Wash Your Hands – September 2, 2018

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Sermon Preached by Brian McGunagle
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost
September 2, 2018

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

When the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 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.) 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?” 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;

in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’

You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” 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.”

Let the words of my mouth,

and the meditation of my heart,

be acceptable in thy sight,

O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer.


Wash your hands! 

Dinner’s ready, did you wash your hands? 

Wait a minute, let me see your hands, did you wash them, are you sure?

How many times as children, or as adults for that matter have we heard this?  Maybe you were a child who just came in from outdoors.  I was out working in the garden, you were taking out the trash, she was petting the dog, they were out playing catch. 

To my 21st century ears the Pharisees seem to make total sense.  My hands are dirty, of course I am going to wash them, especially before I eat!  In an age of antibiotic resistant super germs, we quickly reach for a bar of soap or the omnipresent bottle of hand sanitizer, lather, rinse and repeat.  However, this modern conception of cleanliness did not develop until the nineteenth century with the work of medical practitioners such as Ignaz Semmelweis, Louis Pasteur and Joseph Lister.  These doctors realized that the transfer of germs could be prevented by soap and water.  So, something else must be going on here.  We need to look back and frame the scene in the cultural context of its time. 

At the time of this lesson the concept of germs as we know them didn’t exist, instead there were the notions of purity and impurity.  These categories both referred to things temporal and spiritual.  In fact, an entire set of rules governing purification evolved based on God’s initial commands to Moses – one must be pure to enter the Temple.  The Pharisees interpretation of law revolved around the concept that God’s people were all to be like priests. Therefore, they held to the same high principles outlined in scripture and traditions.  The Pharisees believed that all Jews in their daily life should observe the biblical rules and rituals concerning purification.  So, when Jesus’s disciples begin to eat, the Pharisees evoke Exodus and Leviticus, and God’s commandments to Moses for washing.  As they themselves held to the strictest interpretation of Jewish law, why wouldn’t Jesus? 

Jesus turns around and confronts the Pharisees with Isaiah’s prophesy, and strikes at the heart of the matter – “You leave the commandment of God and hold to the human tradition.”  However good intentioned the Pharisees were at interpreting, debating and building upon God’s law, they lost sight of who’s law it was in the first place.    Jesus is saying plainly to the Pharisees – there are ten commandments – it’s that simple!  But we are human – it’s a wonder how quickly we can overcomplicate things in the name of pleasing God. 

As a church and as Christians we have a long legacy of choosing tradition over God.  We choose false piety over honoring each other.  Countless traditions and rules in the name of God are what separate us from his love.  We have heard in our own communities of faith or been told by others that, only men should be priests, blacks should sit in the balcony, women should remain silent, LGBTQ people are not welcome to participate, you cannot wear those clothes here, if you don’t speak English you should leave, if you have not paid your pledge you cannot receive communion. 

Do the behaviors of our corporal body speak the voice of Jesus we hear in the gospel?  What can we do to break with traditions that block us from God and each other?  Jesus has the answer – it is an inside job!  He says, “what comes out of a person is what defiles them.  For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come.”

What do you feed your heart?

When our hearts are blocked and filled with that which is not of God, we choose to honor and accept those things.  Overwhelmingly inundated by messages from our neighbors, society, news, social media and politics it can be so easy to default to defilement and that which is not God.  The author Richmond Walker offers us this counter message, “God has given us two things—His spirit and the power of choice—to accept or not, as we will. We have the gift of free will. When we choose the path of selfishness and greed and pride, we are refusing to accept God’s spirit. When we choose the path of love and service, we accept God’s spirit and it flows into us and makes all things new.” 

This is the good news!  We have a choice.  God yearns for us with a love that knows no bounds.  All God asks of us to do is turn around and open ourselves to unbridled love.

How can we do this?

I offer three words and mediations to try and practice this today:

Repent, Surrender and Receive

  1. Repent – In the moment after the Prayers of the People and before the Confession take a moment and reflect on this simple prayer:

God, I can’t, but you can.

I confess and open my heart to your will,

purify my iniquities.

                 2. Surrender – Listen to these words and pray into the offertory hymn this morning –

“Just as I am, though tossed about,

With many a conflict, many a doubt;

Fightings within, and fears without,

O Lamb of God, I come! I come!”

            3.Receive – As we come to the table, take a moment to reflect on this: in participating in communion, and partaking in spiritual food and drink, God’s gift so freely given restores and nourishes our hearts and minds for the week ahead. 



1 Walker, Richmond. “August 29.” Twenty-Four Hours a Day. 1954.


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