“When Rite Is Wrong”
Sermon on Mark 7:1-8, 14-23
May 21, 2006
The Rev. J. Curtis Goforth, O.S.L.
It can be so very hard to open up one of those old fashioned glass bottles with the proper caps on them. Now, I am not talking about a glass bottle with a metal screw off cap, but a glass bottle with a pry off cap that you usually need a bottle opener to be able to open it. These can be extremely difficult to try and open, especially since most of the time we don’t keep bottle openers very accessible anymore since we need them so rarely.
I remember being in this situation a time or two, especially in foreign countries where the glass bottles with the pry off lids are much more common than here. I have learned how to open these bottles with all sorts of different objects. I can open one of these bottles with a masonry trowel (something I picked up when I was on archaeological digs.) I can almost always open one of these bottles by angling it on a countertop or table and slamming my hand down on it. But I never quite mastered the art of opening one of these bottles with my teeth.
When I was on a mission trip in Jamaica as a teenager, I remember the people of the church where we were working going to the market and bringing us all a big case of tropical soft drinks. We were so excited to be getting these because it was over a hundred degrees and the humidity was just unbearable. It was so wonderful to be getting a refreshing carbonated beverage. But then our joy turned to weeping, for they were glass bottles with pry off caps and nobody could get the caps off. A very nice guy that was a member of the church there saw our frustration and saw what a terrible time we were having in opening the bottles, and so, without a word he grabbed the bottles from us and said the words that will forever haunt me, “Here you go mon, let me help ya wit dat.” And he placed the neck of the bottle in his mouth and opened the bottle with the three remaining teeth he had in his head. You can imagine the scene. Everybody who saw this helpful gesture the man was doing started insisting that they wanted to save their bottle until later. The man would hear nothing of it though and he opened every one of the bottles for us, with the few remaining teeth in his head. The people in our mission team couldn’t even bring themselves to wash off the bottle because we just knew those bottles fell into the category of “unwashable.”
We have been reared in an antiseptic culture. We have been shaped by the knowledge of germs and bacteria and medical advances such that most people in rural Jamaica have never even imagined. Many of us carry around instant hand sanitizer gel in our purses and pockets and the glove boxes of our cars. We hate germs and we want no part of those nasty things that can defile us, gross us out, and make us sick or at least uncomfortable and anxious about getting sick. And you know, so many of us think that our culture has a copyright on this antiseptic concept. And yet, then we read the story from Mark’s gospel, and we hear about the infamous Scribes and Pharisees, and we then see that they too had a phobia of coming into contact with things that defile, with things that were unclean, with things unwashed and unwashable.
The Scribes and Pharisees are oftentimes made into evil villains with no redeemable qualities, hopelessly stuck on the letter of the law even if it meant causing harm to someone else just to make sure they kept the law properly and totally. That is just a bad analysis of them though. They are no worse than the most upright and devout church person you may know. They were lay people, and yet they held themselves to the code that the priests were supposed to follow. They kept the law of Moses in the Old Testament (sometimes called the written law), and they even tried to hold tightly to what was known as the Talmud, (or the oral law). Frequently, this oral law was even more rigorous to try and follow than the legal codes in the Old Testament. So, where the Old Testament says that the priests are supposed to wash their hands before they begin their duties at the altar of the Lord, the Pharisees felt it was necessary for them also to wash their hands before they even ate their bread. Nearly two thirds of this oral law had to do with food and eating practices.
But the Pharisees and their fear of coming into contact with things that defile did not stop just with food and hands and pots and pans. They resisted people that might defile them as well. They resisted those in the world that didn’t follow the same laws they made for themselves. They stayed far away from those who weren’t as holy as they tried to be. They wanted nothing to do with people that weren’t just like them. For, you see, they knew very well that those who we surround ourselves with make a difference when it comes to the way we live. They knew the harm that could come by fraternizing with evildoers. If they touched someone like this, there was a great deal of ritual involved in cleansing oneself from the physical and spiritual dirt of the world.
But then Jesus comes and speaks to them and to their ideas, to them and to their way of life, to them and to their filth. He reminds them that the things that we put in our mouths go through us and wind up in the sewer. But the things that come out of our mouths are those things that make us unclean. Jesus tells them that it isn’t so much everybody else in the world that they need to worry about, but about themselves and the things in their hearts and minds. He reminds them that holiness isn’t a game where God is some sort of heavenly scorekeeper sitting on his throne writing down statistics about who is winning and who is losing. Jesus reminds them that there is quite enough evil for them (and us) to worry about in their own bodies and that discipleship and godliness is not some sort of spiritual cleanliness game. In essence, Jesus tells the Pharisees to worry more about the cleanliness of their hearts and less about the cleanliness of their hands.
You know, there are a number of people I have spoken to who think that the phrase, “Cleanliness is next to godliness” is actually in the Bible! Let me be the first to remind you that it isn’t—which is not to imply that the saying is not right and a good and joyful thing. But there are times when cleanliness is not the most important thing. Jesus reminded the Pharisees of that, and Jesus reminds us of that too.
On my mission trip to Jamaica, the night after we encountered the all too helpful snaggletoothed human bottle opener, the pastor that was leading the trip led us in a devotion and an evening prayer service back by the beach outside the house we were staying in. He read this text from Mark we’ve been discussing to us and he reminded us that our fears of things unclean were very much like the fears of the Pharisees. We were worried about germs, but the Jamaican Methodists were worried about hospitality. Our pastor told us that the people of the church spent the money they had allotted for their food in order that we might have refreshing drinks in the heat of the day. That gives a new meaning to the phrase, “swallowing your pride,” doesn’t it? Sometimes clean hands and sanitary soda bottles aren’t the most important things.
There are times when we are called to disinfect ourselves from the attitude that we are clean and others are unclean. There are times when we are called to sanitize our hands with the dirt of service to others. There are times when rite is wrong and when dirt is cleansing. There are times when we are called to get dirty and to serve. If you think it’s hard to remove a bottle cap without an opener, it isn’t nearly as hard as trying to serve God without ever getting dirty. Sometimes the only way to keep our hearts clean is to get our hands dirty. Amen.