Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
True faithfulness is about a Heart Cleansed

Today we hear Jesus talking to a group of Jewish leaders in the Gospel of Mark.  We’ve focused on the book of Ephesians this summer as well as the Bread of Life passages from John SIX so this drop back into Mark’s gospel might seem like an unlikely place to return, so let me share a little context.  Jesus had just fed the 5000, walked on water to the disciples who had gone ahead of him and once in the town on the other side of the sea of Galilee, healed all those brought to him for healing. From then on, Mark says that everywhere they went, people brought their sick to him and even touching the fringes of his cloak healed them.  So, Jesus was traveling the region, preaching, teaching and healing and the news about him spread!  So much so that now, even the Pharisees gather around Jesus.   It seems that Jesus is often in conflict with the Pharisees and we most likely do not regard them highly and probably understand them to be a group of Jewish leaders who thought they were earning salvation by their obedience to the law. But commentator and missionary in Cameroon Africa, Elisabeth Johnson, suggests that actually, they understood that God’s choosing and calling of Israel was a gift. And that God gave them the law as a gift, to order their lives as God’s people. Their observance of the law was meant to be a witness to the nations around them, to give glory to God.  Remember in the book of Exodus, God told the people right before giving the law that they were to be a holy nation, a priestly people and the Pharisees took this calling very seriously.  So, although the purity laws given to Israel did NOT include washing of hands before eating, the elders had interpreted the laws concerning priests serving in the temple to apply to all God’s people and all aspects of life. As priests serving in the temple were required to wash their hands before entering the holy place or offering a sacrifice, the Pharisees believed that all Jews should wash their hands before meals as a way of making mealtime sacred, bringing every aspect of life under the canopy of God’s law. That doesn’t sound too bad does it?  we use the phrase PRIESTHOOD OF ALL BELIVERS?  So, thinking that the people should honor God and witness to the surrounding Gentiles by how they live—including washing their hands before eating- surprises us when it seems to get Jesus all riled up and speaking some harsh words towards those Jewish leaders…  Why does he respond to them like that?  Well, there is a clue in the verses Jesus quotes from Isaiah: 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. They had become so focused on the externals of faithfulness that they neglected to examine their own hearts.  Their efforts were NOT drawing them closer to God and their neighbors…. Their rules created ways of actually excluding people considered dirty or contaminated….  It created US and THEM categories. Sounds like many modern Christians too doesn’t it?  If you live this way, do this, believe this, talk like this, THEN you obviously are not living the life of a believer… you’re an outsider to the faith, or at least to them.   Like the Pharisees, these beliefs and actions might have come out of a sincere desire to be a witness to the nations… understanding, like the Pharisees, that being called by God is a gift. And In response to God’s grace, we want to live in the ways God would want us to live, and we try to discern what that means in the concrete circumstances of our daily lives. The problem is that as we are attempting to live faithfully, there is always the temptation to judge those who do not live in the same way, to set ourselves above others. Perhaps even being tempted to believe that somehow we are more “deserving” of God’s love and grace than others.But then we have lost the whole point of faithfulness. Jesus tells us to beware when piety, our idea of devotion or holiness, gets in the way of fulfilling the heart of the law which is loving God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and loving your neighbor as yourself. He warns us to beware when our piety separates us from others, because then it also separates us from God!Nothing outside of us can defile us by going in, Jesus says. On the contrary what comes out of our hearts can defile our lives and do great harm to others--- LOOK at the list Jesus shares---those things definitely are NOT loving the neighbor as yourself! No law or tradition can protect us from the darkness that lurks within peoples own hearts. We can try to project a squeaky clean image, but one way or another, the evil within will find its way out. And It doesn’t have to be in big ways! Sooner or later, the highly edited version of ourselves that we present to the world, will crumble.  We mess up! This week Pastor Will Willimon shared a perfect example.  Willimon writes about a friend who had had God lay upon his heart a concern about racism in America. He grew up in the South in an unashamedly racist culture. But because he is a committed Christian, he is determined to do his part to change the way people of his race (he is white) think about and react to race. This man helped organize a committee to work on racial reconciliation in the little South Carolina town where he lives. As a layperson, he has gotten his own predominately white church involved in partnerships with a predominately African American congregation in the town, fostering honest, passionate conversation about race. And yet he told Willimon about his shattering experience of visiting in a nearby city with his family. They had been to a concert and were walking back to their hotel. As they approached a street crossing, three young African American men were standing on the corner, laughing and talking. One of them looked toward this man and his family walking toward them. And he shared that he instinctively, without thinking, pulled his children closer to himself.One of the young men called to him, “How are you folks doing? Enjoying the city? Have a good time.” By the time this man and his family got to the other side of the street he said to himself: I’ve met the white supremacist sinner – me. Yes, we mess up despite our good intentions!  That is why the good news of this passage is so important to see and accept.  Jesus knows the ugliness of humanity, He sees and knows our hearts but he does not turn away!  It might seem crazy but despite US, he loves us!  Completely.  Period! Throughout the gospels he shows us his love and faithfulness by daring to touch those considered unclean, by daring to love those who are social outcasts, by loving and serving and giving his life for all people — tax collectors and sinners, lepers and demon-possessed, scribes and Pharisees, believers and betrayers, you and me. That is good news!  Great news that changes us, calls us, invites us to follow.  And Following Jesus is not about separating ourselves from those considered less holy or unclean. Following Jesus means that like him, we get our hands dirty serving others, caring especially for those whom the world has cast aside. True faithfulness is not about clean hands, but a heart cleansed and a life shaped by the radical, self-giving love of God in Christ.  For you, for me, for all people.  Thanks be to God!