With Dirty Hands

Sermon on Mark 7:5-8

Psalm 45:7-8  Your throne, O God, endures for ever and ever, a scepter of righteousness is the scepter of your kingdom; you love righteousness and hate iniquity. Therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness…

Introduction

One of the most difficult things for me to navigate as a teacher is the tendency for students to parrot. When I was a teacher at the high school levels, I would walk around my circle of students and say, “I want to know what *you* think; I don’t need 20 more Rev. Larkins…God knows there’s one too many.” To protect the space for students toward intellectual liberty, I implemented a contract grading system. Making grades dependent on the completion of specific tasks (with flexibility to student need) rather than on memorization and recitation. While I had great success with this grading approach, one thing congested the air preventing authentic and personal wrestling with thought: the deeply ingrained training of conformity for fear of punishment. For the life of me, there were students who just froze when given the liberty to speak their mind, so they would tell me what they thought I wanted to hear.

While I could wax not-so-eloquently about the state of school systems and how they contribute to the conformity of human beings to the status-quo rather than bolstering and building curiosity and creativity, the thing that I want to stress here is that this conformity for fear of punishment moved from chair and desk into pew and table. When I lead chapel as a chaplain at the high school, I’d listen to student voices recite in unison creeds, prayers, and responses. But there was very little life in it. They said the words because they had to, because they were told they must, because they were afraid of some form of punishment if they didn’t. For one reason or another, their hearts were far from those words.

At some point during each semester, I’d exhort them: “Don’t say the words if you really don’t want to; there’s nothing magic in them, you aren’t saved through them but through faith. You have my permission to opt out.” I desired for them to have robust and vigorous relationships with God, the very God who moved heaven and earth to be as close to them as they are to themselves and maybe even closer. I wanted them to embody the liberation that comes with the groundwork of justification with God by faith in Christ alone by the power of the Holy Spirit. I wanted them to want to say those words, those prayers, those responses and not because they were so tied to fear and traditionalism. I wanted them to be ὸ λαός of God bursting forth from the heart, not an illusion built upon words slipping from lips.

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

And then the Pharisees and the scribes questioned him, “Why are your disciples not walking according to the tradition of the elders, but are eating food with unclean hands?” And [Jesus] said to them, “Isaiah prophesied well concerning you pretenders, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with lips, but their heart are held far back from me; and they worship me to no purpose while teaching the teaching of religious precepts of humanity.’ While releasing the command of God you hold fast to the tradition of humanity handed down.”[1]

Mark 7:5-8

So, Jesus’s disciples are caught eating with dirty hands by a group of pharisee-scribes coming from Jerusalem (vv. 1-2).[2] As the disciples sit and eat, this group of religious authorities from Jerusalem confronts Jesus about this brash and flagrant infraction. Why care so much? Well, the issue at stake here for this group of religious authorities is that Jewish people are supposed to wash their hands (and other items (vv. 3-4)[3]) diligently prior to using them to make sure they are ritually clean (the issue of hygiene is less in view here).[4] What’s interesting is there’s only a reference in the First Testament (Ex. 30:18-21; 40:30-32) to diligently washing hands for the sake of purity: priests are supposed to wash their hands prior to the sacrifice.[5]

The command to wash hands—given to the priests—morphed into a human tradition passed down from the religious authorities to the people, and it became normative.[6] This is what Jesus takes issue with, and rightly so. The emphasis on obedience to the traditions handed down by humanity interferes with heart-felt devotion to God. The people, who are merely trying to survive day in and day out, are burdened with superfluous tasks and deeds baptized in the name of God. The work of serving the Lord and offering authentic devotion birthed from the heart gives way to the toil of upholding human made demands for fear of being punished or ostracized. So, in defense of the beleaguered people, Jesus creatively quotes Isaiah[7] to respond to the pharisee-scribes from Jerusalem:

“‘This people honors me with lips, but their heart is held far back from me; and they worship me to no purpose while teaching the teaching of religious precepts of humanity.’”

And concludes with the accusation that they have allowed the traditions of humanity to usurp the command of God (v.8).

Two things I want to highlight here in the profundity of Jesus’s reply. There’s a clear accusation against the religious authorities: they’ve taught and handed down these traditions of humanity and demonstrate they are not holding to the commands of God.[8] The religious authorities are taking the purity of the people into their own hands thus they are commandeering the worship of the people to reflect human traditions handed down (the externals).[9] The more they do this, the further they get from being of the things of God.[10] Their worship of God is of no purpose and in vain. This is their own doing.

The other thing I want to highlight is this: while Jesus is casting divine accusation at the religious authorities for their preference for human tradition over and against divine command, he’s also exposing the people. As the religious authorities peddle these traditions of humanity handed down and baptize them as God’s decree, the people (ὁ λαός) are also far from being of the things of God and are consumed by the things of humanity. They, too, worship in vain and to no purpose. But this is not of their own doing.

Conclusion

My colleague and dear friend The Rev. Dr. Kate Hanch reflects on the call of the black woman preacher, Zilpha Elaw:

“…she described people who were bothered by her ministry as ‘ignorant and prejudiced…men whose whims are law, who walk after the imagination of their own hearts, and to whom the cause of God is a toy…’ She could not and would not give in to [sic.] their objections and neglect God’s calling on her. Her calling was so clear, so distinct, that she remarks ‘it is an easy matter to adopt a string of notions on religion, and make a great ado about them; but the weight of religious obligation, and the principle of conscientious obedience to God are quite another matter.’ To translate that into today’s terms, Elaw implies that it is easier to become legalistic over doctrine than to obey God’s calling on our lives.”[11]

Elaw qtd in The Rev. Dr. Kate Hanch’s forthcoming book.

I was never upset with my beloved students for their fear of performing rightly if vacantly; they were taught to fear things created by human minds and hands. I was upset with their teachers, the ones who instilled the fear. Their teachers had become legalistic and had rejected God’s calling on their life to love people and not idols, and that rejection was reflected in their teaching. And, as Jesus says, what comes out of our mouths is very important.

When we become so consumed with this thing and that thing, with how things should be done and should not be done, with wood and stone, with our own purity and obedience in external things, we lose the marvel and wonder of the divine presence in the encounter with God in the event of faith. All these material and external things surrounding us are here to serve us and our worship; we are not to serve it. When we elevate the material and external things to the realm of the divine, we will—along with the pharisee-scribes—release the word of God and hold fast to the traditions handed down by humanity. When the emphasis falls on us serving the material and external things; we become burdened with toil and our worship is in vain and to no purpose because we are worshipping ourselves.

Even worse than losing ourselves in wrong priorities, we will guide others into this dis-order. As a priest and future doctor of the church, the weight is rightly on me to speak well. Not in terms of doctrine and dogma (human made), not in creeds and prayers (again, human made), but in the Word made flesh, the incarnate word of God, the Christ crucified and raised. Those of us called out to lead from within must remain humbled at the foot of the cross and consumed in the glory of divine activity of life out of death in the resurrection of Jesus. It is not about me bringing you into what makes sense to me, but into what makes sense to God: divine love, divine peace, divine justice for you and for others. In other words, what comes out of my mouth is very important and reveals where my roots are, where my focus is, and to whom my heart belongs (vv.14-15).

Beloved, we have been liberated to love the world not in the purity of our religiosity which actually drives people away, but in the imperfection of our humanity which will call people in. It’s not about getting the external and material right in these walls at this table in these linens; rather, it’s about living through the imperfection of our belovedness into the world making the material and external better for those fighting to survive for truly this is divine love, divine peace, and divine justice in action.

Let us love as we’ve been loved.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[2] RT France The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text TNIGTC Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002. 280. “Matthew’s phrase ἀπὸ Ἱεροσολύμων Φαρισαῖοι καὶ γραμματεῖς suggests a single group coming from Jerusalem to Galilee. Mark’s wording, however, divides the group into the (presumably local) Φαρισαῖοι and τινες τῶν γραμματέων ἐλθόντες ἀπὸ Ἱεροσολύμων. Judging from the area of their concern these scribes from Jerusalem were themselves also Pharisees, and no distinction between the two groups is discernible in the pericope…The fact that in both instances they are described as having arrived…from Jerusalem probably indicates that they have come specially to investigate and/or to dispute with Jesus.”

[3] France Mark 281. “Mark’s explanatory account of Jewish rituals of purity is apparently directed to Gentile readers of the gospel. It is a broad-brush, unsophisticated account, which conveys a general sense of meticulous concern to avoid defilement rather than a nuanced presentation of the purity laws- of the OT and of tradition.”

[4] France Mark 280. “As in 2:18,23-24, it is the behaviour of Jesus’ disciples rather than his actions which provides the point of dispute…The issue this time (as in 2:18) is not one of obedience to the OT laws, but of rules subsequently developed in Pharisaic circles. While no doubt it could normally be expected that hands would be washed before a meal for hygienic reasons (since food was often taken from a common dish), the only hand washing required in the OT for purposes of ritual purity is that of priests before offering sacrifice (Ex. 30:18-21; 40:30-32). The extension of this principle to the eating of ordinary food, and to Jewish people other than priests, was a matter of scribal development, and it is uncertain how far it had progressed by the time of Jesus.”

[5] Ibid.

[6] France Mark 283. τὴν παράδοσιν τῶν περσβυτέρων “The term is not specific, and refers merely to ‘received wisdom’, and that wisdom may not have been of very long standing, nor have been shared by all groups within Judaism at that time. But for the scribes, as for religious groups generally, there is an assumption that what has once been established by usage normative; for them this practice is now self-evidently right. Jesus’ response will therefore focus on this more fundamental issue of the relative authority of tradition as such as a guide to the will of God, rather than on the provenance of the particular tradition in question.”

[7] France Mark 284. “‘The Introductory formula (containing the only use in Mark of the ‘Matthean’ term ὑποκριτής) assumes that Isaiah’s words, which originally described the superficial religious devotion of his eighth-century contemporaries than predicting a future situation, can be directly applied to, indeed were written about, ὑμεῖς. This ‘contemporising’ use of OT texts is typical of much NT interpretation, and presupposes a typological understanding of continuity in the relationship between God and his people such that earlier events and situations appropriately serve as models for a later era of fulfilment, even though in themselves they had no predictive force.”

[8] France Mark 284. “The specific statement that the worship described is ‘vain’ undoubtedly sharpens the application, and the inclusion of διδάσκοντες fits well with the specific application of the charge to scribes rather than to the people in general, but the text even in its Hebrew form describes a worship which is based on externals and is of purely human origin, which is just the point which Jesus goes on to make about the scribal traditions, whereas the specifically LXX point that their worship is ‘in vain’ is nowhere drawn into Jesus’ comments.”

[9] France Mark 284-5. “The contrast in Isaiah between lips (words) and heart is not taken up as a regular form of expression in the gospels, but reflects an important prophetic theme…and corresponds to the charge elsewhere in the gospels that scribal religion is more concerned with external correctness than with fundamental attitudes and relationship to God…”

[10] France Mark 285. “The fundamental contrast is the last—true religion is focused on God, not a merely human activity. What comes from God has the authoritative character of ἐντολή, which requires obedience; what comes from human authority is merely παράδοσις, which may or may not be of value in itself, but cannot have the same mandatory character. Yet they have held fast to the latter, while allowing the former to go by default. ἀφίμι perhaps does not yet denote deliberate rejection, but rather a wrong sense of priorities, resuming in de facto neglect of God’s law…”

[11] Zilpha Elaw qtd in The Rev. Dr. Kate Hanch’s forthcoming book. The reflection by Elaw is from recorded in Sisters of the Spirit: Three Black Women’s Autobiographies of the Nineteenth Century ed. William L. Andrews.

Hope in the Mess

Sancta Colloquia Episode 401 ft. Bp. Jake Owensby

This episode with Bp. Jake Owensby (@jakeowensby) marks the start of Seaon FOUR. That’s right, I’m entering in my fourth year of hosting interview. This season will open with a few interviews with authors; how the season will close will be a, well, let’s say: it will be a “self-disclosing” event. Stay Tuned!

In this first episode of season four, I had the honor of talking with my former bishop, Bishop Jake Owensby of the diocese of Western Louisiana of The Episcopal Church. This interview focuses on his most recently published book: Looking for God in Messy PlacesA Book about Hope. We get to talk about why hope and why now? Bp. Owensby articulates well where his source of hope comes from, “Being the beloved in the eye of the Lover and that’s where my hope comes from. I am deeply loved.” It’s this being and knowing and experience deep divine belovedness that motivates Bp. Owensby’s work in this text as a message to help other people. Principally, Bp. Owensby communicates about our proclamation (either written or preached), “There’s one message; it’s the resurrection. That’s the message. That’s it…it’s God’s mighty work!” And it true; he’s not lying. Holding the story of Christ’s resurrection in one hand as we walk with people with the other, helping them and standing in solidarity with them, is the key to comprehending what it means to have hope when hope seems pointless even lost. If we weed out this very story of resurrection from our proclamation because it’s “not real” or “could never happen”–statements more about our logic and reason and not God’s mighty work–we lose one of the most cataclysmic narrative movements of divine life usurping death’s supposed last word. It’s here in the encounter with God in the event of faith that, for Bp. Owensby, where “All of [the] ways in which we’ve allowed or simply had to allow a way of living die and a new way of living emerge, that’s resurrection; that’s hard work.” Chaos, turmoil, fear, death, all of it has been stripped of it’s claim to the last word in this divine mighty work of God in the resurrection. Thus, we can have hope that what we see right now isn’t all we see. That maybe the mess isn’t messy but beautiful because in that mess there is God with us.

Excited? You should be. Listen here:

Interview with Bp. Jake Owensby

Jake Owensby is the fourth Bishop of the Episcopal Church in Western Louisiana. His writing and his speaking events focus on helping people find hope, meaning, and purpose in their lives. He is the author of five books, most recently Looking for God in Messy PlacesA Book about Hope. Jake has three adult children, two grandchildren, and lives in Alexandria, Louisiana, with his wife, Joy. Gracie their rescue pup is their constant companion.

Follow Bp. Jake Owensby on Twitter: @jakeowensby; on Insta: @jakeowensby; and on Facebook: Jake Owensby and Bp. Jake Owensby. Also, for more of Bp. Owensby’s writing, check out his blog: jakeowensby.com.

Other Books by Bp. Owensby:

A Resurrection Shaped Life: Dying and Rising on Planet Earth

Your Untold Story: Tales of a Child of God

Gospel Memories: The Future Can Rewrite Our Past

Connecting the Dots: A Hope-Inspired Life

Sojourner Truth, Embodiedness, and the Erotic

Sancta Colloquia Episode 301 ft. The Rev. Dr. Kate Hanch*

In this episode of Sancta Colloquia, my first ever guest, Kate Hanch (@katehanch), allowed me to talk with her (again) to celebrate the 3rd season of Sancta Colloquia. What a crazy and wild ride it’s been since we first talked. So much has gone on, so many conversations had, so much has changed due to growth. This time Kate discussed Sojourner Truth and her influences and deification of the erotic, specifically intersectionality and black feminism. Kate explains who Sojourner Truth was and her vital impact in preaching and embodiedness. Kate shares about Truth’s own embodiedness when she walks away from her slave master with her son; she doesn’t run, Kate stresses, she walks. And there is everything embodied and present in walking, specifically walking away. Kate emphasizes that there is humility in the lives of women that is not humiliation or shame but more about vulnerability and openness to God and to others. In this way, bodies can become as God (deification).  We have bodies and we experience the world and God in our bodies; we experience others through our bodies. Kate explains that sanctification, through the lens of Sojourner Truth’s life and preaching, is an ongoing process and a coming together with the erotic. Kate pushes the erotic energy of connection of this mystical union toward God and toward others. In a world that is (too?) obsessed with the erotic only as sexual gratification of taking from an other, Kate, with Truth, allows for a broader and more robust definition which see the erotic as self-embodiment and not just sexual gratification. Self-embodiment goes hand in hand with self-awareness (being in your body and aware of it, the intentionality of being) and this self-awareness is, for Kate, part of the erotic. As the conversation moves, Kate exhorts the listener toward waking to the image of God within. That this awakeness is about being powered (from the self) and not empowered, which implies that the power is coming from without–your power is coming from within. And you are not merely given a body (embodiedness) but you are bodied: you are a flesh and blood creature experience the divine sensations of the body and this fuels your substantial presence in the world (living into ourselves and enjoying ourselves with our bodies–minds connected to a body–erotic connecting to coming closer to God in sanctification). Sojourner Truth reminds us that we live and love (agape, philos, eros) in our bodies, we receive and take into our bodies, we give from our bodies…we self-give with humility and interdependence.

 

Intrigued? You should be. Listen here:

 

Kate recently defended her PhD dissertation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. It is entitled “Prophetic Humility: A Feminist Theological Account.” She reads medieval women and 19th century black women preachers as theologians, tracing a humility that is not humiliating from their work. Kate grew up Baptist in Missouri. She attended Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City where she received her MDiv. She was ordained at Holmeswood Baptist Church, a Cooperative Baptist Church in Kansas City, where she served on staff before starting her doctoral education. While working on her dissertation, she has taught at the graduate, undergraduate, and continuing education levels through multiple institutions. Her scholarly work is published in the Liturgy JournalThe Review and Expositor, and Perspectives in Religious Studies. She has a chapter entitled “Light from Pre-Reformation Women’s Theological Contributions” in the book entitled Sources of Light: Resources for Baptist Churches Practicing Theology that was released in 2020. She also has two other chapters under contract in edited volumes about women and theology.

Kate currently serves as an associate pastor at a Methodist church in St. Charles, Missouri. She lives in the exurbs of Missouri with her husband Steve. She likes laughing, hiking, and singing along with Weird Al Yankovic. Follow her on twitter at @katehanch or Instagram at @kate_hanch.

Recommended Reading:

Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches

Joy Bostic,  African American Female Mysticism: Nineteenth century religious activism
Margaret Washington, Sojourner Truth’s America
Jeroen Dewulf, The Pinkster King and the King of Kongo: The Forgotten History of America’s Dutch-Owned Slaves
Kelly Oliver, Witnessing: Beyond Recognition
Sojourner Truth, Narrative of Sojourner Truth, Compiled by Olive Gilbert and Frances W. Titus, With a History of Her Labors and Correspondence Drawn from Her “Book of Life.” Also a Memorial Chapter, Giving the Particulars of Her Last Illness and Death. Battle Creek, Mich., 1884
Nikki Young, “Uses of the Erotic” for Teaching Queer Studies,” Women’s Studies Quarterly 40, no. 3-4
Keri Day, Religious Resistance to Neoliberalism: Womanist and Black Feminist Perspectives (New York: Palgrave Macmillan US: Imprint: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016)

“Why I Love Preaching”

Luke 1:1-4 (Homily)

When I was little girl, I wrote stories. Learning to read fueled my pint sized writing desire; I didn’t want to be merely a passenger on the story train, I wanted to call those places and beings into existence, I wanted to be the engineer. With a pencil, eraser, and a wide-ruled piece of paper, I summoned into being characters made of glue, talking dogs and cats, story-book ending reversals and what-ifs, magical places, deep woods, vast fields, and majestic horses.

That pencil and wide-ruled paper would give way to multicolored pens and spiral-bound notebooks of college-ruled sheets. I didn’t pass notes in high school; I passed stories with my best friend. Together we spun chapters upon chapters of tales of love and romance, bringing our secret crushes on cute soccer players to life.

As an English major with a creative writing focus in college, I wrote and wrote. Plays. Essays. Poetry. Fiction. Satire. In my spare time, I filled personal journals with angsty poetry and meandering nonsensical musings about life and existence, God and the divine, scripture, human pain and human suffering.

Even as I left college and joined the masses moving to and fro on Wall Street, my poetry and prose came with me. A few weeks before the events of 9/11 traumatized my city in devastating ways, I started writing stories again. A clay pot by the name of Eli, his buddy Marc, and the Potter would not only keep me company on the dark nights where I couldn’t process the horror I had just witnessed from the distance of 1.5 miles, but they would be the midwives through whom my processing of terror and suffering of fragile humanity and an apparently silent God were born.

In seminary, I’d find ways for my inner iconoclast to come out. A thesis and three supporting points was boring. I’d submit epic poems to answer the question of predestination, or spin a tale about why confirmation was an important step in the Episcopal church. And at night, I’d curl up with my boys, sometimes reading to them and sometimes allowing my spoken words to pull them into imaginary worlds before they drifted off into to their own.

As they grew, bedtime stories became story installments on 5×7 index cards taped to the inside of lunch-boxes. No longer was I escaping into fantasy worlds I created for myself, I was creating escapes for my boys from the structure of elementary school. An anxious day, a stressful day, a bad day could be paused for a few minutes; just enough time to rest and dive back in after lunch. Time and space were held back, barricaded against by words gathered as a fortress creating and holding a place for my boys to breathe.

Now I stand here. And I get to use not only my training and authority to educate you in things of theology and religion, but I get to put my hand once again to the pencil and the sheet to create for you worlds vastly different from the one you are all too familiar with, where for a few minutes you can suspend disbelief. This story telling is part of our Episcopal identity that is as deep as it is wide. We put great emphasis on every part of the service being a moment of potential encounter between you and God in the event of faith. From the first song to the last and everything in between is structured to make that encounter possible. Not least of which is the event of preaching.

In preaching I get to use my words to create for you a moment in time and space for you to get caught up and caught in. I get to use my words to pull you into the rich and verdant possibility of encounter with God in the event of faith. I get to bring eye-to-eye and hand-to-hand with a God who loves deeply and fully. I get to call into being a moment so filled with conflict and comfort, where you are encountered and altered so radically that if you are listening even just a little bit, you can’t help but leave a little bit different.

I get to tell you stories about words so imbued with fertility that they spontaneously generate worlds of life (from the smallest plant to the largest mountain and every living thing between). I get to bring you face to face with a mighty, divine power who is deeply impassioned over people and the world that bushes burn, waters part, rains cause floods, food falls from the sky, and the earth quakes. I get to place you among the crowd of people enslaved, freed, and on the run; who cross a sea between walls of water, roam painfully through miles and miles of dessert, are fed from the sky, look to snakes for healing, and struggle with faith and belief that the promise uttered way back when is still valid, will still be fulfilled.

I get to point to the prophets of Israel who were so filled with the spirit and divine presence, that they couldn’t be silent anymore and spoke up, calling their people around them to wake up, hear, and return to the truth. I get to seat you at the stage of the greatest and most romantical story of love and desire between two people that Romeo and Juliet blush. I get to recite for you the poetry and songs of a people overcome with love and gratitude, hope and confidence, and sometimes fear and despair. I get to expose you to wisdom so ancient and so true, that there isn’t a fortune cookie or a horoscope in the world that could ever hold a match to it.

I get to ask you to be quiet as we all silently shuffle into a cave where a sleeping baby lies in a manger; “ancient wisdom born a wriggly infant to save the world,” I whisper to you. “Long awaited hope fulfilled.” I push you into the rushing and pressing crowds who are eager to see and hear and touch “This man who told me everything about me” (cf. Jn 4). I then prod you in front of a horrific instrument of death, and ask you to look up and see the painful death of Christ, this man who is God. Over the jeering, mocking, and taunting crowd, I holler, “This is what love looks like: sacrifice!” And three days later I get to bring you to another cave, an empty tomb, and let you feel and get caught up in the energy and fear of the women fleeing to go tell the disciples: Jesus is risen! And unlike before, now is a time for loud and ruckus noise! “Rejoice! Lift your voice! Love won! Life triumphed over death; light obliterated the darkness! Hallelujah!”

As a faithful tour guide of this great story, I then walk you through the good, the bad, and the ugly of the fits and starts of the early church comprised of people trying to figure out what just happened exactly, people like you and me. And I get to show you—each of you—where you’ve been grafted into this story since the beginning of time, where you along with all people of all history, are the intended recipient of this great work and act of love of God. I’m not here to give you another syllabus decorated with lists of expectations and to-dos; I’m here to call you out of all of that for a handful of minutes in order to tell you about what I think is the greatest story ever told, to write and speak you into it. I’m here to recreate that story for you in this time and space; to make that story come alive in this place at this moment.

I’m here to hand the story on to you …just as [it was] handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about [the great story of God’s deep abiding love for God’s world and God’s people, for you, God’s beloved child]” (adapted from Luke 1:1-4).