Rev. Ed Searcy
Mark 7:1-23, James 1:17-27
University Hill United Church : Sun, September 3, 2006
Some of Jesus’ disciples don’t wash their hands before supper. And he is not outraged. In fact, he hardly seems to mind that they eat with dirty hands. But the public health authorities notice. That’s who the Pharisees and scribes are. They are responsible for keeping people clean, pure, undefiled. They have long held traditions of washing - washing hands, washing foods, washing cups and pots and kettles. These traditions keep people from getting sick. They are good traditions. They also mean to remind the people to keep their lives clean before God. Seeing a rabbi who is unconcerned about dirty hands at the dinner table is a shock. The cleanliness and purity authorities are scandalized and want to know why. Jesus turns the tables. He doesn’t speak about his grubby disciples. He notices that the traditions of washing have become more important than the commandments. He notices that there is nothing about washing hands or foods or cups in the ten commandments themselves. It seems that washing has become the eleventh commandment (perhaps along with brush and floss every day). Jesus doesn’t say that the traditions are a bad thing, or a wrong thing. He doesn’t even suggest that it is good to come to the dinner table with filthy hands. He does notice that the point of washing is not to become pure before God. The point of washing is to remind the community every day and at every meal of the acts that muddy us before God. Cleanliness is an issue for Jesus. Being dirty is a problem. But the problem is not something you can resolve with soap and water. The problem is much deeper than that. Jesus notices that no matter how organic the food we take in, we are not saved from defiling ourselves. Defiled. Its not a word we use very often. But it is an issue we regularly concern ourselves with in our relationships. We understand what it is to be defiled when confessing the truth in tears, naming our guilt for having broken promises, for having hurt, for having sullied our name. Jesus lists the things that are filthy. It is quite a list.: immorality, robbery, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, indecency, jealousy, slander, pride and folly. Twelve items. One for each disciple! I wonder how long it takes the crowd that is gathered around Jesus to realize that he is inclusive. He excludes none of them. All of them are included in the circle of the defiled. They were hoping that they just needed to show up on Sunday morning in their clean pressed shirts and slacks, with hands washed and hair combed to be included among those who are clean. When he begins the list of things that mess us up before God many count themselves as fortunate. But as the list moves on past theivery and murder it draws the circle ever wider. Greed. Deceit. Jealousy. Pride. Folly. Folly? Foolish decisions and actions. Let’s see, is there anyone here who has been foolish? Its as if Jesus gets to the end of the list and wants to make sure that not one person in the huge crowd is now imagining that they have been excluded. He intends everyone - whether their hands are clean or not - to know that they are among the defiled, the dirty, the unclean before God. This is a problem. It is a real problem. It is the problem that drives so many plots, so many movies, so many books and plays and newscasts. It is a problem for nations and corporations whose intentions are regularly less than pure. It is a problem in every neighbourhood and in every office and in every congregation. And in case you hadn’t noticed, it is a problem in every household. Intentions that are not pure and clean cause hurt, devastation, grief. Jesus knows it is a real problem. He also knows that it is everyone’s problem. That is why he has gathered us here at this table, spread with the manna of heaven and the wine of God’s kingdom. He has called in a crowd of disciples whose hands and hearts and histories are unclean. He is inclusive of all. No one at his table can claim purity. It’s shocking. It’s outrageous. It’s the truth. I would like to say that the story ends here, at the table where sins are forgiven. This is the table where disciples are fed in spite of their dirty hands and hearts. Actually, this is the table where disciples are fed because of their dirty hands and hearts. It is the ‘Welcome Table’ where all who know what it is to be defiled, to be a mess, to live with shame and guilt - deserved and undeserved - cannot and will not be turned away. I would like to say that the story happily ends here. But the story does not end here. Becoming clean is not quite so simple as stepping forward with open hands and mouths to receive the potent gift of Jesus’ own energy and purity. The story of salvation begins here. It begins with the willingness to be included in the company of the defiled - to be known as “one of them”. This beginning, says James, is like the moment of our rebirth. He calls it “birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.” James notices that the organic growth of a clean new life begins when a people “welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.” This implanted word, like a seed, takes root deep in the human soul, deep in the soul of the church and of the world. In the beginning God speaks and creates order and beauty out of a dark, stormy mess. Now, in this new beginning, God speaks and creates order out of dark, stormy lives and homes and nations. The signs of this new creation, says brother James, are “generous act(s) of giving” and a people who are “quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger”. God’s new creation is not an invisible activity. God’s perfect gift is revealed in a people who do the word, who embody the word, who cannot forget the word. They adopt orphans. They accompany widows in grief and poverty. And they keep “unstained by the world”. We so want to be included in this circle. We long to be some small sign of God’s new activity, God’s new hope in a world to long despairing of anything new. Yet we know too well that we dare not claim that our faith, our denomination, our congregation, our personal discipleship is without stain. We know that such claims are folly. We notice that such a prideful boast locates us at the table with all who are unclean. Which is the reason that the story does not end here, today. Today we name our need of forgiveness, our longing to be washed clean. Today we open our heart to receive the implanted word of truth that has the power to save our souls. Today we turn towards that day when Jesus’ banquet table will mark the end of human history, when all will be made clean and will be called “the undefiled”.