Sick With Sin
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2 they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3 (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4 and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 5 So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6 He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
7 in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
8 You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
21 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
You got to love Jesus for the great, uplifting, power of positive thinking words he has to say about the religious leaders. “You hypocrites. You have abandoned the commandments of God and have followed your own commandments.” As a religious leader myself, I appreciate his encouragement in my vocation.
Isn’t it interesting that the religious leaders are the ones who do not understand Jesus’s message? “This people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. In vain do they worship me.”
It’s not the things outside of a person that can defile us, but the things that come out of our own hearts that defile us. Jesus goes on to list all the sins that I’m sure you confess on a daily basis: God I’m sorry for my thieving, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, slander. You know, just the basic everyday sins we commit. Jesus says all these evil things come from within and they are what defile us.
We are not a denomination that focuses on sin. We don’t talk about sin or evil in church very often. We don’t go around calling ourselves “sinners, totally depraved.” But that, of course, is a part of who we are. It’s not the whole story, but we do take ownership over the fact that we sin, we mess things up, we’re broken people, we’re in desperate need of God’s grace. But when we do talk about sin, we talk about it in slightly different ways from other congregations or denominations in Christianity.
Recently I talked about the important of having a Prayer of Confession in worship because confessing our sin is one way that we say, “I’m not God. I’m not the one who saves or heals. I need help.”
John and Charles Wesley were brothers and Anglican priests and they started the Methodist Church in England a couple of hundred years ago. Whenever they talked or wrote about sin, they used the best of both worlds so to speak. There are two great theological traditions about sin: one emphasizes our guilt, that by virtue of the Fall of Adam and Eve, we’re sinners, there’s nothing we can do about it, we cannot escape our enslavement to sin. The other tradition emphasizes sin as a kind of disease or wound. It’s true that sin lives in us, but it’s a disease that God can heal us of. God is the Great Physician who opens the door of the operating room, comes in, opens us up, performs surgery and extracts the wound bringing us back to life.
John and Charles Wesley talked about both of those. They agreed with St. Augustine that sin and evil are so deeply entrenched in us that it is not possible for us to not sin. Yet they also said that we are not condemned because of our sin. There is hope through Jesus Christ. In one of his beautiful hymns that he wrote, Charles said, “My whole heart is sick of sin and my whole head is faint: full of sores, of bruises, and of wounds.” And through the power of Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit, we can be healed, cleansed, made whole.
John and Charles Wesley were also theologians who emphasized God’s grace perhaps more than any others and specifically they emphasized that God’s grace is prevenient. It comes before or ahead of us. God reaches out to meet us and heal us before we ever had a desire for us to love or follow God. Any time we have had an inkling or a faint desire to want to do what God calls us to do, it’s only because God’s grace through the Holy Spirit met us where we were and gave us the power to respond to Him. Again, it’s that metaphor of God being the Great Physician who heals us, reaffirmed that we were created in the image of God, and gives us the power to love and follow God.
Who is defiled?
The Pharisees and scribes and religious leaders come to Jesus and try to tell him that his disciples aren’t doing things the right way. They’re not clean, their hands are defiled and if they want to be good, observant Jews, they have to obey the traditions and clean their hands before they eat.
Who is it in our society, in our community, that we look at and want to say, “You’re not clean. You’re defiled. You’re not doing things the right way.”
I was at the Apple Festival in Hendersonville yesterday and as I walked along Main Street there was one street preacher on one side of the street with a big sign and he was yelling, “Fornicators will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Idolaters are going to hell.” And on the other side of the street was another street preacher with the same, exact sign and he was quietly saying to people as they walked by, “Good news today. Want to hear some good news today? I’ve got good news for you today.” And I was thinking to myself, “There is no part of that that is good news. If that’s good news, I want nothing to do with it.”
Jesus said there are evil things, evil intentions that come from our hearts, from within us and they can defile us, but he did not say that we are defiled, that we are evil. There are things we do, sins we commit, words we say that are harmful and hurt others and have no place in our lives of discipleship, but we are not those things. Our actions do not make up our whole identity.
How often have we said to someone, about someone, or even to ourselves, “You are defiled. You are unclean. You are unholy. God does not love you. No one loves you.” We move from describing the things we do to who we are. We may sin and do things that hurt others. We may say a lie, or have an overly prideful moment, or eat a little too much at a meal. We may want something so much that someone else has that we take it from them. We may want someone else so much that we leave our partner in search for another. We may hurt someone, we may be physically abusive, we may attack someone with our words and bring them to their knees in tears. We may not be able to keep our hands off a bottle for years and years. We may be addicted to medicines that help us feel better, good, or just escape. But whatever we do, whatever we have done, whatever we have been accused of, it’s not who we are. It’s not our identity. You are not defiled. You are not unclean. You are not unholy. And you are not far from God. God is close to you. God is here, with you. God loves you. At this table, there is mercy. At this table, there is healing. At this table, the defiled, unclean, unholy parts of us are healed. At this table, we are immersed in God’s grace.
Tom Shipp was a United Methodist pastor in the Texas Conference at Lover’s Lane UMC for 31 years. When Tom was a young boy his mother died and his father worked full time on the railroad and didn’t have time to raise the four children so he sent Tom to live with a Missouri farming family where he would work for room and board. He said the first night he went and washed his hands at the well and went inside the house for supper. He noticed there were four chairs at the table, for the husband, wife and their two children. There was no place for him at the table. The man said to Tom, “Boy you don’t eat here. When we get through with our meal we’ll bring you your food and you’ll eat on the table on the porch and your bed is in the barn out back.” He ate by himself on the table on the porch and slept in a cold barn for a year and a half. He told his dad he needed a change, he needed to go somewhere else. So Tom’s father talked to another family and a man named Les agreed to take Tom in. Tom said that first day with Les and his family was not all that different from the first day with his previous family and when work was over Tom went over to the well to wash up for dinner and he went to the porch and sat down at the table there waiting for his dinner. But Les came out to porch and said, “Tom why are you out here by yourself? We have a place for you at the table.” And when bedtime came Les showed Tom upstairs to his very own bed where he could sleep in the house. And the next day Les took him into town and bought him his first new set of clothes he had ever owned. But Tom said the best part of being with this new family was that they took him to church. They went to the little country church and the first time they went, the church was celebrating communion that day. When it was time for communion he was invited by the family to join them for Holy Communion. So Tom went up and knelt down on the altar rail and to his left was Mr. Les, the man he lived with, and to his right was the man he used to live with. And when the pastor came around and bent down and offered a piece a bread to Tom, the man on his right grabbed his wrist. And Mr. Les said, “It’s not your table.” Tom said his grip got tighter. And Mr. Les got louder, “ITS NOT YOUR TABLE.” Finally, before things came to blows, Mr. Les said over and over, “It’s not your table. It’s not your table. It’s not your table.” And finally the man released his grip and Tom received communion for the first time. Tom went on to pastor one of the largest United Methodist churches in Texas and his ministry was known for welcoming everyone, orphans, alcoholics, veterans, the mentally ill, gay and lesbian persons. He always heard ringing in his ears, “It’s not your table. It’s not your table.” It’s the Lord’s table. And all are welcome at the Lord’s table.