Texts: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9, James 1:17-27, Mark 7:1-8, 14-23
"At Trinity we have the deep desire and the deep need to call all creation good, our neighbors and ourselves, especially if we have been called unholy too many times, or even once. If we have been called anything less than God’s child, by the church and by the world. We need to remember and remind each other that we are always beloved in God’s eyes.
And still, there remains Jesus’ warning that, 'It is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.' We are asked to hold a paradox: we are each of us created good, and we are each of us capable of evil. Paul Tillich has written that 'Being religious means asking passionately the question of the meaning of our existence and being willing to receive answers, even if the answers hurt.' In this case, the answer hurts."
After give weeks of John’s gospel texts about bread, we are finally back to Mark. But the joke’s on us: we’re still talking about bread. Almost two months ago we heard the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000, and this passage comes a short while after that part of Mark. Having just witnessed the miracle, the religious authorities stand back in with horror, apparently not much concerned with the multiplying loaves and fish, but that the people who partook did not wash their hands before they ate.
The religious authorities were not just talking about physical contamination. Their concern is about boundaries and purity: about what’s outside not getting inside. Not just about the body being protected, but the spiritual self, and most importantly the community. They tell us themselves: their concern is for upholding the tradition of the elders, for upholding the law.
(It is tempting to caricature the Pharisees as sticklers for the law, or enemies of the Holy Spirit, especially when Jesus calls them hypocrites. But it’s worth noting that if Jesus were aligned with one of the Jewish sects of the day, he probably was closest to the Pharisees. The same way that we are often most perturbed and riled up by people who remind us of ourselves [and if you’ve never realized that, there’s your sermon for the day, you can stop listening now], Jesus may pick on the Pharisees precisely because his teachings were closer to theirs than any other Jewish group at the time.)
Now, back to the question of handwashing. The religious authorities are holding the tradition that what is inside needs to be protected from what is outside. Jesus flips that paradigm: It is not the outside world we need to protect ourselves from. Anything we could fear is already within ourselves.
“There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile,” says Jesus, “but the things that come out are what defile.” Our enemy isn’t out there somewhere. The evil of the world begins from inside us.
The first part of this we at Trinity already understand very well. Some churches teach that one ought to be “in the world but not of it,” ought to cling to a raft of holiness and fend off the world until Judgement Day. But not here. We don’t see our neighbors as our enemy. We ourselves are strangers and guests in the neighborhood. Even if we wanted to isolate ourselves, we can’t, and we don’t.
But the second part of Jesus’s message is something that might be harder to accept. Not a warning against the outside — but a warning against the inside.
At Trinity we have the deep desire and the deep need to call all creation good, our neighbors and ourselves, especially if we have been called unholy too many times, or even once. If we have been called anything less than God’s child, by the church and by the world. We need to remember and remind each other that we are always beloved in God’s eyes.
And still, there remains Jesus’ warning that, “It is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.”
We are asked to hold a paradox:
we are each of us created good,
and we are each of us capable of evil.
Paul Tillich has written that “Being religious means asking passionately the question of the meaning of our existence and being willing to receive answers, even if the answers hurt.” In this case, the answer hurts.
It might be tempting to look to far off times and far off places where terrible things have happened and do happen, where people are cruel to each other, and think that we ourselves would never make the same choices.
Or maybe the experience of cruelty is not that far off at all. Examples stand before us, or confront us, every day.
But as Hannah Arendt coined the term, the banality of evil is such that we are, all of us, influenced by the social pressures and conditions that would lead us to inhuman deeds. No one is exempt.
If we wanted to think that our own actions were good enough, that we could be isolated enough from the world so as not to participate in its systems of injustice, the novelist Dostoyevsky has words for us. Placed on the words of a holy monk, speaking to his brethren about how secluding themselves from the world does not make them holier than the world:
“For know, dear ones, that every one of us is undoubtedly responsible for all men- and everything on earth, not merely through the general sinfulness of creation, but each one personally for all mankind and every individual man.”
(That’s from The Brothers Karamazov. For the record, I never finished reading it.)
All sins are my sins, the monk says. The evil that we perceive outside of us is within us. In short, we are all connected in the same web of responsibility.
Believe it or not, I’m not trying to lay a guilt trip on us, or give a litany of “isms,” I’m not even trying to lament, not this exact moment.
I hope just to point out the depth of the problem that Jesus is naming for us:
That our goodness and our sinfulness, both, go all the way down.
We cannot forget either one.
And as Christians, as Lutheran Christians,
We hold this tension, and wrestle with its meaning, all the days of our lives.
That we are created good, in God’s image, AND our greatest darknesses come from within. That we are beautiful in God’s eyes AND we are capable of terrible cruelty.
I don’t have an answer to the paradox. (If I did, you can write to the bishop and tell her I’m a phony.)
I don’t have answer, but I have an image: it is the intersection of two separate realities:
of life and of death, of total power and goodness, and of utter weakness and pain.
It is the cross, standing tall and pointing to God’s mercy.
Because the ultimate paradox off our faith
is that Love herself took to death,
so that suffering and terror do not have the final say in our lives.
So that while we grapple with goodness and sinfulness,
we know that a day will come when all cruelty will be vanquished,
when every tear will be wiped away, and we shall stand in reconciled and in relationship with all whom we have harmed, and all who have harmed us.
We do not need to hunker down or live only in lament until that day.
Jesus has given us forgiveness that makes us whole even while we are not yet healed.
In our text today, Jesus says that food goes into the stomach and out into the sewer,
but He has given us another food — that goes to the heart. It is the bread we taste today, the body and blood of Christ. As inextricable as the goodness and darkness is in us, so is the divinity and humanity of Jesus’ own body, broken for us to participate in the mystery of his life.
As we go out into the world, we must strive to live in a good way, holding the tension of goodness and evil within ourselves.
And here’s where we take a cue from the Pharisees after all.
Because the tradition of the elders was at its core a way to remain in relationship with the Holy One, and with each other. And that is what we must do. We must stay in relationship.
Which includes confession,
but it is also the concerted effort to continue to get to know the people we live with, and the land we live on. The effort to remain accountable to those who are most vulnerable to our actions.
And never to let our neighbors become invisible to us.
It is a tall task.
It is a long road.
But we have the food,
And we have each other,
And we have God’s promise that She will always be by our side.
In the name of the Holy One who created us good,
and redeems us in our failures,
and sustains us for the journey,