September 2, 2018/Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Several years ago when our daughter moved to New York for work, I made my first visit to Brooklyn. Driving into the borough on Flatbush, I was struck by the signs on the buildings in one section – signage that was carefully scripted in Hebrew. In time, I learned to recognize the borders of the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, home to one of the largest groups of Hasidic Jews living in the country.
These ultra-conservative, ultra-pious Jews were easy to spot as they walked along the streets of Brooklyn. Women dressed conservatively in long skirts and sleeves. The men with their long, black, woolen coats, bearded faces, and uncut sideburns especially stood out.
The Hasidim, along with Christian groups like the Amish or Mennonites, live in ways that visibly set them apart from the rest of the world. For those of us who live immersed in the modern world, the idea of a restrictive dress code or limitations on work on the Sabbath strike us as provincial and old-fashioned.
Which raises the question: “what constitutes religion and what it means to be a person of faith”?
The writer of James appears to have a pretty firm handle on the answer to that question. He writes, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27). The prophet Isaiah pulled no punches in criticizing religious folk who focused their attention on religious tradition at the cost of following the commandments of God.
But in a world of ever-growing diversity, where people of all different faiths and backgrounds blend and live together, how do we distinguish ourselves? How do we maintain our religious identity?
“The Pharisees’ solution to the problem is to contain and codify the sacred.” Pouring over the commandments of God, they developed an elaborate system of guidelines – of dos and don’ts – to define proper behavior. The problem, as Jesus saw it, was the Pharisees went too far. “What he grieves is the Pharisees’ compulsive need to police the boundaries – to decide who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out,’ based on their own narrow definitions of purity and piety.”
In many ways, we’re not too different from the Pharisees of Jesus’ day or the Hasidic Jews of Williamsburg or the Amish of Pennsylvania. “Don’t we set up religious litmus tests for each other, and decide who’s in and who’s out based on conditions that have nothing to do with Jesus’s open-hearted love and hospitality? Don’t we fixate on the forms of piety we can put on display for others to applaud, instead of cultivating the secret and hidden life of God deep within our souls?”
The Pharisees scolded Jesus for allowing his disciples to eat with unclean hands. Jesus, in turn, chastises them for worrying about clean hands when they should be worried about “clean” hearts. “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile,” he tells them, “but the things that come out are what defile. It is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.”
Jesus encourages his hearers to serve God faithfully and to follow God’s commandments not through legalism and obedience to rules but through Scripture. “While Jesus views as unimportant the elements [the Pharisees] were concerned about, he attaches great importance to one’s style of life. We are called to examine our lifestyle lest through it we ‘leave the commandment of God’ and ‘make void the word of God.’”
Better than following rules, Jesus suggests, is following the word of God which calls us to serve others – to offer hospitality, to open our hearts wide with compassion, to welcome people to God’s table. When the Pharisees who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus, they noticed – not the things Jesus was teaching or the people he was healing – but that some of his disciples did not wash their hands before eating. They focused not on the substantive work of discipleship that Jesus modeled but on their “customary ways of doing things [and] concern for appearances.”
“Our challenge today is to recognize how we, like the Pharisees, misinterpret what is important to God. Do we look at the dirty fingernails of our homeless brothers and sisters and think to ourselves, ‘They do not belong in our sanctuary?’ Do we hear a crying baby during the worship service and think to ourselves, or even whisper to our neighbor, ‘Children should not be allowed in worship’?” Do we watch a Hispanic couple come into the church and think, “They are not welcome here”? “We seem to put our energy into keeping people out of our sanctuaries, rather than into examining the sins that stain our own lives. When we use religious rules inappropriately, we separate ourselves from one another.”
“Jesus’ main point [in this text] is perfectly clear: what really renders a person ‘unclean’ in God’s sight is what comes out of him or her. It is not what we eat but what we do that really counts with God.”
To her great surprise, journalist Sara Miles found herself transformed from the inside-out when she was welcomed to a table much like this. She writes:
One early, cloudy morning when I was forty-six, I walked into a church, ate a piece of bread, took a sip of wine. A routine Sunday activity for tens of millions of Americans — except that up until that moment I’d led a thoroughly secular life, at best indifferent to religion, more often appalled by its fundamentalist crusades. This was my first communion. It changed everything.
Eating Jesus, as I did that day to my great astonishment, led me against all my expectations to a faith I’d scorned and work I’d never imagined. The mysterious sacrament turned out to be not a symbolic wafer at all, but actual food — indeed, the bread of life. In that shocking moment of communion, filled with a deep desire to reach for and become part of a body, I realized what I’d been doing with my life all along was what I was meant to do: feed people.
And so I did. I took communion, I passed the bread to others, and then I kept going, compelled to find new ways to share what I’d experienced. I started a food pantry and gave away literally tons of fruit and vegetables and cereal around the same altar where I’d first received the body of Christ. I organized new pantries all over my city to provide hundreds and hundreds of hungry families with free groceries each week. Without committees or meetings or even an official telephone number, I recruited scores of volunteers and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Sara Miles claimed a faith that she says many of her fellow believers wanted to exclude her from. She didn’t play by the right rules. She didn’t live the lifestyle they believed appropriate. They could have turned her away that day – barred the door, told her she wasn’t ready to receive a torn corner of bread and a swallow of juice. They could have quizzed her – Have you been baptized? Have you made a profession of faith? Instead, they welcomed her. They opened their arms to her and invited her to accompany them in a life of service.
In a few minutes, we will come to this table. I’m not going to be checking for clean fingernails or surveying clothing or reviewing your attendance record. I’m going to spread my arms wide and invite you all to come – young and old, faithful and irregular, sick at heart and sick in body. With Jesus I’m going to say, take and eat. This is my body broken for you. Remember.
Now go and do.
 Pearl Maria Barros, “Finding God in Dark Alleys,” Sojourners, September-October 2018
 Debie Thomas, “Vain Worship,” Journey with Jesus, 26 August 2018
 Lamar Williamson Jr., Interpretation: Mark, 135
 Ibid., 136
 Amy C. Howe, Feasting on the Word B/4, 24
 Douglas R.A. Hare, Feasting on the Word B/4, 23-25
 Sara Miles, Take This Bread, prologue