“Psst, Jesus,” say the Pharisees, “Some of your disciples didn’t wash their hands before putting food in their mouths.”
We may hear this complaint as being about basic good hygiene. Oh, the Pharisees are concerned that the disciples will get sick if they eat with dirty hands. But clearly that’s not what this is about. The issue is a ritual cleansing and sanctifying. The ritual may originate in a concern for hygiene, but at this point it’s more about the ritual for the ritual’s sake than anything else.
In Catholic churches, there are plenty of little rituals, as some of you may know if you grew up Catholic or have ever visited Catholic churches. There is often a little font of water at the entrance, and people will dip their fingers in it as they come in and bless themselves. Perhaps this is to remind them of their baptism or is some symbol of ritual purification before they worship. And as they enter a pew, they may bow and cross themselves. And they may notice if others skip these little rituals.
Or maybe in our own congregation we notice if someone doesn’t take communion in the “right” way, or makes noise during the silent prayer time, or heaven forbid brings coffee into the sanctuary and spills it on the new carpet. We might perceive these behaviors as interfering with our own worship, which we find meaningful and life-giving. Let me back up a moment: We do indeed have brand-new carpet, and we do want to keep it looking nice for as long as possible. My point is: It’s not about the carpet.
So Jesus brings up the question, “Which is more important: to honor God with these little rituals, whether we remember why we do them or not? Or to honor God with our hearts and souls and actions in the world?”
When I was about 13 and knew everything, I was critical of the people at my church. I called them “Sunday Christians,” all holy and good on a Sunday morning at church, but dropping that façade as soon as they left the building. Because I saw examples of people in the world not acting their Sunday best—including myself. You see them at school or on the street or in your own family. You see people when they are tired and cranky and hungry and dinner is not yet on the table. You see them when they are drunk or high or otherwise impacted by mind-altering substances. You hear about so-and-so’s mother, who has a drug problem, or someone else’s father, who had an affair and left the family. You see people being their real selves, you recognize your own less-than-perfect behavior, and it’s not always pretty. At age 13, when peer pressure is strong for one to be perfect, I was pretty judgmental about people’s failings.
The people I called “Sunday Christians” in my 13-year-old rush to judgment were more likely just practicing Christians, like the rest of us. I talked about practicing Christians earlier this summer. Practicing Christians are human: they make mistakes. And then they try to do better, to apologize and make amends . . . and do better the next time. They practice what the writer of James suggests: being quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. They practice living in community and getting along, even with the people who are more challenging. Even with the people who spill their coffee on the new carpet. They practice walking the talk, even when that is scary and stretches them beyond their comfort zones. They practice standing up for what is right and just. They practice being not just hearers of the word, not just followers of the rituals, like the Pharisees, but doers, people who are known not for their words or their rules but for how they live out their faith.
For the Pharisees, a ritual washing of hands was a way of honoring God at every meal. What religious practices draw us closer to God? Is it ritual washing of hands? Or perhaps other practices, like lighting a candle at the start of worship as a symbol of the presence of Spirit in this space. Dawn Ottoni Wilhelm writes, “How do practices of Sabbath keeping, charitable giving, public worship, private prayer, service work, hospitality, and forgiveness deepen our sense of God’s presence and power among us?” [Dawn Ottoni Wilhem, Feasting on the Word, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2009), B4:25.] She has named some of the major ways of being a practicing Christian: Sabbath keeping, charitable giving, public worship, private prayer, service work, hospitality, and forgiveness.
So Jesus says it is not what we put in our mouths that defile us, or make us unholy before God. It is what comes out of our mouths and our hearts. And the writer of James takes it further: our faith must express itself not just in words but in behaviors that work to change the world for the better. James invites us to be not just hearers of the word but doers of the word.
The JLP interns are just getting started this week on a year of service. They are looking to be doers of the word, to connect the words that they hear in our churches with the actions throughout the week at their work placement sites. They will be working with Church Council of Greater Seattle, Earth Ministry, Real Change, Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, and elsewhere to effect change for the better for those most in need.
These JLP interns have something to teach us about a willingness to commit to being doers, not just hearers. They are giving a year out of their lives in service to create change for the better in our community and world. And for some of them, this isn’t the first year of service; they’ve worked in other jobs and programs as well.
As much as we may have plenty to learn from our young interns, we may have a few things to teach them as well. Because a lot of you walk the talk of your faith. You make the connections between what the Bible tells us about loving our neighbor, and actually loving real neighbors in some difficult situations. A bunch of years ago now, as I’m told, a number of you took Craig Rennebohm’s workshop on how to walk alongside the mentally ill. Afterward, people asked Craig what they could do, how they could put his teachings into practice. He suggested getting involved in Community Lunch on Capitol Hill, which serves meals four times a week to whoever comes. And some of you have been volunteering there ever since. You are doers. Others have made trips to Olympia to tell our legislators about the social justice issues that mean the most to you: homelessness, climate change, and so on. And there are countless other ways in which you walk the talk.
On Tuesday I got to witness how Mount Zion Baptist Church just down the road here walked the talk about racism. Tuesday marked the 55th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington in 1963. But Mt Zion didn’t mark this date just by looking back. They talked about racism that continues to impact our society today, and they gave us ways to move forward. In particular, they encouraged support of I-1000, which reinstates some form of affirmative action, because in Washington State we somehow did away with that in the early 2000s, and communities of color have seen declining opportunities ever since: fewer women- and minority-owned businesses being able to bid competitively on projects, fewer young people of color being accepted into the University of Washington, and on and on. They had representatives Adam Smith and Pramila Jayapal speak, along with a whole host of others. We heard a wonderful choir that got us up on our feet, moving to the music. So as much as we were recognizing the importance of the “I Have a Dream” speech, we were invited to be doers who move that dream forward.
Our lives are a gift. We get to decide what to do with our time on this planet. We can choose all the evil things that Jesus mentions: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. Or we can choose to spend our time trying to love—love God, love neighbor, love self, love all of creation. And we can try to make the world a better place for all those we love.
Perhaps you saw the story in the latest National Geographic about a young woman named Katie Stubblefield. In 2014, in a fit of rage because her boyfriend had moved on to someone new, she picked up a rifle, put it under her own chin, and pulled the trigger. She survived but required an entire face transplant, and her vision is now minimal, so she is learning Braille. She has spent four years recovering and still faces additional surgeries, but now she’s looking for ways to give back. She wants to counsel young people who are considering suicide. She wants to be a doer.
The writer of James says that every generous gift comes from God. We can practice channeling that God-energy by giving. All of us have gifts to share, ways in which we can be doers. We may be five years old or 25 or 85, and we have something to contribute. Perhaps, like Katie Stubblefield, who tried to commit suicide, you have been through some life experience that makes you the perfect person to help others in that situation. Maybe you have been homeless and so have a special place in your heart for people in that circumstance now. Maybe you have wrestled with addiction and now can mentor others who are working to get clean and sober. Maybe you bring a fresh perspective and new energy to an old problem.
May we be known not just as hearers of the word but as doers. May we be known as good listeners, slow to speak and slow to anger. May we be known as champions for justice, willing to stretch ourselves in order to be closer to our loving God, in order to spread that abundant love to our neighbors. May we be sure to fill our souls with goodness on a regular basis so that what comes out of our hearts is not evil but blessings. Amen.