Gospel: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around [Jesus], they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 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.) 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?” 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;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
My younger sister and her husband spent a combined 7 years in Afghanistan, he is former military turned consultant, and she worked for USAID in community development projects in and around Kabul. For the last several weeks, she has been working well into the night to write letters of recommendations for her former coworkers and Afghan colleagues, and helping others navigate the process of getting out of Afghanistan, through the proper visa channels and with all the correct documentation. We spent last week at the beach together as a family and I watched her pull out her laptop each night and get back to work. She’d stop around 11 or 12, feeling hopeless and helpless, and start to tell me stories about the men that she worked with, the men that aided the mission, kept her safe, translated for her, and worked by her side.
Like the one man, who was the only Afghan she worked with who requested time off when his wife was in labor with their child. And now he casually writes an email to Mary noting he fears for his life, and what advice might she have about when to travel to the airport with his children. She has dozens of situations like this, literal families in danger turning to her for advice, recommendations, and support in a situation where they are now faced with no good choices and powerless to change their situation. They are for all purposes orphans and widows, now made powerless, vulnerable, and at risk.
When James says that religion at its purest is about caring for widows and orphans, he means the most vulnerable people around us. The ones who cannot advocate for themselves, the ones with limited resources and limited recourse. No matter how you want to define religion – living a godly life, or doing God’s will, or obeying God’s laws, or trusting God – the base of that must mean acting with compassion for our neighbors in need, whether at home or abroad.
But, if you remember, Martin Luther felt that the importance of good deeds was over- emphasized in the book of James He thought it strayed a little too much into works righteousness mindset, leading people to believe that they are better Christians because of what they do, or that they are more beloved of God, or somehow their good deeds could save them because they weren’t sure about how the saved by grace through faith thing could work. But when James writes that faith without works is dead, he acknowledges that it starts with faith. Faith produces actions.
Matt Skinner, Luther Seminary professor, writes about how our actions affect one another physically and emotionally. “Separate from the hazards of human biology, you’ve observed public health in terms of human behavior. Just as no one exists alone, no one’s actions are totally free from public consequences. You know how transgression and redemption work. You’ve seen the wake of devastation a single sinner can create within a family or a community; likewise you know a culture of healing can arise from even one courageous instance of
We are made for each other and made to live in community – we’ve seen firsthand the ways in which our actions could have detrimental and dangerous effects on the health of the community. We know this to be true, whether it’s a global pandemic or a crisis within a family, damage spreads unintentionally. We have the capacity as humans for great good in our world and catastrophic evil.
And yet Jesus’ words ring in our ears. Sin and evil come from within, it is paradoxically both contagious to us, and from us. We cannot ever preach to the broken and sinful and express any judgement on their actions without first acknowledging that we are also broken and sinful.
The world tells us it’s everyone for themselves, look out for number one, and get ahead by any means you can. Protect yourself and your family and that’s it. If that attitude is spread, caught like a virus, soon you have a system, a body, of parts that despise each other, compete with each other, and pay no attention to each other. Pain and suffering spread. Instead of treating the wounds you just try to focus on the parts that don’t hurt.
At the very beginning of our liturgy we acknowledge that we are a broken and hurting people and that we hurt each other and break stuff too. It’s hard to admit when we are wrong, when we’ve done something to hurt someone, and even harder to face the fact that we live and contribute to a world with unjust systems of oppression that bring pain to people we will never know.
This morning we confessed, “It is hard to believe there is enough to share. We question your ways when they differ from the ways. of the world in which we live. We turn to our own understanding. rather than trusting in you.” Some mornings we use other words…. . We have sinned
against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
Any action on our part to care for the most vulnerable must begin with an acknowledgement on our part that we are complicit in a society which allows the very things that make people vulnerable. We live in this fallen world and we benefit from it. When James says to keep oneself unstained by the world – how does that world? Even when we try to live in the world but not off the world, the world rubs off on us.
James’ most paradoxical words strike me today as a call to remember our baptism. To keep oneself unstained by the world is a tall order. It sounds like he is calling for impossible
perfection. We are not able to perfectly keep the law, and then we turn God’s good law into a check list of who’s in and who’s out. But in baptism, when we are claimed as God’s child, and washed clean – we die with Christ and are raised to live a new life. Yes we are baptized once, but it’s far from over.
Daily we can remember our baptism, remember our identity, remember our call, remember our purpose, and start afresh. We don’t keep ourselves unstained by the world by never getting our hands dirty. We keep ourselves unstained by the world, by regularly remembering who and whose we are. We don’t let the stain set when we’ve been caught up in actions that are selfish or unhelpful or harmful to our neighbor. To continue the laundry metaphor – we treat the stain with the office of the keys, with the gifts God has given us in repentance. We do the hard work of confession, the harder work of forgiveness, and then by the power of God, we continue on with our mission of giving voice to the voiceless, bread to the hungry, and advocating for the most vulnerable.