Song 2:8-13; Ps 45: 1-2, 7-10; Jas 1: 17-27; MK 7: 1-23
This is the Day the Lord has made; let us give thanks for it, health and strength to work, minds to think, and hands to serve. AMEN.
“But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing” instructs James. Jesus replies to some accusing Pharisees, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” The struggle in these lessons is about hearing and doing, upholding religious traditions and doing what religion values doing. Goodness knows, Anglo-Catholic parishes, ones of “smells and bells” are accused of doing dead or passé forms, and not getting out there, rolling up our sleeves, and bringing about the reign of God.
A pause for some Mark explanation— we’re safely back to Year B’s characteristic Gospel. In Marcus Borg’s newest and breathtakingly useful, erudite, and readable book, Evolution of the Word, Mark’s structure is repeated to be: “I. Galilee, where most of Jesus’s public activity happens, II. Journey from Galilee to Jerusalem for Passover, and III. Jerusalem and Jesus’s final week, including confrontation with authorities, execution, and the discovery of the empty tomb.” Borg continues, “In Mark (and in Matthew and Luke), all of this fits into one year, though the authors do not say so explicitly. But only one Passover and one journey to Jerusalem are mentioned. Only in John’s gospel does Jesus go to Jerusalem several times, including more than one Passover. His narrative time frame for Jesus’s public activity is thus three or four years.” Borg is quick to remind readers that in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’s preaching about bringing about the reign of God, doesn’t mean going to Heaven, but working for a new, changed earth with its life and ways being God’s ways.
In today’s passage Jesus takes on people who are sticklers for rules, like “wash your hands.” James writes about being hearers and not doers of the word. What was at stake for the Pharisees and for Jesus in this confrontation? Much of Jewish law involves ritual—kosher laws around food, its preparation, and interactions between people. When such forms lose meaning they become obsessively petty and a way to “get” someone not meticulous about every detail. The actions were designed usefully, but when perfunctory, they may detract from what they were intended to clarify and highlight.
Do we do that? How can such practices be useful or not? Do you sign yourself with Holy Water as you enter the church and do you cross yourself at all during a service? This is not to ask, “Are you a Good Christian, a good Anglican, a good Episcopalian, a believer, or a well-mannered church attendee?” None of those—really. Baptism is a person’s initiation into Christ’s body the church, but for most of us it is not in our active remembering. Do you remember yours? Many people don’t, so early on in the life of the faithful, churches put holy water at a convenient height for people entering to remind themselves of baptism, with water— something real, tactile, and sensory. People feel the water and recall that they were baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and that water cleansed and prepared them to receive Eucharist with symbolically washed hands, and then leaving, blessing themselves again with additional water, they were preparing to go to work in the name of the Trinity. It also was a link to the ritual rules of eating and food preparation from Judaism. The Jewish rules were not about fussiness or even particularly about hygiene. Instead, most of the Jewish rules aimed to set off the sacred from the ordinary, regular, and mundane. Worship time was to be set apart and distinguished from ordinary time. No work was to be done, and all activities were to enable people to focus on hearing the word, read, explained, responded to, and celebrated. Food, already prepared, was to be eaten and enjoyed, and the whole time was for praising and praying to God with solemnity, rest, thanksgiving, focus, learning, and community.
The Sabbath began at sundown on Fridays, with everyone greeting those they encountered, with “Shabbat Shalom.” There’s no effective translation. It’s an imperative, “Sabbath Peace to you!” Unlike “The Peace of the Lord” which somewhat lies there, or “Have a nice day” which now sounds vapid, Shabbat Shalom has a reaching towards the other person with forcefulness and energy for peace. “Peace be with you,” is close but Shabbat Shalom says “Sabbath, this day, Holy Day peace to you.” It has the energy of “Merry Christmas” “Happy Easter, “Happy New Year”, or “Happy Birthday” but it’s about the Sabbath, conveying both a specific time’s greeting with a wide range of meanings of Shalom, immediately in ear and mind. Peace for us often simply means the absence of war, fighting, or arguing, whereas Shalom includes peace, peace on this day, tranquility, and serenity, in that God’s peace is a broader concept. To achieve this kind of Sabbath awareness, Jews of faith put boundaries for the holy day by walling away the ordinary.
James, probably written in a Jewish community, and from its wisdom tradition of essay thinking, was written close to the time of Mark’s Gospel. Both understood what posers were, people dressing for churchiness, not for worship, praise, and prayer. James understood what Jesus meant by chivvying those who thought that hand washing was the be all and end all of actual worship. How many faithful Episcopal churches, let alone all other kinds of serious churches omit the hand washing we do at the altar. I do it, not for clean hands— actually I wash my hands pretty regularly—there being water available to me. I do the lavabo here because it is the tradition of this kind of liturgy, and I find it particularly useful, because a whole lot goes on in our liturgy every week, and I’m in the thick of much of it, chanting, leading, censing, moving around, preaching, paying attention to all our moving parts, greeting everyone, seeing who’s here, noting who’s not, and on and on. That brief moment when I’m offered water on my hands, sloshed over my hands, I feel the water of grace, I wash my hands of details, performance, judgment, specific time (how long is all of this taking?), and place-time (here I am in this place in this moment,) and let all of it go. I feel the water of baptism and salvation, of the flight through the Red Sea, and the perils of the River Jordan’s keeping me on earth, and the water of tears and joys. I feel connected to one of the Creator’s elemental gifts of creation, and I usually say, “I go unto the altar of my joy, unto the altar of my joy and gladness,” and I take a deep breath, and reset, refocus, restart, and let all the busyness of the service go, and head to this altar of joy and gladness, the altar where I, we, encounter again our salvation. It’s easier to achieve all that with water, than with word or thought. Most churches don’t do it any more, because for them it feels like silly religiosity and a waste of time. That’s what Jesus was talking about. For those who made and abided by those practices, his not doing them was shocking, unclean, sacrilegious, not getting it, and disobedient. Jesus knew the difference between honoring the Holy One and prissy fussing, so he took them on.
James makes the same point, but focusing on what to do, rather than scolding about what was omitted. Psalm 24 reminds us that the one who “has clean hands, and a pure heart and has not lifted up his soul unto vanity” shall receive a blessing from the Lord and a just reward from the God of salvation, but beyond the clean hands, what has such a person done? What or who is a doer of the Word? It takes separating ourselves from the world, that world too much with us, in which getting and spending we lay waste our lives. Our clean hands are to ready us for work, work to help widows and orphans, the sick and the needy, those in prison, and are not to show off our latest cleansing product scent or elegant guest towels. Our hands are to be used for cooking for those in need, cleaning up after the celebrating and the mourning, to read and study God’s word—remember reading was done with fingers—and to comfort those in need of comforting.
The Pharisees and others, who engage seriously in protecting worship from the encroaching reality of the world, work usefully. When fastidiousness replaces worship as the focus, people run the risk of “abandoning the commandment of God, and holding to human tradition;” it’s a fine line, though.
Let’s remind ourselves of that risk and recommit ourselves to be “doers of the word.” Listening and hearing help that process, as does avoiding the list of sins, especially for us those of, “envy, slander, pride, and folly”. When we each remember our baptism with holy water, we also claim the value of such traditions, risking vitiating them by inattention or not focusing on such a gift of form of worship. We yearn to bring forth fruits of good works through out worship and we trust and pray that what we do will be accepted as enough: Good News. AMEN.
© Katharine C. Black 2 September 2012, St John’s, Boston