August 31, 2003   Shirley Macemon
  Unwashed Hands, Holy Hearts
James 1:17-27
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23


Bob and Sally were newlyweds and it was their first Christmas dinner. Sally's family's tradition was to have ham for Christmas dinner, so Bob dutifully resigned himself to a ham dinner (even though HIS family always had turkey). As they prepared the dinner, he watched his wife unwrap the ham roast, and cut both ends off the ham before putting it in the roasting pan. He held back his gasp: his favorite piece of ham was that end piece -- you know how it gets just a little crispy. But they were newlyweds, and for the sake of a peaceful holiday dinner, he just opened the oven door and smiled. Time went by and Year after year, he watched the ceremony -- the ends cut off the ham just before the ham was put in the pan to cook.

One year he screwed up his nerve and asked. "Why do you cut the ends off the ham? You know, those are really good pieces you are cutting off." "That's the way it is ALWAYS done". She said. "My mother has always done it that way, and so has my grandmother. I thought everybody knew that!" So, Bob, gingerly, did some investigating. Sure enough, his mother-in-law cut the ends off of her ham before putting it in the oven.

His grandmother-in-law joined the family for holidays and family occasions. He tentatively asked her the question. "Granny," he asked. "Sally and her mom both cut the ends off ham roasts before they put them in the oven. They've told me they do it that way because that's the way it's always been done -- because that's the way you always did it. Why do you cut the ends off the ham roast before it goes into the oven?" Bob suddenly was afraid he had asked a question that would literally kill Granny. She started sputtering, turning red, tears streaming from her eyes. Then he realized she was laughing.

"Bob, dear, this is too funny for words. I cut the ends off the ham roast because when Sally's mother was a little the only roasting pan I had was too small for a full size roast. I cut it down so it would fit in the pan! I don't know why Sally and her mother cut the ends off their roasts. I gave them both big roasting pans for wedding presents so they wouldn't have to make do the way I did for so many years!"

How often do we remember the ritual, but not the reason?

Jesus and his disciples, of course, ran amuck of the ritual police of first century Jerusalem. Our scripture today references ritual hand washing, and rules of table fellowship that men of the Pharisees were reinstating, to reinvigorate 1st century Judaism. The "ritual police" chastised them, and Jesus answers them, quoting from Isaiah,

"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."

Honors me with their lips, but hearts are far from me. Kind of what we mean when we say "lip service", or what the author of James was getting at as he reminds his readers to "be doers of the Word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves..." because "If any think they are religious and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless."

For the Pharisees, these ritual practices were spiritual practices, proscribed, they believed, by the laws of God. The distinction between clean and unclean may be fundamental to biblical Law. but Jesus is declares such laws are not only invalid, but never valid. They make no sense, he argues. They never did. How can such external things affect spirituality! Especially when the practices became more important than the reasons they were important in the first place. This was not the first time ritual become an end unto itself for a person or group -- and certainly not the last...

This was potentially radical stuff Jesus was about -- one might call it "picking and choosing among the Hebrew scriptures". Certainly, Jesus is critically differentiating within scripture and making assessments based on core concerns. His concern is: "Are their hearts turned toward God?" Jesus did not try to debate which "laws" are God's and which are not, which rules are literal and which are context or culturally driven. He recognized that THESE Pharisees missed the point -- their hearts missed God.

Instead of using their spiritual practices to draw them closer to the heart of God, to draw their hearts closer to God, to soften their hearts to follow that one most important commandment: Love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and your neighbor as yourself -- these Pharisees tried to impose an ideology that made other people conform to their hard-and-fast principles. Their concern somehow got confused, and moved from pleasing God, to their own power and control. Such misuses of religion remain a potentially critically damaging possibilities today -- for individuals and for institutions. Many churches don't need outside influence to cause them to stumble in their charge to bring the Gospel to the world. We simply have to forget that our hearts must turn toward God, and from God-centered hearts, our ministry is valid and true.

Joe's family always attended church, usually a non-denominational, evangelical church. When he was about 10, he was baptized. Shortly after that there was a controversy at that church over something or another, and his family chose to leave and attend a different church, another evangelical one. The pastor at the second church was quite clear that his first baptism was not valid -- so Joe was baptized again. Several years later, another controversy erupted, and the family moved on to yet another evangelical congregation. And again, the pastor was firm in his belief that neither the first, nor the second baptism was a valid, Christian baptism. So, Joe was baptized a third time. Joe was in high school, he went with his mother to a pastoral counseling session. His mother needed support to leave an abusive relationship. The pastor said she should stay with her husband, because Ephesians 5: 22 says:

22 Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. 24 Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.

Joe asked why the pastor didn't start with verse 21, Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ or continue to verse 33: Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself,....

The pastor told Joe he didn't understand, and shouldn't interrupt.

By the time Joe was 15, that same pastor invited Joe to leave the church: He asked too many questions.

Perhaps Joe's is a pretty radical example. It is of a type that still occurs all too often. In trying to keep the LAW churches leave God's can people behind. Last month, a mother of grown children told me that her son and his girl friend had been "chased out of their church". They had been attending the young adult group for several years, they were planning on getting married, they were serious about their faith, and she got pregnant. The leadership of the church couldn't see how they could minister to such a couple, and asked them to leave. Isn't that the time when these young people need their church and their community the most?

Jesus is telling us that "Biblical commands can never take precedence over what is compassionate and caring. We have learned this slowly -- from slavery to the position of women." We need to remember and study how Jesus treated biblical authority -- it is a pretty radical approach. Jesus wasn't ignorant of scripture, nor did he take it for granted, but he emphasized that to God, people matter most, and biblical commands don't change that. When we try to make the words stand by themselves, without God in our hearts, we can easily end up in the same place the Pharisees did -- imposing an ideology, not sharing God's love.

Jesus never wrote a book or a creed. He didn't record his own thoughts in writing. He didn't dictate a set of articles of faith we are to hold and to teach. What we know as the "tenets of our faith" -- the creeds and doctrines -- were put to paper long after his resurrection. His great word was not "This say," but "This do." Not to repeat creeds, or perform empty actions, but to turn toward God and move from a place of love.