Upcoming on Sunday, 9/30

Salted with fire (Mark 9.38-50)
Have you ever noticed those billboards along I-75 (and maybe other places, too) with the provocative religious messages, and the phone number you can call for spiritual help? There’s a series of them that are focused on judgment (even Hell!). These signs are probably an unwanted distraction from the job of driving safely along the freeway, and maybe they are also an embarrassment for Christians who want to stress the love and compassion of God.
But, on the other hand, Jesus does talk about judgment quite a lot, and nowhere is he more explicit about it than in our passage from Mark this week. We rarely talk about these passages because they are troubling, but on Sunday I will take the challenge! I actually believe that there is something important and very hopeful about these images of judgment. I’m not going to give everything away here, but I hope subscribers to this blog will come to church and find out more on Sunday! (If not, stay tuned for my Monday post). 

Jesus is for the children (Mark 9.30-37)

Mark 9.30-37
“Jesus is for the children”
Ordinary 25B/September 23, 2018
Eastminster United Presbyterian Church
Tom James
I don’t know if you are familiar with the term “G.O.A.T.” I don’t mean the animal with the horns, the scruffy beard, and the undiscriminating palate! “G.O.A.T.” is an acronym: you have to picture it with all caps and with periods separating the letters. “G.O.A.T” stands for “greatest of all time.” “G.O.A.T.” has been used for a lot of different people in a lot of different human endeavors, from sports to politics to entertainment. It has to be something in the public view, of course, where judgment and speculation about “who’s the greatest” might actually happen. No one ever talks about the “greatest night watch person of all time,” or the “greatest uber driver of all time”—though maybe they should!
The first time I ever heard the term “G.O.A.T.” was in reference to Michael Jordan, whom many sports commentators thought was perhaps the greatest basketball player of all time, but of course, that has been hotly debated ever since. Full disclosure: I spent most of my teenage years in Raleigh, North Carolina, and one of my proudest boasts is that I got to see Jordan play quite a few times during his college years before anyone imagined that he would ever be called “G.O.A.T.” So I’m a little biased, there, I have to admit.
In a way, these debates about who’s the greatest of all time, not just in sports but in just about any public activity that you can imagine, are inevitable. Ours is a culture that is obsessed with greatness. It seems as if every child is taught to want to be great. And not only that but, today, many parents join them in that ambition. It’s not enough simply to be “good,” or to have a satisfying life, or to be a contributing member of society. No, more and more, we measure how successful our life is not on the basis of how satisfied and happy we are, but we measure it comparatively—have I climbed to the top? Have I distinguished myself from others? Or, more crudely, do I make more money than so-and-so, or have a better house, or better clothes? Or, perhaps, Have I been more productive? Are mine the more important causes? Am I a better person?
And the problem with evaluating ourselves comparatively, of course, is that it encourages us to adopt a very destructive sort of incentive: If I am in the habit of evaluating my life by comparing it to others, by whatever measure, I now have an interest in seeing others fall behind, or even fail. I may even want to put people down, so that I may more easily step over them.
Well. We didn’t invent this problem in the twenty-first century. Earlier in the ninth chapter of the gospel of Mark, a select group of disciples is with Jesus on a mountaintop, and there they see a remarkable vision of Jesus where his clothing and his face become bright and white, and they hear the voice of God. It was the epitome of a mountaintop experience. And, here, in our passage for this morning, it is clear that they have come down from the mountain. They have left behind this shining vision of Christ, this image of grace and power that radically equalizes them all, and have exchanged it for a petty squabble about who might be the “G.D.O.A.T.”—the greatest disciple of all time.
They know it’s petty. And we know they know it because they won’t admit to Jesus that they had been having that debate. They know that it doesn’t square at all with what Jesus had been teaching them, nor with the way he had been living among them. And, yet, the temptation, apparently, was all but irresistible. But, do you feel them? Who hasn’t been in a classroom or on a sports team or just in some group of people and felt the urge to show how smart you are, or how special you are, or maybe even how self-effacing and humble you are?
And what does Jesus do? He grabs a nearby child. Who is this kid? Maybe a child of one of the followers of Jesus. Or maybe it’s a child that just happens to be out in Capernaum, busy with the work that children in those days were expected to do.
There is a conventional way of understanding this story that, it seems to me, is all wrong. Even a lot of preachers and bible study leaders fall into this trap. It goes something like this: The disciples are obsessed with being great, but what they don’t realize is that to be great in God’s eyes, we have to have the innocence of a child. The child is the model that we should seek to follow. A little child shall lead them, as it says somewhere. So, be like a little child: innocent, humble, and open, a servant of everyone.
Except that, that’s not how children are at all! Anyone who has been a parent recently, especially when there are multiple kids involved, knows that children are just like the rest of us: they need affirmation; they need to assured of their worth, and all too often the way they get it is by pitting themselves against others—maybe their siblings—and try to carve out some advantage. Those of us who have had kids in school know that kids can be cruel to each other, and while we need to understand that the brutal competition of the playground is in part due to a developmental process, the fact remains that the child is not the most obvious counterpoint to the disciples’ petty squabbles. In fact, we might say that their problem is that they are acting like children, and we might say that our problem as a society that is obsessed with greatness and with treating life as a zero-sum competition between those who turn out to be “winners” and those who turn out to be “losers” is that we haven’t actually done a very good job of growing up.
So, why does Jesus grab a child, pulling him into his arms? What is the child supposed to teach us? What Jesus says here tells us all we need to know: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” It’s not that we’re supposed to be like children—that’s all too easy—it’s that, if we want to be followers of Jesus in the best way possible, we have to learn how to pay a little less attention to ourselves. We have to get over the habit of measuring our merits and our defects and comparing them with others, and we have to learn how to see the most vulnerable in our midst, like the child who may be all but invisible to the eyes of those who are focused on power and status.
In our time, we have a very protective attitude toward children. We are outraged when they are mistreated. When they are abused, we all demand that the perpetrators be punished and that the victims be protected. But it wasn’t always that way. In the ancient world, there were a lot of very vulnerable people, but none so vulnerable as the child. In the ancient world, there were slaves, women had virtually no rights, foreigners were often considered somewhat less than human. But children were on the very lowest rung of society. They were considered property, and though they might very well be loved and cherished by their parents, they were expected to work; they were not protected against abuse; during times of want, they could be sold, or even, in extreme cases, left to die. It was an unsentimental time, compared with ours. And, so, putting a child in their midst, embracing the child, was a way of pointing the disciples away from themselves, and toward one who needed them to step up, and pay attention to the needs of the world around them.
And there’s something more. Throughout the gospels, Jesus offers some unusual images for the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God was an image that embodied the hopes of the people for a better society and a better world. Usually, it meant the triumph of the forces of good, and, along with it, the destruction of the forces of evil. The kingdom of God was a political image, and, in particular, it had to do with the overthrow of Roman occupation. But, here, I believe Jesus is doing something more than offering an object lesson about discipleship. I believe he is giving us another one of his strange images of the kingdom of God. For he tells his disciples, in effect, that whoever welcomes a little one like this welcomes God. God is present in this vulnerable human child. God is present in this person who is treated like a piece of property. God is present in this person who is not really a person in the eyes of society, this human being who has no rights and no reliable protections, this one who is considered among the very least of the world.
This is a radically different way of thinking about God than the disciples probably wanted, or even that the mountaintop experience of a few verses before might have led them to expect. This is no majesty here, no bright light or thundering voice, no conquering warrior, no great winner, no G.G.O.A.T. (greatest god of all time) but only the most vivid example of vulnerability. And that’s where they were going to find God. Preacher Frederick Buechner once said, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Where else but the children of our world can gladness and deep hunger come together?

Who are the children in our neighborhood—who are the children that we can reach, and welcome? Jesus loves the little children—all the little children of the world: red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. Do we know them? Can we know them? Can we welcome them, and in so doing, can we find our gladness and the world’s deep hunger? I hope we will try, stepping a little outside ourselves if necessary. In the name of God, our creator and redeemer. Amen.

What it means to confess Jesus (Mark 8.27-38)

Mark 8.27-38
“What it means to confess Jesus”
Ordinary 24B/September 16, 2018
Eastminster United Presbyterian Church
Tom James
Today is a special day in our family. After church today (well, actually, after Session!), we are all converging on Ann Arbor to celebrate my oldest daughter Emma’s 18th birthday. I feel like we’ve accomplished something. I know it’s a little arbitrary, this 18th birthday as a “crossing into adulthood,” but milestones matter, don’t they?
It’s an occasion to reflect, anyway. What have we been able to impart to her that will guide her as she moves further into adulthood? What many parents seem to want for their kids is for them to become leaders in some way. You hardly ever hear about a parent saying to their kids, “be a follower, not a leader.” And you don’t hear of schools bragging about educating the next generation of followers. There aren’t seminars on strengthening your “followership.” And why is that? We have this idea that being a leader is a marker or perhaps a harbinger of what we have been taught to recognize as “success”—maybe a high-paying job, or prestige in society, or maybe making important contributions to solving difficult problems or to bettering human life in some way. Success can mean lots of things, but it usually means being able and willing in some way to stick your neck out a little and take the lead.
But there’s something very basic about the Christian life that can easily get obscured or distorted when we focus on these goals of “success” or even “leadership.” For, at its core, being a Christian is a matter of confessing the truth of Jesus’ message and his ministry, and that means that we, like his contemporary disciples, are to be followers of Jesus. And so, our deepest identity as Christians is not to be leaders, but to be followers.
Peter learned this the hard way. Peter is a really great picture of a certain kind of person we all know—or maybe are: someone who likes to get out ahead of things, someone who likes to get things done, someone who doesn’t let the grass grow under their feet when there is a mission ready to be undertaken. We all need people like Peter, of course, and it is no accident that he finally did become a leader of the apostles and of the church that was about to explode across the Mediterranean and beyond. But first he had to learn a crucial lesson—I say “crucial” because the word itself hints at the kind of lesson he had to learn. It was the “crux” of the matter for those who followed Jesus—“crux” means “cross.” It was the cross that Peter had to confront, and beyond it the cruciform or cross-shaped quality of the Christian life.
The other day I heard a member of another church nearby lamenting the days when it was assumed that everyone is a Christian, that everyone was a member of some church, whether it be Presbyterian, or Lutheran, or Catholic, or whatever. But can anyone who reads this passage for today be surprised that not everyone wants to be a Christian today? I have already mentioned that there is a basic tension between the imperatives of success and leadership that are so deeply entrenched in our society today and the call to follow that fills the pages of the gospels. But it’s not just that. If it were, we could look at Peter as a kind of apprentice, learning to follow for now, but only as a kind of preparation for when he would lead. In other words, we could see following as a temporary arrangement, an expedient, destined hopefully to give way to something better. But if being a follower is the fundamental thing, if to be a follower is the permanent relationship we have with Jesus, if to be a Christian is to be in a sort of apprenticeship that never really ends, that in some sense we can never ascend to the chair of leadership but must always remain dependent and secondary, then maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised that people reared in a culture that is preoccupied with who is “on top” find this whole Christianity thing a little unattractive?
And there’s more to it that than, of course. It’s not just that we followers of Jesus are permanent followers. Peek behind the curtain with me for just a moment, and see with Peter just where he this Jesus that we are following is actually leading us.
We often think of Jesus as a prophet of love, so he is. But he is a prophet of love in a world that in many ways doesn’t want that kind of prophecy. It’s not that people don’t want it—it’s that there are forces in our collective life that work against it. In Jesus’ day, there was a brutal empire, in which a great colonizing power grew richer and richer by systematically extracting labor and wealth from its subjugated colonies. It was a local government—essentially run by a small number of aristocratic families who were rewarded for their complicity with Rome—that enabled Roman to dominate the region. There were real, nameable dangers that stood in the way of anyone who dared to announce release to prisoners when keeping prisoners was a way to maintain power over the colony, or who dared to announce good news to the poor when the empire existed to serve the rich. So to be a prophet of love was, for Jesus, to be in harm’s way. To be a prophet of love was to be in the cross-hairs of an empire.
What sort of trouble might such a prophet of love get into today? We’ve heard of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., and their bold witness to love. We’ve also heard how they were assassinated. We remember civil rights heroes, and resisters against the Nazi’s, and maybe even the martyrs of the church. Being a prophet of love has always been a dangerous business.
So, what does it mean to confess Jesus? Well, first, it means to confess to being a follower—it is to admit that being a follower is our deepest and most important identity. It also means being prepared for struggle, to recognize that following Jesus takes the shape of the cross. But, thirdly, it means having joy. You don’t see much of the joy yet in our passage. It was the other side of Easter, after all. There are hints of joy in the gospels: for example, when Jesus sends his disciples out and they rejoice when they find that they have the power to proclaim good news and to heal. The joy of the Christian life is this power, and it is a power that comes from being followers of Christ, a power that can change everything.
In 2004 Victor Yushchenko stood for the presidency of Ukraine. Vehemently opposed by the ruling party Yushchenko’s face was disfigured and he almost lost his life when he was mysteriously poisoned. This was not enough to deter him from standing for the presidency.
On the day of the election, Yushchenko was comfortably in the lead. The ruling party, not to be denied, tampered with the results. The state-run television station reported, “ladies and gentlemen, we announce that the challenger Victor Yushchenko has been decisively defeated.”
In the lower right-hand corner of the screen, a woman by the name of Natalia Dmitruk was providing a translation service for the deaf community. As the news presenter regurgitated the lies of the regime, Natalia Dmitruk refused to translate them. “I’m addressing all the deaf citizens of Ukraine” she signed. “They are lying and I’m ashamed to translate those lies. Yushchenko is our president.”
The deaf community sprang into gear. They text messaged their friends about the fraudulent result and as news spread of Dmitruk’s act of defiance increasing numbers of journalists were inspired to likewise tell the truth. Over the coming weeks the “Orange Revolution” occurred as a million people wearing orange made their way to the capital city of Kiev demanding a new election. The government was forced to meet their demands, a new election was held and Victor Yushchenko became president.
Christian author Philip Yancey writes,
“When I heard the story behind the orange revolution, the image of a small screen of truth in the corner of the big screen became for me an ideal picture of the church. You see we as a church do not control the big screen. (When we do, we usually mess it up.) Go to any magazine rack or turn on the television and you see a consistent message. What matters is how beautiful you are, how much money or power you have. Similarly, though the world includes many poor people, they rarely make the magazine covers or the news shows. Instead, we focus on the superrich, names like Bill Gates or Oprah Winfrey. Our society is hardly unique. Throughout history, nations have always glorified winners, not losers. Then, like the sign language translator in the lower right-hand corner of the screen, along comes a person named Jesus who says in effect, Don’t believe the big screen – they’re lying. It’s the poor who are blessed, not the rich. Mourners are blessed too, as well as those who hunger and thirst, and the persecuted. Those who go through life thinking they’re on top end up on the bottom. And those who go through life feeling they’re on the bottom end up on the top. After all, what does it profit a person to gain the whole world and lose his soul?[1]
The joy of discipleship is being in communion with the truth: being enabled to live our lives in concert with the love vibrates in the heart of the universe. We may suffer defeat now. We may endure hardships, and even, if we are courageous, put ourselves in harm’s way for the sake of the gospel, for the sake of love. And yet, in the end, we know that living the way of love brings us joy. We know that the truth is on the small screen in the corner, always in danger of being ignored or overlooked, but steadily pointing to a different way, the way of love, a way that can change everything. In the name of God, our creator and redeemer. Amen.

[1] Philip Yancey, What Good Is God, pages 184-186

The reach of Jesus (Mark 7.24-37)

Mark 7.24-37
“The reach of Jesus”
Ordinary 23B/September 9, 2018
Eastminster Presbyterian Church
Tom James
A few years ago, we were lucky enough to be able to have our kitchen remodeled. Part of the remodel was putting in new cabinets, and our contractor talked us into having the upper cabinets go all the way to the ceiling. It looks nice that way, she told us, and you get some extra storage. And those things are both true. The problem, of course, comes when you need to get things that you have put on the top shelves of those upper cabinets, right next to the ceiling. Michelle and I are both around average height—not tall enough to reach the top shelves very comfortably. So we have to find ways to extend our reach—usually by standing on a step stool or something like that.
If you’ve ever stretched to reach for something, you know it can be a little uncomfortable. Muscles and tendons, perhaps, aren’t used to be extended in that way. Maybe your back or your shoulder gets strained a little. Maybe you have to reach over something that is sharp or has a hard corner. Maybe you can’t see very well what you’re reaching for and so you aren’t exactly sure what you will get.
We may not realize it, but Jesus had to reach, too.
The gospel of Mark gives us, in many respects, a pretty realistic picture of Jesus. Here, he isn’t a barely concealed divine being, but very much human. He can get tired. He can get peopled-out, if you know what I mean, and really want some alone time. He can even be grumpy and down right rude. I don’t know about you, but I can relate to this Jesus!
Our text for this morning recounts two episodes in Jesus’ ministry, placed just after one of his controversies with the religious purists of his day. He has just finished arguing against an obsessive and servile fascination with purity rules, and we get the feeling he is interested more in developing relationships with people—perhaps with a wide variety of people, people who might in fact be outside the pale according to those who worry about who is pure and who isn’t.
Well, here Jesus gets put to test. I say that he has to reach, and that is because he finds himself straining into the darkness a little, trying to find his way out of the old obsessions and not quite sure how to get there. Both of the stories that are sandwiched together in our gospel reading occur in gentile territory. The people that Jesus comes across here are not Jews—they are not even Samaritans: they are not close cousins to the Jewish people and are not even believers in one god. They are quite foreign, and their beliefs as well as their habits and styles of life would have been repulsive in many ways to Jews, like Jesus. And do we need to remind ourselves that the woman who approaches him in the first story labors under the distinct disadvantage of being a woman in a society in which women were not only powerless but the objects of suspicion and disgust? We are still plagued today by the disease we call “misogyny” in our own society: all you have to do is look at women are treated in our media—how quickly they are criticized for their ambitions while men are celebrated for theirs. But imagine that multiplied many times over, together with a whole array of customs and laws designed to keep women away from property and from power—and you have a pretty good picture of how women were seen in Jesus’ time.
So, Jesus walks into Gentile territory. We don’t know why, exactly. I sometimes think it was just to get a break. Maybe people wouldn’t recognize him there. Maybe they would not expect him to do just one more miracle or teach any more or endure any more Q and A sessions with critics and antagonists. Maybe Jesus just wanted a few moments of anonymity. We’ve all been there, I’m sure. But you know how it goes when we get tired. Our social skills are a little dampened. We let our guard down a little. We may even forget ourselves. As I say, Jesus is tested. He’s stretched. He finds himself having to reach, and I’m not sure he likes it.
A woman comes to him. She’s a foreigner—a “Syrophoenician” woman, we are told. A pagan. Who knows what kinds of impurities she carries with her, or how many red flags Jesus’ Jewish mind detects as she approaches. What kind of purification rituals will he have to undergo, just for speaking with this woman? He has just been arguing with some purists that none of those things matter very much, but does he know what the implications of that are?
Of course, she’s not just a Syrophoenician woman: she’s one more human being coming to Jesus with a request for healing and wholeness—one more claim on his compassion, and one more opportunity for Jesus to throw open wide the arms of grace.
But he doesn’t. As I suggested a moment ago, maybe he’s tired, and doesn’t want to be stretched right now. Maybe he doesn’t have the energy for it. We’ve all been there. But the amazing thing is that this Syrophoenician woman sees something in Jesus—detects something of the implications of his gospel message—that even Jesus himself can’t quite see. Jesus tells her she is a dog. This is probably a typical ethnic slur. If God’s people are children, those who are outside the pale have to be knocked down a peg lower—they are pesky, needy animals. But I wonder if there isn’t truth to this particular slur—not a truth about Syrophoenicians or about other particular groups but about human beings in general. Aren’t we all, in some ways, pesky, needy animals?
The woman doesn’t deny being a dog—she only says that dogs are need of compassion, too. We should imagine that this was not a dog-loving culture, like ours, where there are hotels and salons for dogs—where they get their hair and nails done and are pampered with expensive treats. We have to imagine streets where dogs are running around everywhere, not especially valued by humans but, being dogs, wanted to be around them. Longing for homes but often finding themselves lost, craving companionship but sometimes rejected and abused, hungry but having to make do with little. One preacher posted a sermon about this text called “The Gospel Gone to the Dogs.” I think that’s pretty good, and if I may push the image a little farther, I suggest that the gospel is meant for dogs, and that this Syrophoenician woman, this impure, unclean pagan woman, plays the role of many other women in the gospel story—she clarifies what the gospel means. She announces it in a metaphor that is unmistakably authentic and powerful. Like the woman at the well who tells her fellow villagers that Jesus “told her all she ever did,” and like the women who ran from the empty tomb to tell Jesus’ doubtful disciples that he really had risen from the dead, this Syrophoenician woman finds a way to say what has to be said. Through her, we learn that the gospel is for us in so far as we experience ourselves as lost, or hungry, or powerless, or longing. In so far as we are dogs, outside the pale of purity and perfection, but still just as needy as ever. In other words, in so far as we are human beings.
The reach of Jesus. Even if Jesus gets tired of reaching, if you will. Still, inevitably, it reaches us. That’s the first thing, and the foundation of everything else in the Christian life. Jesus reaches us. No matter who we are. No matter how undervalued and unappreciated we might be. No matter who else may exclude us. Jesus reaches us.
But that also means that Jesus reaches far beyond us, too. Not just to us, but also to those that we, in turn, might consider outside the pale. That’s the comforting, but also challenging, truth of the gospel. Jesus’ reach reaches all. It certainly reaches us. It certainly reaches those we might want to exclude. Hopefully, we remember ourselves enough not to use ethnic or other kinds of slurs, but the clear message of the gospel is that Jesus reaches beyond the comfortable confines of his own people, and that if we are his body in the world, then we are enabled and, indeed, called to do the same.
In how many ways are we in Syrophoenician territory today? In how many ways does the world we live in bristle with the kinds of difference we find hard to relate to? Our churches were designed for comfortable similarities, where our neighbors looked like us and spoke our language, where tradition and history were things that united us rather than distinguished us from each other. Where most people shared some basic assumptions that religion is good and that church is an essential part of life. We mainstream protestants today find ourselves as strangers in a strange land, surrounded on all sides by people we don’t know how to relate to—people who seem more different from us than like us; people who don’t seem interested in what we have to offer; people who seem beyond our reach. And, yes, we’re tired of reaching.

But what Jesus discovered, as he was stretched into Syrophoenician territory, is that the Syrophoenician woman wasn’t simply different—she wasn’t simply a strange and alien “other.” In hearing her, in listening to her truth, Jesus found himself again. He understood anew and in a deeper way the truth that he had been preaching and living. The truth of the gospel is that we are all strangers, we are all strange, and that we find ourselves as we joined with other strangers in faith. And that means that those who are unlike us are actually our kin—they are our sisters and our brothers. They are our true community, ready to share their stories, their truth, with us, and we can’t be our true selves unless and until we cross the borders of our comfort, and recognize them as us. In the name of God, our creator and redeemer. Amen.

“The law of life” (Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23)

Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23
“The law of life”
Ordinary 22B/September 2, 2018
Eastminster Presbyterian Church
Tom James
I learned a little bit of etiquette while I was growing up, but we were not an especially formal family. My parents were satisfied if I didn’t put my elbows on the table, didn’t slouch too much, and kept my mouth closed as I was chewing. My older brother did the policing on that last one. As an adult, I learned that there were some finer points that I had missed, though. I didn’t know for example, how to eat soup, dipping the soup spoon away from you rather than toward you. I’m not sure why that’s important—but Michelle is from a somewhat more refined family (here mom taught home economics and is a stickler for etiquette) and so now I know that’s how you do it.
Etiquette, of course, is all about social expectations, isn’t it? What are good manners in one society may turn out to be pretty rude in another. If you have had a chance to travel very much, perhaps you have seen that. In France, they sop up what’s left on their plates with bread—in England, that would be a no-no. In some cultures, you are expected to eat with your hands, while in others, people would be aghast if they saw someone do that.
In Jesus’ society, there were lots of rules that would appear strange to us. We wash our hands before we eat (most of us), but they had an intricate ritual of washing. And they had precise rules for washing and maintaining eating implements like bowls and cups, too. While we worry about germs, they worried about something our passage from Mark calls “defilement.” When we hear a word like “defilement,” we probably almost automatically think about something like hygiene. Again, we’re worried about dirt and germs. But what they meant by “defilement” actually had more to do with inclusion and exclusion. Jesus’ contemporaries were trying to preserve a sense of a national and ethnic identity while there were threatening influences all around. The dominant culture of the Greco-Roman world was all too easy to absorb, and the fear was that it could easily overwhelm Jewish society and effectively erase their identity and their history. This was not a trivial matter, even if the rules may seem trivial to us—it was a matter of avoiding cultural death. So, every effort was made not to do things like the Gentiles do—including eating. Jews were supposed to eat in a particularly Jewish way, and not be defiled by foreign influences.
Now, of course, this was not just about excluding the foreign element, but was also about deepening connections within the community. We are all familiar with how embattled circumstances have a way of cementing bonds, and things we share in common with our comrades in struggle become markers of community identity that we come to take pride in, like flags or like special handshakes among teammates or like team colors (like blue and maize, for example!).
But, of course, Jesus sees the limitations of this way of cementing bonds. This concern for purity, for defining ourselves in opposition to others, for avoiding foreign influences, for observing all the rituals in exacting detail, can actually distract us from what really binds us together, can’t it? Worse, it can actually be divisive. What if someone doesn’t wash their hands in just the right way? Are they then excluded? Must they be cast out of the community, or should they be punished somehow? What about when someone wants to join the community? Do they have to learn all the rituals, and do they have to get them exactly right? Can these rituals become barriers to membership—can they be a way of fencing people out? Do we protect our purity at the cost of condemning ourselves to insularity, or to becoming a monument to a past that is dead and gone? And, perhaps most importantly, what about human freedom? If the rituals must always be the same, if we can never alter or change them, or if we must always dutifully submit to them, if we must always wash and wash, or stand and salute, if we can never protest our rituals (in good protestant fashion), do they become something that actually destroys community by destroying the individuals and the constituencies that make it up? Can ritual be a way of making people conform, just for the sake of conforming?
Jesus breaks through all of this when he says, “It’s not what goes into you that defiles—it’s what comes out of you.” It sounds like a simple bit of snarky wisdom, just a little wrinkle in the rule that serves to call out the hypocrites. But, actually, it’s much more than that. Jesus turns everything around, here, because, now, if you accept what Jesus says, forming and maintaining community is not about excluding and dividing. Instead, it is about creating and inviting.
What Jesus is pointing to is the power of communication—or, as we Christians sometimes calls it, communion. Words connect us. We all know how a good word can make us closer to each other, or how it can open us up to a relationship with another person that we thought we would never like. Words have amazing power. But, of course, words can also hurt, can’t they? And, in hurting, hurtful words disrupt and frustrate the process of building a community, a society in which all are included and respected and loved. It is in this sense that what comes out of us can defile—it can disrupt and destroy something that is crucial and vital: our relationships with each other. So, defilement means not contamination, but rather isolation. To defile is not to make oneself dirty but to cut off community, to hinder its growth, to undermine its generosity and its grace.
Blogger Michael Josephson tells the following story. When one of my daughters, he writes, was confronted with the fact that she had really hurt another child with a mean comment, she cried and immediately wanted to apologize. That was a good thing, but I wanted her to know an apology can’t always make things better. So I told her the story of Will, an angry nine-year-old whose father abandoned his mom two years earlier.
Will would often lash out at others with mean and hurtful words. After a particularly hostile outburst where Will told his mom, “I see why Dad left you!,” his mother, desperate and damaged, sent Will to spend the summer with his grandparents who lived on a small farm.
The first evening on the farm, Will made nasty comments to his grandmother about her cooking and the size of the house. His grandfather took him to a tool shed and told him he could not come back into the house until he pounded a two-inch nail into a 4 x 4 board. He said the nail had to be pounded all the way in and that he would have to do so every time he said a mean and hurtful thing. For a small boy, this was a major task. After about ten trips to the shed, Will began to be more cautious about his words. Eventually, he apologized to his grandmother for all the bad things he’d said.
His grandmother didn’t respond directly but asked him to bring in the board filled with nails. Then she gave him the hammer and asked him to pull out all the nails. This was even harder than pounding them in, but after a huge struggle, he did it.
His grandmother hugged him and said, “I appreciate your apology and, of course, I forgive you because I love you, but I want you to know an apology is like pulling out one of those nails. Look at the board. The holes are still there. The board will never be the same. I know your dad put a hole in you when he left and that’s unfair, but it doesn’t give you the right to put holes in other people – especially those who love you.”[1]
We defile the bonds that hold us together when we nail holes in another person. The reason it is a kind of defilement is because the connections that hold us together as human beings have a natural tendency to expand, to become more inclusive, and to be strengthened, to become more intense. We are by nature, as Aristotle pointed out long ago, social animals. We sometimes forget it, but the truth is that we can’t even survive, much less be happy, without each other. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., put it, we are woven together in a “single garment of destiny.” Another way we might say it, borrowing a phrase from twentieth century protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, is that “love is the law of life.” There are all kinds of ways that we are hateful to each other. We nail holes in each other all the time with hurtful words and actions. Sometimes, to build up our little group, we nail holes in people from other groups, sowing fear and resentment and hate. But each time we do those things, we betray ourselves, we contradict who we really are, because the most fundamental thing about human life is not hatred, nor competition, nor envy. The most fundamental thing about human life is love. It is what makes us human beings at all. It is what links us to each other and to God.
The flip side of the defilement that Jesus is calling our attention to is reverence—and, here, as with defilement, it is crucial that we use this word in the right way. There is no justification in anything that Jesus ever says and does for giving reverence to rituals and rules, though perhaps we should respect them. At the end of the day, rules and rituals are things we make to serve the needs of the community. They aren’t worth our reverence, and if we revere them we may easily destroy the purpose they serve. What we people of faith should revere, instead, is the divine in our midst—the presence of God, the power of the spirit that unites us to each other and that links all creation together in a single garment of praise. What people of faith should revere is the power to connect, to care, and to love, a power that continually takes us beyond ourselves, because it is only as we go beyond ourselves that we discover who we really are.

I propose that as a sort of theme for our ministry together here. I’m really excited to get to know you, and to come to love life at Eastminster. And I hope that will find joy in finding ourselves again out past these walls, joining the healing work of God in this community and beyond. In the name of God, our creator and redeemer. Amen.

[1] http://www.proctorgallagherinstitute.com/25392/dealing-with-hurtful-words