The Rev. Casey dunsworth

serves as Associate Campus Pastor to the Belfry, the Lutheran-Episcopal Campus Ministry to UC Davis

and as Program Director for LEVN, the Lutheran Episcopal Volunteer Network.

It Is Us -- Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

This is the text of the sermon I preached this morning. It was the first sermon I preached at my internship site, Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Littleton, CO. 

In the Greek text of today’s Gospel, it specifies what the disciples were eating when the Pharisees accosted Jesus about their uncleanliness. Venture a guess? Bread! For the last five weeks, we’ve been talking about eating. Jesus told us that he is the bread of life. He told us to eat his flesh and drink his blood. We learned that this is not an invitation to cannibalism but rather Jesus’ way of explaining to us that that which we consume consumes us.

A 13th-century French rabbi named Ramban said something really interesting about this idea. Remember how God gave the Israelites very specific prescriptions for their meat—they had to be sure to drain all the blood out of the flesh. As a vegetarian, these details are all sort of gross to me, but, Ramban explained that the reason for this is that in the time of the Israelites—and in the time of Jesus—it was believed that if you ate meat that contained the blood of the animal, the blood, which contained the soul of the animal, would sort of transfuse with your blood and your soul and you would start to become like that animal. 

So what Ramban is saying is that Jesus wanted people to consume that which would imbue them with his best characteristics—compassion, hospitality, love, justice. And in all our talk of food, we’ve noticed that we use a lot of the same words for food as we do for the information we consume. “Let me chew on that” or “Gosh, that’s a lot for me to digest” or even “food for thought!”  

So, what if we look at Jesus’ teaching today as a way to understand what happens not when we eat, but when we see and hear and listen and learn? What if this is a new way to understand our interaction with the world? 

The Gospel according to Mark gives us a laundry list of the evil things that we produce that defile us. Theft, murder, greed, obscenities, envy, lust, pride, lies, arrogance, cruelty. In Bible study last week we talked about what things of earth we worship instead of our God. Things like money and power and sex and material possessions. It’s not that things of earth are inherently evil—its what we do with them, how we interact with them. Money is good. Power is good. Sex is good. But when we abuse these things, abuse each other with these things, and make these things our gods, that is when we are defiled. That’s where the evil comes in. 

It’s hard to recognize where the evil comes from when human beings hurt other human beings. When children of God are tortured, raped, murdered by other children of God. On July 20, James Holmes allegedly shot 71 people, killing 12, at a movie theater just a few miles from here in Aurora, CO. We can point fingers all over the place at who this shooter is and was and what led him to this heinous crime. But we struggle when we find out we have things in common with him—or with anyone we perceive as evil. We distance ourselves from people we fear—this country, in this most divisive of election years, is great at that. We make sure that all of our differences are black and white, starkly identified so that we might never be associated with a group that our group has made “other.” 


In 2006, I graduated from high school in a little town called Encinitas, CA. Just a few miles away, in Rancho Peñasquitos, James Holmes was graduating from a different high school the very same day. He grew up in North County San Diego, just like me, and went to a local middle school at the same time as some people who would end up my high school classmates. He ran cross-country in the same races as my classmates. He even grew up Lutheran. 

So, you see, this man who many have called evil is not so different from me. Humans, we are not comfortable with this. I can’t put James Holmes in an “other” box as easily as I did in the wee hours of the morning on July 20, after I’d seen The Dark Knight Rises at midnight, myself. Because just like me, James Holmes is a child of God. Just like me. Me. You. Us. 

We have seen evil inside many of our fellow humans. And we respond to it in a lot of different ways. On July 20, many pastors and seminarians posted words of prayer on blogs and facebook and twitter, crying out to God for the poor victims of this senseless tragedy. One—only one—had words of prayer for the shooter and his family. Only one asked us to take a look at the country we live in, the culture we perpetuate, where mental illness is simultaneously stigmatized, demonized, ignored, and denied. Only one asked why we fight gun violence with gun sales, rather than keeping weapons out of the hands of people who endanger others, and recognizing those who need medical attention before it is much too late. Our constitution allows for handgun ownership among our citizenry, but does our faith? Does our understanding of the world God has made necessitate regular citizens to own automatic weapons in fear of one another? What has our fear done to us? 

We cannot blame evil on anybody but ourselves. That’s what Jesus means when he says that defilement comes from the human heart. It is not from some being lurking in the shadows, ready to strike us without our participation. We have seen the enemy, and it is us. The potential for that laundry list of evils is not far from us. It is us. But we know more about evil in this world than to think that our self-centeredness or individual bad decisions is the cause of the world’s deepest hurts. We are perpetrators of harm and we are victims of harm. This complexity sidles right up against our stance as simultaneously saint and sinner—Martin Luther’s explanation for the grace in which we now stand. 

And with all these words about evil, we can’t forget to include words of grace. We all have this potential for evil in us—we are human beings. But we also have the potential for compassion, hospitality, love, and justice—we are children of God. And we are children of a living God who has invited us to this table, to eat. He has cleansed us, so we, like the disciples, have no need for the Pharisees’ cleanliness. In this same chapter of Mark’s gospel, Jesus declares all foods clean! And a huge message from the gospel in its entirety is that we are all made clean. 

David Rhoads is a scholar of the Gospel According to Mark, and he writes about this whole Pharisee cleanliness thing. It’s about orderliness—a place for everything and everything in its place. When cars drive on the streets in front of our homes, we are not upset by that, because that is where cars belong. If a car were to drive up onto our lawns, however, we'd be upset by that, because that is not where cars belong. For the religious authorities of Jesus’ time, there was a place for every kind of animal—it was either in line with the holiness code or it was out of line. It was either clean or unclean. And because there was no room in the holiness code for Gentiles, for by definition they were those outside the Jewish community, they could not possibly be clean. 

All of this hand-washing has nothing to do with hygiene—we know that. It has to do with ritual cleanliness. The Pharisees are concerned that, somewhere along the way, the food they are about to eat has been spiritually contaminated. They’re not worried about pesticides or dirt or bugs or any of the reasons we’d wash an apple before eating it. They’re concerned that the orchard has not kept kosher. That maybe these apples were picked on the Sabbath. Or that the leftover fruit was not properly distributed to the poor. Or that the farmer did not properly tithe from his profits. 

And their dismay with the disciples, then, is not that their dirty fingernails are in the vicinity of the dinner table, but that they haven’t ritually cleansed themselves of the Gentiles they’ve been eating with. Those Gentiles who are defiled by being “other” and whose food is most certainly defiled. 

This is not about washing our hands before dinner, since we’ve been out on the playground or in the garden or the toolshed. It’s about distancing ourselves from that which is “other” than us. Jesus set out to establish that there is a place for everyone—Jew or Gentile—in the order of things. That’s why he ate unclean food with unclean people and did so on the Sabbath. And like this ritual cleanliness is not really about hygiene, neither is the water ritual we participate in these days—baptism. 

In the Lutheran tradition, we pour water over the head of a child, three times—in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. We are not intending to wash this child, literally. We don’t use any soap, for one thing, and we hardly use any water. Traditions with full immersion baptism are not even for the purpose of actual hygiene. They represent a place in the spiritual order of things. Baptism establishes a place for the baptized in the order of things. We are now spiritually orderly, no matter how dirty our hearts or our hands become. 

At worship on Thursday, I played a song as a response to this gospel text. [Since you're reading this online, you get to listen to the song, instead of hearing me read some of the lyrics! Wheeee]

What I love about Grace Potter’s words are that she readily admits to how hard it is to be a follower of Jesus. She says she has fallen for the allure of evil again and again, even while she tries hard to be a reader of scripture and to have a regular prayer practice but that she just couldn’t keep up. How often do we feel overwhelmed by the world in this same way? The good news, though, is that she’s also right about the water. She’s right that in baptism we start anew. And not just on the day of our baptism, but in every moment of every day, as our baptism covenant always holds true.

It’s often hard to say, “Thanks be to God” when the words of Jesus are harsh or difficult or complicated, but we are always experiencing them through a lens of grace. We know that Jesus tells it like it is because, as the Bible often illustrates, getting the people of God to behave themselves was like herding cats. We need reminders of the law but we also need reminders of the gospel.

So, consider yourselves reminded: the good news is that despite the evils that plague us on a daily basis, we are cleansed by the waters of baptism and we start anew in the grace of God.

Hallelujah. Amen!