Proper 17B

September 2, 2018

James 1:17-27

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan

I want to share a poem with you this morning that is actually song lyrics by the band Nickel Creek.  And it is lovely.

"The Hand Song"

Sean C. Watkins, David Puckett

The boy only wanting to give mother something

And all of her roses had bloomed

Looking at him as he came rushing in

Knowing her roses were doomed

All she could see were some thorns buried deep

And tears that he cried as she tended his wounds

And she knew it was love, it was what she could understand

He was showing his love and that's how he hurt his hands

He still remembers that night as a child, on his mothers knee

She held him close and she opened her Bible, and quietly started to read

Then seeing a picture of Jesus, he cried out

"Mama he's got some scars just like me!"

And he knew it was love, it was what he could understand

He was showing his love, and that's how he hurt his hands

Now the boy is grown and moved out on his own

When Uncle Sam comes along

A foreign affair, but our young men are there

And luck had his number drawn

It wasn't that long till our hero was gone, he gave to a friend what he learned from the cross

But they knew it was love, it was one they could understand

He was showing his love, and that's how he hurt his hands

It was one they could understand

He was showing his love, and that's how he hurt his hands.

The readings this morning have left me thinking about hands.  There is an argument in the Gospel lesson from St. Mark about the washing of hands.  Folks get caught up on this - like the disciples were wrong to not wash their hands before eating.  I mean, eww!  That idea is especially difficult for those of us who lean toward OCD and wash our hands a lot to avoid the flu and stuff like that.

But that was not the issue at hand.  They were arguing over a ritual.  Ritualistic hand washing was expected by law but not really necessary for disease control.  Jesus responds to the criticism with a tit-for-tat question, as he often did with the Pharisees and asks them about empty rituals, where is your heart in that?

The images in the poetry of the Old Testament readings also bring hands to mind.  This poem from the Song of Songs is a love poem about lovers running off together and I imagine them holding hands as they enjoy the beauty of God’s creation. The full title of this book of the bible is The Song of Songs of Solomon.  Solomon did not write it.  It was just named after him, like a book of poems from the Solomon Library might be the contemporary equal.  Just a tid bit we learned at Lectionary Lunch this week.

The Psalm, which echoes the poetry from the Song of Songs, is all about the adoration of a person, a king. And it speaks of anointing.

And St. James’ epistle brings up the oft quoted phrase, “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers.”  So, like Jesus’ question, are the works of our hands fruitful for the Kingdom of Heaven or are they mere empty gestures.

So, I’ve been thinking about hands this week.

Like the psalmist says, we anoint each other with oil and laying on of hands.  We place our hands on our hearts when we pledge allegiance to the flag or other allegiances. We used to place a hand on a Bible when swearing to tell the truth in court.[1] Some still do.  Art is made with hands.  So is food.  And tools.  Hands are the part of our bodies we most associate with work.  Hands are also most associated with prayer, as in holding them softly and peacefully in prayer pose.  We approach the Eucharist with outstretched hands to receive the body of Christ.  We hold hands when we want to reassure or celebrate each other or when we face foes together.  We raise our hands to ask questions.  We raise our hands in praise.  Or to laugh.  Or to cheer on our team.  We shake hands as a sign of respect.  We hand over power.  We grasp for answers.  We shake our fists when angry.  And sometimes we hit each other.

Our hands then, can get defiled and need a good washing.  So can our hearts. 

No one is exempt from a strong searching of the heart. That’s the first thing that we should notice about these selected verses from the seventh chapter of Mark. The Pharisees, the crowds, the disciples are all called to an examination of just how much their religious acts, their various rituals, even their dedication to following God’s law actually correlate with the love they hope to profess in their hearts. It’s a hard truth to hear -- how more often than not, our faith-lives seem disassociated from what we think we believe, what we want to believe.

And it’s another hard truth to hear that what we want to believe about the goodness of our hearts is frequently not true. That as much as we will ourselves to have a decent and right heart, every heart is susceptible to evil, every heart is susceptible to corruption.

But before we go the route of “we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves,” and so Jesus comes along to free us from the evil that lurks deep in the recesses of our innermost being, a reminder is in order -- the heart is capable of both good and evil. And following Jesus will require a rather constant vigilance to just what side of the heart is showing its true colors.

Perhaps this moment in the story is Jesus’ way of calling out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. Perhaps it’s Jesus’ way of telling the crowds just what it takes to be one of his followers. Or maybe it’s Jesus’ way of foreshadowing for the disciples both Judas’s betrayal and Peter’s denial. Or maybe it’s Jesus’ way of communicating to us just how delicate and difficult faith is. Not just for us, but because how we exercise our faith also affects others. The Kingdom of God relies on our watchfulness as to just what side of our hearts is revealed in our behavior.

This past week, as you know, Senator John McCain, died of brain cancer. Quickly, my Facebook feed filled up with tributes to McCain, expressing admiration of his service to the country, his patriotism, and his courage. Most interesting in reading through the various accolades and homages was the consistency of the reverences and regards. Regardless of political loyalties or partisanship, the praise for McCain centered on the senator’s constancy in how his leadership, his decisions, his relationships revealed his true heart. That there was a perceivable correlation between the beliefs of his heart and his behavior in his career as a politician.

I was particularly taken by stories of his faith during his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.  At one point in his captivity he met a fellow Christian. In his memoir (Faith of My Fathers), McCain recalled a Christmas Day when he was allowed to stand outside for 10 minutes in a courtyard. A guard came beside him and then drew a cross in the dirt with his sandal and stood there for a minute, looking at McCain silently. A few minutes later he rubbed it out and walked away, McCain recalled. This was the same guard who a few months earlier had come to his cell one night to loosen the ropes that held McCain’s hands behind his back in a painful position.

In an essay titled “The Moment I Came to Love My Enemy,” McCain called this guard his Good Samaritan and said that in that courtyard “for just that moment (he) forgot all (his) hatred for (his) enemies, and all the hatred most of them felt for (him). … I forgot about the war, and the terrible things that war does to you. I was just one Christian venerating the cross with a fellow Christian on Christmas morning.”

(McCain also recounted the role of his faith and of communal worship during those years here).

The Christian Science Monitor reported that McCain helped run what it called a “covert church.” Orson Swindle, who spent the last 20 months of his captivity with McCain said that every Sunday, after the midday meal was finished, the dishes were washed and the guards had departed, the senior officer in the area would signal that it was time to pray together, by coughing in a way that signaled the letter “c” for church – one cough and then three coughs.

Swindle said the signal was the call for “a solid stream of thought among those of us there” during which the men in their separate cells silently said the Pledge of Allegiance, the 23rd Psalm, the Lord’s Prayer, “and anything else you’d want to [say] in there that would get us some help – but not out loud. If we were heard talking,” he said, “they would come in and start torturing us.”

Toward the end of the war, the North Vietnamese put the POWs together in a room, and the prisoners were able to have organized Sunday church services. McCain said he became a chaplain “not because the senior ranking officer thought I was imbued with any particular extra brand of religion, but because I knew all of the words of the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed.”

The reason he knew these things by heart was because he was raised in the Episcopal Church!

McCain said he conducted the services and gave a short talk. “We had a choir that was marvelous. … The guy who directed it happened to have been previously the director of the Air Force Academy choir,” he said.

George “Bud” Day, a fellow POW, told Religion News Service, that McCain “was a very good preacher, much to my surprise. He could remember all of the liturgy from the Episcopal services … word for word.”

McCain recalled the first Christmas the prisoners were allowed to have a service together. Some of the men had been held for seven years. The North Vietnamese handed McCain a King James Bible, a piece of paper and a pencil. He jotted down bits of the nativity story from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. He read parts of the story in between Christmas hymns.

“We got to the point where we talked about the birth of Christ, and then sang ‘Silent Night,’ and I still remember looking at the faces of those guys – skinny, worn out – but most of them, a lot of them, had tears down their faces,” McCain told the Monitor. “And they weren’t (tears of) sorrow, they were happiness that for the first time in so many years we were able to worship together.”

In his book “Faith of My Fathers,” the senator said that service “was more sacred to me than any service I had attended in the past, or any service I have attended since.” (adapted from Mary Frances Schjonberg)

Living a correlate life, like Senator McCain did, living a correlation between the beliefs of his heart and his behavior - this is not something you can fake. But we try hard, so very hard, thinking that we can fool others and ourselves with our good intentions, all the while masking our true feelings with what we have determined as anticipated and acceptable good behavior for a Christian. All the while convincing ourselves that our actions are indeed worthy of God’s desires, that our actions are truly demonstrative of God’s will and not subject to the will to impress, the will to communicate success, the will to suppress what we don’t want people to see. No one is exempt from a strong searching of the heart. But maybe we can hear grace in these words, because our searching, earnestly and intently, could lead others to finding God’s heart.[2]

There is a story about a statue in a church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, that popular image of our Lord with outstretched hands.  It is told that the church building was destroyed by bombings during WWII. After the bombing had ceased, the members of the church looked over the damage. In spite of the severe damage they were pleased that a statue of Christ with outstretched hands was still standing. It had been sculpted centuries before by a great artist.

The people discovered, however, that both hands of Christ had been sheered off  by a falling beam. Later, a sculptor in the town offered to replace the broken hands as a gift to the church. The church leaders met to consider the offer and, after giving it considerable thought, decided not to accept. They felt the statue without hands would be a great message to everyone that the work of Jesus Christ is often done through His people. If there are sick, lonely, or hungry people around us, we are the hands the Savior will use to answer those needs. And so they placed these word at the feet of the handless statue: Christ has no hands but yours. This is a reference to a poem by St. Teresa of Avila that begins: "Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours."

So, my friends, our hands are not for hitting or pointing or sitting on nor for the covering of our faces.  We have much to give, much work to do, much love to offer.  Perhaps if we can stop worrying about being clean enough, we can decide to get our hands dirty in the good work of the Kingdom.

And then we can truly become God’s hands.


[1] Sworn Testimony, Oath: A commitment made to the witness's deity, or on their holy book. Affirmation: A secular variant of the oath where the witness does not have to mention a deity or holy book. Promise: A commitment made by a witness under the age of 17, or of all witnesses if none of the accused are over the age of 17.

[2] Karoline M. Lewis,