September 3, 2018
Ordinary Time, Proper 17 (Year B, Track I)
All Saints’ Park Slope
Song of Solomon 2: 8-13
James 1: 17-27
Mark 7: 1-8, 14-5, 21-23
Let me tell you a story.
A few months ago, I was taking the subway home at the end of a long, exhausting day. A young girl and her mother got on and sat down across from me. The girl was maybe 3 or 4: curly hair pulled up into a messy ponytail, white Minnie Mouse t-shirt, pink leggings, Velcro sneakers with the little neon lights in the soles. It looked like she had been at the playground, and it looked like she had been playing HARD. Her shoes were dusty, her knees were stained, and there were tiny beads of sweat on her forehead.
Without speaking, her mother reached into her bag and took out a water bottle covered in Hello Kitty stickers. She handed it to her daughter, and the girl downed half of it in three long draws on the straw as her big eyes surveyed the other straphangers. Having slaked her thirst, she went “Aaaaaaahhhh,” and I was totally charmed.
She handed the bottle back to her mother, who silently exchanged it for a little ziplock bag of Cheerios. I don’t know why, but their wordless routine reminded me of a boxer and her coach in the corner between rounds. The coach knows and anticipates the fighter’s every need, so she can stay completely focused. The girl had that intensity of focus. And she pried the bag of Cheerios open and was about to chow down when her mom suddenly interrupted: “Wait a minute, now. Let’s clean up a bit first.”
Mom pulls out a wet wipe. Daughter sticks out her hand. Given what’s happened so far, I’m expecting an efficient, silent scrubbing. But something different happened: something that, in retrospect, I would call holy. Mom slowly, mischievously draws the wet wipe over her daughter’s hand, so only its very tips tickle her palm. The girl squeals with delight. She sits up super straight; she points her toes; but she keeps her hand very still. Waiting for more. “Oh yes,” Mom says, grinning as she tickles the palm again, “we’ve got to get these hands clean...”
It takes at least two minutes for Mom to wash her daughter’s hands. Not because they are so dirty, but because both are enjoying themselves too much to rush it. “Shall we wash...this finger?” Mom asks, looking deep into her daughter’s eyes. “Oh yes, Mama,” her child answers, consumed by giggles. The air conditioning in the subway car is on full blast and that cool wet wipe must feel so good against her warm skin. “Shall we wash your pinkie finger?” “Oh yes, Mama!”
And on and on, both mother and daughter savoring these moments of connection, until the Cheerios were remembered and Mom answered an email on her phone and their stop came and they got off the train to walk the rest of the way home, holding hands.
I have thought of this moment again and again over the last few months, and as I said, I think of it as a holy moment. And it came back to me especially this week as I have spent a lot of time on the subway, commuting up to Union Theological Seminary for my new student orientation. Like Chris, who preached last week, I am a postulant for the priesthood in the diocese: the Bishop is postulating that I will be ordained a priest after three years of seminary. So I am looking forward to having my backpack blessed shortly.
But I have also been thinking of this mother and daughter this week as I have meditated on our scripture readings, which ask a question that pervades scripture, and the life of the church, and our own lives. What does it mean to be holy?
In our Gospel reading today we get a sense of what it meant to Jesus to be holy. It comes out in a conflict with some prominent religious leaders of Jesus’ own day: the scribes and the Pharisees. Jesus and his disciples have sat down to eat, and they have not washed their hands. They are tired, and hot, and probably more than a little sweaty. They have been busy. In the chapter that precedes our reading today, we hear that so many people were coming to see Jesus that he and his disciples “had no leisure even to eat.” My friends, even Jesus struggled with work/life balance.
They had tried to go off by themselves in a boat. But crowds of people just followed them around the shore to where the boat landed. So instead of having a quiet meal alone, Jesus and his disciples sat down with five thousand people and they all ate their fill from five loaves and two fishes. You know that story? They left and Jesus calmed a storm that threatened to overwhelm the boat and terrified his disciples, and they promptly arrive in another place where throngs of other people flock to Jesus, desperate to be near him, to hear his words of grace and to feel his healing touch. And we note that Jesus does not hesitate—not for a second. He touches their hurting bodies. He touches people with open sores, people we would now call mentally ill. He touches people who have been abandoned by their communities because they are seen as frightening, dangerous, even disgusting.
In our reading today, the scribes and the Pharisees are upset that Jesus and his disciples have skipped the wet wipes and gone straight for the Cheerios. But given what Jesus has been up to, it’s clear that this is just the tip of the iceberg, just a small piece of the much more significant conflict between the movement of revolutionary love that Jesus is beginning and the status quo that the scribes and Pharisees represent.
At the root of that status quo is the idea that holiness entails separation. To be holy is to be set apart from all that is profane, ordinary, everyday. This is easy for us to understand instinctively, and it is an important way that we still honor God and one another. This sanctuary is a place set apart from the rest of the block, and we enter it more reverently than we enter into Five Guys. We approach the altar differently than we approach the ATM at Bank of America. And that is right and good.
But Jesus says that the scribes and the Pharisees have lost perspective. They are enforcing traditions that are less about setting certain things in a place of honor and more about separating oneself from the unfamiliar, the strange, and the wounded. They are making people anxious that they aren’t good enough, pure enough, to be in the presence of God. And, they say, if you want to protect your own purity—if you want to be clean—you had better avoid contact with those people who seem dirty, or strange, or broken.
Such purity codes, Jesus says, have become barriers to God’s commandments: to love God with our whole heart and mind and soul, and to love our neighbors--all our neighbors—as ourselves. Jesus doesn’t seem to care if we eat clean or not: it’s not our failure to live up to an impossible standard that defiles us. What defile us are the thoughts and actions that diminish our capacity for love: our selfishness, our indifference, our pride, our lies.
If Jesus had been concerned about his own purity, he would never have eaten with five thousand poor people, or prostitutes, or tax collectors, or people of other ethnicities. He would never have touched the sores of a leper, or a hemorrhaging woman. No one, in the eyes of God, is worthy of contempt. No one is untouchable.
Jesus shows us that the deepest root of holiness is not separation but connection. And that means that we cannot be made holy alone. We cannot be whole while others are being broken down or cast out. Our freedom and joy is bound up with theirs.
In Jesus, the very Son of God, we see that what makes us holy are not the things we do to protect ourselves, but the actions large and small that restore and guard the integrity of others. The word of kindness, the gift of time spent listening, the half a sandwich shared, the protest chant, the silent prayer, the transformation of our institutions in the pursuit of justice and joy for all; the gentle play of a wet wipe across a child’s hand on a crowded subway car.
Was the point of that wet wipe to clean the little girl’s hands of dirt and germs? Sure. But more importantly, it was an opportunity for mother and daughter to delight in one another. And it moved me because I see it as an image of the kind of connection that God wants with us, and for us to have with one another. “Holy, holy, holy Lord: God of power and might. Heaven and earth are full of your glory.” Heaven and earth connect wherever there are relationships of honor and care and delight, in which we are renewed and restored to the fullness of who we are. A holy people: people created to love and be loved.