Well, this is finally it. For most of our students and their families, this is the very last weekend of your summer (Not that you needed me to tell you!). You have today and tomorrow and then your whole world will change.
This past week at Epiphany Nursery School, the halls were buzzing with parents and children. Some of the kids brought flowers picked from their yard to give to their brand-new teacher. Some came extending drawings in ecstatic reds and blues. Some of the teachers had gifts to give their new students. One teacher was handing out Teddy Grahams with a card stapled to the corner saying, I’m BEARY glad to have you in my class.
This coming week all over town students will ride school buses, catch rides from parents, or drive themselves to school, and locate their room, and find their very own desk and sit down with expectant, perhaps even nervous hearts in front of their new teacher, asking: Who is this person? What’s she like? Will we get along with one another?
The 7th chapter of the gospel of Mark begins to develop a picture of Jesus as Teacher and invites us find a seat and to sit down in front of him to see who he is, what he’s like, what his hopes are for us. And we are given a chance to see who Jesus is by the contrast that is developed in comparison to those other famous teachers – the Pharisees.
In schools these days, especially high schools, there are sometimes fights – There’s a lot of emotion and sometimes a lot of frustration coursing through your veins when you’re a teen or preteen – and I have heard about these fights. Sometimes the fighting in the hall is just bumping one another, but sometimes there’s a push and it can become a fist fight, as a large group gathers around to watch.
It goes without saying that these fights are usually between students. It would be strange to see teachers in a fight. However, what we have today in the gospel is a teacher fight, and not in the privacy of the teachers’ lounge but out in public.
Jesus has been traveling and healing people in cities and on their farms and wherever he meets them, and when he passes through this village, a group of teachers – the pharisees and some of the scribes from Jerusalem – they surround Jesus in the hall. And they have come for a fight.
Because these Teachers have a particular paradigm – they want to teach about God, and to be faithful to God. And they think they are more faithful than Jesus.
The Pharisees’ burning passion was to sanctify and make all aspects of life holy. They lived and breathed to remember and remind Israel that God had called them to be a light to the nations and to show the world what it looked to live in covenant relationship with God.
If God had given them the law, they would follow it, and they would go further. Since the law required the priests to wash their hands before performing holy actions, they would teach that everyone should abide by the law of ritual hand washing, so that everyone could be as holy and set apart as the priests. They say: Let’s wash our hands and cups and pots and all sorts of things in the kitchen when we eat as a reminder of God and our relationship with him.
And now as these Teachers gather around Jesus they are really on a mission, because the backstory is that they’re worried about the future of their faith. The numbers are coming in and it doesn’t look good. The numbers of people who identify as “nones”- that is, those people unaffiliated with faith – is on the rise. Since the Roman empire has overtaken their people, less of the Hebrews are coming to synagogue, they are more often found in the colosseum. The Pharisees want to renew the people and call them back into relationship with God.
Their desire to wash hands and to perform other sacred rites is simply a desire to have ways to remember God. These Pharisees want to be faithful and they will attack anything that they see as a threat to that aim, even this new teacher in town, and they have come for a pedagogical showdown with the intention of embarrassing Jesus in front of his disciples and the crowd by proving that he is not as devoted and faithful to God as they are.
But Jesus points out their misunderstanding. They have come to believe that their relationship with God is as good as their own end of the bargain. They have come to believe that their devotion to God is what keeps the relationship with him healthy. They have become enamored with their own perceived goodness.
If we’re honest with ourselves and one another, we might agree that sometimes our own discipleship can become an attempt to impress ourselves and others rather than a sincere attempt to be faithful to God.
If I’m honest with you, I would tell you that I sometimes wonder if we believe in Jesus and his promise.
Oh, I know we sing and pray to him. We talk about him. We believe that God sent his Son into the world, that he died on the cross, and that rose from the dead to walk out of the grave – and he did it for all of us.
But do we believe in Jesus to help us when we’re in trouble? Do we really believe in his promise and make decisions based on that belief, or do we most often believe that it’s up to us to save ourselves, to use our own intelligence, to work it all out for ourselves, and to figure our own way out of the jams we get ourselves into? Do we rely on ourselves rather than trusting Jesus to save us, and help us, and guide us?
We live in a culture with a deeply-rooted belief that its up to us to save ourselves through our good grades, completed projects, strategic thinking, our morality or success or whatever else. We hear it so much and so often, we’re all susceptible to believing the lie.
But this is the truth: only Jesus saves us.
These Pharisees mean well. They mean as well as we do when we believe our prayers will save us, our attendance in church will save us, our volunteering at a food bank or local school, or anywhere else will save us.
But salvation does not come within us. It comes from outside of us, from God, as a gift.
One coming-of-age story that some young children will read this fall is Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White’s story of a pig headed to the slaughter and certain death, but saved by an industrious web-spinning spider who writes superlatives above his stall such as, “some pig,” “terrific,” “radiant,” and “humble.” These astonishing messages in silk bring attention to Wilbur and convince his owners that he is better to them alive and so they allow him to live and subsequently to compete in the county fair.
After the exhilaration of competing in the fair, Wilbur and Charlotte talk to one another alone in Wilbur’s stall.
“Charlotte,” Wilbur said after a while, “why are you so quiet?”
“I like to sit still” she said, “I’ve always been rather quiet.”
“Yes, but you seem especially so today. Do you feel alright?”
“A little tired perhaps, but I feel peaceful. Your success in the ring this morning was, to a small degree, my success. Your future is assured. You will live secure and safe, Wilbur. Nothing can harm you now. These autumn days will shorten and grow cold. The leaves will shake loose from the trees and fall. Christmas will come, then the snows of winter. You will live to enjoy the beauty of the frozen world. Winter will pass, the days will lengthen, the ice will melt in the pasture pond. The song sparrow will return and sing, the frogs will awake, the warm wind will blow again. All these sights and sounds and smells will be yours to enjoy, Wilbur – this lovely world, these precious days…”
Charlotte stopped. A moment later a tear came to Wilbur’s eye. “Oh, Charlotte, why did you do all this for me? I don’t deserve it. I’ve never done anything for you.”
If you have any knowledge of yourself, any self-awareness, any self-understanding, Jesus’ words ring true: for it is from within the human heart that evil intentions come. We don’t deserve God and we do not do anything for God.
So God comes down to us in the word, in the meal, and in the bath of our daily baptism. God comes down to us to penetrate into our hearts.
The Luther’s Rose illustrates how God puts his word into our hearts and, from that seed, our life blooms into health and faithfulness.
The real challenge from the gospel is that it asks for true transformation of our heart.
As for me and my house: Let me at the ritual practices. Where’s the water and the soap. It would be easy to follow the most complicated hand-washing instructions or the most convoluted ritual practices, but instead the gospel invites us to leave ourselves open to the transforming power of Jesus Christ.
So we throw ourselves on the mercy of God and pray: Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.
Jesus invites us to follow him in trusting God with our life, and to trust that even if we come to the cross, we will come to the empty tomb, where God remakes the world and shows us that Jesus is the teacher we can trust.
So may we trust Christ with our worry, with our fear, with our hope, and with our future. Christ is faithful and he is worthy to be praised.