I want to tell you a story a friend once told his congregation
about this text:[i]
It was a story about his Aunt Briddie, his father’s oldest sister.
Aunt Briddle and her husband, Uncle Herbert,
enjoyed entertaining, and so many summers,
when the extended family came to 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,”
my friend continued,
“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,
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 died 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 [bible] 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,
“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.
But 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,
the passage calls this “the tradition of the elders,”
which was passed down from generation to generation
until it became common practice.
And 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,
which foods were clean or unclean.
If a person were to eat food considered unclean,
then that person became unclean
unfit to serve God,
to enter the temple,
or even to 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.
And 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?!
A few months ago,
when I was privileged to lead vespers at Kingwood down the street
I met Eugene Lowry,
who at one time taught preaching here at St Paul School of Theology.
Eugene once wrote a book called The Homiletical Plot,
where he describes what was, at the time,
a new approach to narrative preaching.
It was completely different from the three points, a funny joke, and a conclusion
sort of preaching most pastors were taught.
It’s a way of inviting you, the congregation,
into the life of the text through stories, following
the ways in which the storyteller of the text
tells the biblical story.
Lowry gave caution in his introduction, though.
And it was wise caution: when a congregation is accustomed
to a certain style of preaching, he said
a change of form is often perceived
as a change of content, or theology.
In other words, if you change how you say it
people will often, naturally,
mistake it for a change in what you are saying.
And people are resistant to change.
That’s true, isn’t it?
People are resistant to change, particularly things they love,
things that once served a good and noble and important purpose,
but might no longer fit.
Someone once called vibrant leadership:
Disappointing people at the rate people can tolerate.
And there’s a measure of truth to that.
So this Jesus…he and his disciples were all about challenging the form of the faith.
They were doing all those things the tradition told them NOT to do
–touching and healing the sick
–freeing people from their demons
–hanging out with the gentiles.
All those people who were considered unclean.
Jesus and his disciples, they lived their lives in the dirt.
He was changing the form.
So when the Pharisees asked him,
hey Jesus, what’s up with the dirty hands?
he didn’t deny what his disciples did.
He didn’t even justify what they were doing, explicitly.
Instead, Jesus reached way back through the tradition,
all the way back 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…
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition!”
“You intended your tradition to be a fence around the law
to protect the people, and to keep them together,
but instead of a fence you’ve built a wall,
and such a high wall that you can no longer see
the good that is in what you are 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 isn’t right.”
The Pharisees and the scribes focused so much on what they had built,
and on the means, the methods, the forms,
that they failed to be transformed by the spirit that they were meant to promote.
And more than that:
They were using their tradition as a means of division.
In the name of God, they had created this system
where one’s devotion to God
was measured solely by one’s actions.
And their rituals and customs caused them to believe that they were doing
a little better than everyone else
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.
This had me pondering about our own traditions,
the way we’ve established certain practices meant to promote
cohesion and unity and shared identity
but which aren’t themselves law
much less gospel.
They’re not bad things, none of them:
The robe and stole I wear, the length of a “proper” sermon,
the way we stand to sing.
Some of that is great.
They help us take seriously the time we spend together in this hour
they help us focus on God,
rather on the fleeting thoughts going through our head
they speak to the value we place on thoughtful, educated sermons
and communal participation.
And its not the only way to worship.
But we can forget that, sometimes.
And some look askew at churches with a drum set on the chancel
or a coffee bar just outside the sanctuary doors
or an hour long sermon
(don’t worry, no plans to change that one any time soon)
We wonder about churches forming in bars
we ask about worshiping communities
that are centered around a group of cyclists
called “sweaty sheep.”
I think we wonder how we’d respond when we ask someone
hey, where do you go to church,
and they reply back “this place called “sweaty sheep”
Yesterday, Brook pointed out to me this article in the Kansas City Star
describing something called “Post Traumatic Church Syndrome.”
Reba Riley uses that term to describe
some of the 59 percent of millennials who grew up in a church,
but whom have dropped out.
The phrase is meant to imply some harm done to them
and sadly, as I’ve looked out at our church landscape
the term wasn’t much of a shock to me.
Riley describes churches that are shallow
And a first thought was to say: I wish more of them grew up in churches I knew
places I’ve seen
where we try go to deep
where we aspire to connect reason with faith
and don’t require checking our head or our heart at the door
where we adopt a posture of humility
Places like the Kirk. I am so proud to be pastor of this church.
We’re like the Post Traumatic Church Syndrome antidote in many ways.
But I also know that we ourselves can be tempted, at times,
with that overprotective piece,
that we don’t like to change any more than the next person.
We know the power of those words:
“but we’ve always done it that way before…”
And its ok to have our traditions, to have our rituals.
In many ways we need them. They can and do help bring us
closer together, closer to God.
But rituals and traditions must never become stumbling blocks
to pointing people to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Because when they do, they stop being life giving,
and they become idolatrous.
I confess to you today that I wash every piece of fruit and vegetable
that I buy at the market.
And I wash my hands before dinner, and encourage my kids to do so too.
I am comfortable with my way of living, walking, breathing church
our structures and our committees and our worship
its been a part of me my whole life.
But I pray that none of the form that gives me such life
will detract others from experiencing some of that life too
that I might be open to dining with someone who hasn’t washed up yet
or worshipping next to someone who prays a bit differently than I
or likes that song I just can’t stand
that I might understand what in my life is tradition—maybe even good tradition
tradition worth examining and perhaps keeping
so that I can distinguish that from others who have traditions
just as worthy and as true as my own.
I pray that I can focus on the heart of the matter,
the place from which true cleanliness might come.
So that together, we can seek out our one Lord, our one Savior
and be the welcoming people God wants me to be.
May it be so.
[i] Related by Reggie Weaver, formerly pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church of Greensboro, in his 2012 sermon “Cleanliness or Godliness.” Elements of this sermon are adapted from his sermon.
Image by Tajik Kurutob-photo courtesy Zlerman-Wikimedia Commons