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Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas LangNicholas
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost — August 30, 2015

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Amen.

Religious Differences. That’s what is at the core of the heated discussion in this Gospel. The conflict revolves around an occasion when Jesus was teaching and healing in the region of Galilee. Some of the Pharisees from Jerusalem came to check him out, to see what he was up to, probably curious about how many people were following him. While they are observing all this, they notice that his disciples have begun to eat lunch without first performing the required ritual washing of their hands. So they challenge Jesus about this and he rebukes them for their hypocrisy. To appreciate his position, we need to visit a little history.

Modern scholars suggest that the Pharisees were a reform movement within the first century Jewish community. Their aim was to help the common folk reclaim their Jewish identity by being more observant of the law.  Remember that the Jews were a religious minority living in an occupied territory of the Roman Empire.

The Pharisees believed that the moral law was important but that keeping strict observances was the best way to keep their faith vibrant. So while they are an easy target for criticism because of their tunnel vision and obstinate adherence to hundreds of laws that became an obsession, they were not bad people. They kept very high standards and they wanted people to be proud of their Jewish identity. All of that would not have been so bad if it had helped bring people into communion with one another, but the reality was that their position excluded people and kept them out. And most of their concerns were around eating and food—a huge part of Middle Eastern culture.

Torah dictated what you could and could not eat, with whom you could or could not eat, what kind of dishes and pots you used and when and in what manner you had to perform ritual washing first. For the Pharisees, the behavior of the disciples did not just demonstrate bad manners. It showed bad faith. And why didn’t Jesus, an educated Jew, insist that these rogue friends of his conform to Jewish Law in this regard?

And I suspect it wasn’t just the twelve who neglected to wash their hands but hundreds of other followers who were in the crowd, ordinary people who could not afford to keep all the dietary and ritual regulations and were hungry!

Jesus, of course, constantly violated religious laws in favor of ministering to those in need. He healed on the Sabbath, touched lepers and a dead child, is touched by a woman who suffered from hemorrhages for years, and ate dinner with notorious sinners. All beyond taboo. Jesus responds by quoting one of their most prominent Old Testament Prophets: “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’

“Hypocrites.” A word from the Greek ύποκρισις, apropos to ancient theatre. It meant to act a part in a play, to pretend, to display a mask. A good definition of a hypocrite is a person who is not, on the inside, what he or she shows on the outside. That’s the Pharisees’ pedigree.

Jesus can’t stand obstacles that keep people out, devalue them, cast them off to the margins of life. He was very clear: no law should exclude any person nor override compassion, forgiveness, and a welcoming inclusion into the community. What we see in the way Jesus lived and in what he taught is the warning that, when religion and its observance gets in the way of fulfilling the spirit, the heart of God’s law, which is love of one another, it’s no longer true religion—it’s counterfeit and God is not amused by it.

Jesus wants the Pharisees to get out of their head and get into their heart. “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” God sees what is in our hearts not in our pedigrees or our wallets or even out piety.

I think that’s where many of us have a problem. I think that we fear that because God sees what is in our hearts, God will reject us because  God can sees what most people can’t—what is hidden deep inside our hearts. We can sometimes be hard on ourselves, forgetting that God sees us very differently from how we see our self- image and our need at times to act, to pretend, to wear a mask in order to hide our pain and our poor self-esteem.

In her podcast, “Looking in the Mirror,” Episcopal Priest Martha Sterne, shares her beauty parlor experience and how her stylist Grady always screamed “Emergency, emergency!” when she walked in the door. One day she was in no mood for his humor after a very hard week at her ministry in an Atlanta public housing neighborhood, seeing more than middle-class people want to see or know of the grind and of poverty.

She says, “Grady, I either need a totally new haircut or a totally new me and right now I don’t care which.” Without saying a word, he cut every hair off her head—with her back to the mirror. And when he swung the chair around and she saw herself, Grady said, “Martha, you don’t need a new you. You need to be you and God knows that’ll be enough.”  “And you know what,” Martha says, “He was right. The hair grew back and I grew up.”

Perhaps one of the hardest things in life is to really believe that God loves us with all our short comings, lack of faith, failures, peccadillos, and warts. God just wants us to be who God created us to be and God knows that’ll be enough. And, no, we don’t need to shave our head to prove that to ourselves.  We just need to cut ourselves some slack and let God be God. And love us.

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