A sermon for the fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Back when COVID arrived on the scene last year, you might remember that the first advice we heard for staying healthy was all about hand-washing. You were supposed to wash your hands for at least 20 seconds whenever you came home from being outside, and definitely before you ate anything.

It’s still good advice. My parents taught me to wash my hands before meals, I taught my kids, and they’re teaching the same thing to their kids. And we do the lavabo, the ritual hand-washing before communion here. But in these COVID times, I’ll also go out to the sink in the sacristy and wash my hands with soap and water to be sure they’re really clean before I touch something that will be put into your mouths.

So it seems basic, this hand cleanliness thing, and a bit puzzling that Jesus seems to be defending his disciples’ eating with dirty hands. But to make sense of this dialogue, you have to understand that this is really a debate about religious practices. It’s not so much about cleanliness as it is about holiness. This ritual hand-washing was what the priests did before they led worship, and eventually, it was extended to ordinary people.

But it was a tradition, not something that was commanded in Scripture. And, actually, Mark exaggerates a little when he says that all Jews do this because, in fact, all Jews did not do this, which is why Jesus and the Pharisees are having this discussion. And I think it’s actually a friendly discussion, not a debate, much like we have among ourselves today about how properly to live the faith.

So it’s about what makes us holy. And I think we all know people who seem to care more about outward religious rituals than about facing the “evil intentions” they carry in their own heart, and Jesus is calling that out as hypocrisy.

And I’ll be honest, when I looked at this Gospel early last week, the first thing that came to my mind was those other people who make a big point of wearing crosses that hang over their hearts, when there’s hatred in their hearts ,and when they use religion to exclude and punish. But where my thoughts went, thinking of those other Christians, is the exact opposite of what Jesus had in mind.

But Jesus isn’t asking us to look around and pick out the other sinners. He isn’t actually criticizing how the Jews of his time practiced their religion. He isn’t saying that outward religious ritual is a bad thing. What he’s saying is that we need to look deeply into our own hearts and be honest with ourselves about what we find there ,because attending to our own sins is what will make us holy before God.

Today’s readings—the Gospel from Mark, the passage from the first chapter of James—they’re coming from different places, but both address the question of what it means to truly live our faith.

James is not so much an actual letter as a collection of teachings to explain to early Christians what it means to live a Christian life. And the reading that we have from James today gives us a sort of a summary. First, we’re supposed to talk less and listen more. We’re supposed to pay attention to relationships with others in our community. Number two, we’re supposed to control distructive anger because, our anger is not what’s going to make things right. And number three, we’re supposed to act on our faith. James says be doers and not just hearers—especially, he says, by caring for widows and orphans, those most neglected in his society. This is the primary practice of religion.

I think it’s an interesting list and I wonder how many of us today would pick out those things as the most important things we do to live our faith. What do you think of when you think of how you live your faith? Caring for the poor, yes, that’s on the list, but where is the concern for justice? And what is it with that thing about anger? Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger. It sounds like James is telling us to be nice, but is niceness really the true hallmark of a good Christian?

We know that in the past, the Gospel has been misused this way, to teach passivity and submission, misused by religious hypocrites. Only certain parts of the Bible were read to enslaved people, and they were taught that it told them to be submissive. And I hope in their own hearts they knew that that wasn’t what God’s love was about. But we can’t let the Gospel be misused that way again.

So I look at this and wonder, Is James asking us, telling us, don’t worry, be happy, just accept things the way they are? And I don’t think that’s the message here. I think we let the world down if we don’t use our anger to target wrongdoing where we see it. After all, Jesus himself was angry when he overturned the tables of the money changers in the temple, who took advantage of the poor.

But so many people are angry, so angry about everything these days, and I wonder if all of that anger isn’t making things worse, not better. I’ve thought about this over time, not just this past week, and I think maybe what I’ve come away with is that we need to stay angry about the things that are wrong in this world, but to find some balance between reactive anger and love and compassion for all of our brothers and sisters.

And I suspect that some people, some of you maybe, will resist that, thinking compassion is the same as  complicity. But I wonder if maybe compassion doesn’t have to come first, if relationship might be the foundation of conversion. Remembering that the brokenness of this world is a collective thing, it comes out of the evil intentions that lie in all of our hearts, not just out of the misdeeds of other individuals. So we can’t change the world until we change ourselves, until we ourselves are converted. And maybe listening is the essential first step in that.

The Episcopal Church launched a program last January, officially on Martin Luther King Day. How many of you ever heard of a program called From Many One: Conversations Across Difference? Somebody has. Did you do it here in this parish or did you hear about it somewhere else? Somewhere else.

Well, I think it’s a wonderful program. I’ll try to sum it up. It’s precisely about listening as a spiritual practice, and it’s based on having intentional conversations with other individuals, one-on-one, around four questions: What do you love? What have you lost? Where does it hurt? And what do you dream?

I wonder if James isn’t right, if this kind of conversation that opens up relationship between people could be the beginning that would move us past the intense polarization we’re experiencing in a world where people who speak out are subjected to death threats and feel unsafe, where we find this polarization, even within our own families.

I wonder if these conversations and that kind of listening could help. I do believe that changing the world has to begin with looking into our own hearts, as Jesus says, and attending to our own brokenness before we judge anyone else. As with that quote that’s usually attributed to Gandhi, be the change you wish to see in the world.

And I wonder, what is the change that we wish to see, and who are the people that we wish to be?


Preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Doylestown, PA.