Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

Everyday Faithfulness

Rev. Kathy Donley



Scripture Lesson:  Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23; James 1:17-27


I looked up the word Pharisee at dictionary.com.  There were two definitions.  When it is capitalized, it means “a member of a Jewish sect that flourished during the 1st century b.c. and 1st century a.d.”   When it is not capitalized, the word means, “a sanctimonious, self-righteous, or hypocritical person.”  Dictionary.com says that the second meaning has been around at least since the year 1580.

The Pharisees were good people.  I feel the need to say that every time they appear in the gospels, because Christian teaching for generations has created the stereotype of self-righteous hypocrites.  The Pharisees were the reformers of their day, you know like the Protestants who set out to reform the church about 500 years ago.  So sometime, we might try substituting the word “Protestant” wherever we see “Pharisee” in the Bible. Or if that doesn’t anything for you, try it with the word “Baptist.” 


This is not a story about a conflict between Jesus and some bad people.  It is the story about a confrontation between Jesus and some people who were trying very hard to be faithful.  Let’s take the issue of hand-washing since that’s what this conflict is about.  We have to remember that this is not about hygiene.  No one in Jesus’ time knows about germs that cause disease.  Hand washing before meals was not required by the Hebrew scriptures.  What was required was that the priests would wash their hands and feet before offering sacrifices. 


But the Pharisees thought that everyone should devote themselves to God, not just the priests and the pastors, but everyone.  So they washed their hands before meals and they taught that everyone else should too.   Really, Baptists should relate well to the Pharisees, because what they were trying to do was a Jewish form of the priesthood of all believers. They were trying to recognize the holy in the ordinary, to encourage faithfulness in every day life among everyone, not just the paid clergy.  And that is not a bad thing.


But in Jesus’ day, water didn’t come from a faucet.  It came from a well or a river. It had to be carried long distances and water is heavy.  So, many people chose to use their water for real needs, not symbolic purposes.   Some of Jesus’ disciples seem to be among those.  And that is the problem.


You see, the Pharisees didn’t know about microscopic germs that could be washed away with water, but they were very concerned with spiritual germs.  If you didn’t wash your hands before eating, it was a sign that you weren’t spiritually clean, and what was worse was it was a sign that you didn’t care!  What kind of rabbi can Jesus be if his disciples don’t care that they are spiritually unclean?


It isn’t that Jesus doesn’t care about spirituality.   He just understands things a bit differently.  His point is that spiritual germs don’t come through the air; they come from the heart.  Jesus understands that people can do religious things, like wash their hands or pray before meals or go to church on Sundays, which make them look faithful, but what really matters is what’s in their hearts. 


I went to a Baptist university in Texas.  Texas is that place where even the Methodists are Baptists, by which I mean that everyone lives in a culture that is thoroughly influenced by Baptists.  Especially my Baptist college.  Not everyone there was Baptist, not by a long shot.  Not everyone there even claimed to be Christian.  But there was a tradition.  If you ate lunch in the dining hall on Sunday, you wore church clothes.  Even if you had been in your bed wearing pj’s 15 minutes earlier, you got dressed up as if you had gone to church, because in that culture, the ritual of church-going was important. And so was the culture of dressing up for church.  (Yep, the more I think about it, the more similarities I’m finding between Pharisees and Baptists.)


Jesus is saying that the external stuff, the keeping of traditions does not matter.  Quoting Isaiah, he says, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; . . . you abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” 


Jaroslav Pelikan was professor of history, particularly church history, at Yale for over 40 years.  One of his most famous lines is his distinction between tradition and traditionalism.  He said "Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living."[1]


“Tradition is the living faith of the dead ”– this means that it is faith that we who are alive have in common with those who went before us, those who bore witness and taught the next generation.  Tradition helps us remember who we are and make decisions in the now, with the wisdom from the past. 


“Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living” – traditionalism fossilizes, freezes us in time, so that the only options are things that have already been tried, whether they worked in the past or not.   So the faith of those who are alive becomes wooden and dead.


“Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”


Jesus says that it’s a heart problem.  In Jewish anthropology, the heart was a person’s moral center.  It was not the place of romantic love, but the place where you understood right and wrong.  When our hearts are oriented toward a living God, then I think that may help us be more open to tradition and less bound by traditionalism. 


There’s another thing happening for the Pharisees here.  Beyond the religious stuff, there’s cultural stuff.  The Romans have occupied their country.  The Pharisees are trying to accomplish religious reform at the same time as secular Roman ideas are permeating their culture.  The old ways, the ways that gave them a religious and an ethnic identity are falling by the wayside.  They are losing some important things.  By the time Mark’s gospel was written down, the Romans had destroyed the Temple.  That loss changed Judaism forever.  The Pharisees were right to be afraid. 


So their traditionalism and their fear drive them to take extreme positions.  If you kept their rules, you were a good, faithful person.  If you did not, you were not.  And they took it a step further, if you kept their rules, God loved you.  If you did not, God rejected you.


But Jesus was there to say that you don’t get spiritual cooties from people who are different, from people who act differently or worship differently or even speak differently.  Jesus was there to say that God’s love was for all the people of the earth. 


That is not a new message, but there are a couple of things that still keep us from hearing it.  One is fear.  Just like the Pharisees, lots of people today are afraid of cultural shifts.  Politicians are campaigning on those fears – just listen for comments about fixing America, getting things back on track, or comments about immigration and criminals and political correctness.  I recently learned that in 1850, a guide for judges had nine different administrative forms for dealing with a crime that had only been prosecuted once in the history of Virginia.[2]    We still tend to write laws to try to control things that we’re afraid of.   Our fear of change or loss or difference keeps us from internalizing God’s good news for all people. 


And so does our value of critical thinking.  We teach our children to ask questions,  to observe and describe and evaluate, to make good choices . . . all the time.  And then we do it ourselves.  That capacity is always running in the back of our minds and we find it hard to turn it off, even when we might want to.


Jesus says it’s a heart problem.  That which separates us from God has more to do with what is going on inside of us, than in the churchy things we do or don’t do.  It is much easier to focus on those external things.  How do we shift the focus to what matters?


That’s where our reading from James comes in.  James is so practical.  It is like a how-to manual for disciples, both for beginners and people who have been following Jesus for a long time.


James has some advice for folks who want to engage in everyday faithfulness.  He says that a faith which involves knowledge but not action is pointless.  He uses the example of a mirror.  The person who has knowledge of God, but fails to act on that knowledge is like someone who looks into a mirror, but forgets what they saw as soon as they walk away.   It makes me think of the mirror in the first Harry Potter book.  It was a magic mirror which did not show what was in front of it, but instead it showed the heart’s desire of the person looking into it.  So Harry saw his deceased parents.  His friend Ron saw himself as the winner of the Quidditch Cup.   James is suggesting that we pay attention to what we see in the mirror, that we look carefully at our motives, our shortcomings, our fears, and perhaps even our deepest desires.  Honest self examination may help us be more loving towards ourselves and others.

James 1:17 says, “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger. . .”

If you haven’t memorized any Bible verses in a while, that might be a good one to work on this week.  “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.”   Jesus says that it is what comes out of our hearts that defiles us.  What if we were quick to listen – to really listen.  Would that help us respond more from love and less from fear?  What if we were slow to speak?  Could that be a way of intentionally stopping that critical-thinking gear from engaging automatically.  Slow to anger – James says that our anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 

Today’s reading from James ends with this great definition of heart faith:  Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.  Faith which comes from the heart is not limited to concern for social justice or for individual morality, but both.  Our churches often reflect the polarization of our culture.  Liberal churches focus on social justice.  Conservative churches focus on individual morality, but Jesus and James taught that heart faith attends to both. 


The Pharisees wanted to live lives that were pleasing to God, every day, not just on the Sabbath.  They wanted everyone to be able to live that kind of life. They were good people, but like many of us, they were people caught up in the mood of their time, corrupted by fear, by nationalism, by a desire for power.  Baptists and Pharisees have a lot in common and we could easily go down the same path they did.  But  We must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger” because “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.    May it be so for you and for me.  Amen.





[1] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition:  A History of the Development of Doctrine, Vol 1, (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1971). p. 9

[2]  Thomas P. Lowry,  The Story the Soldiers Wouldn't Tell: Sex in the Civil War, (Mechanicsburg, VA: Stackpole Books, 1994), p. 114