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A Love Greater Than Our Hearts

Rev. Kate Layzer
Sun, Sep 02

Text: Mark 7:1–8, 14–15, 21–23

We began applying hand sanitizer even before we pushed the UP button on the elevator to take us to the third floor of Marin General Hospital.

When we got to the door of my father’s room, there were blue plastic gowns to put on, then another squirt of hand sanitizer, then hospital gloves. Every doctor, nurse, and orderly who entered that room followed the same protocol—donning blue gown and gloves as they entered, discarding them in the trash before stepping back out onto the floor. It made for a staggering amount of plastic waste.

My dad had salmonella. We have no idea where he got it. It’s just around, I guess: invisible contaminants lurking in that innocent-looking lettuce leaf, in that seemingly innocuous piece of chicken. Germs are everywhere. They can happen to anyone. So yes, it really IS a good idea to wash your hands before you eat. And employees really SHOULD wash their hands before returning to work. And on Communion Sundays, if I’m the one who will be breaking the bread—well, I keep a mini-bottle of hand sanitizer next to my chair, so I don’t pass something nasty on to all of you.

But the controversy with the scribes and the Pharisees in our gospel passage this morning isn’t about any of that.

It actually has nothing to do with germs or hygiene. This was a different kind of handwashing before meals—not the kind your parents made you do, and then sent you back to the sink to do over, but an act of ritual purification before the blessing and breaking of the loaf. The Torah mandates this washing only for temple priests—those who are called to approach the holiness of God. But over time the custom spread, until it seems that by Jesus’ day, many ordinary Jews were also participating in handwashing before meals. It was one way in which they could live out their vocation as a people set apart and claimed for holy purposes. Living under Roman rule, in a world shaped by Greek culture and Greek thought, rituals like handwashing helped them resist assimilation and reinforce their identity as Jews.

And don’t we too know how it feels to live in a world of empire? Of idolatry and moral compromise, exploitation, bloodshed, and greed? Try as we might, there’s no standing apart from the sin of the world, no keeping our hands clean. Even when we can’t see it, we’re all in it up to the elbows. Perhaps that’s why the Greek word for “defiled,” as in, “eating with defiled hands,” is koinos, meaning “common.”

The ritual of handwashing wasn’t just a rote gesture, in other words. At least it wasn’t meant to be. It helped turn the common act of coming together to eat into a kind of sacramental meal. And just as we take time at the opening of worship to confess our faults and our need for healing to God, the handwashing before the blessing and the breaking of bread was a moment to acknowledge before God one’s share in the grime and the dirt—taking up a jug and pouring water over the hands that had consciously or unconsciously participated in thwarting God’s good purposes for creation, receiving the gift of purification that God alone can bestow.

It wouldn’t do much against any salmonella germs that might happen to be lurking on your skin. But as a daily act of spiritual re-setting and reorientation… Well, I understand the appeal. No wonder when John the Baptist came, calling his fellow-Jews to repentance, he called them to a ritual of water immersion. It was a natural extension of a kind of ritual cleansing that had been around for as long as anyone knew.

Now, the truth is, not much is known about who practiced what in first-century Judaism. Despite what Mark says about “all the Jews” washing their hands and cooking vessels and cups, it’s clear that practices actually varied widely. Jesus, clearly, washed his hands before meals. But not everyone in his community did. And it’s this that gets the attention of religious leaders.

“Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with common hands, that is, without washing them. So they asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with common hands?”

Some of the disciples were washing, but some weren’t—yet there they all were, eating together, the clean with the unclean. What kind of religious community is that??

And it’s no accident that Mark has placed this episode at the head of a set of stories about encounters between Jesus and non-Jews. The story of the Syro-Phoenician woman who comes seeking healing for her daughter is followed by the healing of a Gentile deaf man, which is followed by the feeding of 4,000 non-Jews. (Jesus having previously fed a Jewish crowd of 5,000). Jesus himself is portrayed as struggling with his relationship to non-Jews, referring to the Syro-Phoenician woman and her daughter as “dogs”—only to give in and heal the little girl when her mother stands up to him. The debate about clean and unclean, about Jews and Gentiles, about who could eat with whom, runs through the entire New Testament, a struggle for boundaries and identity that would last for decades. Was the Apostle Paul right or wrong to carry Jesus’ message to the pagan world? Did converts to Christianity have to embrace Jewish law? Who gets to be part of Jesus’ family? Who can claim a share in God’s welcome and grace?

What today’s story makes clear is that even before that Syro-Phoenician woman came along, Jesus was already at the center of a mixed community of Jews. Some observed the practice of handwashing. Some didn’t. And that makes sense, since by all accounts, Jesus’ followers were a mixed lot: fishermen, tax collectors, well-to-do women, beggars, misfits —a diverse assortment of people gathered around Jesus and his teaching. Jesus himself practices the traditions of the elders. But he doesn’t require that others do so, and tellingly, it seems that his followers felt free to follow their own conscience on such matters.

And I’m sure if I were a Pharisee, concerned for the holiness of Israel and the constant pressure of the occupying empire and the allure of hellenistic culture, I would think, Well, it’s a slippery slope.

But Jesus tells them they’re looking for danger in the wrong place.

The germs we really need to worry about, he says, are not out there. They’re in here [the heart].

It’s not what we can see but what we can’t see that needs attending to. It’s not the outward practices but the inward motivations, the common, everyday impurities of the human heart—and he rattles off a list. Fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly—all those things that damage our relations with each other and destroy community. These, Jesus says, are a far greater offense against God’s holiness than the neglect of sacred ritual. If you want to look for the root of a society’s trouble, the heart is a good place to begin.

Nothing against handwashing. It’s never wrong to honor God in the common practices of everyday life.

But Jesus directs his critics’ attention away from other people’s behavior—the outside of the cup, as it were—to what is going on privately, inside them, inside each one of us. There, only God can see and judge. And there, if we are brave enough to venture, we will find all the struggle and conflict of the world, quietly at work within, doing their mischief.

Start with the inside of the cup, Jesus says. It’s no use trying to supervise and judge the people around you. If you want to fix the world, begin with yourself, where you can really make a difference. Go into the inner room of the heart and face whatever you might find there.

Of course, what we find there is God.

I mean, yes, theft, murder, adultery, avarice. That’s all there too. But right there amid the muck and the mire, strangely at home where we ourselves would rather turn and flee… the most holy God eternally dwells, deeper even than our own conflicts and contradictions. God is not “out there” in some remote heaven, waiting for us to be clean enough to approach a step or two further, but here within, closer than close… The only one who can heal us. The only one who is able to see us whole: cleansed, healed, unblemished as on the day of our creation.

We can’t avoid ourselves without also avoiding God. We can’t draw near to God without also coming near to ourselves, surrendering our illusions in the presence of a love immeasurably greater than our hearts.

Like Adam in the old story, we would much prefer to hide. It’s so much easier to look outside ourselves for what’s wrong. But all the time that we’re giving each other the side-eye, shaking our heads over each other’s lapses and sins, God is gazing steadily, compassionately, unflinchingly at us, loving us with an unshakeable love, inviting us into the work of healing the world from the inside out. We can’t hide from the bad news about ourselves without also pushing away and denying God’s irrevocable YES to us.

Our flaws are shifting, temporary, and impermanent. God’s love is everlasting.

And so, yes, activism is critically important. Social justice is important. Works of mercy are important. We need to be engaged in all these things. But if I really want to change the world…. In the words of the poet Yeats…

“I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”

For it is there, among the rags and bones, that we meet the One who is all truth, who does not wait for us to become pure, or better, or more righteous, but who comes to us as we are, and to the world as it is, clothed in incorruptible love.

How can our tired, tarnished earth be joined to God’s glory and holiness? by the medium of love, poured out to us through Jesus, the one who shares God’s very heart.

He is here with us now, presiding at his table: speaking the blessing, breaking the bread. Come as you are, unwashed, unready. Take him in, and let love do its work. Amen.

We have seen with our eyes
and touched with our hands the bread of life.
May God strengthen our faith
that we may grow in love
for God and for each other;
through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

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