You will laugh, or at least smile, if I tell you that this week I’ve had the grand children staying and so I’ve spent quite a bit of time saying things like ‘Don’t forget to wash your hands!’ – or ‘Have you washed your hands?’ – or ‘Are you sure you’ve washed your hands..?’ or even ‘Come and show me that you’ve washed your hands..!’. And I’m not above sniffing fingers to see if there’s evidence of soap.. Hands gloriously dirty from playing in the garden, or with the sand at Vivary park – stained by black berries, smelling of chlorine from the aqua splash session at the swimming pool or salty from the sea at Exmouth.. So as I read this passage about the Pharisees and the scribes wondering why Jesus and his disciples hadn’t washed their hands, I feel I know what they were on about…
Except I don’t really – because they weren’t actually interested in hygiene as such. They weren’t equipped with wet wipes and flannels, with alcohol gel or spit and the corner of a handkerchief. They were thinking about another kind of uncleanness – the kind that can’t be washed off – the kind that sticks to a person and contaminates them in the eyes of others. They were saying something more than that Jesus and the disciples were a bit slapdash with their table manners. They thought they were disgusting and dirty – just because they mixed with and touched and ate with people some regarded as dirty in that deeper sense that our language sometimes suggests.
I remember the day I drew up behind a bus that had the message on the back, ‘This bus is cleaner than a vicar’s sermon’. It’s an interesting use of the word ‘clean’. They meant that it was literally clean of course – but the joke rests on the idea that a vicar’s sermon would be clean in another sense – somehow ‘pure’, free of dirty jokes or insinuations, clean in that other sense. And it is this other sense that some people were worried about with Jesus. He sailed a bit close to the wind with the company he kept. He talked to people who weren’t respectable and nice. And before we criticise those who criticised Jesus we have to admit that we sometimes use this kind of language too. We talk of those who have come off illegal drugs as ‘clean’ implying that those still on them are ‘dirty’. The newspapers we read sometimes use the language of dirt and filth to condemn people. The language of dirt lingers in the anti-semitic talk that is under scrutiny at the moment… or in the way people sometimes refer to those who are travellers. It lingers…
The people who lived at the time of Jesus were pretty much like us. They loved and grieved, worked, raised children, got sick, worried about the state of the world and occasionally wondered what God was up to and whether there was any point being religious. They felt guilty about things, they were sometimes cruel to one another and sometimes they loved one another fiercely and truly. They were flesh, and blood and spirit, just like us. And they prayed to God using words like ‘Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow’.
Like us they knew about dirt. But they knew about dirt in this other sense too – dirt in the sense of the stain of a shame that won’t go or dirt that’s about the world being messed up and not everything in its place, and dirt in the sense of boundaries being crossed. And those close to Jesus had been taught, as no doubt he had, that Jews were clean and Gentiles were unclean – which is just a polite way of saying dirty. They’d been taught that lepers were dirty, and women at certain times of the month, and certain foods all the time. Like dieters with a book for calorie counters, some folks were very keen to know what was dirty and what was clean. And in some people’s lives the whole thing was way out of hand. Some people thought the whole world was such a terrible place that the only thing to do, the only place you could find any way of living in a pure and decent way was to go into someplace like the desert – where life is simpler, more minimal, and the air pure and where you wouldn’t meet any of those ‘dirty people’, whoever you thought they were. Some people thought that the only way to be clean living in this world was to be very careful about washing everything – and not just with soap and water – but with special prayers and graces, and rituals. And of course there were other people on the wrong side of this dirt and clean divide just knew that their lives were so messed up that they’d never be clean so they’d better not even try. Since no-one was ever going to find them acceptable, better just get on with living with the dirt and keep away from nice clean people. And it was this world that Jesus came into and really wanted to change. And that’s what lies behind the Gospel reading we heard today. It’s the world that you can still find today – very obviously in some parts of the world like some parts of India where the people known as Dalits are still regarded by many as ‘untouchable’. But it’s there buried in our world too – as a high proportion of our teenagers cut themselves because they just don’t feel right, or as many of us feel that the lives we live are judged as unclean by some.
We know that Jesus ate and drank with taxcollectors, prostitutes and other so-called ‘dirty’ folk. Jesus argued with his critics and he told them that it’s not what goes into us that makes us dirty – there are no unclean foods – but what comes out of us. And at first they thought he meant what comes out of us in the sense of bodily fluids – that they make us unclean. But Jesus makes sure that they know what he does mean –that it’s only ever what is in our hearts that really matters – what we think and feel and do. These things are what matter to God. And these are the only things that can make us less than we are. In Mark’s Gospel it’s clearer than in any other Gospel that Jesus wanted to do away with that way of thinking about dirt and sin and shame. He told people that they could all be clean; Gentiles, lepers, women, the possessed, all God’s children.
But there’s another way of putting this too. The artist Stanley Spencer was quoted as saying that he was ‘on the side of angels and of dirt’, but I think you could say the same of Jesus too. It doesn’t seem that, like some of the Pharisees, he wanted to clean everyone up. He wasn’t so bothered, at least not as a first step, on making everyone pristine with virtue. He seems to have started his encounters with lots of people by just accepting them, eating with them, talking to them, touching them, offering them forgiveness and healing and hope – without saying they had to get ‘cleaned up’ first. Jesus was obviously on the side of the angels, but he also seems to have been on the side of ‘dirt’. He had – you might say – a kind of preference for or a calling to speak to and get alongside – those whom others judged unclean. He was on the side of dirt. And the whole story of Jesus, the whole grand story, is of someone who showed us where God is in all this. Many people would have said then, or just assumed without saying anything, that God was on the side of purity and goodness, and that God was mostly based in lovely places like temples or in heaven itself.. But Jesus showed us a God who loves all creation, all that’s made, all that’s flesh and fever and passion and pain. God is there in the dirt, in the very stuff that is life, in all its messy reality. Messy church might be a thing, but every church is about the God who loves us all, however messy or messed up, however dirty, however mis-shapen and messed about. God loves us anyway. God is not ‘separate’, but involved. God is not above us, but with us – all of us.
Christianity has two central rituals – we call them sacraments. Baptism and communion. I think you could say that one of them is about getting clean and the other is about getting dirty. In baptism, which only happens once in a lifetime, we get washed – to show that, whatever life has been or will be, we belong to God. God says ‘that’s an end to all that dirt business – you are free – you are beautiful and I love you’. And then there’s communion – where we share things which represent body and blood – messy, down to earth kind of things – and where we remember the many meals where Jesus welcomed everyone to the table and to the Kingdom – everyone – no-one was too dirty to come, no-one. I think that gets it about right. Because although we hear at our baptism that we are ‘clean’ we none of us quite believe it and then none of us can live pure lives in every moment. But the good news is that no matter how marked our white clothes, no matter how many times we need to be comforted, forgiven or just welcomed back, we can come. There’s room here for angels with dirty faces to sing ‘Holy, holy holy’. And when the feast is over Christ sends us into the world not to go on a clean up campaign, but to welcome the lost, to embrace the lonely and to show all God’s children that they are lovely. Even if you haven’t clean hands or a clean conscience (and who has?) you are welcome here. We worship the God we see in Jesus – on the side of the angels and of dirt. And we give thanks.