Washing Hands and Emotions

Sermon Given August 29, 2021

I have to admit, my first thoughts on this passage were, “Jesus, just wash your hands!” In this age of pandemic, handwashing is one of those simple things that we can do to keep each other safe. It’s an important act of love. But it’s also a privilege to be able to wash our hands often. 

The Diocese of Iowa, my former diocese, is in a partnership with the Diocese of Swaziland in the Kingdom of eSwatini, a country in southern Africa. In the summer of 2020, we had a Zoom clergy retreat with their late bishop, Bishop Ellinah Wamukoya focused on creation care. When talking about how eSwatini was handling the pandemic, she spoke of how the country had brought in portable handwashing stations to villages around the kingdom in order to mitigate Covid-19 transmission. Officials were bemused because people weren’t using the running water to wash their hands. They were mainly using it for drinking water. But in a village where you have to fetch water, carrying heavy buckets from a stream or a well, having flowing water right there in the middle of town was such a privilege, it almost felt like a waste to use it for handwashing. Bishop Ellinah died of Covid in January of this year, but her words came back to me as I read about all this ritual washing. What feels like a limitless supply for some is a precious resource for others. 

The conversation about washing in our Gospel today isn’t about germs, it’s about people of privilege demanding something that is harder for the poor than it is for them. The Pharisees and scribes lived in a city near several wells, with an aqueduct system that brought water directly to the Temple mount. They didn’t have to worry about a water supply. But people in small town Galilee didn’t have that luxury. Aqueducts were for well populated cities of importance to Rome, not Capernaum or Nazareth. Water was more precious to them, and they weren’t going to always wash their hands when they came home from the market. 

The tradition started in a good place. They wanted to live out God’s commands. Just like us, Jewish people built layers of interpretation around their scripture to help them do that.  They had different schools of thought and had healthy debates about how to apply the commandments of God to their lives. They built up what is known as the oral tradition, which expanded upon the Torah, which is the first five books of our BIble, making it applicable to their daily lives. They wanted to follow God in all that they did and they built ways of observing the laws that made sense for the world they lived in. We do the same thing today. But in doing so, sometimes they built systems that couldn’t support the poor, the marginalized and the oppressed, systems that instead made things harder for them. I think we all know that happens in our communities as well. 

Then they turned around and judged Jesus for not washing, not paying attention to part of their oral tradition. They were judging Jesus, trying to use this as a reason to claim his teachings were false. They weren’t interested in conversation or community building, they just wanted to keep their power. All this is done after Jesus had just fed five thousand people and gone through many marketplaces, healing the sick who were brought out to meet him. He had done so much and was being cut down for something so minor, a tradition that was hard for him to follow. In a portion of this text that our lectionary unfortunately cuts out, he lambasts the Pharisees, cutting them down to size. 

Paraphrasing the text, Jesus said something like this, “You ignore God’s commandment while holding on to rules created by humans. God says honor your father and mother, but you tell people that if they hand the money they could use to help provide for their parents over to the temple as a gift to God, then they aren’t required to care for their father and mother. You do away with God’s word in favor of rules handed down to you.” Instead of ensuring that the entire community is cared for, the Pharisees and scribes are putting elderly people in harm’s way in order to prop up the temple, but they want to accuse Jesus of being a false teacher. They are not caring for the community as a whole, but for themselves above others 

This whole scripture passage asks us:  How are we really caring for ourselves, our neighbors, and our God? How are we loving each other? We don’t need to worry as much about ritual cleanliness or uncleanliness, we need to pay attention to how we are treating each other and our relationships. That’s what’s most important.

Friends, it’s hard when you’re trying to do the right thing and others can’t see it or when they nitpick to bring you down. It’s hard when you watch others take spots of privilege and ignore those on the margins. It doesn’t feel good and it can wear us out if we’re not careful. 

I’ve been watching this month as so many here have put their voices out there for the benefit of all. None of us want to be in this wave of the pandemic and it feels dystopian to have this disease downplayed by some as hospitals once again fill to capacity. We’ve seen the actions and inactions of those with more privilege take a real toll on those with less. So many in this space have been doing the right thing, have been calling out for and taking actions that we know decrease disease and death, and may be wondering if this all really makes a difference. So many of us are exhausted and tired. Some feel defeated. We see the disparities of this world and can easily feel overwhelmed. At least I know I sometimes feel overwhelmed. Through it all there are still those who seek to cut down, to belittle, and to dismiss our actions. 

When our individual actions simply aren’t enough and we’re fighting against something bigger than ourselves, it’s natural to be angry. Anger is simply our body’s response to situations where our morals and values are violated. But anger, when held too long, can turn into hatred, and hatred is a dangerous thing. Hatred manifests in unhealthy relationships, in those immoral actions that Jesus says do defile: things contaminate us and are the opposite of wholeness. Prejudice is one of those actions. These actions have the power to consume us and make us less able to see all people as children of God.

I don’t think we as a country are very good at discerning between anger and hatred. We tend to lump them together into the same thing. It doesn’t really help when we read things like our passage from James today that tell us to be slow to anger. James isn’t saying don’t be mad at injustice. Jesus was mad at injustice. He’s saying, “listen to one another, hear each other out, don’t become prejudiced.” Anger should lead to hard conversations. It should bring us into circles to figure out how we can work together for the betterment of the whole. But too often, we see people divide, see people refuse to speak to one another, and build up camps like two armies preparing for battle. Prejudice tells us that we don’t need to talk to a person because we already know they are wrong. Jesus calls out prejudice on a regular basis, as he does in our gospel lesson today. He’s always inviting us back into places where we can build relationships rather than judge. He invites us to consider all involved, especially those who are oppressed and marginalized. He invites us to actual conversation that focuses not on selfish desire, but the health of the community as a whole. 

I think one of the reasons we don’t have these conversations is because we struggle with how to grieve. We do not know how to lament past actions that we know are deplorable, so we can’t process the anger that sparks up because we haven’t solved the root problems. We get stuck. If we can’t weep with those who weep, if we can’t mourn with those who mourn, we can’t move into spaces of healing. White people especially have been taught to put up shields against anger, trying to tamp it down rather than feel it. I know I at least was indirectly taught to keep anger to myself, that it’s not something to share openly. I think the fear is that if we feel it and allow it to bring us into tough conversations, we’ll have to move through a real process of dealing with all the injustices caused by our ancestors, and that’s a lot of grief and pain to work through. It’s easier to get defensive, to jump to prejudice, and to shut down the conversation. 

But if we stifle the grieving process, which often starts with anger, we can’t move through it into spaces of true justice. Many of us are in angry places right now. We have seen so much injustice in the past 18 months. We need to have hard conversations, but we’re not sure how to have the hard conversations in our divided communities where anger and hatred are so easily confused. Some naturally move back to their camps and silos because we’re not sure how to move through.

I could go into problem solving and fix it mode, telling you what people with more expertise that myself have been saying for a while, but instead, I want to offer a space for us to just feel. Because we’re all in this grief process together and it’s hard. It’s so much easier to judge than to mourn. It’s okay to simply sit and be with your emotions. You can’t solve the world’s problems, but you can give yourself space to breathe. 

Once we move into the spaces where we recognize injustice and feel all those powerful emotions, something is released in us. When we attend to one emotion and feel it fully, we are freed to feel all emotions fully. When sorrow is no longer muted, neither is joy stifled. This is why some of the best laughter happens at funeral dinners. In those spaces, we are invited to feel with our whole hearts. Emotions, when not stifled, only last a little while, and letting them play out enables us to be fully alive in the moment. We can gather new strength for what God is calling us to do, fueled by what our emotions have stirred in us. They are our friends, not our problems. They help connect us to one another. 

While we, as individuals, cannot fix the problems of the world, we do have a God who promises to never leave us nor forsake us. We have a God who truly believes in us, who believes we can build a beloved community, even when we don’t really believe in ourselves. God’s dreams for what the world can be are painted in our hearts and we can tap into that source of strength and power, even in those moments we feel the lowest. We can find deep joy from spaces of living into relationship and community with God and each other. 

May we lean into our emotions and build circles of support with each other. May we lean into the hard conversations, opening ourselves up to each other’s anger without building hate and judgment. May we find ourselves able to feel the joy of living right alongside the sorrow of grief. Amen.