The Rev. Matthew Ichihashi Potts, PH.D., Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, welcomes congregants back to services in the church sanctuary for the first time in 18 months because of the global pandemic. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/ Memorial Church Communications.
By the Rev. Matthew Ichihashi Potts, Ph.D.
Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church
Plummer Professor of Christian Morals
Faculty of Divinity
So over the next year, you all are going to get to know my family, I hope fairly well. They're sitting in the front pew here, Colette and Cami, Sammy, and Danny. I like to start my sermons with a story about them. I was wondering if I should do it today, but there's this one that seems so apropos that I thought I would tell you a little bit about my youngest son, Danny. He's seven now. He has a bow tie on today. And he's a talker. He's always been a talker. I think he knows this about himself. He's giving me a smile right now. I can see through his mask.
He's a talker and he's always been that way. And about three or four years ago, he had just learned that God made everything, right? We just told him, "God made everything." Right? And he had some questions about this, very practical questions like, "Hey, Dad, did God make this truck I'm playing with? Did God make this table? Did God make this plate?" And we would just kind of get into long conversations, which are basically just questions about material items in his near vicinity. "Did God make this? Did God make that?" He wants details, right? And I tried to explain, "Well, actually a craftsperson made that or that was made in a factory, but by extent..." He's the son of a theology professor, so it gets messy quickly in these conversations, right?
And then one time I remember we were in the kitchen and he said to me, he would ask me these questions. Right? And I was just kind of trying to wrap up the conversation nicely. And so I looked at Danny, I said, "Danny, you know what I made?" And he said, "What?" And I said, "I made you." And then he said, "No, you didn't. You just made the rules of me."
Our lesson today is about rules. And I promise you, our gospel lesson today is about rules. And I promise you, I did not pick this lesson because it talks about hand-washing and we're in the middle of a pandemic. It's pure coincidence. We are following the common lectionary this year. We're sharing lessons with most other Christian churches around the world and reading the same lessons that other Christian churches are reading. And this week they are reading this lesson where the Pharisees come to Jesus and they ask him why his disciples don't wash his hands.
And I have to tell you, in all honesty, if I could have chosen a lesson to begin this new year and my new ministry with you, I would have chosen a different lesson because this lesson from Mark is not one that sits well with me, if I'm honest. First is this confrontation between the Pharisees and Jesus. If you're familiar with the New Testament and familiar with the gospels, you know that Jesus is often in antagonistic conversation and relationship with the Pharisees.
The Pharisees formed the liturgical and ethical and spiritual foundation for what became rabbinical Judaism, modern Judaism. And the somewhat oversimplified picture of the Pharisees that we see in the gospels and in the New Testament has been used by Christian anti-Semites and in support of Christian antisemitism throughout the ages. And that doesn't sit well with me. And so I'm uncomfortable coming to you the first time in this pulpit as your minister and having this be our lesson.
And the other thing that discomforts me is at the end of this lesson, when Jesus turns to the crowds and says, "Evil doesn't go into you. Evil comes out of you." And he gives this long list of sins. And that makes me uncomfortable too, because the Christian tradition has a long history of using these words, especially ones that deal with sexual behavior like fornication and licentiousness and using them as cudgels to demonize people and to exclude people, exactly the people I believe Jesus came to welcome and serve and suffer with. So I had a rough time this week, friends, wrestling with this scripture and wondering what I would say to you.
Let me first talk to you about the Pharisees and what our gospel lesson today describes as their devotion to the law. I think in the New Testament, often the picture we have of the Pharisees is as sort of mindless ritualists, mindless law followers. That's the caricature that we have at least, if not the New Testament, then in receptions of the New Testament by later generations of Christians. But that's not what the Pharisees' adherence to the law was all about. One of this church's Noble Lecturers, Marilynne Robinson in one of her writings talks about, for example, the rule to keep the Sabbath day holy right? This is a law from the Hebrew scriptures. Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.
What's important about that is not setting apart one day as if all the other days were worthless and only this one day mattered. The practice of keeping the Sabbath day holy was to remind us of how precious time is, how precious our days are, to remind us that all of time is a gift from God. And so this practice was not one which set apart one day as different from and better than, or more holy than the others. It was a moment to pause and remember how holy each day that we are given is, as Alanna just prayed.
And the same would apply to the idea of hand-washing and priestly offering. In the Hebrew scriptures, priests of the temple were told to wash their hands before offering sacrifice. The Pharisees, by taking this tradition out to regular people, to normal people at their meals, what that was saying was this meal, too, is an offering. The holiness of God is not restricted to one offering at the temple. It's in your life, in your everyday life at the meals you share with your family, at the meals you share with your friends. That also is an offering, so treat it as if it's holy, wash your hands. Do the same thing.
This is what the Pharisees were thinking. This is why they commended this ritual practice. And there were moral and spiritual and ethical implications to these practices, right? Because if time is holy and your rest is holy than other people's time is holy and their rest is holy too. So you better protect it. And if your meal is an offering to God, then you better not hoard food. You better share it with others because it's an offering. This sounds a lot to me like what Jesus taught. And it's why there were many Pharisees who were actually very sympathetic to Jesus, Nicodemus for one and Paul for another.
So what is Jesus so concerned about here in this passage? Why is he taking his interrogators in this particular moment to task? The answer actually is hidden. And by hidden, I literally mean hidden. If you'll look at the lesson that we've been given today to read, some verses are taken out and in particular verses nine through 13, and this is where Jesus actually explains. I mean, look later, if you're interested. Verses nine through 13, this is where Jesus actually explains exactly what he's irritated or angry about. Jesus says to the crowds, to the people who are interrogating him, "For example, you say honor father and mother, but when your father and mother come to you for assistance," remember this is a time before social security, before 401(k)s, right? He says, "When your father and mother come to you and say, 'We need help, we need support.' What you say is, 'Oh, we have already dedicated all this money to God. That's reserved. So good luck."
And Jesus says, "You are taking something and naming it as holy in order to prevent you from fulfilling your actual holy obligation. You are using piety to cover your wickedness." And he says, this isn't a problem with the Pharisees. This is a problem with people. This is what people do. The rule makers like Danny's dad. This is what we do. We hide under the cover of those rules to get out of our obligations. The real obligations we know are the ones we're bound to. And that's why at the end of this lesson, he turns away from the Pharisees and talks to the crowds and says, "This is what people do. And this is why we must do better." And then that's when he gives this list, this list of sins that come out of the heart and are truly evil.
Now, I mean, you could probably take a class at the Divinity School on any one of these words that are listed in our scripture lesson, licentiousness, fornication, slander, adultery. And you could learn about centuries of Christian interpretation about what those words mean and how those words have been used, as I said before, to do the absolute opposite of what I think Jesus calls us to, how those words have been used to demonize others and to exclude others and to harm others.
But I think these words have in common though, and what I want to hold on to, since I don't have time to have us all go take these classes at the Divinity School. What I think these words all have in common is they're all about what we do to others, not what the world does to us. Jesus is criticizing, critiquing this anxiety among the people around him, this anxiety to remain pure. Oh, if the world touches me, it might defile me. Oh, if something touches me, which is unclean, it will defile me. It will make me unclean. It will make me defiled. And Jesus is saying, it's not the world that can harm you. It's not the world that can defile you. This world, God loves and that our practices, the Pharisees and the Christian practices try to lift up as holy. It's not the world which can defile you. It's you who can fail to recognize the holiness of the world.
Let me make this perhaps a bit more concrete. Let's think about Afghanistan. I'm a theology professor. I'm not a politician or a policymaker. And so I'm not going to prescribe any solutions to the absolute mess and humanitarian catastrophe, which is ongoing in Afghanistan. But I will say this. I have been deeply, deeply troubled by the rhetoric around the welcome of refugees from Afghanistan into this country in some circles. The same language Jesus is saying, talking about here today, this language of defilement that these people who need a place to go, who are fleeing from danger, that they will somehow harm us or affect us or defile us or soil us or sully us is painfully, painfully familiar in our culture. It's been said about Afghans, fleeing refugee Afghans in the last two weeks. As Alanna said, it is routinely said about immigrants and refugees from Central and Latin America. It was said over and over again about Syrian refugees.
This idea that something out there could come in and pollute your own purity is exactly what Jesus is crying. What can pollute us is our failure to reach out to those who are in need of our help. Religion, as Jesus talks about and as the Epistle of James talks about today is not about keeping the world from sullying you. As James says, religion, the Greek word he uses is Threskeia, which actually means like the restrictions, the rules of religion. Religion is about caring for widows and orphans in their distress. It's not about keeping a world from touching you. It's about you reaching out to the world God loves and lending it a hand, touching it yourself. It's not about keeping others from getting close to you. It's about having the courage to get close to those others we know God loves.
And in this I can't help, but bring up another parable of Jesus, which is not in our scripture today. You will probably hear me preach on it sometime during my time as your minister. But I have to talk to you about the parable of the Good Samaritan. In the parable of the Good Samaritan Jesus talks about what it means to love your neighbor. This is a revolutionary teaching of Jesus', to love your neighbor. Just the neighbor, the person that's next to you, whoever you're close to, that's the person you're meant to love. It doesn't matter what their identity is. It doesn't matter what they look like. It doesn't matter what class they come from our culture they come from. It doesn't matter if they're your friend or your enemy. The one who is close to you is the one you are meant to love.
That is the radical part of Jesus' teaching, but what's even more radical in the parable of the Good Samaritan is when someone asks him, "Who is my neighbor?" He tells the story of a beaten man on the side of the road and the priests, the rule makers like me, they cross the street to get away from him because they don't want to be next to him. They don't want to be his neighbor. But the Samaritan crosses the street to get to him. Jesus' command to love our neighbor is not just about loving our neighbor. It means making a neighbor of the one who is in harm's way, making a neighbor of the one who is in need, getting close enough to the one who is beloved of God, so that you can love that person too.
I am so glad to be back here with you at Harvard. I'm so glad to be back here with you in this church. I'm so glad to have been called to this pulpit as your pastor, and as your preacher, and as your minister. To borrow a phrase from another minister, Fred Rogers, I'm glad to be your neighbor. I'm glad that we're neighbors. But the religion of both Jesus and the Pharisees doesn't let us stop there and doesn't let us stop in this sanctuary. There are still neighbors to be made, neighbors here at Harvard, neighbors in Cambridge, neighbors as we know, fleeing from dangerous places, all over the world, Afghanistan, Central America, the Gulf Coast, neighbors everywhere in need of our love, who only need others with the courage to approach them and love them.
We have returned here to this church to be neighbors to each other. And for that, I give deep, deep thanks. And we have resumed all our ritual activities, all our religious observances. We are resuming this morning, these beautiful hymns, these beautiful practices, which gives me so much joy, brought tears to my eyes this morning. They are beautiful and they are holy. And we cherish them. We give thanks for them. These beautiful, holy things, these marks of our religion, our religious rules and observances. But we keep these things, not just for themselves. We keep these things, not just for ourselves, but so that what we do here today may lead us out into the world God loves as courageous bearers of God's love, inspired by the power of that love.
This morning, my friends, we begin a new year and a new ministry together. May we always make neighbors of strangers. May we learn to love them as we love ourselves. And may we forever welcome the lost and the lonely and the forgotten as our own into this, our church home.