August 29, 2021: Sermon Preached by The Rev. Carolyn H. Eklund

Year B;FB.Proper 17; 8.29.2021

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

In some bibles this passage in Mark’s gospel is called “The Hand-washing Controversy.”  Yesterday, when I checked the number of cases of COVID in Maine, they had doubled in one day due to the Delta variant surge. You and I know that hand washing has taken on great importance as one of three practices that can stop the spread of the virus: hand-washing, mask-wearing and vaccination. For these 18 months or so I can still hear myself singing the doxology when I wash my hands. “Praise God from whom all blessings flow…” I sing it twice for the recommended 20 seconds of hand-washing!

Hand-washing is a best practice for sanitation and for controlling the spread of disease.  It is not considered something that causes controversy!

If the scribes and Pharisees in today’s story had been health workers and argued for hand-washing, that would have been one thing. They would have been correct in doing so. Instead, they wanted to start an argument with Jesus about ritual purity and their tradition. They had an agenda as they tried to make Jesus and his disciples examples of how NOT to conform to their traditions. They very publicly pointed out that his disciples were ritually wrong by eating with “defiled” hands.

But Jesus was on to them. He knew that the traditions they kept were so rigid that these “ritual” practices had lost their meaning.  Indeed, what Jesus objected to was that these religious officials were lording these practices over his innocent followers. His point was that the scribes and Pharisees themselves were the ones who were living far from God’s way, not his disciples.

You can just hear their attitude of rigid piety when they say to Jesus, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?“

Jesus doesn’t skip a beat and quotes the prophet Isaiah, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites!” He says, probably making a sweep of his arm toward the accusing religious officials, “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.” Jesus draws attention to the only thing God wants – the hearts of God’s people.

But the scribes and Pharisees had hardened hearts. Jesus spoke to them about the condition of their hardened hearts. “Learned men, you are wrongly implying hand-washing as law when it is simply hand-washing. Examine your hearts and do what God wants, not what your traditions want.”

By chapter 12 in Marks Gospel, Jesus is teaching the Great Commandment. When a scribe asks him, “’Which commandment is first of all?’”  He answers with the Great Commandment, of course! “’Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

My friends, there is NO OTHER commandment greater than these.

So, no, scribes and Pharisees, ritual hand-washing doesn’t come close to God’s commandment. Stop making ritual hand-washing a bigger deal than love of God and neighbor!

I think Episcopalians, if we aren’t careful, risk entrenchment in our “precious” traditions. I remember a priest at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine one Sunday when I was visiting as a seminarian began to scream at an acolyte because he started lighting the candles from the “lectern side” of the altar instead of the Gospel side. To this day, I don’t know which side goes first. And I KNOW God doesn’t care!

Christ urges us to look inward to “…our own defiled hearts rather than on our neighbors’ dirty hands.” His point, then as now, is to examine those traditions, those rigid conformities each one of us has that are hiding something of ourselves from God and from our neighbor. What is keeping us from deciding “…to make a choice for God’s commandment?”

I have a memory from childhood of my mother and the neighborhood mothers who volunteered as Bluebird leaders. Bluebirds were the little girls who were in training to be Camp Fire Girls. Camp Fire Girls were similar to Girl Scouts. The mothers rotated Bluebird meetings at each home organizing the craft and making the refreshments.

One year a new family, the Hollis’s were introduced to our school. The Hollis family had two school-aged children. Laura was my sister Marilyn’s age and her brother was just a year older. It was clear to our mothers that their mother was different. We all could see that the children came to school with smears of food on their faces and dirt in their fingernails. I remember hearing parents talk about this out loud.

Mrs. Hollis was eager to participate in baking and doing her part as a neighborhood mother.  She told my mother that she wasn’t able to volunteer as a Bluebird leader, but she could bake cookies for the meeting. One day she volunteered to send cookies with her daughter to the Bluebird meeting at our house. I remember that my mother worried out loud about those cookies because of Mrs. Hollis’ unclean look and the dirty fingernails of her daughter. My mother was so concerned that she made a batch of her own cookies to serve. I remember Mom tossing Mrs. Hollis’ cookies in the trash and saying that she’d hoped Laura didn’t notice.

The moms, of course were concerned that their children be given clean food.  Safety for their children was their priority. But the ostrasization that followed, the unspoken judgment of the parents on this very poor, and possibly traumatized family created a separation that hardened our hearts. I think this is why reaching out to all neighbors right around here means so much to me, and I’m so glad our parish practices neighborly love.

I think back on Mrs. Hollis and her smudged children, all essentially outcasts by their appearance and the strict social constructs of a middle-class neighborhood. What if the Bluebird mothers had united to consider what God willed in that situation? Would there have been a miracle of smiles and love and heartfelt connection with neighbor? What might neighbor love have looked like?

Jesus invites us every day to take stock of those things that interfere with God’s commandment.  And so, yes, my friends, most definitely practice strict hand-washing for the sake of reducing the spread of infection! Surely that is a practice that considers neighbor love. Jesus invites us every day to re-set our hearts to follow God’s great commandment of neighbor love in our neighborhood and beyond.