Faith of Our Mothers

This time of year I usually find myself getting a bit sentimental about all the major holidays that mark our calendars from October through the end of the year.

With Halloween fast approaching Trunk or Treat is heading our way. That’s a delightful event, here at Bethesda it’s coming up October 24 – there’s your soft plug to check it out. People decorate the trunks of their cars and trucks, kids and adults get all costumed up, and kids go from trunk to trunk for their evening sugar fix. Kathi and I have been part of these in Florida and now Iowa for the last decade, they’re fun.

Not too far after is Thanksgiving, time spent appreciating all we are blessed with. In our family Kathi is the master cook – I’m the prep chef. We deep fry our bird, I do that, it comes out so moist, so tasty. Kathi takes it from there, preparing the fixins: mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole, cranberries, stuffing, green bean casserole and crescent rolls.

Last year Hannah offered to pitch in and got the crescent rolls into just the right shape. My guess is she’ll help even more this year, maybe Graham will jump in too.

And then, of course it’s off to Christmas Eve, and Christmas day, and all the trappings those two days contain. Silent Nights sung, gifts given, scripture read, meals shared, time together. This is the stuff of life.

To help tie all those holidays together our family turns to a classic cartoon character, Charlie Brown. On the eve of each of these holidays, our family fires up a famed made-for-tv-movie, snuggling on the couch all the while.

It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown
A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving
A Charlie Brown Christmas

We even upgraded from DVD to the Blu-Ray version a few years back, just to get a bit more clarity of image and sound. This for cartoons released over five decades ago. We value the tradition that much.

What Disciples Do
Today we continue our Fall sermon series titled What Believers Do. Each week Pastor Bryan and I unpack a different aspect of Christian discipleship specifically geared toward the doing part of our faith.

Up today: Disciples take their faith home.

To get a better sense of what it is to bring faith home with you we’ll dive into the beginning of 2 Timothy.

Scriptural Traditions
The opening of this letter finds Paul doing what arguably Paul does best: encouraging. His encouragement here hits a little closer to home than normal, 2 Timothy features more personal relationships than any other letter in the New Testament. It’s a letter from a close friend, describing the importance of family.

But Paul is more than a close friend to Timothy, he’s also a mentor. In verse 6 of today’s text Paul reminds Timothy to rekindle the gift of God in him received through the laying on of Paul’s hands. Many biblical scholars conclude this moment is part of an early ordination ritual – how cool is that – we continue to model this ritual today. Paul ordained Timothy into the ministry, and through the laying on of hands gave him the authority to preach the gospel.

Yet this faith of Timothy’s didn’t come out of thin air, it didn’t magically get imparted through Paul’s fingertips. Timothy’s faith had been passed on from previous generations. It’s a faith that first lived in grandma Lois, and mother Eunice.

I love that Paul credits these important female family members, Lois and Eunice, recording them in the letter by name. In this he celebrates the passing of faith from one generation to the next.

Now we don’t know exactly how grandma Lois and mom Eunice passed their faith traditions down to Timothy, we just know that they did. In a family transitioning from Judaism to the birth of the Christian church it likely included many things.

– The reading of the Torah
– The saying of prayers
– The sharing of one another’s burdens
– The stories of Jesus, still mostly given and received by spoken word

Historically, in both Jewish and Christian traditions, often women take the lead in passing faith traditions to subsequent generations. That default, generally speaking, continues to this day. And that’s wonderful. Women, you play a crucial role in installing faith-based beliefs and values into all those who follow.

Thank you for that.

What a blessing.

That also, though, is a not-to-subtle reminder that we men don’t always play as large a role, in raising up the next generation of faithful Christians, as we should. To which I say this: man up guys, this stuff matters. Take a look at our country and world, and the leadership of it. Christian values, ethics and morality are in decline. We’re not loving our neighbors as ourselves as well as we used to. We still don’t value the voices of women nearly as much as we should.

And doing that, guys, begins in the home.

Faith Traditions
So what does it mean for disciples to take their faith home, regardless of gender? What sort of doing is involved?

To get at this I asked people via Facebook to share various faith traditions that are important in their family. Here’s just a few examples from personal friends. Perhaps there’s something in here you’d like to try.

Many of the traditions people shared with me involve prayer.

Veronica Smith holds hands with her husband and two-year old son at every meal. She and her husband began that tradition when they first started dating. Son Harry now requires it before anyone can eat. That’s a two-year old, making sure his family holds hands, prays, and gives thanks to God before every meal.

Brook Seaford, his wife, and their six children go around the table and have each member of the family review their day, in mind, and body and spirit. Knowing this family, and the life and death circumstances they’ve had to navigate recently there is much for them to celebrate, much for them to share.

Pam McHugh, who I worked for at Nielsen in the early aughts, shared how evening prayers around the dinner table work at their home. Before the final amen each member in her family of four takes turns praying for those in need, or for friends and family experiencing hard times.

And when they pray for someone often they take it a step further, inviting that person or family over for dinner. Since the kids would often pray for friends from school sometimes mom and dad found themselves inviting kids over they didn’t even know.

Pam tells me they’d also take this prayer approach to large family gatherings, even with family that wasn’t particularly religious. In this way Pam and husband Vince took their faith home, instilled it in their children, and then invited friends, and extended family over to participate in this faith of theirs too.

Praying over meals is but one way we can take our faith home with us. Many parents read Bible stories to their children (our kids love that). For Lent and Advent you can use special devotions, many families do that together. Friend Kelly Anderson remembers her parents encouraged the singing of Christian songs while driving in the car, instilling faith as they traveled from one place to the next.

Still other families take faith home with them by volunteering together, working side-by-side at the food pantry, or clothing closet just like we have here. Parents and grandparents, modeling for children and grandchildren exactly what Christians do to help those in need.

Bring it Home
Traditions matter. Whether it’s the celebration of Fall holidays like Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas, or the traditions of our faith passed on from one generation to the next, there is much joy to be had in them.

Celebrating alongside both Charlie Brown and Christ is all good. There’s an awful lot of scripture embedded right there in that Charlie Brown Christmas special, and I love that.

But like the candy our kids schlep back from their various Halloween shakedowns, our faith works best when we bring it home and share it with others.

It’s great that we honor apostle Paul for ordaining and encouraging Timothy to go out and preach the word. But let’s not forget about Timothy’s family, and the faith of grandma Lois and mother Eunice. If it weren’t for mom and grandma it’s hard to know if Timothy would have followed God’s call on his life.

History is replete with the sharing of our faith from one generation to the next. Without this sharing of faith and Christian values, our call to change the world around us in God-honoring, neighbor-loving ways, would be no more.

This past week has been tough for millions of women, and tough for those who care about them. Frankly I struggle with how best to respond.

So let me encourage you, as Paul does for Timothy. When times seem dark –

Rekindle the gift of God that is within you

Stir up the grace and faith and love you have received.
Stir them up by putting them into practice.

Teach your children they are a beloved child of God.

But also teach them to care for each other – all others – as God so deeply cares for us.

Make sure your children, and your children’s children know, that while our culture often minimizes the abuse of women, in so many forms, our faith does not. Ask your children which matters more, the values of their culture, or the values of their faith. Make sure they can answer that correctly.

Traditions matter. Faith traditions can be deeply beautiful, deeply meaningful. But don’t forget the Christian values of faith, hope and love, honor and respect. Don’t forget to take these values home with you. Teach them. Model them. Encourage them. And then launch those values back into the world. For when you do things will change, for the better, for all of us.  Just as our Creator intends. Amen.

Chaotic Beauty

The tower of Babel narrative from Genesis 11 is one of those stories kids often hear first in Sunday school.  And like many of those children’s bible passages often we learn it a certain way, come to our own conclusions, and then put that story back on the shelf.

So let’s take this story from the shelf, dust it off, and perhaps consider a different angle.

First, a premise.  In this story, at a surface level, God creates chaos out of order.

God creates chaos out of order.

It almost sounds kind of backwards.

Chaos of course is nothing new. It’s in our world now, despite our best efforts, and it has been from the very beginning.

The Beginning
Biblical scholars link chaos to the term abyss in Genesis 1:2; it refers to a state of non-being. Then the Spirit of God moved over the waters, separating light from the darkness, heavens from the earth, water from the land.

Creating order, and perfection, out of chaos.
Culminating in the Garden of Eden.

But that first couple couldn’t resist the chance to be more like God. They broke the one rule this garden contained. They then suddenly found themselves banished from it.

The Flood
From there bad went to worse, and the very human ills of jealousy, greed, theft, deceit and murder quickly appeared.

God regretted making humans, was heartbroken by their actions, and found just one righteous in all the land, Noah. Things were so bad God decided to do a hard reset on most all of creation, saving just Noah, and his family, and those animals that marched into the ark two by two.

The hard reset of the flood had wiped the slate clean.
Creating order, and perfection, out of chaos, once again.
Arguably the flood was creation 2.0.

The Tower
After the flood, humans once again started to multiply, started to get organized. The people of Babel seem at first to be engaged in innocent, even good endeavors. They settled in one place, made bricks and mortar, and decided to build a city.

Cool, we do that stuff all the time.

It sounds almost like a town hall meeting.
Gathering together, making a plan.
Then executing on that plan.

But their plan had another piece that was perhaps a little less innocent. They decided to build a tower to the heavens. And they wanted to make a name for themselves.

Making a name for themselves. With just one city, one tower and one language their goal was threefold:

– To perpetuate a single culture.
– To isolate from the rest of the world.
– To reach for the heavens. And to do it on their terms.

The motives for these tower builders were even more flawed. They did all of this, scripture says, lest they be scattered across the whole earth. Their motives, for all this building, all this isolation, all this advancement of one single culture has its roots in one thing: fear.

And they knew better.

Heading back to the creation story – God made us, and blessed us. And gave us some fairly clear directions.

Be fruitful, multiply.
Fill the earth.
Manage the creation I’ve made.

Be part of it.
Help care for it.
For it, all of it, God says, is good.

But the people of Babel? They wanted nothing to do with God’s plan.

They were too busy building the original skyscraper.
Too busy constructing that first stairway to heaven.
Too busy separating themselves from the rest of the world.

Seeing this, God chose to act.

Invoking, in this moment, another round of creation, creation 3.0.

He made one language into many.
He scattered people from one spot to across the world.
As a result the people ceased to build that city, that stairway, that tower.

God chose, this time, to create chaos out of order.

Cultural Chaos
Many a preacher and theologian conclude that Babel is a punishment for bad behavior. Aka once again God’s people couldn’t get it right.

But I find myself looking at this story a little differently.

It is here, at the tower of Babel, where God creates not culture, but cultures.
It is here, where God expands one language to the now over 6,500 spoken today.
It is here God scattered us, across this world, as originally planned.

God created this complexity, this seeming chaos. And God blessed it.

So often we look at our world and think simplicity is the ideal.

If only they spoke like us,
If only they acted like us,
If only they followed our ways,

So much would be better.

Perhaps simplicity of this sort is a little over-rated in God’s eyes.

Chaos Theory
While binge watching The West Wing last week – that’s the tv show, not the current inhabitants of – my wife and I by chance stumbled upon a mathematical term in an episode: chaos theory.

Chaos theory – broadly speaking, and I’m no expert mathematician – has to do with there being order, and even great beauty, in what looks like total chaos.  And if we look closely enough, at the randomness around us, patterns start to emerge.

Those patterns, as chaotic as they may initially seem, with all that scattering of location and language at Babel, lead us somewhere.

They lead us to conclude that cultural diversity is the consequence of God’s design for the world. Not the result of God’s punishment of it.

Those patterns help us to see that God relishes a world full of faithful people, of different colors, sizes, shapes, ideas and languages.

And these patterns help us reframe our own simplistic perceptions of culture into a faith-lens infinitely more complex, infinitely more divine.

Noticing those patterns, and then celebrating them, cause us to see the inherent beauty of all this complexity as something to embrace, something splendid to behold, and to honor, by design. Just as God intends.  Amen.

One Of Us

A sermon, a song, and a renaissance painting.

In March of 1995 the song One of Us, written by Eric Bazilian, and sung by Joan Osborne, was released to critical acclaim and rave reviews. The song was popular, peaking at number four on the US Billboard Hot 100 that year. That is to say it was the fourth most song played on the radio then, and reached an awful lot of ears.

The title received Grammy nominations in 1996 for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, Record of the Year, and Song of the Year too.

What If
The song asks the cosmically complicated question – What if God was one of Us? – without providing a clear answer.

Well distributed and widely liked, that the tune stood out to me in the mid-90s is still somewhat of a mystery. I was a sophomore in college when One of Us was released, having recently switched from majoring in engineering to psychology. This was still many years away from a personal exploration of ordained ministry; the song’s topic wasn’t exactly on the vocational radar.

Even more, female pop wasn’t anywhere close to my preferred music genre then.

I was all about alt-rock, hip-hop, punk-rock.

And Joan Osborne? She is all female pop, all the time.

You’d be much more likely to find me in the mosh pit of a Rage Against The Machine concert back then (which I experienced, and it was awesome).

And Joan? She was more known for being a headliner in the all-female late-90s Lilith Fair music festival.

Yet I continue to be drawn to this particular song, and have been now for over 20 years.

One of Us
The song asks that question, what if God was one of us, using these haunting lyrics.

What if God was one of us?
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus
Tryin’ to make his way home?

The One of Us music video urges us to consider this what-if question even deeper.

To do that, an image of God is used in the video that’s eerily reminiscent of Michelangelo’s 16th century painting, The Creation of Adam. That’s the painting that forms part of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, and famously shows God reaching out of the sky, touching index fingers with Adam.

In the video God’s image is presented as a cardboard cutout, propped up on the ground with 2×4 pieces of lumber. God’s face in this cutout is missing, leaving a photo opportunity for passers by not unlike what you’d see at the state fair. Here people can walk up, put their head in the cutout, and pretend, if only for a moment, to be God.

And it begs the question, what if God was one of us? What would God look like? The video provides multiple options to consider.

Is God that balding Latino man, with mustache and dingy, yellow teeth?
Or the African American with thick beard and long dreadlocks?
Or is it the native American, donning a feather prominently raised over one ear?
Or perhaps it’s the white man, shirtless, Jesus tattoo prominently etched on his pectoral, with a star of David hanging around his neck?

Is God the little boy with the winning smile?
Or the teenager with that super high, super cool spiked mohawk hairdo?
Or is it the bearded guy, complete with skull cap and dark sunglasses?
Or that shirtless elderly man with the big pronounced belly?

Or maybe God is the seemingly homeless veteran, with graying beard, riding a bicycle featuring multiple Puerto Rican flags?

Or, could it be the guy in an angel costume, complete with big cloth wings, riding a skateboard down the boardwalk?

The video mostly defaults to images of male God-types, tho we could easily extend these questions to groups not covered.

What if God was a woman, complete with a bunch of facial piercings?
What if God was the hungry beggar we pass on the street?
Or what if God was in a wheelchair, unable to get around without help?

So many questions.

No clear answers.

We’re left to our own imagination.

What Disciples Do
Today we dive into the second week of our Fall sermon series titled what believers do. Each week Pastor Bryan and I dissect a different aspect of Christian discipleship specifically geared toward the doing part of our faith.

Up today: Disciples seek people for Christ.

To help us understand what it is to seek people for Christ we dig into two parables from Luke 15.

Once again it’s those pesky Pharisees, the law-based established religious insiders, giving Jesus a hard time with how he’s running the ministry.

And their critique this time? He’s eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners, oh dear.

The tax collectors back then swore their allegiance more to their government than their God, the Pharisees concluded. And they did the government’s bidding by way of a financial shakedown of God’s people. Remember Zacchaeus, the tax collector, up in the tree, separated from the rest gathered there, yet drawn to Jesus, even as an outsider, all the same.

The sinners were those, in the Pharisees eyes, that either couldn’t, or wouldn’t, keep to all those religious laws of the Old Testament. Remember the woman at the well, she who’d had five husbands. She who was socially ostracized, yet still drawn to Jesus. She who had an extended conversation with him, publicly, in broad daylight.

These were the types of people attracted to Jesus. Even worse he would eat and drink with people of this sort, the very ones religious leaders of the era would typically shun. A controversial Christ?  Yes, absolutely.

The first story Jesus shares to address this critique is the parable of the lost sheep.
Here Christ asks us to imagine we’re shepherds, with a flock of 100 sheep, and have lost one. Who here among you, he wonders, wouldn’t leave the 99 in the wilderness, and look for the one?

I’m no expert on agriculture or farm animals. Apologies, deep down I’m still a South Florida city slicker. But this scripture got me wondering, how much is a sheep worth these days? According to the USDA website, from a sheep auction in Kalona Iowa earlier this week, the answer is around $130.

Which begs the question, would you really leave almost thirteen grand of inventory, in the wilderness, exposed to thieves and predators, in the hopes of retrieving one percent of that amount back?

Seen from human eyes, logically speaking, I can’t say that I would.

Yet that’s exactly what this good shepherd does with the flock.

The second parable here is similar. It describes a woman with ten silver coins who has lost one. Biblical scholars say the coin, a drachma, was worth about the price of a sheep. Or in today’s economy about that same $130.

The math here is a little better at least, she’s only lost one coin out of ten, and still has, in today’s dollars, almost $1,200 on hand. To find that coin she lights a lamp, and sweeps the house. The language used in scripture suggests she keeps looking until the lost coin is found; she searches carefully until she finds it, the text reads. There is seemingly no end to her search until a successful conclusion is reached.

If I’d lost something worth that kind of coin in the house I’d look for it some, sure. But after a couple of hours of checking under beds, and digging between couch cushions, odds are I’d call off the search. Perhaps you would too.

Tho the woman in this parable never does. She searches until she finds.

Even more surprising about this story is who it features. No other parable in the New Testament presents a woman as a metaphor or allegory for God. Here, in a text written two millennia ago, in a context even more patriarchal than the one we live in today, Jesus depicts God as a woman, cleaning her house, desperately, in search of the missing coin.

That suggestion, that God could be described in feminine terms, for many a churchgoer in 2018, is still downright shocking.

But that’s what Jesus does. His parables challenge us to broaden our understanding of the divine. They require us to reevaluate long-held assumptions about the very nature of God.

Both parables have the same conclusion; the shepherd and the woman both have a party. Rejoice with me, for what was lost has now been found, they say.

They celebrate being reunited in ways that make it clear what has been lost to them is valued very, very much. And they aren’t shy about it, throwing a party, publicly, so all know what was lost is now found. And all can celebrate right along with them.

What If Revisited
Let’s get back to that first question, what if God was one of us? What would God look like? To help us explore that check out the music video that hails from an era where MTV still played them.

So what if God was one of us? It’s a great question to ponder. Ultimately we just don’t know.

This video, and today’s text asks a lot of us, challenging us to broaden our notion of who God is and how God feels about us.

Perhaps God isn’t the skin tone or specific gender that history has often assigned.
God is broader than those limiting categories.

God also doesn’t root for one team at the expense of others.

God bless the USA, yes, of course. Tho God bless the whole world too, no exceptions. God is broader than the limiting lines of a map. God is broader than the human-made labels we place on each other.

And God loves us, so deeply, that God does some crazy, crazy things.

So crazy that God leaves the majority, and heads out to find the one.

What we may see as a mere financial calculation – remember the 13 grand those 100 sheep are worth – God sees as a beloved family member. And when you’re family every single person counts.

As we wrestle with how disciples seek people for Christ, I’d suggest first we must wrestle with how we see God. If we view our God as looking like one group, or one gender, we forget that we’re all made in the image of our Creator.

And if we view God as being for one group, and against another, we give ourselves permission to treat others in that same way – with some in, and some out.

But that’s not God, is it. Today’s text makes that clear.

As we here at Bethesda seek people for Christ, whether it’s through:
– Oktoberfest beer drinking
– Scandinavian coffee sipping
– Food pantry stomach filling
– Clothing closet esteem building
– Prison ministry worship experiencing or
– Tanzanian water empowering

In all of this we are challenged to see others as God does.

And that is to say each of us are as loved and as valued as the next.

For when we take that view we work to bring the family back together, just as God intends. And in those moments we party, right alongside God. In those moments we celebrate one big family reunion, where all are present, and all are valued. This is what disciples of Christ are called to do, today, tomorrow, and forevermore.  Amen.

Fire Ants

When I was six months old our family moved from Upstate New York to Houston. We lived in Houston until I was eleven years old, by then I’d gone from being an only child to the oldest of three.

When it was just me, mom and dad our family engaged in a ritual most every day, we took a stroll in the neighborhood. We only had one car at the time, and a couple of bikes, so walking was a pretty central part of how we spent our days.

Initially my parents did what many parents do, they wore me while walking. My wife and I wore our two children when they were small too, it’s great for bonding, and creates hands-free parenting as well, a double win.

After a while I got older, and heavier, and learned to walk as most kids do. It was then that my parents transitioned from wearing me during our neighborhood jaunts to having me walk by their side.

Often we’d walk to the grocery store, my mom recalls taking an LL Bean canvas bag with her and filling it with groceries. My mother tells me when her hands were full with groceries, instead of holding hands I’d simply hold onto her pocket to stay close.

My mom also tells me that I adored a Weimaraner that lived in the neighborhood. Most days during these walks the dog would see us through the window and playfully say hello. Weimaraners are a larger breed, they move in this big floppy way, and have these striking blue and greenish eyes.  I still like them.

It was also during these walks I started the first of many collections. Before collecting things like stamps and pennies and baseball cards and video games, for me, it began with stones and flowers. I’d pick up a stone, pick a flower, and then bring them home.

And so our daily walks went. They were filled with grocery trips, time spent with favorite neighborhood dogs, and collecting some of God’s creation by way of stones and flowers. This is the stuff of life.

Then one day something happened that wasn’t according to this idyllic daily routine.

I was about a year and a half old, and still in diapers. (That transition, to big boy underwear, admittedly took a few more years 😊 )

During one of our daily walks mom and I stopped near the neighborhood entrance, right next to the sign that announced the name of the apartments we lived in. Wearing just a shirt and diapers I decided to plop down right by one of the wooden posts that held up that neighborhood sign.

It was then, unbeknownst to either of us, that hundreds of fire ants came up from their unseen fire ant mound, that I’d unwittingly sat on, and began biting at me with their normal fire ant fury.

In case you’re unfamiliar with fire ants, they’re typically found in the southeastern and western US, and are larger than common ants. Even worse, fire ants carry venom strong enough that it, with enough bites, has the capacity to kill small animals.

And now hundreds of them were crawling over baby me.

Within seconds I was covered in fire ants, getting bit by some, screaming my little toddler my lungs out, wailing in pain.

My mom quickly grabbed me, ran back to our house, stripped me down to nothing, and threw me in the sink, doing her best to quickly get rid of all those ants and to help ease her little boy’s pains.

After freeing me of the ants – she recalls I’d been bitten about a dozen times – she washed me off, treated the bites with aloe vera, and put my clothes back on, trying to get things back to normal.

She tells me she felt horrible about it, and as a parent now myself I totally get that; seeing our kids suffer is a horrible feeling.

On this day there were no walks for groceries.
On this day there were no visits to friendly neighborhood dogs.
On this day there was no stone collecting.
On this day there was no flower-picking.

Instead, it was a day of pain and injury, tears and screams, and fast action on my mom’s part to rid me of those nasty ants in my pants as best she could.

Outside the Garden
The story of Genesis 3 tells a similar tale. It’s the story of original sin, complete with the likes of Adam, Eve, daily walks with God, a pesky serpent and a tempting apple.  After that life here on earth gets kind of messy.

I’m going to guess that most everyone reading has heard the story many, many times before. And odds are if you pop into church here and there you’ll hear this story many times again.

Instead of delving into that well-worn narrative I’d suggest those fire ants in my pants represent the challenges we face living outside the garden of Eden.

We were made for daily strolls with our Creator. But sometimes fire ants appear, out of nowhere. And those fire ants cause oodles of pain to both us and the one that made us.

We were made with nary a care in the world, with all our needs met. But sometimes fire ants appear, stripping us of basics like clothing and food.

We were made to appreciate creation. But sometimes fire ants appear. And their very presence separates us from what brings us joy, things like family, friends, and beloved animals. Things like the rocks of the ground, the flowers of the field.

Let me encourage you to keep an eye out for fire ants.

With a little bit of practice we can better spot, and avoid, the mounds they live in. We do this with the reading of scripture, through conversations with fellow Christ-followers, and by participating fully in our communities of faith.

And, with a little bit of practice, we can better spot when others find themselves sitting in those same fire ant mounds, screaming their lungs out, crying for help. In those moments we are called to guide them away from the mound, and toward safety. We are called to help ease their pains, to place balm on their wounds.

Life is far from perfect. And fire ants, unfortunately, are with us to stay. But it is in knowing where the fire ants live, then avoiding them, and then helping others avoid them too, it is there where we find our purpose.

And it is there where we can thrive, for all of our days, joy-filled, pain-free, right alongside one another, living in harmony with the world, just as our Creator intends. Amen.

Clean Hands Filthy Heart

Do you wash your hands after going to the bathroom? How about before you eat?

The benefits of handwashing, at this point, are well documented.

Studies done by the Centers for Disease Control, or CDC, find that handwashing education in the community:

• Reduces the number of people who get sick with diarrhea by 31%
• Reduces respiratory illnesses, like colds, by almost 20%

Teaching people to do that one basic thing, handwashing, has that kind of impact. Because of this the CDC recommends teaching children these basic steps to handwashing.

1) Wet hands
2) Cover wet hands with soap
3) Scrub all surfaces, including palms, back of the hands, between the fingers, and under the fingernails, for about 20 seconds
4) Rinse well with running water, and finally
5) Dry on a clean cloth or by waving those hands in the air

In the US kids are often encouraged to sing the happy birthday song, twice, while washing to help count, that takes about 20 seconds. In other countries different songs are used to encourage the right amount of time.

Or you can check out this three-minute video on how to wash those hands of yours right.

This issue is so important that there’s an annual event, the Global Handwashing Day, that arranges gatherings that help educate the world about this most crucial topic. Last year the Global Handwashing Day event reached 520 million people, either in local gatherings, mass media, or via online campaign. The next one is coming up October 15, and they’re hoping to reach even more.

Speaking a little more broadly about the concept of cleanliness, the CDC estimates that we could prevent almost 1 in 10 sicknesses, around the world, by doing just three things 1) more handwashing, 2) ensuring safe drinking water, and 3) providing better sanitation. Imagine, just by educating and ensuring access to these three things 10% of sicknesses, globally, would be no more.

Handwashing, safe drinking water, and sanitation are things most of us take for granted; perhaps that’s why this level of impact seems so amazing to me.

With so much to gain perhaps it’s no wonder that governments, non-profits, and faith-based organizations all work to bring these life-giving necessities to people globally. Our very own denomination, the ELCA, sponsors the Walk For Water, helping to build wells for clean drinking water.

Dirty Hands
All of these stats, and figures, and global efforts aimed at handwashing and related water issues bring us to our scripture reading from Mark 7.

And it is here we find Jesus’ disciples getting caught, red-handed – or perhaps dirt handed – eating, without washing up first.

Oh dear, it sounds like they’re in trouble.

Once again it’s those pesky Pharisees that notice, and once again they call Jesus to the carpet for it. It’s those Pharisees, the scriptural version of Wile E Coyote, always chasing after the Road Runner (beep beep!) trying to catch Jesus in a trap.

This time, arguably, perhaps it worked.

With the benefit of our modern, scientific era, we know now of the many reasons to diligently wash our hands. In preparing for this message my wife showed me a hospital employee training presentation. That training requires staff at her hospital to sanitize their hands, at a minimum, of every time they either enter or leave a patient’s room. Which could be up to 100 times a day. It’s that important.

Heck even in church here Pastor Bryan and I, along with communion assistants, sanitize our hands before serving communion each week. We do that so germs don’t get passed around. Dare I say we use those hand sanitizers religiously, it’s baked right into the worship service.

So perhaps the Pharisees really had Jesus trapped with this one. They were, after all, technically correct, according to Judaic law. Priests at that time were required to wash their hands before eating holy meat from sacrifices. And now we know, even beyond the ritual of hand washing, there are all those health benefits to doing it too.

The Pivot
But then Jesus did what Jesus does, he broadened a specific critique into a universal truth.

It’s important to note here what Jesus doesn’t say to the Pharisees – he does not condemn or denounce their beliefs. Aka, yes, there’s some value in handwashing before a meal.

The place of this narrative in scripture is also worth a mention; it comes directly after the good news of Jesus first begins to reach the Gentiles.

This text represents that broadening, God’s good news is now becoming available to a lot more people than before.

• It isn’t just for 12 tribes, but is open for all of God’s tribes, regardless of race or ethnicity.
• It isn’t just for people in one land; it is for all lands.
• It isn’t just for those with clean hands, but for those whose hands remain unwashed.

And this new reality is bound to rattle some cages.

When directly questioned why his disciples were eating with dirty hands Jesus is ready. He responds that the religious leaders standing before him hold to human tradition, all while abandoning the commandments of God. Ouch. That kinda hurts.

Jesus further clarifies that it isn’t what is on or goes into a person that defiles them. What makes them dirty is what comes out of the human heart.

Filthy Hearts
And what comes out of the human heart can be a dark state of affairs. Jesus concludes today’s text by rattling off a litany of actions best kept in a thou shalt not commit context, including theft, murder, adultery, greed, deceit, envy, slander, and pride.

It’s easy to look to outward cleanliness as a barometer for being close to God. Psychology calls that a cognitive shortcut, you see one thing about a person and, from that, assume an awful lot more. Perhaps that’s where the phrase cleanliness is next to Godliness comes from, that outward focus.

But that’s just not where it’s it, a cognitive shortcut of that sort is often entirely incorrect. Mark 7 reminds us of that which dirties us, and causes separation from our Creator; it is our actions. And those actions are a matter of the heart.

• We wash our hands, but then use those same hands to slander our neighbor by typing horrible things about them on Facebook or Twitter.
• Or we shower for church, with nary a bit of dirt on us, and then arrive and dish dirt about others, when we shouldn’t, by way of gossip.
• Or we put on our business best Monday morning, get all sparkling clean, then have to fight a desire to dirty ourselves by succumbing to financial greed.

In all these examples we’re clean on the outside.

In all these examples we’re filthy within.

Near the end of the play MacBeth, the Shakespeare classic, Lady MacBeth is found sleepwalking, saying “out damned spot, out I say!” She has been involved with her husband in a plot to kill the king, and she now sees blood on her hands.

But it is a hallucination, she is imaging it, her hands are physically clean. She has the heart of a murderer, and is in deep psychological pain. Yet no amount of hand washing will clean away what is, for her, a matter of a very dirty heart.

I once heard a Lutheran pastor sum up for her confirmation graduates the tenants of a Christian faith using only three words: Do no harm.

I love that.

While that may be an oversimplification of Christianity it does point us in the right direction, away from the evils Jesus mentions of theft, murder, adultery, greed, deceit, envy, slander, and pride.

And avoiding those pitfalls does help our heart to be clean.

But just not doing nasty stuff to one another isn’t enough.

In addition to not harming our neighbors, we are also called to be in service to them.

Clean Hands, Clean Hearts
Here we can take a cue from both the Pharisees and Christ. The Pharisees were on to something, weren’t they, in this regard they were way ahead of their time. There is value in the ritual of handwashing. We know that now more than ever. This knowledge then becomes our opportunity to be more like Christ. So instead of using a perfectly good ritual of handwashing to judge others, instead use those same moments in service to others.

So keep washing those hands, before meals and after bathroom trips. But don’t stop there, teach others. Teach locally, with kids and grandkids and Sunday school kids and people of all ages and beyond. Consider too participating in the Global Handwashing Day, coming up October 15, to help get the word out even more.

And keep drinking your clean water. The safe, award-winning water we have here in Ames is something to be proud of. But also get involved in making sure others have access to clean drinking water too. This is a global issue.

Yet less we think water issues are purely problems in other countries, on other continents, please remember:

Flint Michigan still doesn’t have clean water.

And it’s been that way for over four years.
Over four years. I hope this gives you pause.
Consider getting involved to fix that.

Finally, sanitation continues to be an issue across our globe. Here I’d encourage you to check out the ELCA Walk For Water campaign. Funds raised through this both build wells that make safe drinking water available, and educate rural communities about sanitation issues too.

When you do these things a couple of outcomes appear on the horizon.

First, you become part of efforts around water and sanitation that obliterates ten percent of all sickness in the world. What an impact! In that you model Christ, the ultimate healer this world has ever known.

And second, your knowledge of clean hands, clean water, and sanitation, when applied to help others, causes a shift within you.

Your direction shifts, from an inner life of self-service, to an outer life, one directed in service toward others.

For it is in living a life, of service to others, that your heart becomes clean, your joy complete, and your purpose, here on earth becomes finally, and eternally fulfilled.  Amen.