Texts: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15. 21-23
If you’ve ever travelled on the London Underground you’ve heard the safety announcement to “mind the gap.” It refers to the gap caused by curving station platforms and straight train cars, and variations in the levels of train cars and platforms. It’s a common problem.
Many cities around the world use the phrase “mind the gap,” often translated word-for-word into local languages. Yet this cautionary announcement did not exist before 1969 even though the London Underground, the oldest subway in the world, opened its first tracks in 1863. For 106 years the gap must have caused a lot of falls and injuries.
It’s a thing about human nature…that as much as gaps are a part of life, we don’t always deal well with them. One of the most persistent gaps I can think of is the one that is between what we learn in our spiritual communities and what we practice everywhere else. Sometimes I don’t even get all the way home from church before I’ve failed to “Go in peace, and serve the Lord”.
Moses must have felt the burden of that gap as he stood on the mountain overlooking the Promised Land. God told him that he would die and be buried just short of the destination he’d labored toward for forty years. He’d cajoled and urged the people to faithfulness as best he could. But now facing his end, what would he say to the people in his farewell address?
What else but a recap of God’s precious gift, the Commandments. Moses said, “So now, Israel, give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the Lord… is giving you.” Moses and the elders had encountered moral and ethical situations not explicitly addressed in the Ten Commandments. So as Moses reviewed God’s commandments, he added statutes and ordinances to help them keep the Law.
Moses also advised the people to closely watch themselves - to be mindful and to never forget what they had seen and learned in the desert journey. These things were to be taught to every generation. Always remember and keep God’s covenant, it is the way of faithful living.
It’s a beautiful thing. The problem however, is that everything Moses taught still wasn’t enough. If you’ve ever had a discussion with someone whose understanding or practice of faith is different from yours, you know that the bible supports a variety of beliefs, some even conflicting.
So, if we’re to mind the gap between faithful and unfaithful living, how do we know what God desires? Jesus came up against this problem one day with some Judeans over handwashing. At first hearing it seems that Jesus doesn’t have much concern about it. Which is a bit problematic since it’s both biblical and as we all know, important for our health especially in a pandemic.
In reality this is a conflict between Jesus and some Pharisees who’d come from Jerusalem to see him in Galilee. They were appalled when they saw the disciples eating without washing their hands properly. As it happens, there were regional differences in how God’s people followed the statutes and ordinances concerning cleanliness.
In Jerusalem, people washed all the way to the elbow, in the tradition of the elders - one of the statutes that Moses had taught. In Galilee people followed another statute from the elders which specified washing just your hands. The Pharisees enlarged their objection to a general complaint that Jesus wasn’t properly teaching the commandments to his followers.
It came down to a fight over who had a better understanding of the scriptures. Who was really following God’s commandments? Who was really being faithful?
Jesus was not having it. He met the challenge with a verse from Isaiah about the hypocrisy of worshipping God with eloquent words but withholding your heart from God. He followed that up with his own charge: “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
Both traditions were biblical, and Jesus argued that scripture contains both human interpretive material, and teachings from God. Just as when Moses added statues and ordinances to the commandments. Otherwise how could the people occupy the Promised Land with faithful living in respect to God’s commandments?
The letter of James offers statues and ordinances too. To listen carefully before speaking kindly. To manage the power of anger. To be alert to the lure of self-deception. To practice compassion toward those who are least able to help themselves. To resist justifying destructive and self-serving ways. This forms us into a certain kind of people – people who can be identified as faithful to God’s commandments by the things we say and do.
Jesus was James’s inspiration of course. It was about the gap between faithfulness and unfaithfulness to God’s covenant. Being faithful is a life-long pursuit. It seems to us that the gaps are external circumstances (which both James and Jesus call “the world”). But Jesus says that gap is really in our hearts. The world provides the opportunity for mayhem which our hearts entertain and nourish.
At that time the heart was thought to be the place of reason. Today we would say it is a matter of the mind. Evil is not so much a virus that inconveniently invades from the outside to take over our souls, but something arises from within and is expressed in actions that we justify by reason. The gap, as Jesus said, becomes painfully obvious when we end up being more protective of humanly devised rules and laws than of vulnerable people who need our help.
When we don’t mind the gap we accept the world’s false examples of faithfulness and convince ourselves that our own acts of unfaithfulness are reasonable. The motives and opportunities for unfaithfulness are abundant, leading to falls from God’s grace and real injury. Applying our hearts to the teachings of Jesus shows every generation how to practice faithfulness in its own time and circumstances and to live more in God’s grace.
Now, it’s great when you can end a gospel with words of comfort like, yes the gap is dangerous, but we can avoid it by obeying the law and making the right choices. But that’s not where the lessons go. Like the gap in the Underground, hazards to our faithful keeping of God’s covenant are a fact of life. The gap remains in our hearts and we must deal with it always. But what we do have is God’s promise to be with us always in the Spirit. Especially in the gaps.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.