Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Getting our hands dirty

Mark 7: 5-8, 14-15, 21-23
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
August 30, 2015


            Hear these words from UCC pastor and poet Martha Spong, entitled “Dirty Hands”:

They smudge the screen,
leave prints on the doorjamb
with their unwashed hands.

I send them to the sink,
call, “Did y’all  use soap?”

But Jesus says, “Come. Eat.”

            Don’t we all have this rule in our homes?  Wash your hands before you come to the table.  Every time we use a restroom in a restaurant, fast food place, grocery store, or gas station we see the sign:  “Employees must wash hands before returning to work”.  Many places of business have hand gel or foam dispensers for their patrons.  Hospitals depend on it.  We really wouldn’t want any of these folks breaking this rule.  The scribes and Pharisees don’t sound that unreasonable.  Why is Jesus getting on their case?

            Ritual handwashing was more of a human tradition than a commandment from God.  Yes, there were purity laws regarding full immersion as a common practice, but this was mostly in Judea.  Handwashing became a way of imitating the mikvah bath and remembering that what God desires is a clean heart.  The Pharisees and scribes, however, seemed to be of the mind that it would be preferable for these unwashed disciples to go hungry than to eat with them and their dirty hands.  These power brokers have no desire to enable the disciples and their seemingly sinful ways.

            I want to talk about enabling when it comes to ministry and helping others.  I’ll begin with a story.  The week before we left for Pipestem, WV, church groups from Monroe, CT and Granby, CT left for their mission trip to work on the Cheyenne River Reservation in La Plant, South Dakota with their mission partner, Simply Smiles.  Most of their work focused around the community center: they continued construction on a large greenhouse and playscape area, as well as the interior of a new home.  

            The pride and joy of the week was a new archery range.  As part of his final project, an Eagle Scout led the construction of the range, including a platform and backdrop screen.  Both kids and adults went through a rigorous series of safety lessons, and before the week was out, the arrows were flying.


            While the kids were testing out their archery skills, Steven, one of men from the reservation, remarked, “Usually, when something like this gets built, kids would come and set fire to it.  There’d be nothing left in the morning.”  Worried that this might happen to the archery range, my friend Debbie asked, “Is that what’s going to happen?”  Steven replied, “Not now.  Five years ago, maybe, but not now.”

            People have asked my friends why they help those who live on the reservation.  If they can’t get a job or if their house is falling apart, why don’t they move?  If they drink too much or take drugs, why bother building them a safe, warm house?  If they’ve got diabetes and can’t eat right, why plant them a garden and build a greenhouse?

            The reason why the archery range won’t be burned down, but would have five years ago is because of relationships.  Five years ago people who came to help on the reservation were suspect.  Maybe they were do-gooders, come to feel good about themselves and their work and then leave.  Maybe they were going to tell folks on the rez how to live, clean up their lives, disrespect their culture.  Maybe it hurt too much to open up and hope again.

            Instead people on the reservation were asked “What do you need?  What would you like?  What do you want?”  So they built a house for a man who drinks too much and a few other houses.  Every summer there’s guitar camp for all ages, and everyone gets a free guitar.  On Wednesdays anyone can come to a community dinner or breakfast.  Each morning there’s a Walk On at the school track.  In the spring not only does the community garden get planted, but anyone who wants to can take a garden class and learn how to start their own vegetable garden.

            Even so, none of this guarantees anything.  Many folks still drink too much, abuse drugs, and use violence to solve their problems.  Some still take their own lives, unable to see any other way out of their pain.  My friends arrived the week after a 15 yr. old girl took her own life. 

            When we’re worried about enabling someone, what we’re really scared of is being vulnerable, of being hurt, being used, of not really being able to help someone, being powerless.  There’s an old proverb:  Love me when I least deserve it, because that’s when I really need it.  Love is not love when it involves a quid pro quo or an expectation.  Last night I heard a song lyric: “Did I make myself weak so someone else could be strong?”

            Worrying about enabling can sometimes disable ministry, and ministry is all about relationships—imperfect, human relationships.  Life and love and following Jesus—all of it is messy.  We’ve made and we’ll continue to make mistakes, but the mistakes are a sign that at least we’re trying.  As for being hurt, being used, that’s why we have Jesus so we can keep learning how to forgive seventy times seven, to forgive as we have been forgiven, receive our daily bread, ask that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven, lead us not to the time of trial but deliver us from evil.

            All of us have dirty hands on this one.  If we’ve loved someone, helped someone, we’ve left our share of grimy smudges; our fingerprints are everywhere.  What matters is our hearts, and what’s in our hearts when we’re asked to give. 

            We need to let go of the outcome.  We can pray this prayer:  “O God, you know what this person, this situation, this community, this world needs today.  You know what is needful for this person to do what you would have them do, to be the person you would have them be.  If I am needed, I am here.  I trust you, God.  Help them to trust you.  Thank you, God.  Amen.”

            Ultimately it’s about enabling God to do what God will do.  God works through connection and relationships.  And what God does is love, unconditionally, without limit, fully and fearlessly.  O God, use us to be a part of your fearless work of grace.  Amen.