Monday, August 31, 2009

Have you washed your hands?

James 1: 17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
******** United Church of Christ
August 20, 2009

How many of you washed your hands this morning? Washing hands and using hand sanitizing gel have become the popular foot soldiers in the battle against swine flu, colds, and any other airborne virus or bacteria that can make us sick. Hand gel and foam can be found not only at entrances to hospitals but at retailers like grocery stores, even in the common areas at Silver Lake. When I was a kid, washing hands was a matter of course but it was also something I tried to get out of. Did this ever happen to you? My parents would ask, “Have you washed your hands?” I’d yell from some corner of the house, “Yeah.” Then I’d hear the reply, “With soap?”

So, when Jesus says that nothing outside a person going in can defile, does that mean that Jesus is clueless here and the Pharisees have it right? After all, we know that keeping our hands clean is the first line of defense against germs. We know from experience that that which comes from ‘outside our bodies’ defiles them with illness. We know that most disease comes to us from the air we breathe, the smoke we inhale, the toxins we ingest, bodily fluids we exchange with someone else. We’ve known long before the days of penicillin that what comes into the body can potentially harm it.

Our Jewish and Muslim neighbors ceremonially wash before worship. Our Catholic sisters and brothers renew their baptism with holy water before entering to receive the Mass. We confess our sin to cleanse ourselves from within. We’ve all been taught that we need to be purer in the eyes of God.

The Pharisees were concerned with purity of practice, right worship, and orthodox belief, that from these would come righteousness and salvation. Washing one’s hands insured that what was put into the body would be clean and pure. Garrison Keillor once said that you can become a Christian by coming to church about as easily as you can become a car by sleeping in your garage. It’s more than just showing up and doing the right motions, believing the right way, and following the rules. Jesus said the pure of heart would see God. Being pure of heart means that what comes forth from our lips is just as, if not more, important than the cleanliness of what passes our lips.

There has been a lot of spew in the news lately: loud, angry outbursts, debates, and downright verbal brawls about the proposed health care reform. Once again the fear-mongers and their unwitting disciples are having more than just their fifteen minutes, with the media granting them the biggest megaphone, all in the name of free speech.

from Time, Inc.
I am always astonished to hear the first amendment invoked on occasions when the language is hurtful and maligning. Whatever happened to the ninth commandment about not bearing false witness against one’s neighbor? Again, when I was a kid, if I had spoken to someone the way some folks have been speaking to public servants, I would have heard the worst threat of all, “You keep talking like that, and I’ll wash your mouth out with soap.” To enact it would be child abuse, but the meaning is clear: keep your speech clean.

Clean hands, clean speech, clean hearts: which one do you think is the one that will save us, that will keep us on the path toward God, that will make us pure in the eyes of God? God already sees us through the eyes of grace and love. Often, though, what derails us the most is what we say to ourselves. We are our own worst judge, critic and censor. We measure ourselves against others and find ourselves lacking. We look in the mirror to find fault rather than to admire ourselves. We chide ourselves over petty mistakes and beat ourselves up over the bigger ones. We listen to old tapes of those who told us we wouldn’t amount to anything, why should we try, that we were not meant for anything special.

And as for special, it seems that nowadays everyone is, and if everyone is special, then no one is, our judge tells us. We can lie to ourselves with our self-importance and self-absorption. We censor the voice of praise within, thinking we’re being humble, all the while burying our self-worth. We pollute our insides, creating an atmosphere of self-doubt, fear, resentment, rage, shame, and all those other negative qualities that bind us and blind us to grace.

There is a story about an old Cherokee when he told his grandson about a debate that goes on inside people. He said, "My son, the battle between two wolves is inside us all. One is evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.

“The other is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The grandson thought about this for a minute and then asked his grandfather: "Which wolf wins?" The old Cherokee simply replied, "The one you feed."

What we tell ourselves, the speech we use to teach and feed our hearts has the power to build us up or bring us down. If we are to be doers of the word, and not merely hearers, our hearts must be ready to hear God’s word of kindness not just for others but also for ourselves. If we are to be servants of the Most High God, then we must be pure in heart, which is to be able to bear God’s immense compassion for others and for ourselves. And we cannot be pure in heart if we wash our hearts in the bad language of the past (or the present), in lies and half-truths, and in the spew of others’ crazymaking ways.

Look at the slip of paper you were given when you entered the sanctuary. (1) What was your first reaction when you read it? Shock? Disbelief? Doubt? Thanks? Pride? A smile? Envy of your neighbor’s slip of paper? Scoffing, as if you were reading a Chinese fortune? Or wonder, as if you were reading your next step along the path toward God?

Even if the compliment or word of encouragement on that piece of paper does not apply to you today, it could become a goal for you. Not organized and hard-working? It’s something to aim toward. How much more helpful would it be if someone said you weren’t organized and hard-working? Would that inspire you to change your ways? We all know how far a kind word goes with us. Mark Twain said he could live for two months on a good compliment.

What are the bad tapes that get played in this church, the negative messages that continue to pollute the heart of this church? How often do you as a church celebrate your good qualities, lift up and support your ministries, appreciate the gifts you bring to this community? What are the lies and half-truths you tell yourselves that need to be uncovered and replaced with vision, hope and the whole truth of God’s love for you? Do you know how precious and wonderful each of you is in the eyes of God? Do you realize the power this church possesses to effect even more positive change in this world?

Thanks be to God for you, you wonderfully kind, generous, funny, compassionate, questioning, justice-making, seeking-to-be-pure-in-heart church. God has called you by name, you belong to God, and God loves you. Amen.

1. I wrote 65 different compliments/words of encouragement so everyone would have their own. Here are a few of them:

You are sunshine on a cloudy day.

When others see a caterpillar, you see the butterfly.

You give good hugs.

You are smarter than your boss.

You are a smart person and you know what you need to do next.

Just as you are, you are enough.

You are something beautiful from God’s own imagination.

You bring light to a dark world.

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