Gospel: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Mark’s gospel depicts Jesus as challenging traditional ways in which religious people determine what is pure or impure. For Jesus, the observance of religious practices cannot become a substitute for godly words or deeds that spring from a faithful heart.
1 Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around [Jesus], 2 they 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; 4 and 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.) 5 So 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?” 6 He 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;
7 in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
8 You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
21 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
Grace and peace to you, people of God, in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
In our reading from James, we heard an analogy about forgetting yourself after looking in the mirror. Have you ever forgotten what you looked like or not recognized yourself? There’s actually a clinical term for it called prosoponagnosia, or face blindness. It’s a real brain condition where the person functions the same as anyone else, except they cannot recognize faces, even their own. They’ll recognize voices, routines, cars, signs, and everything else that most other people would recognize, but they cannot recognize their face. Oliver Sacks, a neurologist who has written many fascinating books, actually has this condition and I’ve always found it to be fascinating. Imagine not being able to pick the face of your mom, dad, wife, husband, or children out of a crowd or being surprised when you realize, each and every morning, when you see who is looking back at you in the mirror. And yet, I am afraid that something similar is happening when people come to church every week.
You see, each and every week, when we begin our worship services, I imagine God holding up a giant mirror to everybody who comes. In that mirror, you see yourself, of course, but you see yourself in a lot of different possible ways – ugly, worthless, too old, too young, poor, broken, hopeless. But when you look into the mirror of worship, the mirror God holds up to you, all I want you to hear is that you are beautiful and beloved by God. You are loved and you are worth everything to God, even when it means that God would have to come down, live, suffer, die, and be raised so that you could know it better. If you never hear anything else in worship, hear that. When we forget who we are, whose we are, we can easily forget why we’re here and what we do when we leave.
Jesus lived a religious culture that very much felt as though they had forgotten who they are, especially among those who go by the name of Pharisee. Throughout their history, the Jews were the chosen ones of God. Yet, somewhere along the line, they became less interested in their identity and more interested in the rules that came with it. Jesus often was confronted by Pharisees when they felt like Jesus and his followers weren’t following the rules. Today, we read of one such instance. But Jesus sees through their attempts to make themselves feel holier than they are. Instead of confronting the issue, he confronts their intentions. He never says that the ritual washing of hands is bad, but instead goes on the offensive against a group of people who were more interested in making sure everybody washed their hands rather than make sure everybody had something to eat.
You see, Jesus would rather see people fed, cared for, and in relationship with each other than seeing them separated by those who could and could not keep the purity laws. Jesus doesn’t place as much emphasis on what goes into a person as what comes out of person, because what comes out of a person indicates what they put their faith in. The Pharisees were placing their faith in their past, in a series of behaviors passed down from generation to generation, and in doing so, they assumed that following the law was going to get them on God’s good side.
But there is a difference between a religion and spirituality. A religion is a series of actions or behaviors that you repeat over and over, a spirituality is what guides our religion. But, sometimes the spirituality changes and the behavior does not and, suddenly, we’re not doing something because it feeds our souls, draws us closer to Christ, and invites us to reflect on God’s love, mercy, and compassion. Suddenly, we do things one way just because we can’t remember doing it any other way. We can so easily get caught up a rut of “we’ve always done it that way” long after the passion that set up that behavior has died.
Now, Jesus was religious. Deeply religious. He, of all people, would be last to condemn the Pharisees for observing the law. However, when we start serving our traditions instead of serving our neighbors, an issue arises. James echoes this in James 1:17-27. We don’t often pay much attention to James in the Lutheran church – it makes us feel uncomfortable to think that works are needed for salvation. So, let’s put that to rest before we move on – nowhere in James does it say that you have to do certain things in order to have the grace of God. James is writing to people who are already Christian, but they’ve lost their passion for action. They believe the right things, but the rich among them are oppressing the poor and the community as a whole is neglecting to do what Jesus did – feed the hungry, care for the sick, comfort the grieving. They look in the mirror, see themselves in light of God, but then forget as soon as they leave – leading to no action and no changes.
James writes that the best religion, the best set of practices and behaviors, are those that care for those who have lost hope, who have lost family, who have lost their ability to thrive and grow in the world. Widows and orphans had no way of making a living, they had no hope for the future. Nowadays, we have social programs which are set up to serve those people, but that doesn’t mean that there are not people around us who have lost their hope for the future.
Our faith, inspired by the Holy Spirit, inspires us to keep our eyes open for people like this. We watch for and serve the people around us every single day who feel like they’re facing a dead end, who have no way out, and need a saving hand. After we look in the mirror and hear God call us beloved, we want to hold that mirror up for others, too. Sometimes that looks like money given to someone who needs it. Other times, it means connecting people with the resources or programs who offer what they need. It can look like a listening ear, a kind word, or a gentle smile. These actions not only serve our neighbors, but draw them closer to Christ.
In no way do these actions give us salvation. But, like fire under a pot of water, the water cannot help but boil over. In the same way, when we have the love of Christ within us, we cannot help but share that love. When we worship in the spirit here, in this place with these people, we cannot help but serve our neighbor.
Often, when we think about religion, we think about worship services, which carry with them a set of rituals that happen on a Sunday morning. But Christ (and James) calls us, first and foremost, to practice a religion of loving our neighbors. And, please notice the word “practice” – we do need practice, we’re not always very good at it. But, we practice and we get better.
We come together and hear about God’s love for us, God’s incredible love which drove Jesus to the cross, and I hope and pray that changes us. Every week, we are holding up the mirror here at St. James, telling you that the person you see staring back at you is a beloved child of God. If you ever doubt that, please, come visit us or talk to us and let us tell you again. I pray that this really sinks in – that you can look in the mirror and see yourself as a beloved child of God. And I pray that you then take that mirror, remember who you are in God’s eyes, and remind others that they are loved and valuable to God, too. Amen.