Take Time to Be Holy
Sermon by Rev
. Dr. Gary W. Charles, October 11th, 2020
Matthew 15 opens:
“Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, 2 ‘Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat’."
It sounds like the Pharisees and scribes are emissaries from the CDC telling us how often and how long to wash our hands to prevent the spread of Covid or the flu, but theirs is not a public health lecture or question. Theirs is a not-so-subtle reminder to Jesus to stop bucking tradition because tradition, in this case, the washing of hands, tells you who is in and who is out.
I like to mock the Pharisees and scribes as much as most Christians do, but in this case, they have a point. Jesus and his boys were openly defying their own tradition. Ever since a boy, Jesus had no doubt learned to abide by the tradition of washing hands before eating. I have no doubt that Mary and Joseph taught him better than to act as if tradition did not matter. Living in a hostile, alien, political and religious culture, tradition gave Jews identity and stability. By not washing their hands before eating, Jesus and his disciples were acting as if that tradition were irrelevant.
Jesus enters this debate about tradition, though, at a different point and here is where I think Mark’s telling of the story helps clarify the issues at hand. Twice in the early verses of Mark 7, Jesus uses the Greek word koinos, or “common.” These religious leaders want to know why Jesus and his disciples fight their own tradition, why they do not always wash their hands before eating, unlike all those “common” folk around them, unlike those people.
As a child of the South, “those people” was almost always an unmistakable euphemism for African Americans. The message from my childhood was clear: “You are to live in different neighborhoods and shop in different stores and worship in different churches, because you and those people do not belong together. You are better than those people, for they are common and you are not. So, behave according to tradition.” As a youth, I often heard my peers – scared silly and confused about their own emerging sexuality, much less about anyone else’s – say: “I am not like them. I’ve got nothing in common with those people.” This time the unmistakable euphemism was for gay and lesbian persons, and it was never said nearly that politely.
In Matthew 15 and in Mark 7, Jesus is not challenging Jewish law given by God; he is challenging how tradition and traditions have distorted the law. After more than four decades of preaching as a proud Presbyterian pastor, I lament how many hours of my life have been spent debating distorted church tradition, debates about who belongs in the church and who does not, who can preach in this pulpit and who can be a church leader and who cannot. In a time when many in our society consider religion to be superfluous to their lives or just plain silly, it seems that the church is often hell-bent on proving them right by engaging in ugly, hurtful church debates about who is holy and who is common, who is in and who is out.
The Jesus we meet in Mark’s Gospel has no patience with any church tradition that boasts: “We have nothing in common with those people.” Writing a decade later than Mark, Luke makes Mark’s point even more explicitly. In Acts, Peter, has known since a boy not only to wash up before eating, but he has known what food to eat and what food to avoid, what food is holy and what food is common. In this story, Peter has a disturbing food dream, more precisely, a food nightmare. He sees a banquet of forbidden foods set before him (Acts 10:9-16). According to the tradition he has been taught, Peter rightly objects that he cannot eat such common, unclean food (Acts 10:14). He then hears this firm response from God: “Don’t call what I make clean, unclean or common” (Acts 10:16).
Some years ago, while I was doing research for a book on the 21st century church, I visited lots of congregations nationally. Some were exploding with vitality; but sadly, too many resembled museums or family chapels. They would boldly claim, “Our church is open to all people” and then say in the same sentence, “But those people would be much more comfortable worshiping with their own kind.” It made me want to scream (insights from The Bold Alternative by Gary Charles, published by Westminster John Knox Press).
Why? Because in Christ, you and I and all who worship God are one kind. We are washed in the same baptismal waters. We feast at the same table of plenty. In Christ, you and I are made holy through the love of a God who yearns for us to spend more time breaking down walls that divide people than laying new brick to keep the common folk out.
Both Mark and Matthew follow this fight with the Pharisees and scribes by telling an odd, perplexing story. As Mark tells it, Jesus travels to the other side of the tracks, to Gentile country where no self-respecting Jew would ever go. Once there, a common woman, a Gentile, asks for a favor. Jesus gives her the traditional answer: “God’s blessings are intended for God’s children, the Jews.” But the common woman will not settle for the common, traditional answer. She howls for justice and will not accept the verdict that she is common and Jesus is holy and so he should have nothing to do with her and therefore her sick daughter must remain sick.
The old 19th hymn implores, “Take time to be holy.” That is a dangerous vocation in Mark’s Gospel. To be holy means to re-evaluate what is important and who is important. To be holy, in the way Jesus makes us holy, opens the church, opens us, to embrace and invite even those people to sit in our pews or in our chalked off parking lot, invite those people to be washed with baptismal waters, to satisfy their hunger at this table, and to know that they will never be turned away.
In her book Operating Instructions, Anne Lamott, a recovering alcoholic and drug addict who happens to be a Presbyterian elder, tells about her first year of recovery. She writes:
When Sam was six days old, I took him to my little church in Marin City, the church where I’ve been hanging out for four years now . . . I got in the habit of stopping by the church on Sundays but staying in the back, in this tense, lurky way, and leaving before the service was over because I didn’t want people to touch me, or hug me, or try to make me feel better about myself. After I got sober and started to feel okay about myself, I could stay to the end and get hugged . . . Anyway, the first Sunday after Sam’s birth, I kind of limped in . . . and everyone was staring joyfully and almost brokenheartedly at us because they loved us so much. I walked, like a ship about to go down, to a seat in the back. But the pastor said, ‘Whoa, whoa, not so fast--you come up here and introduce him to his new family’. So, I limped up to the little communion table in the front of the half circle of folding chairs where we sit, and I turned to face everyone. The pain and joy were just overwhelming. I tried to stammer, `This is my son,’ but my lip was trembling, my whole face was trembling, and everyone was crying. When I’d first started coming to the church, I couldn’t even stand up for half the songs because I’d be so sick from cocaine and alcohol that my head would be spinning, but these people were so confused that they’d thought I was a child of God.”
Though the members of Lamott’s small church in Marin City may not be what the hymnwriter had in mind when he wrote “Take Time to be Holy,” they are exactly what Jesus had in mind. For they had the wisdom to know what is important and who is important and how to make even those people, like alcohol-sodden and drug-laced Anne, know that they are beloved children of God and treasured sisters and brothers of Christ.
What a difference that one little church made in Anne’s life, when it dared to treat her not as one of those people, but instead, as a holy, uncommon, beautiful, essential member of the living body of Christ.
What a difference it makes when this one little church takes time to leave distorted tradition behind, takes time to embrace those people as our people, as God’s people, What a difference it makes when this one little church redefines and then takes the time to be holy.