Pastor Annabelle P. Markey
Year B – Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
James 1:17-27 and Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Community Lutheran Church, Sterling, VA – September 2, 2018
Boy, did that Gospel reading end on a high note! “…there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” Yay!
I think what Jesus is really saying is:
Stop! In the name of love
And look inside your heart.
Think it over
I’ve known of your
your misguided ways
I’ve even seen them
Once or twice a day
But you insist on keeping up an illusion
Tryin’ to exist in perfect delusion
But this time before you judge another
And look down on a brother
Look within your heart!
A better place to start!
This text isn’t about “those terrible Pharisees or scribes.” It’s about us. It’s about our hearts. It’s about stopping and examining those deep and sometimes downright scary recesses of our own souls.
So who likes to do this? Ummmm, I’m guessing, probably no one. It’s not exactly high up on our list of hobbies. “I like hiking, cooking, and pondering the depths of my own sinful nature.” Talk about the life of the party! But, Jesus makes it clear that we are not only to honor God with our lips, our praise and worship, or even with our acts of devotion, but with our hearts.
Eugene Peterson, the pastor who worked on the modern translation of the Bible, The Message, says it in an earthy way: “Jesus went on: ‘It’s what comes out of a person that pollutes: obscenities, lusts, thefts, murders, adulteries, greed, depravity, deceptive dealings, carousing, mean looks, slander, arrogance, foolishness—all these are vomit from the heart. There is the source of your pollution.’” Vomit from the heart. There’s a nice image. But, if we’re honest, I think we know exactly what Peterson is trying to capture with his, ahem, poetic language.
Have you ever been caught off guard and said something that you wished you hadn’t? It might have been something you had been harboring inside that was supposed to remain safely in your inside voice, but lo and behold, someone hit one of your triggers and out it came before you can even think to pull it back. Open mouth, insert foot. We’ve all done it and yet in those moments when our guard is down and we’re not at our best, what is lurking inside suddenly rears its ugly head. Our true colors show up. And now we’re on a clean up mission.
Yes, this is something we have all encountered and come up against. Let me give you an example. This past week I took 3 days away on retreat in what was basically a tiny house on the grounds of the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America. Now, it you want to see something fun, take an extrovert and put her in a tiny house with a lot of silence, solitude, and no access to the Internet. Yeehaw! But I knew I had to take this time away because I knew I desperately needed time to just be with God and hit the reset button. Now, I’ve gone on retreats, even silent ones, in the past, but this was different. You see, I realized about 2 days in that I was fighting God tooth and nail. I had come because I wanted to spend time with God, to refocus on Christ and reorient myself after a hectic summer. I came longing to hear from God, but it turns out I was actually spending my time fighting God. I was going through all the motions, but I was keeping my heart far from God. I didn’t really want to let God get in there, point out my faults and sins, and begin the painful process of turning me around.
I wasn’t consciously or intentionally trying to fight against God. But who really wants to be that vulnerable and exposed? It’s like in the Garden of Eden – Adam and Eve hid themselves after they ate of the fruit because they knew they weren’t supposed to and then their eyes were opened and they knew they were completely naked before God. In silence and solitude there’s nowhere else to hide and no one else to blame. We have to deal with our stuff, laid bare. And so I fought until I realized I couldn’t do it anymore. That I didn’t want to. That I just wanted help. I needed a Savior. And yes, pastors need to be reminded of this over and over again, too.
One of the early Christians, Abba Moses, told his disciples, “Go and sit in your cell (or room), and your cell will teach you everything.” Another church father, Abba Antony elaborated on this, saying, “The man who abides in solitude and is quiet is delivered from fighting three battles – those of hearing, speech, and sight. Then he will have but one battle to fight – the battle of the heart.” Friends, we all have a battle in our hearts. A battle between wanting to have things our way, to do things on our own, to be in control, to remain where we have been, to stay hurt or angry, to blame others, to be greedy, or to follow God’s way in our lives.
It is much easier to race around, keeping busy so we don’t have to reflect. It’s less frightening when we avoid this kind of self-examination. But that is not how we learn. It’s not how we become aware of our struggles and blind spots. It’s not how we develop compassion and empathy for others who are also struggling.
It would be tempting for us to think after taking a good hard look in our hearts that surely there is no good within us. But we would be dead wrong. When I stopped fighting, I didn’t hear any judgment from God. There was no one pointing a finger and saying, “Gotcha!” There was only a deep sense of peace and consolation and the reminder that Jesus was right there with me. That he had already forgiven everything I might find in my soul-searching.
Each one of you is God’s beloved child and you have been made holy through Jesus. Even with all the less than good intentions and misguided thoughts, deeds, and actions we may find in our hearts, God still wants and is able to work through us. Now if that isn’t an astounding miracle, I have no idea what is. But that doesn’t mean we just say, “eh. I’m a sinner and there’s no changing it! I’ll just stay this way.”
Our journeys as disciples mean growing in grace. It’s part of our tagline: “welcoming others, growing in grace, sharing Christ’s love.” We are welcomed in, bruised, broken, and imperfect as we are, but we can also trust Christ is working to transform us. And we don’t just have to sit on the sidelines. We are invited to be active participants in this life of overflowing grace we’ve been welcomed into. In the letter of James, faith is lived out through how we act in community. It’s receiving the word that has the power to transform us and being doers of the word. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” – to care for others and to live by God’s ways, not those of the world.
The Christian tradition has so many wonderful ways of helping us live as disciples in this crazy, mixed up, beautiful world. We not only worship, pray, give, and serve, but there are a variety of practices or disciplines to help us in our daily life. Spiritual disciplines form us in the faith not in order to save us, but to help us follow and love God with our heart, soul, strength, and mind. Just like you might work out in the gym or run order to prepare for an athletic event, the disciplines are training for following God. You don’t start this training when you’re in the race or in a crisis, but you make it part of the everyday routine so that when the moment comes, you are better prepared. So that when that person pushes your buttons, you don’t respond from that place you’d rather not respond from, but instead respond from a place shaped by time spent practicing love and compassion toward ourselves and others.
We practice these disciplines as individuals, but we live them in community. We support one another and share what our struggles, victories, and insights are. We do that because we learn from each other – we challenge and pray for each other. But in order to do that, we need to shatter what the band Casting Crowns calls the “Stained Glass Masquerade.” We need to stop hiding behind painted on smiles or facades that make people think we’ve got it all together. If we can’t ask for help from others in the family of God, where can we go?
This story is not about washing hand, cups, or kettles in the proper way. Or knowing all the liturgical responses and the names of all the fancy churchy things. It’s not about having the right theological terms or always acting pious. It’s about bringing our full selves to worship. About allowing God to change not only the outside but the inside. Allowing God to use each one of us in this community to help each other grow.
It would be very easy to constrict this reading to Jesus in dialogue with Pharisees and scribes and miss that we, too, are called to examine our hearts. To not get hung up on what looks good to the world. To ask God to search our hearts, to help us through the Holy Spirit confess where we have gone awry, and open us to receive forgiveness and grace. To stop in the name of God’s all-embracing love and look inside our hearts so we may turn them again toward God who receives us with tender love and mercy. Amen.