TITLE: Soul Food
SCRIPTURE: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Soul food. The phrase brings to mind foods associated with African-American people -- Over time, people began to associate soul foods with people and places where they felt at home. It was comfortable food -- soul food.
My son’s equivalent of soul food is mashed potatoes and gravy. He loves to make a volcano of mashed potatoes and then fill the hole with gravy! Of course, the gravy runs all over the plate as soon as he start eating the potatoes, but that is part of the fun. Some would think that making a volcano of mashed potatoes is a low-class thing to do -- not the way to eat in polite company -- but he hardly ever eats mashed potatoes and gravy in polite company. He eats mashed potatoes and gravy at home -- around the kitchen table -- an informal place -- a homey place. It is comfortable food -- soul food.
The Jewish people had soul food. We call it kosher food. Early in their history, God told them what they could and could not eat, and their diet became a part of their identity.
It used to be, when airlines served meals, that you could call in advance and tell the airline that you would like kosher food. Any observant Jew would certainly do that. To eat kosher is part of the experience of being Jewish. It is a way of showing devotion to God. It is a way of remembering who you are. Soul food.
In Jesus' day, Jews not only ate kosher food, but they also observed special rituals at mealtime. One of those rituals had to do with ritual hand washing. Ritual hand washing had nothing to do with hygiene. It involved dribbling a small amount of water over your hands -- not enough to get your hands clean -- but getting your hands clean wasn't the idea. The intent was spiritual cleansing -- washing away spiritual contamination. It was a nice idea, really -- an acknowledgement that we need cleansing -- a way of getting right with God three times a day -- rather like saying grace at the table.
But hand washing wasn't required. At least, God didn't require it of ordinary people. God required priests to cleanse their hands before performing sacred duties. The Pharisees decided that, if it was good for priests, it must be good for everyone. They made a new rule. Everyone should go through ritual hand washing before eating. That seems like a good thing, doesn't it! Except that they forgot that it was their rule --
not God's rule!
There is a small-town church in upstate New York. They'd had a preacher in that church for over thirty-five years. He was loved by the church and the community. After he retired, he was replaced by a young preacher. It was his first church; he had a great desire to do well. He had been at the church several weeks when he began to perceive that the people were upset at him. He was troubled.
Eventually he called aside one of the lay leaders of the church and said, "I don't know what's wrong, but I have a feeling that there's something wrong." The man said, "Well, Father, that's true. I hate to say it, but it's the way you do the Communion service."
"The way I do the Communion service? What do you mean?" "Well, it's not so much what you do as what you leave out."
"I don't think I leave out anything from the Communion service." "Oh yes, you do. Just before our previous preacher administered the chalice and wine to the people, he'd always go over and touch the radiator. And, then, he would--"
"Touch the radiator? I never heard of that liturgical tradition." So the younger man called the former preacher. He said, "I haven't even been here a month, and I'm in trouble."
"In trouble? Why?"
"Well, it's something to do with touching the radiator. Could that be possible? Did you do that?"
"Oh yes, I did. Always before I administered the chalice to the people, I touched the radiator to discharge the static electricity so I wouldn't shock them."
For over thirty-five years, the untutored people of his congregation had thought that was a part of the holy tradition. I have to tell you that church has now gained the name, "The Church of the Holy Radiator."
That's a comical example, but often it's nothing more profound than that. Traditions get started, and people endure traditions for a long time. They mix it up with practical obedience to the living God.
So when the Pharisees saw Jesus' disciples eating without going through their hand washing ritual, they decided to use that to discredit Jesus. It might be helpful for you to know that they had already decided to kill Jesus (Mark 3:6). They would like it even better if they could discredit him first.
So they confronted Jesus with this question: "Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?" It was a clever question. They weren't challenging Jesus directly. They were asking why Jesus -- an up-and-coming religious leader -- couldn't even get his disciples to do the right thing.
Jesus didn't even bother to answer them, at least not directly. Instead, he quoted a scripture verse from Isaiah. He said:
"This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain to their worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines."
Did you hear that -- "teaching human precepts as doctrines"! He was calling attention to the fact that they had not been satisfied with God's law, but had made up new rules of their own. Now they were insisting that everyone follow their new rules. They were making their rules equal to God's rules -- and, in the process, were making themselves equal to God.
Then Jesus went on to say, "You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition." And then, in a passage that was not included in our reading today, he went on to give an example of a way that they were ignoring God's commandments.
God had told them to honor their father and their mother. In that time and place, honoring father and mother included providing financial support for parents' in their old age. That was the way it worked in those days. Parents took care of their children when the children were young, and later the grown children took care of their parents.
But some people, even religious people, wanted to avoid the expense of helping their parents -- and they found a devious way to do so. They would promise to give their property to God -- not now, but someday – and then they would tell their parents that their money belonged to God, so they could no longer use it to help the parents. This scheme was not a way of giving to God, but was just a slick way to avoid giving elderly
parents their due.
So Jesus said, "You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition." And so he discredited the people who had tried to discredit him.
And then Jesus turned to the crowd and said:
"Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile."
And then he said:
"It is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, wastefulness, envy, slander, pride, folly.
All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person."
Jesus was telling us that what really counts is that which is in our hearts. It is from evil hearts that evil deeds come.
It follows then that we, as Christians, need to be a people who are heart-healthy -- people who take seriously what is in our hearts – people who spend time in the presence of the Lord -- people who live by prayer.
It follows that we need to be careful what we plant in our hearts – what we feed our hearts. That is why we need to avoid things designed to fill our hearts with lust or hate or greed.
It follows that, as Christian people, we have a responsibility to do what we can to make our community a heart-healthy place. We need to care about what our schools are teaching. We need to insure that our children and young people have access to good clean fun. We need to feed our children good values -- soul food.
And we need to be concerned, not only for our own heart-health, but also the heart-health of other people.
Jesus said, "It is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come." Evil comes from a heart that has been filled with poison -- violence -- hatred -- greed.
But good things come from a heart that has been fed on soul food --scripture -- prayer -- love of neighbor -- devotion to God.
You can do the same. It doesn't require that God call you into ordained ministry. It requires only that you commit yourself to being God's man or woman -- feeding your heart on Godly things -- loving your neighbor in Christ's name -- going where God calls you.
Fill your heart with good things, so that Christ might bless you – and bless the world through your life.