Sermon for 15th Sunday after Pentecost 2018
Song of Solomon 2:8-13 Psalms 45:1-2,7-10 James 1:17-27 Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
A man went on a nature walk. A bear began to chase him, so he climbed up a tree. As he was climbing, he slipped down into the bear’s arms. He prayed, “Lord, I come to thee at the hour of my death. If this be a Christian bear, deliver me from this end.” The bear said, “Lord, thank your for this food,”
Ironically, the bear was indeed Christian, although it didn’t change the outcome of the situation. The important part is that both players in the joke used the rituals ingrained in them for faithful living – prayer at our death and prayer at meal times. These rituals are important. We all use them, but we should always be mindful that when we use them we are pointing to God and God’s nature.
James tells us, “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above.” This theological claim is the most important starting point in thinking about how we care for others. It grounds human responsibility within the divine initiative. God cares for the whole world and creates it anew through the divine Word. God nurtures us, gives us gifts, and provides direction for our lives, often using our human selves to do so. In God there is constancy of care and purpose, and no shadow of turning. God supplies the good things in people’s lives. And from this basic affirmation, James instructs Christians about daily life. He names the things he is most concerned about. For example, James is well aware of the power of human speech both to build up and to tear down.
James was an observer of human nature, and paid close attention to the details of everyday life. He noticed the generous acts, the small gifts, the gestures and the words that people use. He saw these acts as the nuts and bolts of everyday life, holding together the foundation on which we build community and society.
Why was he so concerned about how and why we use words? He knew they can make a big difference in the way people relate to each other. James knew that our words reveal something about our motivation, intention, belief and emotional life. Our emotional life grows from our easiest relationships with others and with God. It also emerges from our relationship with ourselves. Anger, for example, is an emotion that alerts us to wrongdoing, and injustice. The root of anger is often pain. Anger can be channeled in ways that lead to protest and improvement, so that we must make a decision about what it means in our lives. James knows this and shows his concern.
He also knew that words create worlds of meaning. We use words to express ourselves, to convince and convict ourselves and others, to describe, name, blame, or label things. We use words to win arguments, to sell an idea, to lecture, to expound on a point, to explain things, to persuade, console, counsel, to denounce and deceive. We use words to declare war or to work for peace, to diagnose a problem and negotiate a deal. We can’t get along without words. Words can alarm, harm, uplift, inspire, degrade, or silence someone. They can reveal our inner most thoughts. Where would we be without words?
James takes it a step farther, in that we are to be doers of the word, not just hearers. For us that means, we must hear – listen, mark and inwardly digest the Word of God, and then be motivated by it to action. It is not the kind of action that earns us “brownie points” for heaven, but the kind of action that is driven by love. We aren’t working for the title of “do-gooder”, but for the sweat on our brow, the calluses on our hands and joy in our hearts when we share our gifts with others. It is about living out our faith, living out God’s call for us to love others.
In the Gospel reading, we hear that the Pharisees and the scribes, clothed in righteousness, come upon Jesus and his disciples. The disciples are gathered together, sharing a meal without first washing their hands. The Pharisees look to Jesus as their leader to set a better example. They ask, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” You get a sense that they touched a nerve with Jesus. The disciples had sacrificed a great deal to follow Jesus. Some had given up families, steady jobs and a sense of status in the community. But with Jesus, we get a true sense of what was important to God.
So Jesus has to deal with this question and what a question it is, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” Where does it come from - is it just about germs and disease or does it go farther? We know that human beings need a sense of order to feel secure. We need laws to organize our communities; we need doctrines to articulate our beliefs. We need order and doctrines, but when we begin to worship those things that offer order and to bow down to doctrine, we cease to be faithful to our loving God.
Some folks were overly concerned with the details of ritual cleansing, uncleanness, purity and defilement. We know that some of the practices that came out of this concern saved lives. If you have ever had food poisoning, you know that to be true. But, here we hear that the requirements of ritual purity in the first century could also become means for judgment and oppression.
Jesus gathers the crowd for an opportunity of broad teaching. “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile.” The people were perplexed. Jesus is challenging a basic religious belief of the day. The disciples are also confused. Jesus explained to the disciples how the food moves through the body.
I heard a story of a little boy asking his daddy where “poo” comes from. The dad launched into our eating food, the stomach acid helping dissolve the food, adding water as the food moves through the intestines and it eventually moves out of the body to become “poo.” The little boy stared blankly for a few seconds and then said, “Where does Tigger come from?” So Jesus has explained where poo goes into the sewer. Then he says, “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come…”
It is from the human heart, it is from the words from our mouths and it involves the power of words. I love the story and remember it when I travel. Several years ago, when we were flying back from Milan to Atlanta, we had to pick up our luggage and recheck to get it to Jacksonville. When we were in the Milan airport, I found some duty free olive oil that I bought for my niece. I forgot all about it as we went through security in Atlanta. It was in my back pack and I would have to check my backpack instead of taking it on the plane and then go back through security. The place to check my backpack was on the other side of this massive room. I was tired, my foot was killing me and I was not in the best of moods. They kindly let me through a little shorter route.
There were two ladies working the counter where I was to check my bag. I stood in front of them and peered around this massive column. I would look on one side for a minute and then stick my head on the other side to see if she was available. I was probably there for twenty minutes or so, when the clerk called up a lady behind me. Well, of course I said, “Excuse me, I have been standing in line.” The woman promptly replied with a bit of an attitude, “Well, honey, don’t get your panties in a wad!”
I was shocked. When I made my way back to where Tiffany was, I told her the story and she asked what I said. I told her I was in shock and didn’t say anything to the lady, because I knew whatever I said would not be from God. I thought to myself, “I am a woman of God, and I don’t need to talk about my panties.” Again, the power of words in our lives….
It is from the human heart, it is from the words from our mouths that can defile our lives, our relationships. The challenge for today is to figure out what we think is important to God. We see the dirty fingernails of homeless and working folks. We judge people in what they wear, how they express themselves and how they look. We fail to see God in them. We fail to see them as God’s beloved. The evil judgments that come from our hearts separate us from God. And when we use religious rules inappropriately, we separate ourselves from one another.
To be doers of the Word, we welcome all into God’s kingdom. To be doers of the Word, we face our sins, ask forgiveness, work for reconciliation, let go and turn to God. We welcome all into the family of God. We welcome all to the Lord’s Table. Part of that action, part of that acceptance is joining hands for the Lord’s Prayer. We are in this together and together we will make it through. I have found that joining of hands to be so meaningful for me, that when I am reading Morning Prayer on my sofa, I grab Zebi’s paw during the prayer. It is meaningful to her too.
The Rev. Neil Alexander tells us that there are not just words in our liturgy but actions that are deeply rooted in the Episcopal-Anglican consciousness. The doing of these things is the glue that holds our life together. The five things are: prayer, Scripture, sacraments, fellowship and service. They are the core of the pragmatic Episcopal life. Alexander says, “Doing these actions transcends our need to agree with one another in all things. We discover, in the doing of these things, a disciplined way of Christian living that is constantly forming in us new dimensions of the love of God. Our faithfulness in doing them together will, over time, lead us to that new place of grace and mercy, the place that, in the present moment, we cannot even begin to imagine.”
He continues, “I do not believe that there is any magic to being a Christian according to the Episcopal way. It is not about believing exactly what everyone else believes. It is not about having the experiences of God’s holy love other than those experiences that are your own. It is about practicing the faith of the church, day in and day out for a lifetime, and trusting that in the living of it, God is molding and making us into the people, into the church, that we are called to be. We are this far by grace. And grace will lead us home.”
Labor Dayis a United States federal holidayobserved on the first Monday in September, that celebrates the economic and social contributions of workers. It was first nationally recognized in 1894 to placate unionists following the Pullman Strike. With the decline in union membership, the holiday is generally viewed as a time for barbeques and the end of summer vacations. The author Frederick Buechner once defined ‘vocation’ as “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Amen.