Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
In the name of God. Amen.
The way our cycle of readings works in the Episcopal Church (and in a lot of other churches) is that we share a three-year cycle of readings. Only rarely do particular readings appear more than once each cycle – even though we sometimes hear the same stories more than once, they’re told from different perspectives.
As a preacher, it’s true that sometimes even this system can seem to bring repeating ideas and stories around too quickly. But the idea is that the lectionary gives us a structure so we preachers don’t just keep falling on our same old soap boxes and scripture preferences all the time, and so the church can hear more of the Bible. But also, it brings the lessons around again and again, so we can keep encountering them and keep digging deeper into their wisdom and truth through the years, with the benefit of added life experiences to keep seeing them in new ways and hearing new insights.
When this passage appeared three years ago – with its questions of ritual purity, and specifically hand-washing – I never could have imagined the amount of time I would have spent up to now thinking about washing hands. Recently, a friend asked on Facebook if people were still singing “Happy Birthday” twice while they wash their hands. I’ll freely admit, I still do. I think that’s something the pandemic has ingrained in me, and it will probably never completely go away.
And how many gallons of hand sanitizer have we all bought? I’m pretty picky about what I’ll use, so I regularly try different kinds, and when I find a version that I like, I’ll buy it by the case.
As a society, I don’t know when we last focused this much on the purity of our hands.
Of course, we’ve been talking about physical purity, and the Pharisees and Scribes were talking about physical acts that indicated spiritual purity. But the two aren’t entirely unrelated. Many of the ancient Jewish purity laws were about protecting the physical bodies and lives of their adherents. Even if they weren’t based on modern, scientific knowledge, they typically reflected the best of observed wisdom that they had at the time. I’m sure the rituals around hand washing were rooted in the observation that people who didn’t wash their hands were more likely to get sick, and since sickness was believed to be a punishment by God, then that must have meant that God favored those who washed their hands.
And the connection between physical purity and complementary spiritual implications is sometimes true for us, too. In the midst of this pandemic, when it felt like the world was closing in on us, and we seemed to have no real way to protect ourselves; one of the few things we could do to gain a bit of confidence and security was to wash our hands. Wear masks, and wash our hands. We couldn’t control a virus, but we could do our best to control its access to our bodies. Developing enhanced habits of physical “purity” gave us a sense of security – a spirit of confidence in a time when confidence was in short supply.
So this year, it’s a little harder for me to sit in judgement of the Pharisees and Scribes for not “getting it”. Maybe they were just doing the best they could with what they knew. Just like we’re trying to do the best we can with what we know.
But the lesson from Jesus is that no matter how much the “outside stuff” might be important to our physical bodies, our spiritual health is another matter entirely. Our physical health depends largely on what goes into us. But our spiritual health is measured by what comes out of us. Were we kind? Were we generous? Did we interact with each other with grace? Did we show love? Did we hear the teachings of the faith and incorporate them into our lives for the benefit of all? That’s what spiritual health looks like.
The idea that this virus has become a political topic is mind-boggling to me. You can’t be protected from a virus by your voting record. Your party affiliation doesn’t, on its own, make you any more or less vulnerable. The only thing you can do is to limit the virus’ access to you in the few ways we know about. And here’s the bigger picture: having been infected with any virus doesn’t make you any closer to or farther from God. What goes into you is far less meaningful to God than what comes out of you.
We have to keep striving for “the love of our neighbor” to be the main thing that comes out of us.
Had we read the Epistle lesson today, which we’ve had to cut to make our services a little shorter, and to limit our exposure to each other, you would have heard some familiar advice from the Letter of James. “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” Be doers – not merely hearers.
This faith is always about its product. The fruit it yields. Keep an eye on that. Not just on the physical things that give us comfort.
And wash your hands and wear a mask. Not because it’s what God demands of you, or because it’s the political thing to do. Do it because it’s the human thing to do. Let that – our greatest gift from God, our humanity – be one of the fruits of your faith. Amen.