Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

"Germs and Sin"

Message preached August 31, 2003
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon Mark 7:1-23

Order of Worship

            Let me begin with a question for our youngsters. You have done so well over the summer sitting through all of worship instead of heading to choir practice part-way through. I know I sometimes talk too much, but I hope youíve gotten something out of being more a part of worship for the past three months. Anyway, on this last Sunday before the Alleluia choir kicks in again, let me begin with a question for you.

            When youíre called to the supper table at home, what are you supposed to do first? If you donít do it, and sit down for the meal anyway, what are you asked to get up and go do? Take three steps back if you didnít answer, "wash your hands." Even you adults. My mother instructed me to always wash my hands before eating. Iíve not always been faithful to that rule, mind you, but still I can hear her speak it.

            We wash our hands before eating for a very good reason. There are all sorts of little organisms, too small for the human eye to see, all over everything we may touch in the course of work or play. Germs! Some of them may not be all that harmful, but there are other microscopic things which can do us great harm if we allow them entrance into our body through our mouths.

            If we dwell upon the unseen dangers which lurk within reach of our fingers, we can become afraid of everything. Antibacterial soaps and sprays have become the rage lately, though Iíve read that a good washing with plain, old soap and water may work just as well as all this antibacterial stuff. Note, I said, "a good washing." I didnít say, "put your hands under the facet for a second and then dry them off." Iím sure most of you children have heard, many times, your parents preach about washing your hands before eating. Right?

            So, then, we come to this little episode in the gospel story where the Pharisees and some scribes noticed that a few of Jesusí disciples were not washing their hands before eating. With my Momís instructions ringing in my ears, spoken many times when I was a young boy, I approach this scripture thinking that Jesusí natural response would be in agreement with their concern. "You know, youíre right. Fellows, get up and go to the bathroom and wash your hands. You donít know what those hands might have picked up. You donít want to get sick, do you?"

            Letís be honest, parents. Donít you think thatís what Jesus should have said? Anything else wouldíve been disagreeing with mom, and you donít want to disagree with your mother. Correct? However, is that what Jesus did? No. Instead, he went off in a very different direction.

            Now, something we should probably say before we go pitting Jesus against mom is that the issue in this scripture story was not "germs." Whether or not Jesus, whom our faith claims to be the Son of the One who created all things - even microscopic stuff, knew about germs back then, the people in that era did not. The concern of the Pharisees and those "Scribes from Jerusalem" was not really over good hygiene. The issue for them was contact with "unholy" things in a religious sense. It wasnít germs they cared about. It was sin.

            Because God is a "holy" God, the people of God were supposed to be a "holy" people. I didnít say they were supposed to be full of holes, though sometimes they were. No, they were supposed to be "different," if you will. Not just like any old people who could care less about things. They were to be "different," because their God was "different" from all other gods. Now, the Pharisees were concerned about the holiness of Godís people. Not just the holiness of the priests, mind you, the "holy guys" who served in the Temple in Jerusalem. The Pharisees were teachers who lived among the "average" folks, and encouraged them all to live "holy" lives.

            Itís hard to define exactly what the word "Holy" means, because it encompasses so much. I just used the word "different," because "different" touches on one aspect of "Holy." Have you ever been in a place that just felt very different from all other places? It may have been some grand cathedral, or it might just have been some spot in the woods. A "holy" place is where we become especially aware of God. Itís "holy" because there we sense Godís presence. For Moses, it first was a burning bush on a mountainside, around which the ground was so "holy" - so "different," so full of Godís glory (now, thereís another hard word to absolutely define), that Moses just had to take off his sandals as he approached. The truth is - every place can be "holy" if there we recognize God.

            Remember the prophet Isaiah? He sensed Godís presence in a dream. In fact, God called him to be a prophet in a dream, of all places. In his dream Isaiah stood in the Temple. There he heard all sorts of heavenly beings sing, "Holy, holy, holy," sort of like the words that we sang earlier in worship. When in his dream he realized that he was in the presence of God, Isaiah said, "Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!" (Isaiah 6:5).

            Isaiah, in his dream, became aware of how un-holy he and the rest of Godís people really were. Un-holy, I guess, would be the opposite of "different." In an un-holy place, perhaps you become especially aware of Godís absence. "Unclean" is another way of putting it, though it has little to do with soap and water, or even antibacterial sprays. In Isaiahís dream, it was not his hands which were unclean, but his lips, as well as the lips of his people. Did your mother ever make you wash your mouth out with soup? If so, I doubt if that did much to actually make your lips clean after uttering some foul words, though it sure may have made you think the next time you were tempted to speak unholy stuff.

            In his dream, Isaiah was perhaps conscious of his lips because God was calling him to speak "different" words - Godís words. He recognized that his lips werenít up to the task. Nor were the lips of Godís people, who were themselves called to be "different," to speak a "different word in this world. Now, another way of putting this is that Isaiah realized the sin in his life, and how that might get in the way of what God wanted him to do.

            "Sin." Now thereís another one of those hard-to-define words. I guess we know sin more by its effect upon us. One of the best ways of describing it Iíve come across is that "the power of sin is centrifugal. When at work in a human life, it tends to push everything out toward the periphery. Bits and pieces go flying off until only the core is left. Eventually bits and pieces of the cores itself go flying off until in the end nothing at all is left" (Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking, ©1973, Harper & Row, p. 88). "Sin" is whatever pushes us away from God, who needs to be at the very center of our existence.

            The Pharisees in Jesusí story, they cared about "sin," and how it was cutting people off from God. When they saw the disciples not seeming to care about contact with "sin," with "unclean" stuff in the world, with un-holiness, they were rightly baffled. These disciples of Jesus were being trained to be his mouthpiece, like the students of any rabbi. But these students didnít ritually wash their hands before putting food to their mouths. Their lips, like Isaiahís, would be unclean, sinful, unholy, unworthy of speaking for God. Sometimes I think the Pharisees got a bum rap in the Bible. They cared. Too many people, especially among the "holy guys" in Jerusalem, didnít really care. For them it was all "politics" as usual. The Pharisees, however, who were the spiritual ancestors of todayís rabbis in Judaism, cared.

            As Jesus pointed out, though, in an argument that is hard for us to follow, and which includes a whole lot of comments on the side by gospel-writer Mark (or somebody) to help make sense of it all for those not raised Jewish - comments that at some points further confuse rather than shed light - Jesus pointed out that the Pharisees were misguided in seeing sin as being on the outside of the human heart just looking for a way of getting in. The "unclean" stuff isnít "out there," Jesus said. Itís "in here."

            That probably goes without saying, or does it? Some of us are all too aware of our sin "on the inside," the un-holy, unclean stuff that pushes us away from God. Jesus, in fact, named them very well, thank you, when he later spoke to his dim-witted disciples. These things donít lie around on some counter-top, like germs, waiting to be touched and brought into the body through the mouth where they can do damage. Nope, they are already on the inside waiting to get out. Some of us were raised to live perpetually with an awareness of all this sin within us. But, you know, if we dwell upon these dangers which lurk within us, we can become afraid of doing anything. Sometimes our very awareness of our sinfulness itself gets in the way of us finding that holy place within where God desires to dwell.

            If youíve read or heard about the dream of Isaiah when he was called by God, you know that an angel responded to Isaiahís awareness of his own sinful lips with a burning coal from the altar. Mind you, kids, donít try this at home. The angel touched Isaiahís lips and said, "now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out" (6:7). Remember the context. This took place in a dream, a vision within Isaiah through which God created space for himself to dwell in this prophet.

            Isaiah didnít go out preaching that everyone should now get their lips touched ritually by hot coals in order to make them holy. No. He did note that Godís people were just giving lip service to the Lord, that they spoke holy words in worship, but their hearts were far from God (Isaiah 29:13), a passage of scripture Jesus quoted in this morningís gospel story.

            Finding that holy place within where God desires to dwell - isnít that the point? Becoming "different" on the inside. Not just looking different on the outside, washing the hands in just the right way, but becoming different on the inside. Not putting on an act, but becoming really different. You know, the world is longing for something "different."

            Yes, we live with an awareness that we have met the enemy, and the enemy is us. Sin didnít enter from the outside, itís part of who we are. But thatís not the whole story, is it? We also live with a growing sense of Godís holy presence within. His Spirit is at work with us cleaning up on the inside, working its way to the outside. Our focus thus becomes not our sinfulness, which we cannot deny, though we should not allow it to rule us. Instead, we keep looking to that "holy" place within our hearts where God wants to live. "Seek first the kingdom of God" (Matthew 6:33). Thatís true for us an individuals, as well as for us united together as the body of Christ. "The kingdom of God," Jesus said, "is within you" (Luke 17:21).

online resources for this scripture text

For commentaries consulted, see Mark.


©2003 Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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