Imagine this scene for a few moments:
Jesus and his followers are camping along the shore of the Sea of Galilee. They have been there for several days, and it is hot and their work is intense.
He tells many parables about seeds and small things that grow to big things, and how everyone should let their lights shine that others may see.
He teaches people how to pray and how to listen, and how feel the presence of God all around them and within themselves.
Many in the crowd are sick or wounded in mind, body and spirit. His very touch heals them.
Yet there is more to it than even this.
He tells people over and over: you are loved by God, you are adored by God – you are the very beloved of God like no else in the universe. Yes, even you.
But he also tells them this: you must love others as God loves you.
You must walk the extra mile, share what you have, especially with those on the margins.
The crowds have never heard, or experienced anything like this.
He does not sound anything like the religious authorities from far away Jerusalem that govern every detail of their lives.
And, so of course, this gets the attention of the religious authorities in Jerusalem.
As the story unfolds in the Gospel of Mark this morning, the religious authorities come to interrogate Jesus.
They come to find out what all this commotion is about.
It doesn’t say so exactly in the gospel of Mark, but it sounds as if Jesus does what he always does: He invites them to dinner.
He does that – invites everyone to dinner, and he doesn’t check for membership cards at the door.
Whether you live in the gutter or you are a mighty pooh-bah from the Temple, come to dinner.
And if there isn’t enough food, well somehow God provides. There is always more than enough food for everyone who comes to the table.
But the religious authorities aren’t interested in the food. They are interested in the ritual – in the liturgy.
They notice immediately that Jesus’ followers are not following the custom of ritualistically purifying their hands before eating.
Heck, it doesn’t even seem like they say grace.
Now let’s back up a little. This is not the same as your mom telling you to wash your hands before you come to the table. This is not about hygiene.
This story is about tradition and ceremony, and more deeply, about a certain way of viewing God and our place as humans in God’s universe.
One way of viewing this is to say: How can you come to the table, Jesus, without purifying your hands?
Don’t you know that you are unclean, impure, not worthy to gather up the crumbs under the table until you go through a purity ritual? You aren’t even using purified pots and pans for cooking.
No, replies Jesus. You are missing the point.
God made you worthy, God loves you for who you are and who you are in the act of becoming. Your body is sacred because God created you as pure as can be.
But what you put into yourselves that makes you impure – and it isn’t just bad food.
It is greed and pride, jealously and selfishness that makes you impure.
It is anger and apathy, and the neglect of others that makes you impure.
But do not misunderstand this – Jesus is not criticizing rituals and ceremonies. Rather, he is driving at the very heart and purpose of these ceremonies.
Our rituals, our prayers, our liturgy have purpose and meaning when they lead us to a closer sense of God’s presence and God’s love for us.
Do we do things only because we’ve always done them this way? Have they become so ritualistic we’ve forgotten their purpose?
And how does our worship connect us to the world around us?
Does our worship make us insular and self-centered, or give us a deeper sense of our connectedness to all of God’s creation?
Does our worship connect us to each other and to those who living on the margins?
Those of us who spend our lives in churches especially need to ask these questions, and be open to the answers no matter how uncomfortable they makes us.
In the gospel lesson for today, Jesus’s words are harsh – make no mistake. He gives no quarter.
He talks of the evils that human beings create: theft, adultery, envy, violence, murder.
We see an endless stream of examples in our world, from the brutal beheadings of ISIS in the Middle East, to a mentally sick individual killing two journalists recently in Central Virginia.
But before we get dragged into the morass of despair, I would also point you to the Letter of James we hear this morning.
The name James is a Greek translation of the Hebrew name Jacob, and this Jacob was likely the older brother of Jesus.
Yes, Jesus indeed had at least one brother, and this brother was known for his wisdom and common sense.
In the letter, James, or Jacob, puts a more positive spin on what we are discussing this morning.
Rather than dwell on the evils that come from the human heart, he talks of the gifts of the Spirit that also come to the human heart:
“You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.”
And this: “Be doers of the word.”
Elsewhere in the letter he tells us how. Care for the sick, the poor, the lonely and the people on the margins.
When you do so, you will be this close to the Kingdom of God.
We know how to do this here in this parish. This parish has a legacy for doing this, and it is worth holding up and celebrating.
Just one example: I’ve had the privilege the last couple of Sundays of being here early enough to see our Open Table project where we feed people who live on the streets early in the morning before we start our worship services.
I am hugely inspired by the commitment and outpouring of love by our volunteers who feed people every Sunday morning.
What would Jesus do? Feed people. He doesn’t check their membership cards at the door, and neither do we.
Yet let’s also be mindful to bring these values into the church and into our daily lives.
Let’s learn to listen not only to those on the margins but to those sitting next to us.
Let’s be slow to anger not just with strangers but with the people in our families and workplaces. Sometimes that is a whole lot harder.
We won’t always get it right, we will fall short.
Let’s pick ourselves up, remind ourselves how to be the best we can be as God created us, hold each other up, be quick to forgive each other and forgive ourselves.
God’s Temple is truly within us and we really can be the hands and feet of God’s love in this world. AMEN