A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho on September 2, 2012.
Mark 7:1-8, 14-23
We do so much with our hands. We write down grocery lists and love letters. We dig in the garden and we make apple pies. We caress our loved ones and we can play a piano.
And what we do with our hands says something about what we believe with the rest of our bodies and minds. Because using your hands to help someone repair their house says something about what is in your heart. Using your hands to knit or crochet a blanket to give to a friend in the hospital says something about what is in your heart. Using your hand to reach out to touch another person with a hug or a handshake says something about what is in your heart.
We can also use our hands to tear things down. To hurt people. To commit acts of violence. To wield weapons. Using our hands in violence also says something about what is in our hearts.
And those kinds of determinations are going on in the gospel lesson today. The Hebrew Scriptures have all kinds of limits and rules about what people can do with their hands.
And many of them started out for good reasons.
When you live in a world without refrigeration, for example, you have to be careful about the foods you put in your hands, so you don’t pass on disease.
These are some of the “traditions of the elders” that are referred to in the Gospel lesson today. ‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’
But Jesus doesn’t like their question.
This may be the gospel lesson that children want to remember so they have a quick reply when their parents ask if they have washed their hands before dinner. “But mom, Jesus said, ‘there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile’.” (Kids, here’s a tip. Moms love it when you quote scripture to get out of doing what they ask you to do. Love it.)
Although I do suspect that you would earn points for quoting scripture.
In any case, this story seems a little odd to us. Yes, we know washing hands is the easiest way to control the transmission of disease and I want to be on record for supporting hand washing.
But Jesus isn’t against hand washing either.
He’s upset because the Pharisees and the Scribes are picking and choosing which of the “traditions of the elders” they are going to enforce. Why do they care about the hand washing when they don’t seem to be bothered at all by taking money from poor widows? Why do they care more about washing hands before a big meal than they seem to care about the people who are starving at the gates of the city, with no meal to eat at all? Why do they claim to uphold the traditions of the elders in this one instance and then keep their hearts far from God?
And so he calls them “hypocrites”.
Anytime Jesus calls someone a hypocrite, we want to grab some popcorn and sit down to enjoy the show.
Because we love it when Jesus criticizes our enemies. We love it when he tells “those people” how they have gotten it all wrong, don’t we? It is so rewarding when he agrees with us and tells “them” that they have missed the mark.
Paradoxically, this is why I don’t like this passage. Because it leaves me with that nagging feeling that my schadenfreude, my joy at their misfortune, will be short lived.
Because we are all like the Pharisees and the Scribes at some point. We all have “traditions of the elders” that we want to wield around as self righteous weapons. And we have other traditions and doctrines that we want to ignore. We are quick to point out the instances where the people of whom we aren’t so fond have seemed to miss the mark. And we want to rationalize our own failings away in a vague haze of God’s mercy and love.
And so Jesus calls them hypocrites.
He calls us hypocrites.
And he tries to get us to look at things from another perspective. Instead of worrying so much about particular rules, human doctrines, or dare I say it, passages of scripture, he invites us to consider the effects our actions have on others and on ourselves.
Are our hands being defiled with acts of hatred, violence, and depravity?
Or are our hands cleansed by acts of love and compassion?
The other passage we read today was from the Book of James. And he doesn’t really talk about defiled hands at all. But he does share Jesus’ disdain for our hypocrisy. We are to “be not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.”
Which means we aren’t supposed to just listen to the traditions of the elders, say “isn’t that nice” and then go back to what we were doing before we heard the good news.
We are supposed to live out our faith in our actions.
Which is not the same as saying we are to earn our faith with our actions. We don’t earn our faith because we do good deeds. Instead, our faith is the gift of God, and our lives are the response. Listen to how James describes it:
Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
That language of “first fruits” indicates an offering. As the harvest is collected, a choice portion of the harvest is brought to the temple and offered to the divine. This was a practice among the Hebrew people. But it was prevalent in other middle eastern cultures as well.
In this passage, however, God offers us as first fruits. We are the gift that is shared, signifying abundance and provision.
So James’ instructions to us are less about earning our way into any good graces with God. Instead they are more about calling us to live in ways that reflect God’s love for the world. Because God has already offered us as gifts to the world God created and loves.
How might that change things for you? I’m guessing that most of us haven’t considered being the first fruits, being the offering, before.
I suspect many of us try to do the right things because we know we “should” or because we harbor some deep seated fear that “God will only like us when….”
And when our actions are based from that place of scarcity and fear, they are exhausting, and they don’t bring us life.
But what if we approached the way we serve God as James suggests? What if we first saw our lives as gifts and then became “doers” of the word in response to that? What if we saw ourselves as God’s offering to a world that needs to know of God’s love?
I invite you to consider how you might want to live as God’s first fruits, as God’s offering to the world.
Maybe joining a House Church next week is a way to live that out in community. Or perhaps you want to volunteer at Grace Jordan. Or attend Sunday School.
I don’t know what it is for you. But what you do with your hands can show the world things about your own heart, and more importantly, about the very heart of God.