Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost 2009 (Proper 17, Year B)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on August 30, 2009 (Proper 17, Year B)

Every parent knows the “five second rule.” If that hot dog or chicken nugget falls on the kitchen floor, but is picked up within five seconds and quickly placed back on the plate, everything’s fine. You might dust it off or even blow on it but “scientific” research has proven that the germs don’t actually take root until six seconds have elapsed so it’s still edible. Though in reality the five second rule only applies to first children. You can add another five or ten seconds for each subsequent sibling. This technically means that if you forgot to remind the kids to wash their hands before dinner, it’s all a wash anyway.

And on the surface at least, this passage from Mark’s gospel is about precisely this topic: the washing of hands before dinner. Perhaps if the disciples had Purell or some other antibacterial hand sanitizer the Pharisees would have left them alone. Maybe Purell would have softened the Pharisees’ accusation about eating with defiled, unwashed hands. But there they were – Jesus’ followers having dinner without first engaging in the elaborate ritual washing of hands proscribed by the Law of Moses. And to the Pharisees this was pure heresy. So this group of religious legalists, who had traveled a great distance to entrap Jesus, was no doubt thrilled with this discovery. “Aha! We got him. How could this Jesus be the great holy man you say he is if he doesn’t even make his disciples wash their hands before they eat? What a sham!”

Now let’s be clear: Jesus wasn’t opposed to clean hands. In fact the disciples probably were eating with clean hands – they just weren’t ritually clean hands. They hadn’t been washed in accordance with the strict ritual purity laws adhered to by the Pharisees. This wasn’t the quick scrubbing we’d give our hands in the kitchen sink before dinner. This was a whole display of slowly and thoroughly washing hands up to the wrist and the then holding them up and allowing the water to drip down to the elbows until they dried. It was part functional, part spiritual, and, to Jesus’ mind, dripping not just with water but with vanity and hypocrisy.

So this wasn’t really about clean or dirty or impure hands. What Jesus railed against was the hypocrisy of engaging in external religious rituals while ignoring what really matters – the conversion of the heart. Washing one’s hands is a function of the body; washing one’s soul is a function of the Spirit. And Jesus’ response exposes the Pharisees’ worldview as the true spiritual sham. Literally putting their hope in human hands rather than in the divine hand of God.

The point for us is that religious ritual and law must be tempered with grace. Ritual is important; but unless it’s followed for the right reason – to draw the believer into deeper union with God – it’s empty and pointless and hypocritical and vain. Jesus shows us that religious rules are even more effective when adhered to in the context of God’s loving compassion. I’m sure some of the Pharisees really were holy men who “got” this; who used their adherence to the Law to be drawn ever closer to God. But they probably weren’t the ones who traveled around trying to discredit and undermine the earthly ministry of Jesus.

It’s helpful to look behind the Pharisees’ accusations against the disciples to see what this was really about. It wasn’t about the hand washing and, as usual, Jesus sees right past the surface to the very heart of the matter. It’s about fear. Not fear of germs but fear of intimacy with the living God. Because to enter into genuine relationship with the divine is to commit to amendment of life and a bending of your will to God’s will. In other words it’s an inner commitment of the heart; not an outer commitment to proscribed rituals. Ritual without inner commitment is empty whether that’s washing hands before a meal or putting on vestments and parading around a church. Ritual without commitment is the easy way out. Authentic ritual isn’t about keeping up with the Joneses; it’s about keeping up with Jesus. And, as Jesus points out, there’s a giant chasm between these two approaches to faith.

Which brings us to Ted Kennedy. Much of the nation’s attention has been focused on the Commonwealth this week. Hurricane Bill blew in off the coast, the Obamas caused a stir on Martha’s Vineyard, and Senator Kennedy died on Tuesday. But, of course, the biggest story has been the death of Ted Kennedy. I’m not going to hold him up as a saint and I’m not going to condemn him as a sinner. Like all of us, he was a blend of both: a fragile human being and yet a beloved child of God. Regardless of where you stand politically Ted Kennedy has had a profound impact upon the state of Massachusetts and the nation over his 77 years of life. Partly because of who he was and partly because of the family from whence he came.

But his is also a very public story of redemption. From Chappaquiddick to elder statesman is quite a transition in one lifetime. As Kennedy wrote to the Pope in a letter that was read at last night’s burial service at Arlington Cemetery, “I know that I have been an imperfect human being, but with the help of my faith, I have tried to right my path.” I mention this because we all face the same internal challenges, albeit in a much more private manner. We are all in need of cleansing – not the cleansing of empty human ritual but the deep cleansing of the soul that comes through an authentic and engaged life of faith. The struggle is between the darker side of the human heart and the desire to walk in the way of the Lord. These are often conflicting emotional pulls for us, just as they were for Ted Kennedy; just as they were for the Pharisees; just as they were for the disciples.

We’re always searching for something, anything to lead us to the cleansing nature of salvation; something to wipe away the grime of life. And, no, the phrase “Cleanliness is next to Godliness” is not actually in the Bible. So there will be no salvation through Purell or any other antibacterial product. It is only the waters of baptism that wash away the sin of the world; that allow us to take that first step to honoring God not only with our lips but in our lives. Which echoes the passage from Isaiah that Jesus quotes back in response to the Pharisees, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”

All of this is ultimately a matter of setting priorities. Are your priorities unduly focused below? On the things of this earth, the body, the pursuit of material resources? Or are your priorities focused on the things that are above? Your spiritual life, the worship of God, the giving of yourselves to others. For all of us, it’s a balance. But if you’re metaphorically overly focused on the washing of your hands it’s hard to keep the appropriate balance between the temporal and the eternal.

Maybe forgiveness and the opportunity for redemption is all part of God’s “five second rule.” Ted Kennedy certainly took advantage of this. And we would all do well to reflect upon the ways in which God continually offers us second chances as well.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2009

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