Sermon for August 29, 2021
I first noticed the poster in the dentist’s office during a routine cleaning. This was during the time of stressing pre-cautions to stop or at least slow the spread of the COVID virus. The poster stressed the “Three W’s: Wear a mask, watch your distance, and wash your hands.” So we began to wash our hands more than any other time. I heard people joke that they have washed so many times during the day their hands were red and nearly raw.
We all would agree that washing hands is good hygiene. We also are careful to wash the fruits and vegetables purchased at the store. And we all wash dishes, pots and pans after cooking and eating. In the gospel reading today we heard the Pharisees and the scribes from the Temple in Jerusalem thought washing hands, food, pots and pans was a good idea. The reason was to avoid defilement, a lifestyle that was somehow spiritually not pure. The Pharisees and scribes were serious about their relationship with God and hand-washing and more were part of living out their faith. Now such washing was not a commandment in the Bible. The only ones commanded to wash hands and feet were the priests before they entered the sanctuary to carry out their religious duties. The scribes and Pharisees wished to live like priests thinking that their whole lives were lived in the presence of God. We can have sympathy with their motives and although not commanded, the hand-washing for purity became a tradition passed down from the elders.
The concern for purity was an important tradition and so the scribes and Pharisees, who always seemed to keep close watch on Jesus and his disciples like referees, blew the whistle when they saw that some of Jesus’ disciples began to chow down without washing their hands. This ran afoul of their faith and so they questioned Jesus “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders?” Customs and traditions can be important for our faith. For example saying grace before a meal reminds us that we thank God for the blessing of food. Traditions can help us not to take God’s goodness and grace for granted.
But as we heard in the gospel text Jesus did not sympathize with the Pharisee and scribes. Instead of thanking them for the reminder of an important tradition, Jesus called them hypocrites. To back his judgment Jesus quoted Scripture: the prophet Isaiah defined a hypocrite well when he wrote, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.” This was more than a criticism along the lines of “Do as I say, but not as I do.” Scribes and Pharisees were important people of the faith at the time and Jesus was concerned what they were teaching with their traditions. Indeed people are taught more by what they observe.
Perhaps you have heard the criticism of ‘hypocrite’ aimed at the church especially by those who claim it as a reason why they stay away from the church. We hear “hypocrite” when a Christian is heard tearing down another with cruel words ignoring the commandment not to bear false witness. We hear “hypocrite” when a Christian bears a grudge instead of practicing what he or she prays, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We hear “hypocrite” when a church posts signs saying “All are welcome” and visitors are ignored or get the cold shoulder. Examples abound. We can joke about our hypocrisy and say to the critics, “join the rest of us.” So hypocrisy becomes a kind of human tradition as if it does not matter just how we live out the faith, abandon the Ten Commandments and look for the loopholes: we honor God with our lips while our hearts are busy with our own ideas.
There was a story in the paper about an Antique Dealer in Brooklyn, New York. The dealer advertised respectability, reliability, honesty, and service for over forty years. He sold precious antiquities for thousands of dollars. Then it was discovered the antiques were fakes. This was not an honest mistake, as if the dealer himself was fooled. The dealer had an extensive operation of making the fakes. His victims were the inexperienced buyers, easily fooled. But you can imagine the feeling of someone who bought something that looked good, but turned out to be worthless. Jesus said it was vain to worship God if the Christian faith was a matter of looking good, a worthless veneer and not, as the lesson from James said, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
In the gospel lesson Jesus wanted to get to the heart of the matter saying, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.” Jesus gave quite a list of sinful behaviors of thought, word, and deed, breaking the commandments of God. The word translated “avarice” translates a word that is very descriptive, “wanting more”. The word translated “envy” is literally “Evil Eye”, also very descriptive when we look upon others with jealousy. An appearance of faith does not get to the root of the problem: sin is a matter of the human heart, the human will. The Scriptures understand this and warn us. From the first chapter of James, “one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death. Do not be deceived, my beloved.” But we are often deceived. I was talking to someone about some of the terrible weather experienced in different parts of the country: drought, heat, high winds fueling deadly fires; huge amount of rain causing destructive floods, while we, in the Northwoods, have been enjoying relatively good weather. But this person was not interested in talking about the national weather map. Then she made this shocking statement: “All the bad weather is a wake-up call from God, a warning, a judgment on sinful people”. We make judgment calls devoid of any compassion for human suffering and even think God agrees. Jesus said the outward washing of hands will not bring about inward purity. One wonders why Jesus did not wash his hands of us.
But thanks be to God Jesus would wash us and cleanse us. In the first letter of John we hear the familiar call to repent: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not within us. If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. The blood of Jesus, God’s Son, cleanses us from all sin”. In the reading from Deuteronomy today God gave Israel commandments not to be a harsh taskmaster, but to guide the people to be wise and discerning. For people will say “What other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statures and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you.” An antidote to hypocrisy is wisdom, and wisdom first of all is to call upon God who is near. Instead of trying to mask the evil in our hearts there is a better way: call upon God, seek God’s mercy, grace, forgiveness, and help for a new and clean heart.
In the reading from James we heard one who is content with a superficial faith, hearing the word, but not living according to its guidance. This is one who looks in the mirror, but after walking away forgets what he or she looks like. A mirror does not lie, and maybe there are times we would like to walk away and forget what we are like. But we are not talking about cosmetics and fashions. We are talking about our sinful condition: when we confess that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves, I think it would be accurate to add, “We are captivated by sin and may not want to free ourselves.” The truth of our sin is hard, but there is an even greater truth: “welcome with meekness the implanted word that has power to save your souls.” This implanted word, the word of God, the word who is Jesus, is the truth: we are beloved of God and created anew to be both hearers and doers of the word. When we look into what James called the Law of Liberty, we do not forget whose we are. As forgiven and beloved children of God we depend on God’s grace and forgiveness following Jesus and living out a religion that is pure and undefiled, caring for people in their distress.