Hand Washing - Sam Buehrer - Sylvania UCC - Sept22018

September 2, 2018

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Sermon                 “Hand Washing”                               September 2, 2018

by Samuel Buehrer


Mark 7:1-23

7Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them.3(For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 5So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
7in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’

8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

9Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! 10For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ 11But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)— 12then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, 13thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.”

14Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”

17When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, 19since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. 21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”



Sermon                 “Hand Washing”                     September 2, 2018

by Samuel Buehrer


We are now in the season of the year when normal people tend to act a bit abnormal.  This change has little to do with the days getting shorter or the night time getting cooler.  It has everything to do with football season now being upon us.  Folk that are not superstitious at any other time in their life all of a sudden begin insisting that they must wear a certain shirt of certain socks on game day so that their team will have an added advantage on the gridiron.

Today in the scripture we encounter something akin to this with the ritual of hand washing.  While it is always a good practice to wash ones hands before a meal, the ritual that the Pharisees are insisting upon has little to do with hygiene.  It has more in common with wearing the right socks on game day than it has with washing dirt off of ones hands. 

Since the time of Moses when the Law was given to the Israelites, it was required that the high priest, before he entered the temple, ritually washed both his hands and his feet. Over the years, it had become the norm for all followers of the Pharisaic tradition, not just the priests, but all faithful followers of God to wash their hands before eating, as a way of identifying with the high priest, and, more importantly, as a way of sanctifying the particular act of eating.

They were actually following what we in the protestant tradition call the "priesthood of all believers.”  They were doing the same thing as the priest, and so expressing their ability and necessity to be in the presence of the holy.  We do the same when we say a prayer before meal time.  I was reminded of this when I  sat down to eat a meal with my parents on Friday, and I returned to my childhood for a moment when my Father began to recite the meal time prayer that has been a tradition in our house for over 50 years, “Come Lord Jesus, be our guest, let this food unto us be blest. Amen.”  What had appeared be common just moments before, we now saw as holy.

 What is important to see here is that the followers of the Pharisaic tradition, by performing this ritual they hoped to sanctify the common things of life, they hoped to make holy the rather common act of eating. They wanted to add a religious dimension to everything they did.   These were not just empty acts without meaning.

In understanding this tradition, we might find it harder to fault the Pharisees for wondering why some of Jesus' disciples did not wash their hands before eating a meal. It would be like wondering today why a group that calls itself religious does not say grace before eating.1

But there is more going on in this story then just the ritual of hand washing. To understand the real issue at stake, we need to go back about 500 years before Jesus was born. The Hebrew people in that time believed that they were the chosen people of God and that God would never let them down. They believed that God was based in the temple in Jerusalem and that, therefore, God would never let anything happen to Jerusalem. There could be hard times, of course, but ultimately God would save them.   God's care for the temple in Jerusalem was the one sure thing of their faith. But 587 years before the birth of Christ, the unimaginable happened. Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians and the temple was destroyed. The Babylonians took the leaders of Jerusalem away into exile, and no one was allowed to return for 50 years. It was an incredible blow to their belief system!

When the people returned from exile to Jerusalem, they had some serious thinking to do. Some, of course, gave up on God altogether as many people have done today.  But others kept to their faith and questioned where they had failed God in some major way. They were asking the question of what does God think is important about the way they live their lives? There were many theories. If you read Isaiah, you will find the prophet Isaiah arguing that the problem was that God's people had become isolated from the world and its problems. God's interests, said Isaiah, are in people caring for others in God's name and being involved in the world and its pain. If you read Ezra and Nehemiah, you will find the opposite argument. God's interest was in purity and in keeping people undefiled by the world. It is not engagement with others but avoidance of them that pleases God.

It was not an easy debate nor was there a quick resolution. The debate still goes on today because each side has a piece of truth to it. Is the church primarily holy space, separate from the world in its confusion, or is the church a launching pad for service and a gathering place for the least and the lost? Do we come to church to get away from the world or to get into it in new ways? Is the business of the church to look after its own or to risk getting tangled up with others?   Just what is the proper relationship between the people of God and nonbelievers? People of faith and reason can make good points on all sides of those questions.

By the time of Jesus, the Ezra and Nehemiah folks had carried the day. Judaism decided that God wanted them to be separate from the world. God wanted them to be pure and spotless. The word Pharisee means literally "separate ones." Over the years, the idea of separating the good folks from the bad folks got a little out of hand. The more rituals you observe the more you were different from others, and therefore the holier you were. That is the world into which Jesus was born.

When Jesus began his public ministry in the synagogue in Nazareth, do you remember what scripture he decided to read?   It was not Ezra or Nehemiah.   It was Isaiah--one of those on the losing side 500 years before. Jesus chose the passage that says he was sent to preach good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, preach to the captives, restore sight to the blind, and set free those who suffer. It is exactly opposite of the view of the Pharisees who said that good people should be separated from the world. Jesus was basically saying that the community made the wrong choice when it chose purity over involvement, ritual over service. After 500 years of looking at it one way, you can see why the Pharisees and others had trouble understanding things differently, but we have had 2,000 years of Jesus' point in the argument, and we still struggle with it.

I do not want to take up the ancient argument of faith as a call for separateness or a call to engagement. You can do that on your own. But basic question behind that argument is what I raise today.  What does God expect from us? If we would serve God, what service does God want? That was the basic question that got the Pharisees off on the wrong track, and it's the question that still must be answered by people who want to be faithful.

As I read the scriptures and as I have come to know Jesus, it seems obvious to me that God is enormously concerned for the poor, the outcast, and those in need. You can see it in the Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount, the parables, the laws of the Old Testament, and elsewhere. God's concern was always for those who were struggling the most, those without power, those who were considered the least of these. We please God when our concern is similarly focused. Who do you know that hurts, who is feeling the pain of loss? Who do you know is struggling? That person or those people represent an opportunity for us to serve the interests of God.  It is not rituals that God wants from us, but it is our service that God desires.  That is why we often say at the close of worship, “This service has now ended. Your service now begins.”



Note: The basis for this sermon came from the following sources:

1"Why Don't You Wash Your Hands?" the Very Rev. Samuel G. Candler, Day 1, 2000.

2"Why Don't You Wash Your Hands?" the Very Rev. Samuel G. Candler, Day 1, 2000.

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