Within, Not Outside

Sunday, February 16, 2020
Pastor Megan Torgerson 

Mark 7:1-9, 18-23

Last week, I flew in and out of the San Francisco airport.  At that time, it was one of the few airports still receiving travelers from China as the coronavirus began to raise alarms.  All through the airport and on my flights, numerous people wore a pale blue paper surgical mask.  I started to think maybe I should have gotten one myself.

After I got back, I listened to an interview with a scientist specializing in viruses that jump from animals to humans, like this particular coronavirus.  He mentioned that his little Montana small-town pharmacy had sold out of those same masks. They are very helpful if you’ve been coughing or sneezing and you want to contain your contagion.  Unfortunately, they do precisely nothing to keep you from catching an airborne contagion.  If you’re not already sick, really the only thing a mask like that can do is make you feel like you’ve done something to stay safe.

Our sometimes-confused reactions to physical illness often find a parallel in our reactions to our spiritual wellness.  Some argue that the sickness of the soul can be caught or prevented through particular behaviors.  By only being around certain people or staying out of certain places or abstaining from certain actions you can stay spiritually healthy and clean.  That’s the argument used against Jesus by the Pharisees and scribes in our reading today.  In fact, they’d say that the washing of their hands and their food and their plates not only kept them from spiritual contamination but was an act of faith and devotion all on its own.  Jesus’ disciples didn’t wash their hands.  They weren’t just exposing themselves to potential defilement – their perceived lack of devotion was deemed unclean.

Jesus indicates to them that washing your hands to keep spiritual sickness away does you about as much good as wearing one of those blue paper masks to keep away viruses.  The only thing it achieves is making you feel good for doing something, and possibly also for showing off how devout you are.  But it’s not what’s coming at you from the outside that you should be worried about.  It’s what’s inside you that’s causing the problem.  Or, to use the language of illness, it’s not an external agent that’s making you sick.  Your sickness is endemic.  You can’t catch it from someone else – it’s already a part of you, and it always has been.

Now, I want to take a moment to recognize that in the very real world of viral epidemics and infections, actually washing your hands long, well, and often is truly the best way to stay healthy.  Avoiding contagion will always be the best way to stop the spread of disease, either by staying away from sick people or staying home yourself if you’re at all sick.  When you go to the clinic to get your cough checked out, put on the blue paper mask.  So do not hear me say that these simple, practical precautions don’t matter in the world of physical illness.  Influenza is magnitudes more dangerous to you right now than coronavirus, so wash your hands, people.

Washing your hands could keep you from getting the flu, but ritual, moralistic avoidance of certain people, places, or behaviors is not going to keep you from catching sin.  You can’t catch sin.  Your perception of someone else’s spiritual status can’t contaminate you.  Sin is a part of your very nature as a human, and no amount of purity culture, party-line voting, or passive-aggressive segregation is going to keep you from the sickness of soul that is part of being human.

When Jesus lists all these things that come from within, all these sinful, broken, selfish, actions: “sexual sins, thefts, murders, adultery, greed, evil actions, deceit, unrestrained immorality, envy, insults, arrogance, and foolishness” (vv21b-22, CEV) – look, Jesus isn’t pointing them out in someone else.  He isn’t indicating which of those other people is sick so you can condemn and quarantine them.  Jesus is pointing these things out in you, in each of us.  He’s reminding us that we self-righteously hide our sin behind pious-looking behaviors.

We like to hide behind our rituals and biases because it distracts from what we all know is at work inside our hearts.  Jesus tells us that “It’s from the inside, from the human heart, that evil thoughts come” (v21a, CEV) – evil thoughts, not even evil actions.  When Martin Luther explains the ten commandments, he makes it clear that it’s not only the bad things we do that break the commandments, but the times we choose not to do the good we can for others.  This behavior is native to the human species.  No amount of purification ritual or puritanical pretentions can keep that from you.

So if you can’t keep the sin off you, if washing your hands to keep religiously pure is like wearing a paper mask in a den of contagion, what’s the point?  How can this possibly be good news?  I’m so glad you asked.

This hard word from Jesus reminds us that it’s not about what we do but about what has already been done for us.  God has created you, good and beloved, and continues to claim you even in your brokenness and sin.  God will never give up on you and offers abundant grace, new each day, because God loves you just as you are – no more or less than anyone else, no matter what you or they do.  The Holy Spirit is with you, anointing you with power and wisdom as was promised you in your baptism – and that’s not a promise that can ever be broken.  Jesus took on human life for you; he lived and healed and taught and suffered and died and conquered death for you, even when your heart was full of evil intentions, especially because your heart was full of evil intentions, because Jesus will not let even death, even sin, even the devil himself come between you and him.

If you think some lifestyle or behavioral code or liturgical particularity can save you, you’re wrong – which is great, because it means we are free to do and be and worship as God calls us, in all our variety and diversity and faithfulness.  It means the Trinity of God chose to be with and claim us before we perfected our little secret behavioral code and has remained with us even as we fight amongst ourselves about who is the better Christian.  It means all our traditions and actions and expectations – they don’t save us.  They might give us the tools or structure we need to be reminded of God’s devotion to us, but they’ll never save us.  Anyone who says differently is selling something.

The things we claim make us good Christians can be a front, a smokescreen to hide our selfishness and fear.  Performing certain actions or avoiding others under the auspices of piety don’t give us permission to be hateful, dismissive, ostracizing holier-than-thous building up walls to keep “them” out.  It’s a lot easier to point to the ways we think others are falling short than to look within ourselves and realize we do the same and worse, in our actions and thoughts and intentions.  Jesus calls us out, and we deserve it.

The reality of sin is a part of you – no more or less than anyone else.  It’s right to want to fix that, but we can’t do it with any action or vote or practice.  In place of our own misguided attempts to make ourselves pure, Jesus offers himself.  We can’t do it; he will.  We can’t make ourselves clean, because Jesus has already redeemed us.  This is the good news.  Thanks be to God.

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