Proper 17B, August 30, 2015

September 1, 2015

When Cleanliness Becomes Godlessness
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

7:1 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.”

This morning’s passage presents a situation in which I’m almost inclined to side with the Pharisees. It’s always a good idea to wash your hands before you eat! But what we have here isn’t a debate about the value of proper hygiene. What we have here is a disagreement about proper religious protocol – about what it is that offends or pleases God.

I’ve recently preached from the 6th Chapter of John, which is an exhaustive examination of Jesus as the bread of life. You might say John portrays Jesus as something good to ingest, and today we’re presented with another teaching that involves eating, but it’s a converse message. Mark reveals the way in which Jesus exposed what it is that really makes us sick.

Jesus was confronted by the leaders of the Jewish community because his disciples weren’t going by the rules that they revered. The Pharisees defined faithfulness to God as adherence to certain religious rules and practices, and you were only considered to be ritually clean if you observed all of the religious ordinances. Being ritually clean was a big thing within that community, because people who were considered to be unclean or defiled weren’t allowed to go into the Temple or the village synagogues.

And being kept out of these institutions was a much bigger thing than being told you can’t step into the sanctuary. Being told to stay home from church would probably feel like a reward to some people, but being kept out of the Temple or the synagogue was a large problem for members of the Jewish community. It was to be told they were banned from the center of their community.

I think the equivalent experience for us would be to be banned from Wal-Mart. I’m not saying you should be showing up at Wal-Mart on a regular basis, but my guess is that most of us do. It’s sort of become the place you go to get what you need, and that’s the role the Temple played in Jerusalem and the synagogues played in Jewish villages. We don’t actually have an equivalent place because we don’t live in a community that is as homogenous as these Jewish villages were, but I think we can all imagine what it would feel like to be banned from an essential place, and such banning was a real possibility for people who were living in the days of Jesus.

Being officially defiled was an undesirable state to be in, but it wasn’t a permanent condition. At least it didn’t have to be. There were rituals for unclean people to follow in order to be readmitted into the community, and that was probably what the Pharisees thought Jesus’ disciples needed to undergo, but Jesus challenged the system. He explained that it was the thinking of the Pharisees that needed to undergo some transformation.

This was a dangerous thing to do. It was dangerous because the Pharisees saw themselves as the protectors of righteousness. They didn’t think their belief system needed to be corrected — they just thought it needed to be properly observed.

And of course we all know that people in powerful positions don’t like to have their faults exposed. Actually I don’t guess any of us like to have our faults exposed, but people in powerful positions often have the means to keep their bad ideas in place.

This controversy over hand-washing reminds me of the story of Ignaz Semmelweiss, who revealed the value of hand-washing to the physicians at General Hospital in Vienna, Austria in 1846. It’s an interesting and a tragic story. There were two maternity wards in this hospital. One was staffed by doctors and medical students, and the other one was staffed by midwives. And the staggering fact was that the death-rate for the mothers was five times higher in the doctors ward than it was in the midwives ward. Dr. Semmelweiss was troubled by this discrepancy, and he embarked upon an investigation to discover the cause.

He had a number of incorrect theories, but he finally determined that one of the factors that was different on the doctor’s side was that many of the doctors were engaged in research on cadavers in the basement of the hospital and they would often go from their laboratories to the delivery rooms without proper washing. This was prior to our understanding of microbiology, but he developed a new protocol for hand-washing prior to entering the delivery room, and this changed everything.

Unfortunately there were doctors on the staff who refused to believe that they were responsible for the high death rate, and instead of accepting his theory as the truth they fired him. Dr. Semmelweiss was a better scientist than he was a politician, and instead of lobbying effectively for change he totally alienated himself from the medical community, and they actually had him committed to an insane asylum, and that is where he died from an untreated infection in a wound that was inflicted upon him upon arrival.

It wasn’t long after that that the truth of his finding was pretty much universally accepted, but it happened slower than it should have because of the arrogance of the established leaders of that community.

Systems don’t like to get challenged. Some systems are worse than others, but no system reacts well to change. You might say the nature of a system is to maintain the way it works, and any kind of change is perceived as threat. I think we probably all appreciate the resistance we have to change, and I think it’s probably good for all of us to remember the first message Jesus ever delivered – the first thing he called for people to do after he had been baptized by John the Baptist was to repent and believe in the good news! And to repent is to change your mind.

I certainly don’t like to think that Jesus discouraged hand-washing, nor do I think Jesus was uniformly disrespectful of his elders, but Jesus clearly challenged the conventional wisdom of his day about what was pleasing to God and what it took to become defiled.

I guess one of the things I like about being a United Methodist is that we aren’t too quick to define who is in and who is out of God’s favor, although I’m sure we all harbor our own ideas about that. Some would say that’s the problem with the United Methodist Church – that we don’t define what it takes to be saved as clearly as we aught, but I’m inclined to think that it’s never good to define that which is essentially mysterious in too narrow of a manner. It’s easy to become overly attached to what we believe and to become less attached to the One in whom we believe.

There was a time in my life when I was much clearer about what God expected of me and everyone else. There was a period of time in my life when I thought I knew all the rules, and I pretty much followed them. I wasn’t a very happy person, but I was pretty clear about what it meant to be Christian. That was before I began to read what Jesus actually said and did. And that was before I actually came to know some people who I previously considered to be out of bounds.

Some people within the broad community of Christianity are real clear about what God expects. For some people there is no doubt about what’s acceptable and what’s not, and who’s going to heaven and who’s not. Some would say this clearly indicates where I’ll be going when I die, and that it doesn’t bode well for my eternal soul, but that’s just not how I see it.

I do believe there is a high level of expectation for those of us who aspire to follow Jesus, and the expectation is for us to be guided by the rule of love. I don’t think there’s anything harder to do than to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Jesus said it’s a narrow path that leads to eternal life, and I believe that, but it isn’t a well-marked path. It’s a path we have to discover through a life of diligent prayer, of intentional study, and through acts of self-giving love for other people.

Jesus challenged the well-established religious beliefs and protocols of his day, and I have no doubt he does the same for us. It’s not that we shouldn’t have firm convictions about things, but we should never allow our convictions to override our love for the truth, and I believe it’s our relationship with the living Christ that will continue to lead us in to the truth.

I mentioned in my first sermon here that I took a long bicycle trip in May of 2014. I went from Little Rock to the coast of South Carolina, and I basically followed a route that was determined by Google maps. I’m going to do a slide show of my trip after church one Sunday in October, which I’m pretty excited to do because it was a such a good experience for me. I’ll tell you all about it then, but the route I followed was largely defined by the bicycle route option on Google maps. It steered me wrong a few times by suggesting I follow roads that weren’t paved, but for the most part it put me on non-interstate highways and bicycle friendly roads.

One really interesting routing experience I had was when I was in a rural area of northern Alabama. It was sort of a rainy morning and I had my phone tucked away in my handlebar bag, and I was listening to navigation instructions on my earphones. The google-map-woman’s voice came on and told me to take a right which steered me in to the gravel parking lot of this sports complex outside of a small town and then it told me to head east 300 feet. I thought the Google-map-woman had lost her mind because it directed me to go toward a tree lined ditch, but I went over there, and I saw there was a small bridge going over that ditch. That still seemed crazy, but I went over it and what I discovered on the other side of the ditch was a paved bicycle trail that went all the way in to Atlanta. It was an old railroad bed that they had turned in to a bicycle trail and it was the best bicycling environment you could ask for.

This wasn’t a particularly Christian experience, but I think it illustrates what it looks like to follow Christ. When we follow Christ I believe we are lead to step in to places that are outside of the boundaries that we normally construct for what life is supposed to look like and where faith is supposed to take us. I don’t think it’s unusual for us to find ourselves in places that seem far from where we think we should be – only to discover that there’s a small bridge that leads us to a place that opens up a whole new way of living.

It’s not always so clear and so gratifying, but I don’t think it’s unusual for genuine faith in Christ to take us to places that challenge our beliefs and expand our understanding of what it means to be a faithful disciple. It’s a narrow path, and it’s hard to stay on the path, but it’s the path that leads to true life. It’s not a predictable and well-defined journey. It’s a challenging journey and joyful journey. This journey is not guided by rules – it’s guided by the Holy Spirit, and thanks be to God for that!
Amen.

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