Shuck and Jive

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Purity -- A Sermon

John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

January 23rd 2010

Gospel of Jesus 14:1-10

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus
(Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), pp. 65, 67. Mark 7:1-5, 14-16; Thomas 14:5; 89:1-2;
Matthew 15:10-11; 23:25-26; Luke 11:39-40

The Pharisees gather around him, along with some of the scholars, who had come from Jerusalem. When they notice some of his disciples eating their meal with defiled hands, that is to say, without washing their hands, the Pharisees and the scholars start questioning him: “Why don’t your disciples live up to the tradition of the elders, instead of eating bread with defiled hands?”

(Recall that the Pharisees and the Judeans generally wouldn’t think of eating without first washing their hands in a particular way, always observing the tradition of the elders, and they won’t eat when they get back from the marketplace without washing again, and there are many other traditions they cherish, such as the washing of cups and jugs and kettles.)

As usual he summons a crowd and says to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and try to understand! What goes into you can’t defile you; what comes out of you can. If anyone has two good ears, use them!”

Jesus said, “Why do you wash the outside of the cup? Don’t you understand that the one who made the inside is also the one who made the outside?”

The disciples are accused of not washing their hands before they eat.

Our response to that is, “Eeww! Why don’t they wash their hands? Don’t they know about germs?”

No, they didn’t know about germs. Germs and hygiene is something we have become aware of in modern times. A few weeks ago I talked about Ignaz Semmelweis, who in the mid 19th century had difficulty convincing his doctor colleagues to wash their hands before delivering babies after they had been dissecting corpses. These are doctors. Now we know about washing hands for hygienic purposes.

A couple of years ago our confirmation class visited the synagogue in Blountville, the B’nai Sholom Congregation. The occasion was a question and answer gathering by the congregation to provide information to the larger community about the congregation and about Judaism in general.

The rabbi told us that the kitchen was “clean” in two ways. It was clean in the sense that we think of clean, that is germ-free, or as germ-free as we might hope for a kitchen reasonably to be. But it was also “clean” in the religious sense, that is ritually clean or ritually pure according to religious law and custom. The milk is kept separate from the meat and so forth. It is kosher. That is proper or correct.

In a website called Judaism 101, the author explains what kosher means. He said that a survey reported that in the year 2000, twenty-one percent of American Jews reported that they kept kosher in the home. This includes those who consider themselves Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Reform. Within that designation there is variance about what exactly to observe. The author writes:
The strictest people will eat only foods that have reliable Orthodox kosher certification, eating only glatt-kosher certified meats and specially certified dairy products. They will not eat cooked food in a restaurant unless the restaurant has reliable Orthodox certification, and they are unlikely to accept an invitation to dinner from anyone who is not known to share their high standards. Others are more lenient, accepting less reliable certifications without question or "ingredients reading," accepting grocery store items that have no certification but do not contain any identifiably non-kosher ingredients.
The author tells this joke:

As rabbi/humorist Jack Moline noted,
"Everyone who keeps kosher will tell you that his version is the only correct version. Everyone else is either a fanatic or a heretic."
The question to the disciples is why aren’t they keeping kosher laws? The answer is who’s asking and who says we aren’t kosher?

Christianity has often played Jesus over against Judaism. This has led to tragic consequences over the centuries. As if Jesus wasn’t Jewish or as if Jesus meant to supplant Judaism. None of that is true. Jesus was Jewish. Like Jews now, Jews then differed with one another about important things such as the law and how to keep kosher.

It wasn’t until many decades after Jesus that a separation occurred between Judaism and the followers of Jesus who were later called Christians. When we read in the gospels about conflicts between Jesus and the Pharisees, some of those conflicts reflect later divisions between two communities that had begun to separate. It is that later division that is reflected in the gospels and projected back onto Jesus.

You get the absurdity, for example in the Gospel of John and in the Gospel of Matthew, of “the Jews” opposed to Jesus and being responsible for his crucifixion. Jesus was a Jew. The execution of Jesus was the execution of yet one more Jew by the Romans.

Christians mistakenly have assumed that Jesus did away with all the rules that the Jews observed therefore showing that Judaism had been replaced by this new Jesus religion. It is only recently that we are slowly coming to terms with the anti-Jewish bias within Christianity including within the gospels and within the historical reconstructions of Jesus that often pit Jesus as superior to his Jewish heritage.

Did Jesus have conflicts with religious leaders? Certainly. Jesus didn’t have conflicts with the religious leaders of his time because of their Judaism. I am sure if Jesus were here today he would have conflicts with me. But it wouldn’t be because of my Christianity. It would be because I have neglected the most important parts of my Christian faith in favor of the superficial aspects. I would be accused as Jesus is reported to have accused the religious leaders of his day of being scrupulous about incidental matters and neglectful of the weightier matters, such as justice and compassion.

The disciples are accused of not washing their hands. Not all of them, just some. Why didn’t they wash their hands? That really Is a good question. Do they not care? Are they defiant or careless? Are they making a statement or just lazy? Is it because they willfully refuse or because they are unable to do so? Maybe it isn’t that big of a deal for them. We don’t really know.

The reason for keeping kosher and observing these commandments is to be conscious. The observance of Shabbat and the observance of dietary laws are practices designed to show respect for God, for Life, and for the Holy. They are practices that enable the practitioner to be aware of the sacred and to appreciate and notice the holiness, sacredness, and wonder of life. The purpose of sacred ritual whatever the ritual and whatever the tradition the ritual is associated is to open our hearts to the sacred. That is the plan anyway.

Let’s take a ritual from our tradition, communion.
  • Or is it the Eucharist? Or is it the Lord’s Supper? We Christians cannot even agree on what to call it.
  • How often should we do it? We cannot agree on that.
  • What does mean? We cannot agree on that.
  • Who should administer it? Who gets to take it? We cannot agree.
  • What words should we use? Can’t agree.
  • What should we drink? Grape juice or wine? Red or White? Is wine from a box OK?
  • Should we eat chunks of bread or those little petroleum product wafer thingies? Can’t agree.
  • Should we come up and rip and dip or stay in our pew and sit and sip? Can’t agree.
  • Should we have music when we do our communion thing and what kind? Can’t agree.
If there is anything I am sure we all can agree upon, it is this: when I administer communion, I do it wrongly.

Some Christians don’t want to do communion at all. Some Christians take communion even if they haven’t been baptized. They all could be asked by religious leaders in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) why they don’t do communion according to the precepts set forth in the Book of Order.

Let’s take some liberties with our text:
The Presbyterians gather around Jesus, along with some of the scholars, who had come from Louisville. When they notice some of his church members not participating in communion and others doing it wrongly, the Presbyterians and the scholars start questioning him: “Why don’t your church members live up to the tradition of the elders, instead of defiling this holy sacrament?”
That is what I think is the sense here. There is an internal religious squabble about ritual observance. In the case with the Pharisees, Jesus and the disciples it is about keeping kosher. Keeping kosher is a good thing, like worship and communion is for us. The reason there is a squabble about it is because these observances are living observances. They matter to the community even as the community is not in agreement with each other as to how and why they matter. They just do. They matter to the extent that the community wants to be intentional about them. We want to do it “right” even though we don’t agree what “right” is.

Jesus uses this interchange to raise the level of awareness.

Why do we do these rituals in the first place, or in the case of at least some of his disciples, why has this particular ritual of washing hands not being observed? Why is what is important to these religious leaders not as important to some of Jesus’ disciples?

Jesus says:
“What goes into you can’t defile you; what comes out of you can.”
Of course, that is a funny, as the hearers might imagine all the kinds of things that come out of one’s body. Eeww.

And Jesus says:
“Why do you wash the outside of the cup? Don’t you understand that the one who made the inside is also the one who made the outside?”
Jesus is not doing away or dismissing kosher practices, he is inviting them to be conscious about what they do or don’t do. The observance is a vehicle not the destination. It is important to distinguish the two. The vehicle is to bring us to a “thin place”, to an awareness of the sacred. A thin place is a metaphor for those times or places when those everyday barriers to the numinous, holy, and sacred become thin and we experience a sense of the awe and wonder of life.

Another way of saying it from the Christian tradition is “means of grace.” These are practices that are not to be confused with the sacred and the holy or with grace, but help prepare us to be open to the sacred and the holy—to grace. These include among other things, worship, communion, meditation, and prayer in many different forms.

I think that one thing Jesus might be saying to these religious leaders is something like this:
“Take care about criticizing others for their practices and rituals or what you perceive as lack of them. Because you may not know what you are talking about.”
As Jesus said elsewhere,
“Take the log out of your own eye before trying to remove the speck in another’s eye.”
We can do a lot of ritual and look good doing it, and miss the heart of what we are doing. The inside of the cup, our “heart” and our character are the important things. Do we seek to internalize the compassion and sacredness of our practices? Do we experience the thin place that is characterized by love and peacefulness? The question I want to ask myself is this:
“What good is my religion if it doesn’t make me kinder?”
If religion is used to divide and exclude, to separate the clean from the unclean, the insiders and outsiders, the believers and unbelievers, the impure from the pure, then we have likely missed the point. For Jesus the heart of religion was not being separated from “defilement”. It was about being willing to get dirty. To be earthy. To be human.

I think what got Jesus and his disciples in trouble with the religious authorities is that Jesus challenged those boundaries of "us and them". He identified with those who couldn’t possibly keep the religious rules. He ate with and accepted those who were considered outsiders and the outcasts. Jesus said in effect:
"If eating with and showing compassion for people makes me “unclean”, then “unclean” I will be. It could be that what you consider unclean is what God considers sacred."
Jesus challenged any religious rules that were designed to exclude. Boy do we have a lot of those rules in our Christian churches. The religious leaders in Jesus’ time are similar to those today. Some were more concerned with purity and appearance than they were with compassion.

We preachers can be more concerned with reading our Bibles than in caring for people. It isn’t that one is bad and the other is good. It is about cleaning both the outside and the inside of the cup and not confusing the vehicle with the destination which is compassion.

I am going to close with this observation:

I grew up in a Southern Baptist congregation in Montana. My favorite preacher was a guy named Alvin Petty. He was from Texas and he was six foot seven. The reason he was my favorite is that he would come out to our farm and pole vault the ditch with us. We had a good sized irrigation ditch and we had a pole vaulting pole. The plan is this: You run with the pole as fast as you can, stick it in the middle of the ditch and propel yourself to the other side. It wasn’t easy. Usually you would get hung up in the middle and splash right in the mud. It was a muddy and slimy ditch too. Alvin Petty went for it again and again. I don’t think he ever made it. We have a photo of him covered with mud and ditch slime. Good earthy stuff. As a teenager, I was pretty impressed.

I have that photo in my mind of what authentic ministry is about.

You can’t trust a person, preacher or otherwise, who is afraid to dive in the mud.



  1. I have found the NT translation called "Restored New Testament" by Willis Barnstone (2009) to be very helpful in understanding the Jewish identify of Jesus and the apostles, and the incongruity of the anti-Jewish zingers that are scattered through the NT.

  2. The timing of this sermon was great for Mr. Dewey. We just received a letter from his niece who, although it took her 5 years to realize her church "might be a cult" (she nearly took out a restraining order against the minister when they left recently), she feels compelled to let us know how sadly mislead we are for our choice of FPCe.

    A printout of this sermon, along with a copy of Tony Feathers' "You Handle Your Snake, I'll Handle Mine" will make the perfect Darwinmas gift for her, I think!

  3. Thanks Michael. I will check that out.

    @Snad, Well, we try our best to mislead folks into the darkness. I think those would be fine Darwinmas gifts, by the way. : )

  4. What a joy to read this sermon, after getting pilloried by the purist Atheist/Humanist/Agnostic group at a meeting in my UU church yesterday. Some of us have started a monthly 10 a.m. UU Christian service, serving (ARRGH!) communion and talking about (GASP!) distributive justice-compassion.

    I'm working on getting your blog listed on a links page on our Christian UU page on our website.

    Meanwhile, I'm glad you're in the ditch so when I miss, I'll have somebody to fall on! GLURK!!

  5. Thanks @Sea!

    I have often wondered what UUs do in place of communion.

  6. I think some of your readers might appreciate my dear brother (ok, technically, brother-in-law) Dex' post in the Grace P. blog today.

    No matter, I love your writing, John.

    Hugs all around.