Sam came to church on Sunday: he just walked right in and sat down. He sang the hymns, listened to the sermon, greeted other attendees, and chatted with the pastor after worship. He stayed for the potluck brunch and the after-church program and decided to make the local United Methodist Church his church home. He became a regular, sitting in the same seat each Sunday morning and was pleasant and engaged in worship. He often arrived early and asked the pastor, How can I help?” and she would give him odd jobs. When she would suggest something he often asked, “Is this someone else’s job? I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes.” He loved the church and loved being a part of the community.
After several weeks, a group of elders came to the pastor with their concerns. “What shall we do about that man?” they asked her. “Who?” she asked, not knowing that there was a problem. “The homeless man, Sam. He smells bad and many of our church members are complaining. They don’t want him here.”
After a moment to think, she asked the elders, “What should we do? Should we throw this man out? He is helpful and kind, engaged in worship and loves this community. Shall we throw him out because he is not clean?” (1)
The question of cleanliness is a central concern for the people of Jesus’ time and our scripture lesson today leads us into this question, “Who is worthy to sit in a set in our church? Who is worthy to receive the Living Bread? Who is worthy to be considered a follower of Christ?”
For 4 Sundays, we have focused on the gospel of John chapter 6, and in it, Jesus’ explanation to his disciples of his purpose and his identity as “the Living Bread” “The Bread from Heaven” and “the Bread of Life.” Today we shift to the gospel of Mark and we shift our focus on US. How do we respond to this gift of Jesus as the Bread of Life? What shall we do to embody this Jesus who provides living bread for us? What does this teaching – the hard word, as John put it – mean for us as we live out our Christian faith?
Last week we collected a special offering for the Philippine Task Force of the California-Pacific Annual Conference. I am proud to announce that we collected $449.00 for the work of the Task Force, and this will help churches in our conference connect with churches, individuals and organizations in the Philippines so that we can foster a spirit of partnership, respect and dignity for our brothers and sisters in the Philippines. $449.00 is a magnificent gift from a small church like ours – it’s also a wonderful affirmation that we understand our role in the gospel of Jesus:
Jesus is Bread, and we are the bread distribution system – a way to provide spiritual bread for our community, both our local communities in Walnut, West Covina, Chino Hills, Diamond Bar, Pomona AND our global communities throughout our world. That’s what being a follower of Christ is about: words and action coming together to demonstrate God’s love for the world. How do we put our words into actions?
What actions demonstrate God’s love for the world? We say, “God loves you.” and People say, “Prove it.” How do we ‘prove it?’
As Jesus was preaching inclusion and love for God and neighbors, those in the religious elite of his time were confronted with a new idea of what religion was supposed to be: and some questioned his new ideas and new “rules”… they were upset because this new teacher was railing against what they believed in:
Mark chapter 7, beginning at verse 1:
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3(For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 5So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’
Author William Loader notes that “the issue of what is clean and unclean and how such uncleanness is passed on has its roots in the Old Testament law. Careful analysis of how such laws should be applied led to distinctions about levels of contamination. Normally only something which has first degree impurity could make a person impure or unclean. Food which may be touched by unclean hands would be rendered impure with second degree impurity.”
How does food become “unclean? ” Laws about clean and unclean food are firmly rooted in the Old Testament (for example in the detailed instructions of food laws in Leviticus 11). The distinction between clean and unclean is fundamental to biblical Law. But here, according to Mark, Jesus is declaring such laws not only invalid, but never valid. They make no sense, he is arguing. They never did. How can such external things affect spirituality! (2)
He answers his critics in Verse 6, by referencing one of their own great prophets:
6He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
“This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
7 in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.”
8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’
That is “You say you are following the laws of God, but your hearts are not in the right place. You teach God’s rules, but do not care for God’s people.”
Mark 7: 14-15, 21-23
14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’ 21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’
Jesus says, “People are not made unclean by outward things – by food or by washing, by rituals that prove one’s loyalty and love – but by what comes from inside, from the heart.”
In this short statement, Jesus declared all foods clean. Just like that. No longer should there be a question about what should we eat, what we should wear, who we should welcome – those questions are not important, says Jesus…. The important question is what is in your heart – Hatred? Greed? Envy? Those are the things to be worried about, not what goes into your mouth, but what comes out through your words and actions.
So who is worthy? Who is clean enough to participate in Christian community?
As he was developing this movement we now call Methodism, John Wesley, our founder, addressed a myriad of questions and problems and challenges from those around him who were – like the Pharisees – threatened by his new ideas about how to respond to God’s grace. Some of his followers declined Holy Communion because they were convinced of their unworthiness.
“I am not worthy.” They would say.
He said, “Have Communion anyway.”
“I haven’t had time to prepare my heart.” They would say.
He said, “Have Communion anyway.”
“I am unclean.” They would said.
He said, “Have Communion anyway.”
In his sermon entitled, “The Duty of Constant Communion,” Wesley answers some common objections to those who believed the Lord’s Supper could be celebrated too frequently and by those who were not prepared for it.
In it he writes, “God offers you one of the greatest mercies on this side heaven, and commands you to accept it. Why do not you accept this mercy, in obedience to his command? You say, “I am unworthy to receive it.” And what then? You are unworthy to receive any mercy from God. But is that a reason for refusing all mercy? God offers you a pardon for all your sins. You are unworthy of it, it is sure, and he knows it; but since he is pleased to offer it nevertheless, will not you accept of it? He offers to deliver your soul from death: You are unworthy to live; but will you therefore refuse life? He offers to endue your soul with new strength; because you are unworthy of it, will you deny to take it? What can God himself do for us farther, if we refuse his mercy because we are unworthy of it?” (3)
We are all unworthy of God’s grace…. But do we refuse to accept it? We are all unclean in some way , we are all sinners. And that’s why we NEED God’s grace. That’s why we need to be in the presence of God, not denied from his communion.
As for Sam, he was not clean – he smelled, but was that a reason for the elders of the local UMC to force him out? With the leadership of their pastor they addressed the problem in a new way: they had a church bathroom with a shower, so some of the Trustees fashioned a curtain rod to make the shower more private and they stocked the area with everything needed for a good shower: shampoo and soap, razor blades and shaving cream. And because Sam arrived early each Sunday, they established a time that Sam would use the shower. “From 8:00-9:00, this is Sam’s bathroom.”
Furthermore, the church ran a thrift store, so some of the ladies shopped in the thrift store for clothes for Sam – shirts, pants, shoes, anything he needed – and set up a closet near the shower for Sam. When the pastor showed Sam what the church had done for him, he was moved. “Why would you do this for me?” he asked. “You are a part of our family, Sam. And we love you.”
We all are a part of God’s family – the clean and the unclean, the worthy and the unworthy, those who follow the rules and those who don’t. God offers each of us a place at the table. Who are we to say, “No, thank you.” Who are we to deny someone else a chance to know the Living God.
May we, who have been blessed by the love of God, invite others – clean and unclean – to share in the glory of the Living God, the Bread from Heaven, the Bread of Life. And may Jesus show us the ways we can work in our community to share God’s grace with a hurting world. Amen.
- Rev. Olivia Latu, recounting a story from Honoka’a UMC
- William Loader found on http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/MkPentecost14.html
- John Wesley, “The Duty of Constant Communion” found on http://www.umcmission.org/Find-Resources/John-Wesley-Sermons/Sermon-101-The-Duty-of-Constant-Communion#sthash.KoJ1mbnm.dpuf