We pray . . .
Open our lips, O Lord and our mouth will proclaim your praise. Amen
Song of Solomon 2:8-13
The voice of my beloved!
Look, he comes,
leaping upon the mountains,
bounding over the hills.
My beloved is like a gazelle
or a young stag.
Look, there he stands
behind our wall,
gazing in at the windows,
looking through the lattice.
My beloved speaks and says to me:
“Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away;
for now the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
is heard in our land.
The fig tree puts forth its figs,
and the vines are in blossom;
they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away.”
Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10
1 My heart is stirring with a noble song;
let me recite what I have fashioned for the king; *
my tongue shall be the pen of a skilled writer.
2 You are the fairest of men; *
grace flows from your lips,
because God has blessed you for ever.
7 Your throne, O God, endures for ever and ever, *
a scepter of righteousness is the scepter of your kingdom;
you love righteousness and hate iniquity.
8 Therefore God, your God, has anointed you *
with the oil of gladness above your fellows.
9 All your garments are fragrant with myrrh, aloes, and cassia, *
and the music of strings from ivory palaces makes you glad.
10 Kings’ daughters stand among the ladies of the court; *
on your right hand is the queen,
adorned with the gold of Ophir.
James 1:19-21, 26
You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
When the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 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.) 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?” 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; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
Wash your hands, please!
Use your imagination for just a moment.
See two young girls sitting side by side, whispering so the parents don’t hear. The older sister speaks, “Listen! My Beloved is coming! He’s like a young stag leaping over mountains and bounding over hills! Look! Over there by the wall, gazing through the lattice, he sees us! Listen!”
“Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away with me. The winter is over. The rains have gone. The flowers cover the fields. It’s time. Come away my love, my fair one. Come away.”
Whew! Solomon definitely had a way with words! He could lift love to the sublime in a moment. His daddy was no slouch either. Look at the Psalm for today, Psalm 45 where he speaks of his King.
“My heart is stirring with a noble song. Let me recite what I have fashioned for the king. My tongue shall be the pen of a skilled writer. You, my king, are the fairest of men. Grace flows from your lips because God has blessed you forever.”
David, Solomon and other Old Testament writers were incredibly eloquent, to say the least! I truly believe they were so close to God that they understood language, that is, words were a gift from God, intended for love, adoration and loyalty, and they did it beautifully.
Move forward to the New Testament where words are still important. They are still the language God gave the Gospel writers to use for righteousness. Only things have gotten a little less elegant and more concise. Take James, for example. If I say his name, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind? ”Faith without works is dead.”
He’s got it.
He sums up faith and religion in five short words and packs it with tremendous power and clarity. It was clear that he so respected the impact of words, he gave us rules for effective communication:
Number one, be quick to listen. (Ooh? So, it starts before we speak? What a concept!)
Number 2: Be slow to speak.
And number 3: Be particularly slow to speak when angry. Angry words contradict the righteousness that God intended for our words to work.
These are very important precepts to consider as we move into our gospel reading for today. Let’s look at the setting Mark has staged for us.
We see Jesus and his disciples, who by this time have pretty much reached celebrity status. And like today where celebrities always travel with an entourage, so did Jesus. We see him with his tightly-knit circle of 12 disciples and the women who traveled with them. They were surrounded by a larger group, his followers, people truly interested in what Jesus was saying and doing. In all likelihood, there was an even larger group of people whom we could call curiosity seekers. These would be the ones out for a Sunday afternoon excursion. When they heard that Jesus was nearby, they decided to check him out; maybe see a miracle or two. Maybe get some photographs and an autograph.
And finally, where ever celebrities go, there are the critics. This time it was the Pharisees, standing to the side looking for something to critique. And it did not take long. There it was: tired, hot, hungry disciples eating food brought to them, without first washing their hands.
We know to wash our hands before eating, right? But for the Jews, it was more than that. It was part of a ritual dictated by God to His people during their time in the wilderness. There are several hypotheses about the reasoning behind these laws. I go along with the Health and Hygiene explanation. These were God’s people, after all; and God had big plans for them. The best way to guarantee their longevity as a nation was to make sure they did not kill themselves off with food-related disease. They didn’t know about germs, bacteria, or parasites, but God did. So he gave them rules for preparing, cooking, and eating food deemed safe.
I hypothesize that God had a conversation with himself that went something like this, “I’ve invested a lot in these people and I need to keep them alive. So I’m going to give them rules. First! Wash your hands. Then wash your pots and pans. Wash your plates and cups. Prepare fruits and vegetables in one part of the kitchen; raw meat in another. And about pigs? I know bacon makes everything taste better, but stay away from pigs! They’ve got parasites!”
So these were important rules, God-given and mandated. Now understand, if the Pharisees were truly concerned for the disciples’ spiritual and physical well-being, they would have gone to Jesus quietly and offered to get water for washing, but they did not. They were there to critique, and in a loud, clear voice did exactly that, “Jesus, why do you allow your disciples not to live by the traditions of the elders? They are eating with defiled hands.”
I imagine a tense moment of silence fell over the crowd, but only a quick one, because Jesus knew exactly their motivation. He knew it the second they said, “Jesus, why . . .?
It was the Dreaded Why Question! We know it, don’t we? We have all been the recipient of this grammatical anomaly at one time or another: a statement that masquerades as a question but is not a question at all. “ Why did you decide to wear those shoes with that outfit?” Is the critic really interested in knowing why? Of course not. He is criticizing my choice of shoes and has no interest whatsoever in why I picked what I did.
So, the next time you are the recipient of a Dreaded Why Question, do not bother trying to answer the question, because it is not a question at all. It is a veiled critical attack. Instead, do what Jesus did.
Change the subject.
Jesus did not venture to answer the “question.” He changed the subject and started talking about Isaiah. Try that some time. That should work. It did for Jesus!
He spoke up, “Isaiah’s got your number and had it way back then. He predicted you would do this. You are hypocrites!” Jesus identified the hypocrisy in the Pharisees’ use of words, not to embrace Jesus and his disciples in love and unity, but to criticize, to demean, to create separation; and Jesus called them on it.
The next thing Jesus did was make sure that the crowds understood the dynamics of the word defile. To defile means to corrupt, to desecrate, and to destroy the purity and the holiness of God’s creation in us. Jesus made clear that nothing you put into your mouth is going to defile you, only what comes out from inside a person can defile. He then gave the crowd a list of behaviors arising from evil intentions in the heart that have the power to defile us and everyone and everything around us.
Let’s look at this list. I call it the . . . Jesus List
Fascinated with lists, I wondered about this list of twelve behaviors. Were there only twelve evils out there? I’d have thought there would be more. Maybe, Jesus just liked the number twelve and stopped there. After all, he could have had dozens of disciples and stopped at twelve.
Then I tried to find a pattern in the order in which he listed them. Was he starting with the least and going to the worst evil? Or was it the other way around? He certainly didn’t alphabetize them! At least that would have been a bit more orderly. Maybe if I alphabetize the list, I could find a pattern. So, I tried that. Nothing. That is when I called a halt to the fretting, and decided it would be more productive to look at the underlying, pre-evil patterns that exist in our heart long before they sour and rot into evil intentions and the destructive behaviors we see in the Jesus List.
You see, I doubt that we are created with evil intentions. It is as we grow that we develop a perspective of the world and what we need to do to be safe and functional, or pain-free within it. In response to this world of our creation, we create mindsets by which we identify the players, the problems, and how to respond emotionally, physiologically, and behaviorally. At any point, these suppositions may break down, but none the less it is what we create and live in. So I decided I’d make a list of patterns that, while not necessarily evil, they have the potential to become evil. I started off with two or three things, then got up to twenty or thirty. Finally I remembered that Jesus kept his list to twelve, and I will do the same. However, I will alphabetize them!
So here’s my list. I’m sure any of you could add more. I’m also sure that not a single one of us is free of having at least some element of one or more of these at any given time in our own heart. Remember, none of these are innately evil; they only have the potential to become that way.
Addiction (from alcohol to chocolate to money to shoes)
Angry Victim Identity/Martyr (perhaps the deadliest of all patterns; think terrorism)
Avoidance (avoidance of a challenge, a new thing, a difficult conversation)
Blaming (finding fault, blaming others for what happens in life)
Control Needs (Any control freaks out there?)
Comparing (always a bad move; you never come out well)
Criticality (Think Pharisees. Do we really want to hang in that crowd?)
Fear (“a scared dog is an aggressive dog”)
Grudges (sours the present time; related to Resentments)
Laziness (aka Procrastination)
Resentments (toxic to relationships)
Worries (see control needs)
Looking at this list, we are faced with a dilemma. Not one of us, if we are honest, gets out of this one scot free. We are intimately familiar with one or more of these flaws. So what do we do?
This is what we do. Go back to our readings. The directions are there.
Number one, use the language God gave us for the purpose he intended. Use it to embrace others, fearlessly with love. When a heart with its flaws and evil intentions hears loving and respectful words, the dissonance will shake the foundations of pre-evil origins to their very core.
Number two, in all of your communications, be quick to listen and slow to speak. Be so slow, you may discover all you really need to say is, “Okay. I got it. I understand.” If speaking is necessary, be slow. Choose your words carefully, with respect, honesty and diplomacy. And if you are angry, be incredibly slow. Angry, aggressive, violent, hostile words destroy us from the inside out, and exert power to destroy relationships, communities, even countries.
And finally, look into your heart. Identify the mindsets that have the potential to create evil within us. Embrace the flaws with love and take them to God. That is how Jesus did it.
Recall the first Maundy Thursday in the upper room. With dread, Jesus anticipates the cross, the tortured road to Golgotha. What does he do? He gathers with friends and family and they share a meal. At the end of the evening, he takes it to God in the Garden. He confesses the fear and avoidance in his heart, “If there’s any way I can avoid this night, let me walk away. If not, I will do what I need to do, knowing it is your will.”
This is what we do every Sunday. It is why we go to church! We gather with friends and family in our Father’s house. We bring to God our heart filled with fears, weaknesses, and flawed mindsets from which evil intentions grow. We get down on our knees and confess them, and receive God’s blessing and strength to do the right thing. And then we come to the table where we share a glorious and holy meal, a gift directly from Jesus, meant to strengthen us to face the evils within and to transform them into love.
Today, tomorrow, we will walk out of the Garden and into the world. We, like Jesus will face whatever demands and difficulties lay before us, knowing it is God’s intention to be with us through whatever they may be. I don’t know your plans for the day, but at some point, you’re going to share a meal. The first thing you do is wash your hands. Yes, go wash your hands, please! We don’t want any uninvited guests like germs joining us for dinner.
Finally, say grace. Pray something like this. “Come Lord Jesus, be our guest, and let these gifts to us be blessed. Create in us a clean heart oh God and renew a right spirit within us so that when we open our lips, our mouth shall and can and will and must proclaim your love and your praise. Amen.”
And let it be so. Amen