I've spent many summer days at my Aunt Briddie's house. Aunt Briddie is my father's oldest sister. She and her husband, Uncle Hubbert, enjoyed entertaining, so many summers when some of the extended family would come into town, we would gather at their house; and among other things, we would do a lot of eating.
Now, when it comes to meals, no one in my family is a real stickler for table manners. We don't really care on which side of the plate the fork is supposed to lay. If you want the peas, you don't really need to wait for someone to pass them. Just get up and grab the peas, reach across the table if you have to. But Aunt Briddie would--and still does--get irritated if someone showed up at the table with dirty hands. If it happened to be me, she'd kinda nudge me behind the shoulder and say, "Boy, go wash yo' hands." Being a little child, I might run back to the bathroom and turn the water on without actually washing them and try to come back to the table. But Aunt Briddie had a way of knowing when that happened, so she would just say it again, "Boy, I thought I told you go wash yo' hands." Now if you made Aunt Briddie repeat herself like that, you had a feeling that if you didn't do what she said that time, then it was all over for you. You weren't going to eat that day, and you might not live to eat again. So you ran back and washed those hands.
We all know that there are good reasons for keeping our hands clean, with all the germs and diseases out there--and I'm sure Aunt Briddie was concerned about all that. But it always seemed to me that there was something more than hygiene behind her insistence. I never knew what that was, as a child, but whatever it was, it showed itself in these expressions she would make while we were eating. Sometimes I would look at Aunt Briddie down at the other end of the table, and I could see this deep contentment come over her face, as if nothing in the world was going to keep her from enjoying this meal. Every now and then, she would pause and look around the table at the family, and she would kind of lean back in her chair with this big smile, looking proud. And I would sit there and wonder, "What's she over there smilin' about?" I mean, the food was good, but not that good. I just couldn't understand.
Then as I grew up, I started to hear some stories. They told me what things were like for them growing up. My father, Aunt Briddie, and their brothers and sisters lived through a time when Jim Crow and segregation ruled the South. My grandparents were sharecroppers. And in that system, about the only way to make any money was to have children; the children would work and help the parents pay off the debt they owed to the landowner. And to that end, my grandparents had fifteen children. Well, that meant that once they made a payment toward the debt, they had to try to feed fifteen children with what was left. Quite often, there wasn't enough left, so they would have to decide whether or not to borrow even more from the landowner in order to keep the kids fed. If they did that, then they would drive the family even farther into debt. So, many times, instead of doing that, the family simply did not have enough to eat. Moreover, my grandparents had to try to keep the family healthy at a time when blacks didn't have access to good healthcare. In fact, some of the kids did die because of that. When it came to minor illnesses or, even, a broken bone they had to treat it with their own remedy. And, when I hear some of the remedies they came up with, I'm amazed they survived those, let alone the illness.
They had to do these things in order to survive when everyday there were people out there trying to keep them in their place, doing everything in their power to demoralize them by threats and sometimes violence. So when I hear those stories, it all makes sense to me. In Aunt Briddie's eyes, every time we get together as a family or have a meal, that moment is a gift. That moment is sacred! That moment is impossible! She feels like Moses must have felt when he saw the bush burning without burning up and heard the voice, saying, "Take off your shoes because you're standing on holy ground." Well, when the family eats together, we're on holy ground. And that thing she has about washing our hands, that's the ritual she came up with to honor the moment.
They are so hard to love, but I think that if we give them the benefit of the doubt, something like that was going on with the Pharisees and the scribes.
The text says, that "when they gathered around Jesus, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with [unwashed] hands." It goes on to say that "the Pharisees, and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands," and it points out some other rituals of cleanliness.
Again, all of those are good things to do if only for hygiene. But for the Pharisees and scribes, these rituals meant much more than that. They, too, had heard some stories. They knew how their ancestors had been enslaved in Egypt, how God had brought them out. They knew that while they were in the wilderness, God had given them the law that would help them to keep their freedom. Those laws were also meant to keep them united as a community. So it was important for them to keep the law in order maintain their freedom and as a sign of their devotion to God.
But obeying the laws was complicated. In many cases, these laws gave very clear instructions on the way certain situations should be handled. Yet, in other cases, the law simply provided a moral principle that was open to interpretation, so an individual or a group of people would have to decide how that principle would apply.
Over time there came a group of legal scholars, called scribes, who saw that as long as there was this fluidity with some of the laws, then the door was open for all the laws to be broken. So they developed thousands of other rules as a kind of "fence" around the original law in order to keep them from being broken. These rules were not written down. They became part of an oral tradition, which the passage calls "the tradition of the elders," which was passed down from generation to generation until it became common practice.
One of the rules in this tradition had to do with the washing of hands. In the written law, there were many guidelines for what Jews could and could not eat, outlining which foods were clean or unclean. If a person were to eat food considered unclean, then that person became unclean and was unfit to serve God, to enter the temple, or enter into the presence of other people.
Well, the tradition of the elders said that even if the food itself was clean, by eating with unwashed hands that food became unclean. To avoid that, the tradition prescribed this ritual of washing your hands before you eat. So when they saw that the disciples were eating with unwashed hands, they got a little concerned and they asked Jesus about it. And notice how they asked him. They said, "Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?"
They didn't just question this particular practice; they challenged the disciples' whole way of life! And they did it, not on the basis of the law. They were concerned about preserving their own, human tradition: Why don't y'all do things the way we do it?!
In his preaching text The Homiletical Plot, Eugene Lowry describes what was, at the time, a new approach to narrative preaching. He gives a caution in the introduction, in which he says that when a congregation is accustomed to a certain style of preaching, a change of form is often perceived as a change of content or theology.
Well, Jesus and his disciples were changing the form. They were doing all those things the tradition told them not to do...touching and healing the sick, freeing people from demons, hanging out with the Gentiles. All these people were considered unclean. He and his disciples lived their lives in the dirt. He was changing the form.
He didn't deny what his disciples did. He didn't even justify what they were doing, explicitly. Instead, he reached way back through the tradition, all the way to the prophet Isaiah, saying, "This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrine." He goes on to say that, "You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition."
In other words, "You intended your tradition to be a fence around the law, but you've built a wall, and such a high wall that you can no longer see what it is you're trying to protect. You no longer understand the commandment of God. And all those little rituals you perform in the name of God, they mean nothing...because your heart ain't right." The Pharisees and scribes focused so much on the means, the methods, the forms with which to protect the law that they failed to be transformed by the spirit of the law. We still do that.
I serve a congregation that has a very proud and rich history. Some of our members have been well-known movers and shakers in our city. We've had personal connections to presidents and great civil rights leaders. Our members and pastors have taken courageous stances and been at the forefront of some of the great social movements in the city of Chicago and of our nation. And, today, as is the case with a lot of historic congregations whose membership has declined, there is this lingering question, "Can we live up to the legacy we have been given?" In light of that, as we lean into the future of our congregation, one comment that is often raised is that "we've got to preserve our history," which we do. But the danger is that the history itself becomes the focus and not the spirit that made that history so great, the spirit that can inspire us and sustain us in the years ahead.
In the Church, more broadly, the distinctions we make between "clergy" and "laity." In the Reformed theological tradition, we affirm the priesthood of all believers, which means that the calling and responsibility of ministry is given to the entire community of faith. Yet, we've taken that common calling and made distinctions between "ordained" and "non-ordained." We've done this for some good reasons, to suggest that those who are ordained have the particular calling to teach and equip the Body for ministry. But sometimes there is a pitfall of thinking that those of us with "Rev." or "Pastor" in front of our names have greater access to God than others. Sometimes that distinction has led to what my friend Jud Hendrix has called a "professional clergy class" with greater privileges in the Church, when behind our robes and our stoles, we are just as frail and vulnerable as everyone.
That's what the Pharisees and scribes were doing. They were using their tradition as a means of division. In the name of God, they had created a system where one's devotion to God was measured solely by his or her actions. And their rituals and customs caused them to believe that they were doing a little better than everyone else and allowed them to believe that they were clean in the eyes of God, when inside, in their hearts, they were struggling with the same sins as the rest of us.
When we know we've been living wrong, it's nice to believe that we can just do something or say something to make things right. We like that, especially in this culture with the value we place on speed and efficiency. We like to believe that we can perform some act, and just like that the slate is clean. So we give money to charity, but in our hearts we really have a lot of contempt for that homeless person outside the door. In the midst of war, we pray for peace, but in our hearts we hold a prejudice and hatred and fear as strong as the anger that drives the violence.
It's okay to have rituals. It's okay to have tradition. But our rituals and traditions must never become our god. Rituals and traditions will not save us. They will not make us clean. If we want to be clean we must look, not at the works of our hands, but at our hearts. True cleanliness comes from within. So, if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.
But if we confess our sins, our God who is faithful and just is able to cleanse us from all unrighteousness...if we confess. That same God calls out to us. And I like the way the King James says it: "Come unto me all ye who labor, Come unto me all ye who are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." As if to say, come unto me all ye who are tired of carrying around your guilt.
Come unto me if your hearts are full of hatred and violence.
Come unto me those of you who have torn up some relationships.
You don't have to live your lives that way.
Come unto me, and I will give you rest.
It's the first Sunday of the month. For many of our congregations that means it's Communion Sunday. And when we come to the table, we come not because we've earned it. Not because we deserve it. No, if it were up to us, there would be no place for any of us here. But we come because it is a gift. We come because we want to be transformed. Because there is something within us that cries out with the hymn:
Prone to wander, Lord I feel it.
Prone to leave the God I love.
So we come, asking God to:
Take our hearts
Take and seal them
Seal them for the courts above!
Our God invites all of us to come despite our sins, telling us to lay it all on the table. And when you hear that invitation you don't need to try to wash your hands in advance. It's the dirt--our dirt--that makes this moment holy.