August 29, 2021
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E.
Gaines-Cirelli with Foundry UMC, August 29, 2021, the fourteenth Sunday after
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
“Is it bad to be really ticked off at people who won’t mask or get vaccinated?” I received this text several weeks ago from a member of the Foundry family. And, since then, I’ve received versions of the same question again and again. Headlines proliferate about the appalling behavior of citizens in school board and city council meetings and clashes between parents, teachers, and governors about the use of masks. And of course there are countless personal stories of church and family strife caused by the divides around vaccination, masking, and other public health protocols related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The accounts I’m reading and receiving about what some folks are saying and doing really make it seem like we’re experiencing a kind of collective mental break—because either I’m losing my faculties of reason and proportion or a whole bunch of my siblings are.
Other common headlines these days highlight the stories of outspoken anti-vax, anti-mask advocates suffering and dying from the virus. And data points like: “About 99% of deaths today are people who did not get vaccinated. Patients dying in hospitals are telling loved ones they regret not getting the vaccine.”[i]
But of course any of these last points can and have been brushed off as inaccurate or hyperbole. One article I read chronicled the author’s effort to understand the reasoning of her brother who refuses to get vaccinated. What she receives seems reflective of much of what I’ve heard elsewhere. At the heart of it all, is lack of trust. Many people:
· Don’t trust the actual vaccine (side effects and breakthrough cases)
· Don’t trust the messengers (politicized–FDA a government organization could have been pressured to approve)
The lack of trust is understandable since blatant misinformation has been allowed to spread unchecked all over social media from the start. Also, at the beginning of the pandemic, the former president downplayed the severity of the virus, decided to make masks a symbol of “liberal” oppression instead of a time-tested deterrent against dangerous infectious disease, and treated public health scientists who have decades of faithful service under their belt as if they are the enemy. The reaction—perhaps “overreaction”—from the other side of the aisle to shut and keep most everything shut down, whether it was well-intentioned or not, did its own damage to lives and livelihoods. A headline from the Brookings Institution last September summed it up saying: “Politics is wrecking America’s pandemic response.”[iii]
Alongside these concerns is the reality that, as one scholar puts it, “If you aren’t white, you know a history that may make you weary about what the medical sector may be telling you to do.”[iv] For those who may not know that history, “The medical establishment has a long history of mistreating Black Americans — from gruesome experiments on enslaved people to the forced sterilizations of Black women and the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study that withheld treatment from hundreds of Black men for decades to let doctors track the course of the disease…” More recent “studies have found Black Americans are consistently undertreated for pain relative to white patients; one revealed half of medical students and residents held one or more false beliefs about supposed biological differences between Black and white patients.”[v]
Vaccine hesitancy among people of color is understandable due to these factors, though both Dr. Anthony Fauci and Rev. Jesse Jackson have used their platforms to make sure the public knows a leading researcher and developer for the vaccine at the National Institutes of Health is immunologist and professor, Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, an African American woman.[vi]
My intention today is not to name all the dynamics of the debacle that is the American public’s response to COVID—as if that would be possible. But I do want to at least acknowledge some of the issues in the mix. And, as is most often the case, there’s much more than one narrative at play.
What does our narrative from the Gospel according to Mark have to add to all this?
These days, when there is an encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees in the text, I often turn to my Rabbi—friend and colleague Steve Weisman of Temple Solel in Bowie, MD—to receive insight. What he confirmed for me is that much of the purity ritual referred to in the Torah has to do with the “order” of things in creation and with boundaries that allow for clarity of identity and relationship. Rabbi Steve says that the purity stuff in the Bible is about “teaching the ability to self-limit, so as not to risk getting ‘out of our lane’ in our relationship to and with God, and respecting the sanctity of Creation and Creator. Your offerings had to be pure, you yourself had to be ritually pure to bring them; in caring for the rest of creation, if we killed something to eat, we had a responsibility not to waste any of it…” This was a good reminder for me. The original idea for washing things was to acknowledge our need to present our best to God and to honor and care for one another and all creation. Embedded in the “law” was a call for self-discipline and reverence. You might even say that purification rituals began as a way to practice loving God and neighbor as ourselves.
In our story today, Jesus is asked by some Pharisees and scribes why some of his disciples were eating without observing the religious tradition of washing their hands. Jesus takes the opportunity to teach, drawing on a common prophetic refrain and specifically using words from Isaiah 29:13—“This people honors me with their lips (“you’re talking the talk”), but their hearts are far from me (but not “walking the walk”).” The NRSV translation of the passage in Isaiah continues, “and their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote.” The issue seems to be that a spiritual practice of washing (not a bad thing in itself), a practice meant to draw people closer to God—can easily become a repetitive “going through the motions” that doesn’t touch the heart.
Jesus highlights the way that you can be “clean” on the outside but filled with things in your heart that are “defiling.” Oh, and check this out: the word for “defiling” is κοινόω, koinoó, which literally means “to make common,” and more nuanced, “to treat what is sacred as common or ordinary.” So the “stock list” of “defiling things” in verses 21-22 are simply things that don’t honor the sacred worth of God, self, others, and the creation. What defiles is that which does harm.
So what does any of this have to say to our current moment?
Well, our text speaks to how a good thing can get twisted and used in a harmful way. Just as a spiritual discipline meant to inspire reverence and care can become a tool of judgment and exclusion, so can a cherished civic value like “liberty” become used as cover for the worst kind of exclusion and dishonoring the sacred worth of others. Liberty—or freedom—is a beautiful God-given gift. It’s also a God-given responsibility. We have choices about how we use our freedom. Scripture says “for freedom Christ has set us free.” (Gal 5:1a) But Christ doesn’t set us free to do anything we want. You’re not set free so you can be a jerk. And that goes for whoever you are, whatever your politics, whatever your position on anything.
Of course, right now people are using their freedom to be jerks in all kinds of ways. Jerkiness is equal-opportunity and non-partisan! AND there are those who claim their freedom is being assaulted by things like mask mandates for their children or vaccine requirements at their workplaces or physical distancing in public spaces. And I suppose that, technically, these folks’ freedom to do whatever they want, including putting others in harm’s way, is challenged by such mandates and requirements. These same (mostly white)[vii] peoples’ “freedom” actually ends up curtailing the freedom of others. So what does that tell us about their intentions?
What is the freedom we are given in Jesus Christ? Freedom from sin—from that which defiles, from that which does harm to others and to creation. We are set free to live fully in God’s grace and to participate in God’s way of love and justice. Notice in verse 8 of our text today, Jesus says, “You abandon the commandment of God…” That’s the danger. We know the great commandment: to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
The freedom we receive in Jesus Christ does not mean that “anything goes.” There are concrete practices that help form us in ways of self-discipline and reverence of God. There are boundaries that help us “stay in our lane” of right relationship with God and others. These are called “Christian ethics”—the way that love gets worked out in community. Love in community looks like justice, it looks like solidarity, it looks like communal support, sacrifice for the common good, compromise, collaboration, compassion, humility, mutuality, care, and personal and communal responsibility.
The late pastor and prophet William Sloane Coffin said, “let others say, ‘Anything goes.’ The Christian asks, ‘What does love require?’ In short, we have come up with love as an answer to legalism on the one hand and lawlessness on the other. Love hallows individuality. Love consecrates and never desecrates personality. Love demands that all our actions reflect a movement toward and not away from nor against each other. And love insists that all people assume their responsibility for all their relations.”[viii]
I say, if any would claim to be followers of Jesus, then do what love requires.
Right now there are people dying of treatable ailments because they couldn’t get admitted to the hospitals overrun with mostly unvaccinated COVID patients. Our own Pastor Will’s vaccinated, 84 year old confirmation mentor died recently in Arkansas in just such a scenario. The closest available hospital bed was evidently in Plano, TX.
There are pastors being treated like public enemy #1 and run out of their churches because they have been consistent and insistent about safety protocols. There are increasing numbers of children contracting the virus. There are expired vaccines being thrown out because not enough people are receiving them. There is a threat of continued transmission or mutations of the virus that become increasingly contagious and difficult to treat.[ix] And consistently, public health experts affirm that vaccination, masking, distancing, and getting tested at the first sign of any symptoms are the best ways to contain the virus and get the pandemic under control. These practices allow us to be out and about without doing harm.
From the beginning, we at Foundry have said that we will prioritize health and safety, honor the science, and be guided by public health experts. We’ve also consistently stated that wearing masks, distancing, quarantining when necessary, and getting vaccinated as able are all concrete ways that we love our neighbor as ourselves. I understand there are some for whom family dynamics or deep fear continue to present obstacles. Please know that your pastors are here to listen, think things through and pray with you. I’m also aware that there are those whose reactions to our stance will be dismissive at best, violently angry at worst. Which brings to mind the punchline of a favorite story I was told many years ago:
When a “grandmotherly” type pastor was serving a small congregation and a gay couple wanted to join, some longtime members crashed the next Church Council meeting to protest. After the spokesperson had said his piece about blocking the couple from participation, the pastor who looked and acted like she could be everyone’s smart, sassy, not-having-any-of-your-foolishness grandmother simply responded, “Oh Roger, that’s not nice. Sit down and act like a Christian.”
It’s not a line I generally imagine I’ll ever get away with. But it does occur to me from time to time. It occurs to me a lot these days. And today, I’m saying it outloud for whomever may need to hear it: For the love of God, neighbor, self, and all that is holy: wash your hands, get the vaccine (if and when you can), mask up, and—no matter where you find yourself in the mix—act like a Christian.
[i] Nicole Carroll, USA Today, https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2021/08/06/covid-vaccine-why-do-people-refuse-the-vaccine-here-are-reasons-and-responses/5491922001/accessed 8/27/21.
[viii] William Sloane Coffin, Credo, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004, p. 22.