Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Psalm 45:1-2, 6-9; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
At first read, I didn’t notice many – if any – common threads in this Sunday’s lectionary readings.
But as I spent more time with them, I found some connections that I don’t think I made up. There is an earthiness to these readings that appeals to me. I find relief in the nitty-gritty, real-life absence of spiritual niceties in these texts. From the lustiness of Song of Songs, to Jesus’ talk of… umm, well… excrement, to James’ no-holds-barred admonishment to hold our gossipy tongues – these readings refute any claims that the Bible is irrelevant or exclusively spiritual.
Incarnation abounds this late summer Lord’s Day and our sermons will be better if we don’t try and clean up the biblical record for the sake of not offending the churchy among us. Jesus won’t let the Pharisees get away with scrubbing the record, so we shouldn’t either.
An inclination to sanitize is only our first challenge this week. There are a few more that come quickly to mind, a major one being the problem of talking about defiled and unclean in our contemporary context. We know about hand washing from the standpoint of not spreading the flu. Some among us have hand sanitizers ever at the ready. Perhaps your congregations, like some that I have served, have debated the wisdom of serving communion by intinction lest we spread germs. Do your nurseries not have shoe covers for volunteers to don prior to entering the room? We get cleanliness. But Mark isn’t getting at cleanliness or hygiene. Mark is getting at holiness, piety, faithfulness. Ritual washing was about being pure not about being healthy. How do we get that across in our congregations?
What do we equate with piety? Holiness? Maybe even righteousness? I have a hard time coming up with a list. I can think of boxes we check to be socially acceptable or politically correct. I have what I call my “righteous bags” that I take to the grocery store – you know, the reusable ones that don’t add to my carbon footprint. I am especially judicious about bringing them to Whole Foods lest I get the evil eye from my fellow shoppers. I recycle. I floss. I vote. I clean up after my dogs. I do these things more or less because it is expected and I don’t want to be judged by the community (or the dental hygienist). But none of these have anything to do with holiness or piety or feeling righteous before God.
So, a challenge this week is to figure out what we equate with holiness. What boxes do we check for ourselves or for others when we want to know if we or they are good and righteous? Put another way: What do we think defiles? It isn’t that we are past judging one another. It is that what we judge – the categories and expectations – are drastically different than they were for Mark and his hearers. However, then as now, what we name dirty and want to shun is likely immaterial to God. That we may be better to get a handle on, right?
Do you know the acronym: N.O.K.D.? I have no idea where I first heard it or in what context. I think, I hope, it was a joke. But we all know there is truth in jest. It stands for Not Our Kind, Dear. It translates: those people are not ones with whom we associate. (Think Dowager Countess on Downton Abbey.) Unclean. Defiled. For my mother, growing up Presbyterian in Nova Scotia, Canada, it was Catholics that were N.O.K.D. (I wonder what my grandmother thought when her daughter sent us to Catholic school!) Look back through the church’s historical record, and not far back, and it reveals those whom were thought to be N.O.K.D. As I read a history of Martin Luther King Jr.’s visit to Montreat, the minutes of church council meetings record the words of those voicing concern over purity and defilement.
Don’t ask who hasn’t washed their hands. Ask: Who do we not want to hold our hands or the hands of our children? That might get us closer to this notion of crying unclean.
Then go from hands to hearts. Jesus says they are connected. It is the heart that drives the hands and the actions of the hands that reveal the deliberations of our hearts. What’s that other expression I heard growing up? Oh yes, “Pretty is as pretty does.” Here it is holy is as holy does. Or maybe what you see is who you are.
This is where the sermon can be powerfully uplifting. Pointing to the ugly is easy. Seeing the nasty fruit borne of the evil deliberations of our hearts is low-hanging fruit. More challenging is pointing to the beautiful fruit that is evidence of our created goodness and Christ-redeemedness. (I made that word up, but Paul makes up words so it must be ok.)
Look to the Song of Solomon. Go ahead, we so rarely do. Point to what flows from loving hearts. God gives us the gift of one another and sometimes we get it right! If you know people whose hearts overflow with love and delight in one another, name them. Haven’t you presided at those weddings? Haven’t you been to those 50th anniversary celebrations? Remind people such relationships exist.
Read those verses from Psalm 45. Pull out a few other Psalms of praise. Think about times in your life, in the life of your church or in the life of your community when songs of praise filled your hearts and therefore your voices. I love the story of a church I served that has been told repeatedly. It was the day the steeple was being lifted on top of the new sanctuary and the pastor started singing the doxology at the top of his lungs and all those gathered on the sidewalk joined him. Haven’t there been those times when you were so overjoyed it was evident to the world?
I think about Philippians here. Whatever is true and joyful and good, think on these things, deliberate on them in your heart and see what comes forth from you in word and in deed. Invite your congregation to do the same in the days ahead. All of you may marvel at what God does with those kinds of intentional deliberations.
Remind your hearers that while Jesus alone is our righteousness, our justification, and while the Spirit coaches our sanctification, we do have a role. James’ advice should be heeded in this regard. If we are struggling with what preoccupies our hearts and therefore occupies our hands, James helps us set things right. Listening more than speaking might change our hearts. Stopping before we speak (or hit send or post) could better align our words with the Word. Doing what we find in that Word may also align our hearts with the holy. I used to work with someone I respect and admire and we would laugh about “not having a happy heart” about doing one thing or another (often in the line of our church duties). But what I often found was that in the doing of that thing – making the visit, teaching the class, having the tense conversation – my heart became happy, or at least not as heavy.
This is a down-and-dirty week in the pulpit. Creation, the very good, fallen and redeemed, is evident in all these texts. Incarnation, fleshiness, day-to-day life together, is the arena. And, thankfully, God’s holiness made known to us in Jesus Christ is transforming hearts, then as now, so that our hands can be his, no matter how dirty they are.
- In Mark, the Pharisees mistake human law for God’s law. They value tradition over God. How, where and when do we do this?
- How do we measure holiness, faithfulness, purity, righteousness? Are there things we think are required of people that God doesn’t really care about? How do we discern what matters to God versus what matters to us?
- The Greek word for “defiled” can also be translated as “common.” It is also the root of the word koinonia meaning community. We talk about koinonia as a wonderful form of Christian community. What do you make of the connection between the two words?
- Spend some time with the verses from James and be intentional about listening and being slow to speak. What do you learn from this practice?
- Does our culture care about holiness? Is holiness simply unfamiliar or is it unvalued? What difference does it make if we do or don’t care about this concept?
- Do a little research on the rituals of cleanliness in the Bible. Take a look at Leviticus 11 and Exodus 30:17-21. How does this inform your reading of Mark’s Gospel?
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