushed that voice that sounds like a gavel falling in judgment on ourselves and on those around us, and letting go of our need to compare and rationalize and take a photo finish to see who is winning?
And setting aside that worry, hushing that voice, letting go of that need, which really is not a need, but a deep longing based on a deep anxiety, even for these moments, what if we listened for the love song of Jesus.
The voice of my beloved!
Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills.
My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag.
Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows,
looking through the lattice.
My beloved speaks and says to me:
“Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away;
for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers
appear on the earth;
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.
The fig tree puts forth its figs,
and the vines are in blossom;
they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.”
For what does Jesus require of us to be a part of the people of faith? It is love. In all its messy, difficult, haven’t gotten it right yet, ain’t nobody perfect, glory. What does Jesus command of us?
Thanks be to God.