When I was working as a chaplain, I washed my hands a lot, maybe twenty-thirty times a day? That’s just a rough estimate. Before visiting a patient or staff, and afterwards, I would “wash” my hands with the disinfectant. From those days, the practice of hand washing probably stayed with me. And now with the pandemic, in addition to wearing masks, and getting vaccinated, I wash my hands, many times throughout the day. I am not worried about being overly obsessed since we are living in such a climate where hand washing helps to stop or decrease likelihood of spreading of the virus.
In the Gospel reading for the day, (Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-13), we see that the Pharisees were also concerned about hand washing. The pharisees complained to Jesus, they asked why do your disciples eat with defiled hands, without washing their hands? When we were young kids, our hands got dirty, literally covered with dirt or some kind of visible indication that we needed to wash hands. The Pharisees were concerned with ritual custom to wash hands before eating. But Jesus was concerned about yet another level of cleanliness.
Jesus answered, you abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition. He told the Pharisees, “There is nothing outside a person by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile” (Mark 7:14). Far more than dirt on our hands, the invisible virus can be detrimental for our physical health. And far more than cleansing our hands for ritual customs, and what type of food goes into our bodies, Jesus spoke of what we truly need to worry about to keep our hearts from becoming defiled. It’s not what goes in that defiles us, but what comes out of us that defiles us. Jesus stated, “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:21-23).
Of the litany of evil intentions, I wanted to speak on the last four. The evil intentions having to do with envy, slander, pride, and folly. And the envy and slander are closely related, so I group the two together leaving us with three things to consider in our hearts: envy, pride, and folly. As we reflect on how to rid ourselves of these three sources which can lead us away from God, let us also reflect on how to live in ways that are pleasing to God.
Envy is the feeling of discontented or resentful longing aroused by someone else’s possessions, qualities, or luck. And to envy is to desire to have what belongs to someone else, quality, possession, or other desirable attributes. Closely related in motivation to envy is slander. To slander is to make false and damaging statements (about someone). And the motivation for that most likely is you want the outcome which would take away what they had, presumably because you are envious of their position or their opportunities or their relationship to others.
Why should we be envious? We have a God who loves us. Here I would point us to the Song of Solomon passage.
8The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills. 9My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice. 10My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; 11for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. 12The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. 13The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.” (Song of Solomon 2:8-13).
The first words of the passage states “The voice of my beloved!” There is someone who loves the speaker, and someone who the speaker loves. It seems safe to assume love is mutual here. And the beloved speaks to the lover. The beloved comes to the speaker, coming like a gazelle, with energy and speed and calling out, “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.” For the time is right, the winter is past, rain is over and gone, flowers are blooming, and time of singing has come. There are figs on fig trees or on their way and they give off pleasant fragrance. Our God, our beloved calls us like the beloved of this poem, calls us individually and as a church, to come away to God, to be closer and to bask in the glory of God’s grace, love, and mercy. What more could we want or envy from others when we have such a loving relationship with our creator? When we feel envy and feel tempted to slander, we can remember our first love, God who loved and loves us while we are still sinners, imperfect, and works in progress.
To return to the Gospel reading, Jesus warned us against pride and folly also. To have pride is not necessarily a bad thing. Being prideful can be a feeling or consciousness of one’s own dignity. But it can also be a feeling of deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from one’s own achievements or from qualities of possessions that are widely admired. It is also to think highly of oneself than one is warranted. Pride can be a problem when we place our self-worth and sense of dignity all in our pride. When is pride a source of evil intention? One might feel stubborn about their way of doing things, or beliefs they feel certain about. If pride causes us to be inflexible, it can lead to disagreements and cause discord in communities. At times, we might find ourselves digging in our heels or doubling down, as it were, when we feel our beliefs are being threatened, or when we start to feel we might be wrong about something. What counter acts pride is humility. Folly is lacking good sense, foolishness, lack of prudence or wisdom. So, if we are to avoid these evil intentions, we have to know who we are and be thankful for who we are and what we have. We also have to be wise that we do not act foolishly and unwisely, as we are likely to do when we are short sighted.
How might we apply this to our lives here and now? Quite naturally, my thoughts turned to how we might relate teachings of Jesus to living in the pandemic. Action that is not folly, that is not unwise, and instead practicing sensible awareness during the pandemic would seem to be to heed the advice of scientists and leaders of our country.
Martin Luther is an important monk and theologian in Germany who sparked the reformation in 1517 by nailing 95 theses to the church door objecting to ways the church was corrupt. The reformation lead to a split of the one church, the Catholic church, giving rise to Protestantism. He wrote during the plague of his time, nearly 500 years ago, and that letter has gone “viral” in social media this past week on pages I have seen. He responded to the question whether Christians can flee from the plague and concludes emphatically that he would pray to God for his health, but also that he would stay away from chances of being infected and take precaution to stay healthy.
“Therefore I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. … See, this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.” (Martin Luther, “To the Reverend Doctor Johann Hess, pastor at Breslau, and to his fellow-servants of the gospel of Jesus Christ (1527 A.D.)”; for letter https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2020/may-web-only/martin-luther-plague-pandemic-coronavirus-covid-flee-letter.html; for article discussing Luther’s letter –https://www.ifyc.org/article/martin-luthers-pandemic-advice-goes-viral-500-years-later.
Even as Luther is praying, he plans to fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. Sometimes we pray and then think ok, God will take care of the rest. No. We pray and that’s the first step. With whatever issues we are praying about, we pray. And then we do our best. Be Doers. During the pandemic, we can also ask God to protect us. Then we can ventilate the air in our homes and work places, administer and take medicine of our times, which is the vaccine, and avoid becoming infected by wearing masks or avoiding crowded places all together if we are not needed. To pray only and not to take precautions and action to protect ourselves, is, Martin Luther would say, “brash” and “foolhardy” in other words, prideful and folly, and would also be to tempt God.
We are called to be doers of God’s will in other ways also. Here, let us turn to the passage in James. The message of James is to be doers, not just hearers who forget what they heard. James encourages us to be quick to listen. Slow to speak. And to be slow to anger. Furthermore, he encourages us to rid ourselves of sordidness (things that are dirty, filthy, and being covetous) and to rank growth of wickedness, to put wickedness into place.
Instead, James urges us to welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save our souls. Welcome with envy? Pride? Or folly? No. no. and no. Welcome with meekness. The word that has power to save us gives us understanding of what God cares about. So then when we learn about what God cares about, Be doers of the word. Not merely hearers who deceive themselves and forget. Doers who act will be blessed in their doing. Religion pure before God and undefiled is to care for orphans and widows. Care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
Yes, God cares for us as individuals and having a right relationship with God on a spiritual level. But God also cares about our relationship with each other and also taking care of orphans and widows. Physical conditions and material things matter to God. God wants us to be filled spiritually, but also physically. If orphans and widows are hungry, feeding their hunger with food is important. I have a bit of a sensitivity to blood sugar level. When I am hungry, I feel a crashing sensation and sometimes I feel myself shutting down, finding it difficult to focus or to hear, and to process what I am hearing! Imagine trying to share the Gospel with someone who is starving. Our physical needs are important also. The physical conditions of oppression, prejudice, and mistreatment, these cause real suffering and need to be addressed. The church is not called to hangout by ourselves with each other as one big happy family content with having food and shelter only for ourselves. To be doers of God’s word, to have a religion that is undefiled before God is to care for those God cares about, and to care for conditions that God cares about.
We had no say in the families we were born into. We had no say in the countries we were born in. Everything we have, every generous gift, every perfect gift is from above coming from the Father of lights, who is same and unchanging. There is no variation or shadow due to change. God gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures. God created us by God’s word. (James 1:17-27). We can’t claim credit for much of what we have. What about Afghanistan? Refugees? Immigrants? To name just a few social conditions that need our attention. As we speak, U.S. forces are racing against the clock in Afghanistan to rescue as many Afghanis from the clutches of the Taliban and Isis. You may have seen in the news of what happened at the airport in Kabul, thousands of people swarming the runway trying to get out, as the August 31 evacuation deadline fast approaches. How might we become doers of God’s will in these situations? There are so many situations that need our paying attention to and advocating on behalf of. We have to be up to date on current events. We have to watch or read the news, even if it’s quite disheartening. This morning, I am not advocating a particular action, I leave that up to God. May God speak to us on how and what God would want us to do. Let us pray to ask God to speak to each of us how we might become doers of God’s will.
Let us pray: Dear God, you are our creator and provider. You sent us Jesus for our salvation. Jesus taught us the importance of being clean, beyond the ritual handwashing, how to be clean in our hearts in our intentions and motivations and actions. Speak to each of us how we might become doers of your word. May the Holy Spirit whisper in our ears, ever so gently, but increasing in volume if we can’t hear your voice! Tug away at our hearts to stir us and open our eyes, our minds, and our hearts to the people you care about whom we should take care of, to the conditions you care about that need to be changed, and for us to continue to strive and seek for your heart that we might follow your will and for our hearts to follow your heart. In Jesus name we pray, Amen.