Sermon for Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday, September 2
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Like many of you, my Sunday afternoon is dedicated to grocery shopping. It’s not a happy chore; nevertheless, it’s a necessary one. Everybody has their different path through the grocery store, and for whatever reason, I have chosen to pick my produce last.
So I stood there with a full basket of groceries in my collar perusing the Roma tomatoes when suddenly, I’m struck by a sudden urge. It’s an urge we’ve all felt, it’s an urge we’ve all succumbed to. I had to sneeze.
That feeling of a sneeze coming on is so strong and so universal. And the trouble is, there is nothing you can do to stop it. In an instant, my eyes rolled into the back of my head, my lungs drew in one deep breath, and my nose prepared for liftoff. And I all could think about was the tomatoes. “Oh dear Lord,” I thought, “nobody will ever walk into a church again if they see a priest sneeze all over the tomatoes.”
Somehow, in some freak Flash Gordon show of strength, I managed to turn my head and blast my sneeze into my elbow. Just in time. I saved the tomatoes.
And that is why we wash our produce before we eat it. Who knows what child has put their grubby little hands all over the apples, who knows how many priests have sneezed all over the tomatoes. Of course, it’s not just produce. We are a people fixated on cleanliness. Women carry those omnipresent little bottles of hand sanitizer in their purses. Our kitchens have appliances – dish washers – whose sole purpose is to clean off germs. Humans are a naturally dirty creature – we cough, we sneeze, we do all sorts of gross things. Thanks be to God that we wash our hands, brush our teeth, and sneeze into our elbows.
So when we come across this morning’s passage from the gospel, we have a right to be confused. Here’s the scene: some of Jesus’ disciples don’t follow all of the Jewish guidelines for washing up before eating. Sensing a “gotcha” moment, the Pharisees try to trap Jesus and his disciples. They say, “Hey Jesus, how come your followers don’t wash their hands before they eat? Don’t they know their hands are defiled? Don’t you care that your disciples are unclean?”
Jesus’ response is genius. “Nothing on the outside can you make you unclean. It’s what’s inside that really matters. All evil comes from within a person. That’s what makes you unclean. That’s what causes sin.”
My hunch is that if we had seen this conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees, we would have sided with the Pharisees. We know that washing our hands is actually a pretty good idea – and if you’ve ever been into a restaurant bathroom, you know it’s the law. We would agree with the Pharisees that washing food from the market, cleaning out our cups and pots and kettles is a good idea. I can picture each one of us saying, “Jesus, we love you man, but you’re a little off your rocker if you think I’m not going to wash my hands before I eat. And I know this priest back home who sneezes all over the tomatoes so yes, I am going to wash what I buy at the market.”
Of course, Jesus isn’t talking about this at all. Jesus isn’t worried about how we wash our tomatoes. Jesus doesn’t care if we use anti-bacterial hand soap or natural hand soap. Jesus is more concerned with the blame game.
So often, when we screw up, we want to blame it on somebody else. We’ve all done it, everybody has wanted to place the blame elsewhere. “Sorry officer, I didn’t see that stop sign because my windows were fogged up.” “That’s funny, your check must have been lost in the mail.” “Well, everybody else is doing it, so I thought it would be okay.” We play the blame game.
And that is what Jesus is addressing. There is nothing on the outside that makes you sin. It’s all too easy to say, “the devil made me do it,” when in actuality, it was our decision all along. One of my favorite theologians [Robert Jenson] says that “sin is the in-curvature of our souls.” Sin is the things we do, the attitudes we have in our hearts. We want to blame those things on somebody else, when really, the sin is right here. It all starts with the man in the mirror.
This is precisely what makes sin so devastating. We can wash the dirt off our hands and see the clean skin beneath. We can rinse off the wax from our tomatoes to see the lush, red skin. We can take a shower and see the filth of a hard work-out go down the drain. But we can’t see what’s inside. We can’t see the in-curvature of our souls. “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
Now of course, we’re not hopeless. We must not ever forget that in Christ, all sin is defeated. At your baptism we say that you are cleansed from all sin. Not that you won’t sin again – but that God, and not sin, is the Lord of your life.
Beyond that, in the church, there are processes that help us curve out souls outwards. In a few moments, during our service, we will take a moment to confess our sins to God in the privacy of our own thoughts. But there is something deeper in the Episcopal Church called “Reconciliation of a Penitent.” This is a short service, carried out by a priest and somebody else. The conversation is absolutely private – I don’t even write down times for confession with parishioners in my calendar. I have confessed with a priest before, and it is intimidating. But let me tell you it is a cleansing experience. All the junk and filth and garbage that accumulated inside was flushed down the drain. I felt lighter, happier, freer than ever before. My soul was curving outwards. I let those things go, I released them. Nobody has to confess their sins with a priest, but it is an option.
But the most important thing I can say about sin is this: rather than focusing on what you should not do, focus on what you can do. When you pull up next to a guy with a sweet car at the stop light, don’t kick yourself saying, “God doesn’t want me to be envious of that guy’s car,” wash your car, give it a wax, be thankful for what you do have. When you see those homeless guys living under I-45, don’t focus on what makes you uncomfortable, don’t fret about not giving them a ride or cash. But you can keep some McDonald’s gift certificates or a bottle of water in your car to give them in the name of Jesus. Don’t focus on what you can’t do. Take delight in what you can do. Rather than worry about not sinning, focus on performing good works of faith. Work on all that inside stuff – work on curving your soul outwards. Because just as sin and evil comes from the inside, so too does joy and blessing.
Finally, remember that your identity is not as a sinner. God does not know you as a thief, or a cheater, or a swindler, or an addict. God doesn’t know you by your envy, pride, slander, greed, folly, or anything else. God only knows you as a beloved child. Don’t dwell on the evil things that have bubbled up inside of you – dwell on the merciful fact that God loves you immeasurably. Inside and out – you are a beloved child of God.