This last week my wife Allison, who is priest in the Episcopal Church, and I were talking about the gospel reading for today in preparation for our Sunday sermons when we started talking about our two different experiences in summer camp as children. See each of us participated in church summer camps when we were in elementary school and as a teenager. We both loved being at camp; each for a different reason.
One of the ways we had a different experience was in our cleanliness. See Allison took a shower every single day at camp. In fact she even got an award at the end of camp, along with her best friend, for their cleanliness.
Me on the other hand. I went the opposite direction. I didn’t shower once, the entire week. I took pride in my uncleanliness. It was a badge of honor. A sign that I had in fact experienced the fullness of camp. Now I didn’t receive any outer awards for my uncleanliness, but I do remember how much fun it was to go an entire week at camp without a shower.
Cleanliness was an important topic of conversation during the time of Jesus. In fact, cleanliness has always been an important topic of conversation for religious folks dating back to the earliest beginnings of the Abrahamic faiths and up through the religious experience of the modern era. In face we even have sayings like “cleanliness is next to Godliness,” right.
The gospel reading for this morning lifts up this idea of cleanliness in the context of Jesus’ time in a real and challenging way. See the disciples and Jesus are traveling all throughout the region of Galilee participating in the healing and restorative ministry of God. Jesus is preaching, teaching and living into the kingdom of God. He’s healing the sick, he’s touching the untouchable, he’s breaking all societal and religious boundaries to offer folks who were excluded and shunned the grace of loving human contact. Jesus is breaking all of the rules. All of them. And he’s doing so for the sake of people, for the sake of relationship, for the sake of restoration and reconciliation, for the sake of loving folks back into life.
So as Jesus and his disciples are engaged in this ministry they run into some adversarial voices. Because whenever you’re out there trying to do some good in this world there’s bound to be a naysayer or two. These voices are from some scribes and the pharisees. Now the scribes and pharisees have come all the way from Jerusalem to the region of Galilee to check Jesus out. To see what he’s up to and to find some way to discredit him, to attack his ministry, to challenge him or to stop him.
Because the pharisees and the scribes were the religious authority of the day. They were one of the groups of religious leaders who had power and authority in their community. And because they were human beings with power, they were threatened by Jesus ministry because Jesus ministry is all about empowering the powerless, it is all about humility and radical inclusive grace which uplifts the poor, the weak, the vulnerable and the unclean and offers them a seat at the feast of heaven.
It’s important to know this back story as we encounter the text we heard read this morning because it explains why Jesus is so confrontational with the pharisees and the scribes. See this confrontation happens as the pharisees and the scribes are observing Jesus’ disciples who have neglected one of the traditions of the elders and have not washed their hands before eating their food. Upon noticing this they ask Jesus why his disciples don’t participate in this ritual of cleanliness?
Immediately Jesus launches into his response calling them hypocrites and quotes from the prophet Isaiah who talks about people honoring God with their lips but their hearts are far from the heart of God.
Without this background information about the intent of the pharisees and scribes Jesus’ response to a relatively simple and seemingly harmless question could sound a little bit too reactive. But Jesus knows that the pharisees and the scribes are there to discredit his movement.
They are there to maintain the status quo. They are there to preserve their own power, prestige and ego. They are not interested in listening for what God is doing in their midst, they are not interested in metanoia, in a transformation of their hearts and their lives, they only want to maintain that which they know and that which they constructed.
So Jesus embodies the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament and he confronts the powers of this world with raw truth telling in order to help everyone wake up to this truth: God is in fact doing something new in this world, right here and right now.
Jesus is calling the pharisees and the scribes to see that these practices, these rituals, these traditons that they are holding fast too are not helping them to grow in their knowledge and love for God and God’s people. On the contrary, these traditions and rituals have in fact become a barrier for them, a barrier between them and other people.
Let me explain a little bit. And I want to be clear at this point that I am not saying that I am above and beyond the pharisees and the scribes. They are human beings just like you and me. We all have this temptation within us. A temptation, as one theologian once put it, “to let our last experience of God become a barrier to our next experience of God.”
See the traditions, rituals and practices that the pharisees and scribes were adhering to were practices that had developed and evolved over the years in the Jewish faith. They were rituals and practices that were intended to draw one’s attention and focus beyond the ritual and practice itself toward God. These practices were intended to enable and empower folks to practice their faith in this world and help them to learn how to love God with their whole heart and love their neighbor as themselves.
But as it often happens with us human beings, we missed the point. We built up practices and rituals that helped us to define who was in and who was out, who was included in God’s favor and who was excluded. We decided who was clean and pure and who was tainted and unclean. We drew all sorts of lines and boundaries so that we knew exactly who was worthy of God’s love and salvation and who wasn’t. This practice hasn’t gone away mind you. Christians and even more so, pastors have fallen into this same temptation and trap.
There’s this Buddhist teaching that say a spiritual practice is “the finger pointing at the moon, the finger is needed to know which way the moon is, but all too often we mistake the finger for the moon.” The temptation that the pharisees and the scribes fell into is the same temptation that we all fall into: to make an idol out of our religious practice.
And so Jesus calls them and us out on it. He challenges our assumptions and our traditions in order to ask us are they helping us to grow in our love for God, are they empowering us to truly love our neighbors and are they pushing us beyond our comfort zones to love the stranger, the lost, the outcast in our midst.
See Jesus calls us all as followers in his way to examine the contents of our own hearts and our lives. To acknowledge and confess the things within us that if left unchecked could defile us and our actions. See Jesus knows that the heart of a spiritual life is allowing God to transform us from the inside out, not from the outside in. The purpose of our rituals and traditions, the purpose of the law of the Hebrew scriptures, is to bring a growing awareness to that which is within us which needs the touch of God’s transforming love.
The commandment to love our neighbor, the commandment to love the stranger, the commandment to give away one tenth of our money; these commandments are intended to bring a growing awareness to our tendency to withhold love from those we deem unworthy, our tendency to not want to see others as created in the image of God, or our love for our own wealth and power instead of a humble reliance upon God’s grace and mercy. These outer practices have an inner component. The problem occurs when we disconnect the two.
So you might be wondering what’s the deal with the sermon title this week. Iron, starched but haven’t bathed. It comes from a quote from our founder John Wesley which I learned just this past week. The true quote is this: “the church recruited people who had been starched and ironed before they were washed.”
It speaks to the heart of this gospel reading, the heart of this spiritual truth that Jesus is trying to wake us up to, we must make sure that our inner life matches our outer life. We must make sure that we are allowing the life-giving love of God to wash over us, to fill our hearts and our lives, to make us whole by God’s overflowing mercy and forgiveness. We must confess that which is within us that leads us to want to turn inward and away from God’s leading and then we must turn ourselves outward toward the world with that loving and open spiritual posture to be agents of radical inclusive grace in this world.
It makes sense that today is a day we would be celebrating the gift of holy communion. This sacrament of God, this sacred meal in which God makes herself known to us. This meal is one of the ways we are washed and made whole because in this meal we recognize that even though we all fall short of the glory of God, we are unbelievable worthy of God’s love and God’s favor, we remember that we are God’s beloved children and that God is well pleased with each of us, all of us. And so as we prepare to receive the bread and the cup, let us take a moment to consider that which is within us which we need God’s help to transform in love.