August 30, 2015 Gospel Mark:7:1-8, 21-23 1st Reading: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
2nd Reading: James 1:17-27
We're very into rules at our house, these days. We're trying to turn our toddler into a little boy or our neandrathal into a modern human. We're trying to help him understand what is appropriate when and where and it is very complicated. We pretty much spent the whole summer on the rule that potty humor is not allowed at the kitchen table or at meals. This is a fun rule, because sometimes Sterling isn't the only one to violate it and he gets to catch one of the adults. It is also fun because it really has bigger implications—that certain things can be said in certain places and times but not others. We're basically trying to master this to avoid big public embarrassment at a restaurant or at a friend's house. But the bigger picture is to raise a child who can get around in the world and make decisions for himself.
I have had the thought, several times, that I wish they offered a Master Parenting class similar to what I have had with gardening—researched based information to help people who really need it. Parenting, to me, is a lot like gardening. You get the best information you can from reliable sources that you trust, you do the basics like feeding and bathing, but with everything else there are so many variables you experiment until something works and then repeat.
In our Master Gardener class, the very first day, they tell us to test the soil. Send our soil into a lab and pay the $35 to find out what we we've got, what nutrients and minerals we are short on, and what is the pH. We are given the research, the basics of soil, water, and sun, the temperature of the soil, and the disease resistant varieties of plants. We are told how to amend the soil, how to know when to plant, how to know how much to water, and what insects are good and which are not. Then we go out to our own garden and try to apply what we've learned.
Early this year I dumped everything from my compost pile on the garden, trying to enrich the soil and get some organic matter in there. It isn't completely composted. There is a corn cob or two in there, some avacado skins that haven't decomposed, and so forth. Then I went to Zenger Farm where I have been volunteering and they asked me to put all the compost through a screen to get the lumps out. The same week, I read in a trusted gardening book about building a screen and not putting solid pieces that haven't composted into the garden. So I was trying to think of what kind of screen I'd like to build. Then I went to my advanced gardening class and the instructor told us that he just dumps it all on there, like I did—as long as the piece of plant can be snapped apart with your fingers, it can go in the garden. It provides nice aeration and he notices no difference from when he was putting his compost through a screen. He saves himself a lot of work. So we get the commandment, the rule from the class and the book, and we go to our own garden and we find what works in the real world that we are living in.
The same is true about the Bible and the Commandments—there are over 600 of them in there. They were written for a certain time and place and situation, in fact different parts were written for different times and places and situations. That's why the Bible doesn't always agree with itself. Some of these commandments were developed when the Israelites were traveling through the wilderness, living in tents, and barely surviving, some once they settled. So we've got these rules we learn in the Good Book—research based information that seems to work in community, everything from how and when to wash, to how to punish crimes, what food to eat, where to sit, who to marry, when to make love, what to wear, and on and on. And as time goes by, these rules get tested in real communities to see if they work and how they work. Sometimes it goes well and sometimes it doesn't seem to fit very well. Our first reading today, seems to threaten anyone who adds or takes away from the commandments. However, this threat is addressed to those of this time and place, and the threat isn't that God will punish them, but that these are the rules that seem to mean better life for a community of people in this certain time and place, and when we shape the rules just to benefit us, or we throw the rules away because we don't like them, it can mean less life all around.
Jesus and his Disciples are seemingly breaking this commandment about washing hands. They have supposedly taken away from God's commandments. But Jesus tells them to quit worshipping the commandments and start worshipping God again. They have become so wrapped up in the rules, that they won't go near widows and orphans, they won't get their hands dirty with grubby little brats and cursed old women. Everyone was washing their hands religiously, but they were missing the main point that you have to get your hands dirty, mix with some people who are different from you, who are in terrible poverty and need, who might have head lice or fleas. That's what makes the washing necessary, later. You have to get your hands dirty, trying to change the world and shape it and make it better. Yes, some dirt is bound to get on you. Some people will doubt your motives. Others will lump you in with the undesirable types. Even Jesus got called a drunk party-animal because he liked to hang out with the wrong crowd. Once we take the chance to shape our world and make a difference and spread some of that life around, we are bound to have dirty hands. Then it would be a good thing to have a ritual washing rule or habit to keep illness and disease away.
“You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” How do we know which commandments are human commandments and which ones are from God?
All the rules and commandments are there supporting the very basic rule at the center of it all—love. In James it is summed up this way, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress.” It all has to be about doing the loving thing for those who are helpless and alone, who have nobody, and no power. Jesus says it another way, that the greatest commandment is to, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself.”
It isn't just that you wash you hands, but you do so with your neighbor in mind. If you just wash your hands to keep yourself from getting sick, it can become idolatry, selfishness. But wash your hands with your neighbor in mind, the one with the compromised immune system, the little baby, the older person who can't survive another cough turning into pneumonia. If you bring food to the panty, don't just think of yourself and what you'd like to get rid of off your shelf, although we will take that, too, but think of what people need most, or might enjoy as something a little bit special. God wants to change us, to get under our skin and in our hearts, not just be in some list of rules that we try to follow because we're afraid of punishment. God wants love to be in our hearts and for us to think of other people instead of always just about ourselves and our own needs. God wants us to see ourselves as a part of community, because that is the only way we can find fulfillment and life. We need each other, we need God, and the flip side is that others need us, so it can't just be all about me. God wants to transform our world through us into a place where life flourishes. God wants to make us doers, partners who remember who we are, children of God, remember who God is, one who is giving life and love to the whole community of creation, who our neighbor is (anyone affected by our actions), and that our children and children's children depend on our actions today.
God gives us the rules, the basics, love. We go out and try it. We share some food, we wash our hands, we take some Sabbath time, we try to honor our parents, we mix a little of this and a little of that, and we find what brings life to those who most need it. We have flown from the nest and it is time for us to make some decisions. God isn't going to have a hard and fast rule for every occasion, but we get to try to decide as a community how to proceed in a life-giving way. We have to decide whether to get our hands dirty, when to intervene, and when to step away. We have to decide what to wash our hands of. And God is there for us, bringing generosity and courage into our hearts, second chances when we don't quite get it right, another chance to put someone else before ourselves.
We are looking at this world, with limited time and energy and we are prioritizing. The stained and apathetic world is telling us to help people who can reciprocate—who can give back to us, who will join our church, who will contribute with money or time. Don't sink your resources into a losing battle. It is telling us that we aren't enough. We can't make a difference.
But our scriptures give us another story, another picture. Love and transformation is the gift of the power of God, unlimited and unchanging, singularly focused on bringing life and love and growing it and spreading it. Feel that power of God surrounding you, motivating you, energizing you, making you see the world in a different way, making you notice what you never did before. Picture this power filling you with gratefulness and generosity, filling your heart with love, your ears with the ability to listen better, clearing your schedule so you have time to sit with someone, taking away all your anger and jealousy and fear, and filling you with warmth and compassion, the love of God. That warmth and light goes out from you to those nearby, your neighbors living next door, the people who are driving or cycling down the street, the teenager with his pants sagging, the guy selling fruit by the side of the road, the prostitutes and drug dealers over at Your Host Hotel on McGloughlin, the lady who has no visitors at Milwaukie Convalescent, the geese crossing 224, the trees and animals affected by the wildfires, the salmon in the Willamette River, that warmth spreading out, big enough to encompass all of God's good creation, and then not just being a feeling of compassion, but actions in keeping with that compassion, that love of God interested in the flourishing of even the orphan, the widow, the cleansing waters, enough life for everyone.
The best way to teach my son what is important isn't telling him rules, but following them myself. I have to remember to sit up to the table, give him my attention when he's talking, wash my hands at appropriate times, and stick to certain subject matters at the table. That's really how he will learn.
The best thing about Jesus, he wasn't just a hearer of the word who went about telling people what to do and how to do it. He was The Doer of the word, the one whose actions reflected his words, who even gave his life because of his priorities. Because of Jesus, we have life. That life was not meant to stop with us, but for us to pass it on, to be transformed, to be changed because of his sacrifice, and to help change our world to better reflect God's generosity and care for all whom God has created.