Making the Common Holy
I think a sermon should relate the readings from the Bible to our lives today. A sermon should be relatively short, to the point, and give us a clear idea about how the reading should influence us all in the week ahead. Some weeks I have to really work with the scripture readings to understand what is going on and create a sermon that shows how the Bible passage is relevant to whats going on in our lives.
This week, that task is easy enough. The reading from Marks Gospel is very straightforward. Jesus disciples are caught eating supper without washing their hands first. The Pharisees and Scribes, those rascals who always seem mad at Jesus, get mad about it. Then Jesus tells them that his disciples are right. The disciples dont have to wash their hands before they eat if they dont want to.
Jesus clarification of first century etiquette is concise and to the point. Jesus words are not exactly what Emily Post or Miss Manners would offer on the subject, but the Gospel is clearyou dont have to wash your hands before you eat.
[start back to my seat, pause, then return to the lectern]
OK. So its not that simple. You knew that I couldnt be quite right about whats going on in our Gospel reading. If our common sense tells us that we shouldnt eat food with dirty hands, then what is Jesus really saying this week? What did happen that day the Scribes and Pharisees saw the disciples eat without washing up?
It helps to understand that nothing in the passage exactly says the disciples hands were dirty. The New International Version of the Bible I read this morning does describe the disciples hands as unclean. However, the Greek word is koinos. Koinos means common. The disciples hands arent described as dirty, but as common. The opposite of common in this case isnt clean. The opposite of common is holy. The Scribes and Pharisees dont care whether the disciples hands are clean, they want to know if the disciples hands are holy. The Scribes and Pharisees did not catch the disciples eating supper without washing their hands. The Scribes and Pharisees caught the disciples eating without having first followed the precise ritual observances taught by Jewish custom. Then Jesus says that its just fine with him that his disciples didnt follow that human tradition.
At first glance, it seems that Jesus is doing away with the Jewish customs, setting them aside as unnecessary. However, something more is going on here. When the Scribes and Pharisees accuse Jesus disciples, they do it by saying that the disciples are not following the tradition of the elders. This is a reference to the oral traditions of the Jewish faith. In Jesus day, these traditions were not written down. They were not scripture. Even so, the Scribes and Pharisees are fighting mad. They want to know if Jesus is doing away with these traditions that matter so much to them. Jesus then counters by blasting the holier-than-thou set as hypocrites by quoting a passage from Isaiah,
honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me,
Jesus warns the Scribes and Pharisees to concern themselves with Gods rules rather than the rules of men. Jesus tells the Scribes and Pharisees in no uncertain terms and at some length that they are letting traditions get in the way of doing what God wants them to do. Then Jesus gives a specific example of how far astray the Scribes and Pharisees have gotten. He tells of the practice followed by the religious elite in Jesus day of giving all of your estate to the Temple in Jerusalem. On the surface, it sounds like a nice pious act to give all of your worldly goods to the Temple when you die. But by doing so, a person could declare their treasures as Gods treasures. Once a religious leader pledged his estate to the Temple, he would then stop taking care of his own father and mother saying that to do so would take away money that would go to the Temple. Jesus declared that practice nonsense. Jesus said that God had already commanded that we should honor our father and mother. No estate planning with the Temple would get a person out of an obligation to help their parents. Jesus said the traditions were getting in the way of following Gods will.
Traditions are not bad in themselves. Traditions are fine, well and good when they point us, and others, to following God. But when we let the we-never-did-it-that-way-before attitude creep into our thinking and prevent good ideas from being carried out, we are in danger of allowing human traditions to prevent us from following Gods will. In that case, its our traditions have to go.
Talk about fighting words! How can we do away with traditions? We are Episcopalians after all. We Episcopalians can be the worst at doing something for traditions sake alone. In many Episcopal churches, you dont dare make a single change, no matter how small.
You know the answer to the question, How many Episcopalians does it take to change a light bulb? Youre going to change the light bulb? My grandmother gave that light bulb to this church and youll see me carried out of this church in a pine box before you change that light bulb!
The tendency in faith communities is to sacrifice faith to serve traditions. This love of tradition is what Jesus opposes in the Scribes and Pharisees. Jesus points out that the Jewish tradition gets the transformation from common to holy all wrong if it is based on ritual washing alone. We are not made common by eating or holy by washing. It is the content of your heart that God is concerned with, not mere observance of ritual. If the tradition keeps you focused on God fine, but if following a tradition is a cop-out to get you off the hook of doing Gods will, then there is a problem. Then you take a chance for a holy encounter and transform it into a common encounter.
Jesus isnt interested in dropping traditions. Jesus seems indifferent to the traditions themselves. And Jesus isnt trying to make it easier on his disciples by getting them out of the ritual washing routine. By the time Jesus has finished using this teaching moment to his advantage, he hasnt made it easier on his disciples. Jesus has made it harder on all of us. Jesus says that whether you ritually wash your hands or not will not determine whether you are common or holy. The external signs of religion are not what matters. The content of your heart is what matters. The content of your heart is what makes the common holy.
Making the common holy. Thats what Jesus did again and again in his life. Jesus transformed a manger, a common feed box, into a holy place of rest. Jesus transformed common fishermen into holy men of God. Jesus transformed an all too common, disgraceful death into a grace-filled act of love that promises to make all things holy. Jesus continues to transform the common into holy by the power of the Holy Spirit. Even today, as we partake of communion, Jesus will take the common bread and wine and transform them into holy food and drink.
Making the common holy is something in which we can all have a part. As Christians, we have experienced God taking our common lives and making us holy before God. This holiness is not always something that other can see. Thats for sure. But, in all our troubles and confusion, God sees us as holy. Even with all the ways we have let down God over and over, God still looks at our common lives as sees us as holy. This process of being made holy does not happen all at once. Little by little we are conformed to Gods image. And along the way, we can take part in Gods action of making the common holy.
When you see someone who is feeling depressed and alone and you spend time with them and encourage them, you are having a holy encounter. Go to visit a sick friend in the hospital and you can make the common hospital room into a holy cathedral as you pray for their recovery. The potential for these holy encounters is all around us. Every week we bump into lost and hurting people who are coping with real pain in their lives. When we show others compassion, we join in Christs work of making the common holy. Following through on those opportunities gives you a chance to transform a common encounter into a holy encounter. Look this week for a chance to transform a common exchange. What can you do? How can you act to transform a common exchange into a holy encounter? But watch out! You will be helping to carry out Christs work in the world and you may find that the common content of your own heart is changed in the process for the better.
King of Peace Episcopal Church + P.O. Box 2526 + Kingsland, Georgia 31548-2526