My mom and stepdad have been longtime members of what many of us would call a megachurch – a very large United Methodist Church in Alabama. Having worshiped with them many times, the church truly is “mega”: multiple services of varying styles, a professional band, a TV production company, a large youth center, an indoor playground, a coffee shop, a gym with fitness classes, and a big campus. But the thing that impresses me most about their church is their clear sense of identity. When my family started attending regularly, two people came to visit them in their home, and they had a very frank conversation about expectations for membership. At that meeting my mom and her husband were asked to commit to at least one ministry each, were asked about what kind of education they wanted to join, and they were asked to tithe – to make a commitment to give 10% of their earnings to the church, as is the Biblical tradition.
I remember when my mom told me this story having a visceral reaction: that would have felt WAY to “pressure-y” for most Episcopalians. But as time has passed, I have come to admire their church’s clarity. The Episcopal Church does a poor job of defining membership. Our commitment to professing “All are welcome!” seems to translate into no defining characteristics of membership. In fact, as a priest, one of the questions I dread the most is “How do I join your church?” That should be a very easy question, and yet when I talk to new members, the answer has to be two-fold: the technical answer (as long as you attend three services a year and are a financial contributor, you’re considered a member – the answer from the wider Episcopal Church which I loathe!), and the more practical answer we have crafted here at Hickory Neck: you fill out a form, you commit to supporting the church financially, you commit to feeding yourself (through study, prayer, regular worship), and you commit to feeding others (through giving your time to the church and to the wider community on behalf of the church).
Our gospel lesson today seems to be wading through a similar debate. The Pharisees and scribes are totally perplexed by how some of Jesus’ disciples are not washing their hands before eating – a totally valid concern in these days of COVID! But handwashing was not just about hygiene. The ritual washing of hands was about identity, or “membership” as we understand it today. The Jews of this time are in an “oppressed minority, living in an occupied land.” Their question is asked with the backdrop of colonialism, cultural and religious diversity, and competing claims on identity.[i] Their question is both simple and complex: why aren’t the disciples living like members of our community?
For many a reader of this text, all sorts of erroneous conclusions have been drawn – primarily the antisemitic understanding that the laws of the Jews are superseded by laws of Jesus.[ii] But that is not what is happening in this text. Jesus does not have any issue with ritual cleansing: he of all people understands the consequences of following God. But Jesus is saying something more nuanced about identity and membership. Jesus is saying that no matter how we traditionally mark ourselves as “other,” even if something is “the way we’ve always done it,” what is more important is how we live our faith. So, if we are doing all the right things: washing our hands the right way, bowing at all the right times, crossing ourselves when we’re supposed to, saying “Amen” during the sermon – or avoiding saying “Amen” during the sermon – none of that matters if our insides are defiled. As Jesus quotes from Isaiah, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me…”[iii]
Today’s invitation is to ponder what membership in this body of faith means. Are we honoring Jesus with our lips, but our hearts are far from Jesus? Are we following the external “rules” but fostering evil intentions in our heart? Our work this week is making sure that when we go out into the world to love and serve the Lord, we love and serve the Lord in ways that show people Christ through our words and actions; that when we wash our hands, we do not wash them simply to keep ourselves safe, but to keep our neighbors safe; and that when we talk about how much we love this church on the hill, we do so in a way that does not show mask our individual struggles with avarice, deceit, slander, pride, and folly. Telling the world you are a proud member of Hickory Neck Episcopal Church is just fine; but our invitation is to be clear with others that, as that old tune says, “He’s still working on me,” is also a part of membership in the body of Christ. Amen.
[i] Debie Thomas, “True Religion,” August 22, 2021, as found at https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2944 on August 27, 2201.
[ii] Idea suggested by Matt Skinner on the Sermon Brainwave podcast, “#799: 14th Sunday after Pentecost (Ord. 22B) – Aug. 29, 2021,” August 22, 2021, as found at https://www.workingpreacher.org/podcasts/799-14th-sunday-after-pentecost-ord-22b-aug-29-2021 on August 25, 2021.
[iii] Mark 7.6b.