“Never Gonna Give you Up”

The Rev. Sarah Buteux

August 30, 2015

Mark 7:1-23 James 1:17-27

Proper 20, Year B

 

 

In the long roster of epic standoffs we are privileged to observe in this country –

from big oil vs. big green,

to the president vs. Congress,

to Trump vs. Clinton,

Latinos,

the entire country of Mexico,

women in general,

and Megan Kelly in particular –

perhaps none is so amusing to watch as the on-going yet ever playful feud between the Foo Fighters and the Westboro Baptists.

 

How many of you know who the Foo Fighters are? They’re a rock band from Seattle. How about the Westboro Baptists? They’re those folks who show up with hate-filled signs full of words I don’t even want to repeat.

Well, when there are no gay athletes, soldier’s funerals, or national tragedies to exploit, the Westboro folks like to set up outside of lady Gaga concerts. But when Gaga is not in town they’ll settle for the Foo Fighters, which is always fun because the Foo Fighters like to give as good as they get.

Back in 2011, the Foo Fighters set up an impromptu outdoor concert right across the street from the Westboro picket line and sang the gay country anthem, “think I’m in the mood for some hot man muffins.”

I don’t know exactly what that means, but I’m pretty sure the Westboro folks didn’t approve.

This past week, with Westboro on their doorstep once again, The Foos “rickrolled” the protestors, playing Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give up on You,” at full volume from the back of a slow moving pick up full of rather large men clad in rainbow speedos.

For those of you keeping score at home, that’s Foo Fighters 2, Westboro Baptists 0.

And for those of you unfamiliar with the term “rickrolling,” well, just know that it’s actually an old internet prank where people are tricked into clicking on a link for something that looks important only to be greeted by Rick Astley singing that old chestnut:

Never gonna give you up

never gonna let you down

never gonna run around and desert you

(everybody!)

Never gonna make you cry

Never gonna say goodbye

Never gonna tell a lie and hurt you

 

…a song that topped the charts back in 1987, and will now haunt you for the rest of the day.

 

You’re welcome.

 

I love how one side in this feud is all about the Bible, while the other, thanks to the immortal words of Rick Astley, is all about preaching the gospel.

 

Never gonna give, never gonna give, give you up.

 

Allow me to explain…and please know it’s actually going to take me the rest of the sermon to explain.

 

In our gospel reading for today, the Pharisees are questioning why Jesus’ disciples are not following the traditions of their elders or, for that matter, even the most basic manners taught to them by their mothers. That is, the Pharisees want to know why the disciples are eating with unclean hands.

 

Now, before we delve into Jesus’ response and pile on the Pharisees, can we just acknowledge that it’s a valid question?

 

I mean who here makes an effort to wash your hands before you prepare a meal or feels like you’re always reminding your kids to wash their hands before they sit down to dinner? It may not be a religious tradition in my house, but it’s certainly a practice we follow religiously.

 

Now imagine I’m joining you at your house for a meal, you tell your kids to go wash up, and I round on you and call you a hypocrite. It may well be true I mean who doesn’t struggle with hypocrisy? – but such an accusation would feel a bit over the top and maybe a little out of context in that situation, wouldn’t it? Yeah.

 

All of which is to say that Jesus’ reaction here is very strong. We don’t know much about the Pharisee’s tone when they asked the question, but Jesus sounds really angry. Which leads me to believe that whatever is going on here, it’s about more than just keeping your hands clean…or is it?

 

Actually, I think Jesus is upset with the Pharisees because they are so concerned with making sure that everyone keeps their literal hands clean that they don’t realize how quick they (the Pharisees) are to keep their metaphorical hands clean by pushing away anyone who fails to live up to their standards.

 

To put it another way, they are so preoccupied with making sure people follow the rules, that they’ve forgotten that the rules were put there for the sake of the people, not the other way around.

 

And as a religious person, I get it. I get that the rules are important.

 

In Judaism and Christianity, as in all religions, there are rules we follow – rituals and traditions we practice – that help us define who we are. For Christians we have things like baptism and what else? Communion. We have candlelight and carols on Christmas Eve and extra flowers for Easter. Palms on Palm Sunday. Ashes on Ash Wednesday. It’s hard to imagine being a Christian without all those things.

 

Well, for the Jewish people in particular, so much of their existence has been lived out in the midst of cultures not their own that the practice of their unique traditions– things like keeping kosher and observing the Sabbath – were critically important to maintaining their identity.

 

Upholding the traditions of their elders reminded them that they weren’t just any people, they were God’s chosen people. They were a holy people – literally “a people set apart,” (that’s what “holy” means), and all those rituals – including washing their hands and their food and their pots and their pans -reinforced that set-apartness.

 

But here’s where the problem lies, and it’s a problem that all people of faith have a tendency to fall into: we can get so busy doing the things that set us apart that we forget why we were set apart in the first place.

 

Do any of you remember why we, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, are set apart? It goes all the way back to our Father Abraham.

 

Abraham and his descendants were chosen, they were set apart, they were blessed to be a what? A blessing. Genesis 12:2: God said to Abraham, “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.”

 

It was unique calling…a unique calling reinforced by a big set of unique rules, regulations, traditions and observances.

 

Which is all well and good if those unique rules, regulations, traditions, and observances remind you to act better toward others, but not so great if they start to make you believe that you are better than others.

 

To put it another way, being a good Jew or a good Christian, a good Methodist or a good Muslim, may make you a better person, but that doesn’t necessarily make you better than other people.

 

And even worse, if being a “good religious person” starts to make you want to avoid or blame or denigrate “less good or less religious people” – the very people that you were set apart to bless, then “Houston, we have a problem.”

 

In our reading for this morning, Jesus was upset with the Pharisees for giving their money to the temple rather than using it to care for the most vulnerable among them, namely their elderly parents.

 

Jesus was upset because they were using religion to avoid their responsibility to others rather than live up to it. They were blessing the religious institution they were a part of at the expense of being a blessing to the very people their religion was instituted to protect and serve.

 

Likewise, their desire to protect the integrity of their people by enforcing the purity laws was causing the Pharisees to set themselves up as the judges of others, judgments that were pushing more and more people away from God rather than drawing them close.

 

Their behavior makes sense because that’s how our concept of purity works. As the old saying goes: “one bad apple spoils the bunch.” Or, as one of my favorite Biblical commentators says, “if just a wee bit of cat litter makes it into the cake mix…” you don’t want cake, do you?

[1] Impurities are contagious. They can spread. That’s just basic logic. At least when it comes to food.

 

But people aren’t apples and life isn’t a piece cake. We all have good and bad inside of us, light and shadow, and as shiny as we might appear on the surface it doesn’t take a lot of digging to find the imperfections in any one of us. Everyone’s guilty of something. If you’re looking for trouble, you’re bound to find it.

Which is why Jesus tells the Pharisees, and by extension the rest of us, to stop. Stop looking for what’s wrong in others. Judge not lest ye be judged. Just cut it out.

 

In Jesus’ mind, trouble shouldn’t disqualify you from belonging amongst the people of God. On the contrary, the more trouble you’re in the more you need to belong. The way Jesus tells it, God’s love isn’t the reward for good behavior, it’s the cure for bad. “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick, “he said. “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17).

 

And yet here are the very people who should be helping him round up sinners for help, healing, and reconciliation pushing those people away.

 

I think it broke Jesus’ heart to see how thoroughly the little ones and the lost ones, the hurt and the compromised, the different and disadvantaged were marginalized by “good religious people” lest they infect their so called “betters.”

 

I think it still does.

 

I mean if you think about it, it’s that same kind of thinking – albeit more extreme – that informs the Westboro Baptists.

They seem to believe that if we could just get rid of all the gays, President Obama, Lady Gaga – and if she’s not available – the Foo Fighters, then planes wouldn’t fall out of the sky, soldiers wouldn’t die, and God would love, protect, and bless America.

It’s this idea that if we could just get rid of all the bad people then the rest of us could get on with the business of being good; which is an attitude I myself would love to point at and mock were it not for the fact that I think that way too.

The truth is, I judge all the time. I wonder about the decisions people make and shake my head at much of what I see. There are plenty of people I want nothing to do with, plenty of behaviors I can point to and say, “now that, that’s what’s wrong with America.”

 

I mean who here wouldn’t love to give Fred Phelps (dead or not), Bill Cosby, Josh Duggar, Darren Wilson, Waller County Sheriff Glen Smith, or any one of the 40 million users of Ashley Madison, a piece of their mind before showing them the door?

 

You want to find “…fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly,” just turn on the news. There are any number of people we can look down on in this sad, sorry, broken excuse for a world.

 

Only here’s the thing:

 

Pointing out that other people are guilty doesn’t make me innocent.

 

Judging others doesn’t make me righteous.

 

Washing my hands of those I despise doesn’t make me clean.

 

“Listen to me,” says Jesus, “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.”

 

Mark thinks he’s talking about food when he says this, but I’m not so sure. I think what he’s really talking about are people. I think what he’s really asking us to focus on is our relationships, especially with those people we’d rather not relate to at all.

 

I think what Jesus is saying is don’t be afraid to reach out and touch the lives of other people no matter how far gone they might seem.

 

Don’t worry so much about keeping your hands clean when God knows how desperately people need those hands to reach out with forgiveness and healing. In fact your hands might be the very hands God needs to make God’s love and forgiveness real.

 

It’s an awful thought, but call to mind someone you absolutely cannot stand because they’re a…. well you know what they are. I don’t have to tell you why you don’t like them.

 

Now consider this: perhaps God has blessed you with faith, blessed you with all the fruits of the Spirit – love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self control – in order that you might be a blessing to the very person you would rather curse.

 

Maybe you are the very person God has placed in their life to demonstrate just how deep and wide God’s love really is.

 

Evil resides in all of us. It’s true. But so does good. And the good in you might be just enough to infect them with the possibility that they can change.

 

Dear ones: when you find the courage to stay in relationship with people you have every reason to hate, when you find the grace to reach out with love that hasn’t been asked for, forgiveness that hasn’t been earned, healing that is anything but deserved, your hands become God’s hands.

 

Your willingness to stay in relationship with someone who seems unredeemable demonstrates God’s power and desire to redeem us all.[2]

 

Now let me be crystal clear: I don’t mean stay in relationship in such a way that they can hurt or abuse you. I mean stay in relationship such that they know there is room for grace, forgiveness, and a release that may well be best for both of you.

 

Because God’s not gonna give up them. Or you. God’s not gonna give up.

 

That’s the good news and the hard news this morning; the news the Foo Fighters were preaching whether they realized it or not when they rickrolled the Westboro Baptists this past week.

 

I know they probably didn’t mean it the way I’m going to interpret it, but those words about never giving up… those are words Jesus lived by. He never gave up on anyone. He never treated anyone as if they were too far gone to know the grace of God. He never gave up… and he never will.

 

 

That’s the good news, and the hard news, news we have the power to share through our words and our actions, our love and forgiveness, our generosity and patience. Because church, if our savior isn’t gonna give up, then neither can we.

 

Let us pray…

 

Oh God, this is hard. Life, forgiveness, grace. It’s all so hard, especially when we’ve been hurt, as so many of us have been. But your grace is sufficient. You tell us that. So come, fill us with your love such that we can see others the way you see them and long to bless them in your name. Bless us that we might be a blessing, a blessing to all. Amen.

[1] Very thankful to Sarah Dylan Breuer whose lectionary commentaries continue to inspire me. http://www.sarahlaughed.net/lectionary/2006/09/proper_17_year_.html

 

[2] http://www.sarahlaughed.net/lectionary/2006/09/proper_17_year_.html