“Defilement is a dirty word”

Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Feddersen:

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8
Ephesians 6:10-20
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Two kinds of birds live in the desert. Most of us think immediately about buzzards–God’s environmental protection agency–the scavengers who feed on dying, dead and rotting animals. Another bird also lives in the desert, however, and it lives on flowers. Just how hummingbirds find sufficient food and moisture in the desert is something of a mystery, but they do. Vultures find what is ugly and stinky. Hummingbirds find what is beautiful and sweet.

The point of this little parable is that each bird finds what it is looking for. In just the same way, people can find loopholes in their commitments to serve God and each other, or they can find new, beautiful and sweet avenues of service even beyond the original intentions of their commitments. We are all aware that laws and legal lingo have been devised to protect the ordinary person from those who would make a contract appear to say one thing, while meaning quite another. Yet, wicked people can still use the laws and language to dupe others.

Fortunately, such evil intentions are in the minority. Most people, for instance, mean exactly what they say when they promise to love, honor and cherish, forever. Very few actually intend to divorce and divide the property at the earliest convenience.

The trouble is, of course, that we cannot always know the intentions of others. Sometimes, we are tempted to forget what our own intentions were! Bishop Gerald Kennedy once wrote: “I remember a meeting of a board of trustees of a large institution. The question was raised concerning a contract we had with a government agency. Our lawyer informed us that we were not legally bound to accept the agency’s interpretation of the agreement. I still get a thrill when I remember a business leader asking quietly: ‘But what was the intent of the agreement?'” That simple question may have kept the group from defiling themselves by reneging on their original agreement, simply because the letter of the law would have allowed it.

MOTHERS BEWARE–If you have a little legalist running around in your house, you might want to cover his or her ears when the Gospel is read this Sunday. Otherwise, when you get home you may hear, “Well gee, Mom, Jesus said it was okay to eat without washing your hands!”

The scribes and Pharisees observed that some of Jesus’ disciples ate without first performing the traditional Jewish hand-washing ritual. They asked Jesus why, but they were not seeking information or an answer.

If, as a little boy, I sat down at the dinner table with dirty hands, and my mother asked, “Why didn’t you wash your hands?” she didn’t really want an answer. She wanted me to get up and wash them. It wasn’t a question–it was a statement. It meant something like: “Earl Feddersen, you have done a bad thing by sitting down to eat without first washing your hands.” Please notice that in my mother’s eyes, God love her, such a deed would not make me a bad boy. Good boys and girls sometimes do bad things. A good truth to remember is that not all sinners are saints, but all saints are sinners.

The Pharisees believed that Jesus’ disciples were bad boys because of what they did. They were “defiled”–ceremonially, ritually and religiously unclean. For the Pharisees, this kind of cleanliness was not next to Godliness. It was Godliness! Therefore, in their eyes, these disciples were ungodly. Lest we mistake the intention behind their question, they did not ask the disciples about it–they asked Jesus. They were implying that Jesus was ungodly for letting the disciples do it.

Jesus explained that it’s not what comes into people from the outside that defiles them. That comes from the inside. In our day, He might say that we may catch some communicable disease by eating with dirty hands, but ungodliness is not a communicable disease. It’s genetic. Jesus listed all kinds of wickedness that comes out of the human heart. The list can readily be expanded by any of us. All we have to do is take an honest look inside ourselves and see what all is lurking around in there.

In the 1930’s, the president of a small Midwestern college used to promote his school to the parents of potential students by playing up the school’s remote location. He said, “We’re 37 miles away from the nearest sin!” Oddly enough, that was probably reassuring to many of those parents. Jesus reminds us that sin is never any farther away from us than our own navels.

My guess is that the Pharisees knew what Jesus was talking about. As a matter of fact, I believe they emphasized laws and traditions precisely because they knew something had to keep all that evil in check! A newspaper reporter said to Billy Graham, “You know I write stories about bad things all the time, but I still can’t swallow what you preachers say about original sin.” Billy Graham replied: “My friend, you don’t need to swallow it; it is inside you already.”

Life with God is not a transaction. The Pharisees thought that it was–so do most people in the world. Missionaries confront all kinds of religions and “isms,” all with the same basic tit-for-tat arrangements and deals. Even those of us who know that life with God is not a transaction still think that way much of the time. Manmade religion says that what you do can make you ungodly, so you have to sort of undo it to become Godly. The upshot of that, of course, is that when you are ungodly, defiled and dirty, God doesn’t like you, but when you are Godly, undefiled and clean, He likes you very much. While I am not in a position to speak on God’s likes and dislikes, that little inference could be correct. But it is definitely irrelevant!

I cannot remember that, as a little boy, I ever played in the mud and then came running through the house [time blesses us with forgetfulness], but I’m sure I did. I am also quite confident that, at the time, my mother didn’t like me very much! Yet, I can tell you [and this I do remember] that not one time in my life did I ever honestly think my mother didn’t love me. God is a whole lot bigger and more loving than my mother. I cannot tell you if He liked that little scum ball, running through the house or not. He may have found it thoroughly amusing–even though I was breaking a commandment at the time! A year later, mothers even find such things worthy of a good belly laugh. I feel sure that God often finds our antics and foolishness to be hilarious.

I can tell you, because we have His Word on it, that God loves every little and big scum ball in His world! You cannot make Him love you less, nor can you make Him love you more. Unlike some people, God does not measure out portions of His heart–He gives it all. You can deny it, reject it, ignore it and in that sense lose out on it, but you cannot make it happen–it’s already there. We might ask if Jesus was upset with the Pharisees for their near lips but distant hearts. Sure He was! His words sound angry, but did He love them? Sure He did!

Read the rest of Mark’s Gospel–He loved them to death. A well-meaning person wrote: “Like the Prodigal Son, we must repent and turn back to God, so that He can love us again.” What makes us think He ever stopped?

I’ll tell you what makes us think that way–it’s sin. It’s that deep-rooted unbelief and suspicion towards God that makes us think we have to earn or buy His love–as though He were some maitre d’ who wouldn’t show us any favors if we didn’t tip in advance. So we invent religions, or we take His attentions in exchange for our own–turning His undeserved favor into a cheap and shoddy transaction. Pharisees and practitioners of human religions prefer to live life under the burden of self- imposed law. They prefer that because it has the appearance of security. You know where you stand with your god because you do the right things and undo the wrong ones.

Jesus’ way appears terribly risky. He says we should trust our entire eternal security to God–that God’s love and forgiveness, our faith and eternal life are all free gifts to us. He says that, instead of living under the burden of imposed law, we live out of the impulses of His Spirit dwelling within us!

St. Patrick’s famous poem seeks safety all around. He wanted Christ to be on his left side and his right–above and below him–in front and behind him. It’s a beautiful poem, but Sunday’s Gospel reminds us that our biggest dangers aren’t out there. We need Christ within us, right where our biggest problems reside.

I wrote that human religions give the appearance of security. The truth is that every attempt at turning life with God into a transaction is like betting our eternal destiny on a roulette wheel. If as we suppose, we are Godly or ungodly, depending on our behavior at the moment, then everything depends on when and where the ball of death drops–whether we have just done or undone our latest defilement.

If I have successfully shared the message of God’s love, some of you are now asking, “Wait a minute–what do I have to do? I must have to do something!” My answer is unequivocal: “No!” If you’re up on Christianity you’ll say, “Well, I have to believe it.” I’ll say, “Sure you do, but that’s not something you do–faith is God’s free gift to you.”

At that point you may say, “Yeah, but I have to accept it.” And now, you’ve done it. You’ve used my least favorite word in all Christian language and thought! Sunday’s Epistle lesson is St. Paul’s beautiful image of the child of God being outfitted with God’s armor–faith as a shield, salvation as a helmet, God’s Word for a sword–I love it! Then some translator ruined it by saying “accept” salvation as a helmet. I know I shouldn’t let such things peeve me, but they do. Whenever I hear someone say that we have to accept our salvation, or give ourselves to Jesus, or anything similar, I hear another transaction, a bargain, a cheap arrangement. It’s as if God offers it, but I have to take it. I take it or leave it. Jesus Christ did not come to this world to offer me forgiveness–He gave it. He did not come to offer me His love. He gave it. He did not come to me to offer His life for me. He gave it.

Faith is not a gift offered. It is a gift already given. It’s like waking up in the morning wearing a whole new set of clothes. To say that I accept them is ridiculous. I’m already wearing them! They have no price tag on them and my name is sewn into the label! It’s the costliest garment in the world–an Easter outfit–bought with Christ’s own blood and celebrating both His resurrection and mine. Now, if you mean that by not taking it off, wearing it for all the world to see, thanking God for it, reveling in it and loving it, that I therefore “accept” it. Well, I guess I can accept that. [But I still don’t like the word.]

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