Sunday, September 2, 2012

Sermon: "The Hypocritical Oath"

Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst
September 2, 2012

“The Hypocritical Oath”

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 ~ James 1:17-27

I invite you to take a moment and look at your hands.
Think about all the things that your hands do in the course of one day.
Pulling back the bed covers, rubbing the sleep from your eyes, turning on the faucet, preparing food for yourself or your family, wiping off the countertop, opening doors, grasping steering wheels, typing on computer keyboards, digging in soil, tinkering with machinery, lifting up children, wiping away tears.

There are thousands of actions that our hands perform over the course of one day.
Most of those actions are innocuous – simple tasks that help us to navigate our world and accomplish our work.
But our hands are also capable of performing acts of great evil and great good.
We use our hands to inflict pain on others and to cause harm, to push others out of our way, to take what does not belong to us, and to hold tightly to what we don’t want others to have.
We also use our hands to comfort, to heal, and to connect with others; to build, create, and play; to lift up those who have fallen, and to help carry the burdens of those who don’t have the strength to do it on their own.

Here in the church we often say that we are called to serve as God’s hands in the world.
Because it’s all well and good to read the Bible, to raise our voices in prayer and song, and to listen for the ways that God speaks to us in our lives, but it takes a set of human hands to put God’s WORD into action.

It can be said that our hands are sacred.
Our hands perform the sacred acts of God and for that reason it is sacrilegious to use our hands to perform acts that separate us from God.

In Jesus’ time, hands were considered to be sacred.
Not just for the Temple priests and the scribes who performed sacred rituals and handled the sacred text, but for the general population as well.
Purity laws called for ritual hand washing before worship, before eating, and before gathering with one’s neighbors because it was considered respectful to keep one’s hands clean when handling sacred items, when sharing food, and when greeting each other through touch.

There were practical reasons for ritual hand washing as well – it was a way to get folks to practice good hygiene.
Those of us in the modern, developed world may take it for granted that we’re never far from a source of clean, running water, but in the nomadic desert culture of first century Palestine, water was not freely accessible, just as it isn’t in many parts of the world today.
If you think of all the messy things your hands get into during the course of the day, and then think about not having a convenient way to clean them, sometimes for days, then it’s easy to understand why every synagogue and every household was encouraged to have a bowl of water present for hand washing before eating meals and participating in acts of worship.

Then, as now, part of living in community involved following rules that are put in place for the benefit of everyone in the community.

So why did Jesus raise such a fuss when the religious leaders of his day criticized him for not enforcing ritual hand washing amongst his disciples?
Why did he let his followers sit down at a communal meal where their hands were all over everything as they passed bread and plates of food to each other, and not have them first wash off whatever mess they’d gotten themselves into beforehand?

Before we address this question, let me first give you this disclaimer.
This passage from Mark is one of several that pits Jesus against his primary nemesis – the Pharisees and the scribes – the apparent keepers of the faith who seemed to take offense at Jesus’ very presence in their community. They were always quick to point out when Jesus had broken the Jewish law. 
In reality, the presentation of the Pharisees that we see in the gospels is a caricature and is not representative of the Jewish people as a whole. In many ways the glimpse we get into Jewish life when we read the gospels is like walking in on a family argument without having much knowledge of the context or the content. Put simply, there was a traditional way of doing things and Jesus was pushing back against that tradition, and that made some folks very uncomfortable.  Just as many of us feel uncomfortable in the face of change, today.

Unfortunately these texts have been used to reinforce the belief that Christianity is superior to Judaism because its followers are not required to adhere to an antiquated set of laws.
Moreover, sermons on these texts often portray the Pharisees and the Jewish people as a whole as a legalistic bunch of fussbudgets who follow the letter of the law but ignore the spirit of the law.  We’re told that as Christians we’ve been set free from the law, and need only follow Jesus’ commandment to love God and one another as we love ourselves. 

The problem with this interpretation is that it leaves us with a distorted impression of Judaism and the time in which Jesus was living…
and it can cause us to be blind to the ways in which we as Christians are just as tempted to idolatrize the written word of God without embracing the spirit of the word. 

We may not eat Kosher, keep the Sabbath, or say ritualistic prayers after every action we perform during the day, but in 2000 years of Christianity we’ve managed to build our own intricate structure of laws and rituals that some believe must be followed in order to be considered a true Christian, or to be a member of a particular church.
But just as there are whole slew of rules and practices that some Christians follow and others do not, the same can be said of Judaism.

The reality is that in Jesus’ time some Jews followed the purity laws, but many did not.
Life was too arduous and too unpredictable for most folks to be overly concerned with whether they washed the apple they bought in the market before eating it, or washed their hands before sitting down to dinner…and there is nothing in the Torah that commands that Jews must do this.
It was just one of those practices that arose over time because it made sense and it encouraged people to take a moment to set their focus on God before rushing into the Temple or digging into a meal.

Jesus was a devout Jew himself, and he may very well have practiced ritualistic cleansing when he entered the synagogue or people’s homes.
But even if he didn’t, ignoring purity laws wasn’t as radical or as disruptive an act as many of us think it was.

The Pharisees that Jesus and his disciples encountered in Mark’s gospel did have a problem with such infractions and voiced their objection, but in his response Jesus never said the law itself was ridiculous or no longer necessary, rather he objected to the fact that his disciples were being judged solely on the cleanliness of what they put into their mouths rather than on the pureness of what came out of their hearts.

Jesus knew his disciples had much grander things to grapple with than whether or not to scrub their hands before dinner.
In the few months since they’d been following Jesus, they watched him wipe sweaty and bloody brows, touch diseased skin, and rub spit and dirt into a man’s eyes to help him to see.
They watched Jesus put his hands in the muck of life and dig right in, without concern for cleanliness.

If you think about it, Jesus’ hands must have been quite a sight.
I imagine that they were rough and dry from a lifetime spent in the desert sun. His cuticles were probably split and his palms scarred from years of working with wood as a carpenter.
Surely there was dirt under his fingernails and dirt ground into the swirls of his fingertips.
But it wasn’t so much the condition of Jesus’ hands that irked his detractors, but rather it was what he did with his hands.
In their eyes, Jesus was defiling himself by associating with those who were considered to BE defiled, not just in body, but in spirit.

In Mark’s text, Jesus responded to the objections raised by the Pharisees by calling them hypocrites.
And I imagine that hearing this accusation stung just as hard then as it does now.

The word hypocrite is one that we toss around frequently today.
Politicians, religious leaders, and entire religious institutions have been accused of hypocrisy on a grand scale.
Whenever a person or organization espouses a belief that is contradicted by their actions then we feel justified in fitting them with the label of hypocrite.
A recent survey of adults who don’t attend church found that 72 percent think the church ‘is full of hypocrites’ and therefore is not something that they want to be a part of.

A church harboring hypocrites. Imagine that.

A prime example of this apparent hypocrisy is the recent news headline that read: 
         “Church Closes Food Bank Because It Attracts Poor People.”

Apparently, the neighbors and many of the congregants objected to having “vagrants” milling around their historic building, and were worried that it was discouraging the “right” kind of people from coming to their church.

We may shake our heads in disgust, but the reality is that we are all hypocrites....
and we all come through these doors seeking to be better.

We say the prayers and make the promise that we will serve God and act and speak out of love rather than fear….and we all fall short.
None of us is the model Christian, because it is impossible for us to be perfect and refrain from anger, selfishness, and judgment, 100% of the time. Our hearts are never pure, but that doesn’t keep us from trying.
Church is not a place for perfect people who act on every pious word that is professed in faith. Church is a place for people who are willing to try.

Jesus calls us to be better than we are.
To step outside the temptations of our culture and our world and to align the work of our hands with the God inspired goodness of our hearts.
To resist the temptation to use our hands to cover our eyes and our ears to injustice in the world.
To resist the temptation keep our hands occupied with busywork rather than reach out to those in need.
To resist the temptation to handle money as if were the most precious object we own, doling it out to others reluctantly and only when necessary.

To instead allow our hearts to guide our hands in acts of compassion and humble service, and to pull apart the chains that hold others in captivity.
To take what we learn in here, and put it into practice out there.
That’s what it means to be church in the world.

As James wrote in his epistle:
“We’re called to be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” (James 1:22)

That doesn’t mean we’re always going to get it right.
That doesn’t mean we’re never going to be accused of being a hypocrite.
But the oath we take as baptized Christians is the promise to do no harm in this world, to do unto others as we would have others do unto us.

So in the remaining time that we have here in worship this morning,
as you use your hands to open hymnals, write out prayer concerns, and receive Communion, I invite you to continue to reflect on all the ways that you can use your hands to do good in this world.

What can you do with your hands today that will serve others and serve God?
Perhaps prepare a meal for someone who is ill.
Hold a hand that longs to be touched.
Tend a garden to celebrate God’s gift of creation.

Build. Play. Create. Comfort. Embrace.
It’s amazing what we can do with our hands in the course of one day, and in the course of a lifetime.

 It’s amazing what we can do when we allow ourselves to serve as conduits for God’s love in this world.


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