Sermon on Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 for Pentecost +14, Year B, August 30, 2015
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 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.”
I have been told by some people that history is boring and they do not like it when I talk about it. I believe they are saying something true for them, but I must admit that I do not get it at all. To me, not enjoying knowing what really happened is like not liking chocolate. I just cannot imagine it.
I will say, in their defense, however, that knowing the real story can be like knowing how sausage is made; you may have been happier when you were ignorant.
But knowing the context is often crucial. Do you remember finding out how your parents met? Or where your ancestors came from? You feel as though you have a deeper understanding of yourself when you know the story of your people.
Crucial History for the Church
Several times recently I have mentioned an event in history which changed everything for Christianity; it was the first church council held at Nicea in the year 325 which produced the Nicene Creed.
The Roman Emperor Constantine supposedly “converted” to Christianity, and in a political effort to unify the empire, wanted all Christians to be be organized into one centralized church. Christianity was quite diverse for the first 300 years after Jesus walked the earth. People had different ideas about how to understand Jesus, his relationship to God, the nature of God, the Holy Spirit, the relationship of Jesus to the God of the Hebrew Bible.
Before Nicea, these diversities were something like modern denominations. Everyone believed in Jesus, they just believed different things about Jesus and God, the Trinity, the incarnation and so on. But after Nicea, after they took the vote and one theological perspective won, a creed was written, and after that, all the alternative ways of understanding became known as “heresies.”
The Wikipedia article lists 32 early heresies, if my count is accurate. Of course heretics need to be condemned and officially cursed, and excommunicated, right? And people who are cursed as heretics can be persecuted too, right? Why not? And they were. But the followers of the deposed bishops do not have to take it lying down, do they? People actually rioted over such things.
People got killed. For example, a man named Paul, the orthodox bishop of Constantinople, was banished by imperial decree. A riot broke out that resulted in 3,000 deaths.
Friends, nothing could be more absurd. Scholars of religion agree that the single most unique innovation Jesus made was his teaching requiring the love of enemies. Jesus taught us to do good to those who persecute us; to turn the other cheek, to forgiving 70 x 7. This is not a side issue, it is central. In the one prayer that Jesus taught us to pray which we repeat in every worship service, we tie our forgiveness with our willingness to forgive, as we pray:
“forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
Jesus made it explicit, to eliminate any confusion or room for doubt saying,
“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matt. 6:14-15)
The idea that in the name of Jesus, a person could think he was doing God a favor by attacking someone for not defining the mystery of the Trinity in the right neoplatonic philosophical terms is, again, absurd. You would be forgiven for believing the conflicts between Christians was a ridiculous Monty Python plot, but sadly – tragically – it is real history.
Jesus the Radical
I wanted to review that history because of today’s text. Jesus was a radical, revolutionary figure who created a paradigm shift in our understanding of God, of who God is, and what God is concerned about.
It is true that love of enemy was the most significant innovation Jesus brought to humanity, but it is also true that his orientation to the Law of Moses was a massive sea-change for the Jews of his day. Last week we spoke of how Jesus was unafraid to take the prohibition against work on the Sabbath, found in the heart of the 10 commandments, and set it in a much broader context of Gods’ concern for human well being. That was a huge change.
So too is the change of understanding Jesus made in today’s text. Kosher food laws were serious. In the Leviticus story, those laws come from the mouth of God. For God, the wrong kind of animals were not just “unclean” they were “detestable.”
Those food laws formed part of a Jewish person’s identity. They made Jewish people separate. Think of it: they could not even socialize with non-observant Jews, let alone non-Jews because of these Kosher laws: no wedding feasts, no funeral dinners, no shared meals with gentiles of any kind. Kosher laws defined their community.
But Jesus said that it is not food, not things that go into a person that defile us, but rather what comes out of us from within that defile. For Jesus, the issues are not splitting hoofs, chewing cud, and having fins and scales; they are real moral behaviors. He lists, as examples:
“fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly”
These, Jesus said, come out of the heart.
But that too is the point Jesus makes: we are all lost sheep that need finding. We are all prodigal sons and daughters that need to return home. We are all broken people who need a physician. And God is there for us as the Good Shepherd, the running Father, the great Physician who knows how to heal souls.
So, Jesus again makes a radical move, revealing to us the heart of God. How could God possibly care about how well a person could define the Trinity if they did not love their enemies? What would it matter if a person believed in the virgin birth if they did not know how to forgive? Is believing in the literal resurrection itself more important to God than compassion and showing mercy?
It is not what goes in that defiles, it is what comes out of the heart. Jesus was a heart-person. And Jesus taught us that God is a heart-focused God.
Hope among the heart-defiled
I hope this gives us all great encouragement and hope. We all mess up. We all have things that come from our hearts that show the defilement there. We all say things we should not say. We cause hurt and pain; we resist apologizing and asking for forgiveness. We all have done things we regret. We have not shown the love we should have. We have done things that were hurtful, selfish, unjust and self-indulgent, and we have failed many times to do the good we could easily have done. But that is not the last word.
The heart-focused God, that Jesus showed us, comes to us to offer a path toward healing, toward redemption. Once we know that God is heart-centered and that God is for us, to transform people with defiled hearts, to bring cleansing and renewal, we can follow the Jesus path with joy.
So our focus must be, not on the literal lines of the creeds, but on our hearts. Our concern is how to align our hearts with the heart of God.
I used to think that the path to transformation was education. If I just knew enough, I would be a better Christian. If I knew the bible better, if I understood theology at a deeper level, then my heart would be in the right place.
We all seem to have believed this. We organize our Sunday Schools and our confirmation classes so that our kids will learn the facts. We teach about the Trinity and make them learn creeds by heart, hoping that knowing will lead to genuine faith. But our track record is not what it should be.
As long as we think that faith is about believing facts, like which food is Kosher and which to avoid, or like the lines of a creed, we are not focusing as Jesus did, on the heart. Faith is trust. Trust is a matter of the heart.
This is why I spend so much time talking about contemplative silent prayer and meditation. It works on our hearts. Of all the things I have tried to help me spiritually, the one that has yielded the best fruit is meditation.
I know I have a long way to go, but I can honestly report that it has been transformative for me. I feel more peaceful than I ever did before. I am less likely to be angry and less judgmental. I find it easier to forgive. I feel more compassion for others. I am more aware of the sacredness of everyday life. I am more able to be present in the moment. In other words, my heart is in a better place.
As I said, I have a long way to go, but I am on a journey of transformation. Unless it is an unusual day, I regularly set aside twenty minutes each morning, after I have done some spiritual reading, to sit in silence. I have a word that I use from the bible to anchor my mind as I focus attention on my breathing in and out.
Of course my mind wanders – that is what minds do – but as soon as I am aware of it, I gently resume my anchor word, saying it silently, and return attention to the breath. In those moments, I am being centered. I am allowing God to be present without the normal mental chatter of my own internal voice.
In this way I am putting a temporary stop to my ego, that mental narrator that is always telling me stories about my life, making judgments, explaining to me why people do and say what they do – as if that could be known. In contemplative, silent prayer, we make a space for our hearts to soften, to become aligned with the heart of God. I hope and pray each of us develops the daily practice of meditation. I would love to talk to you about it if you have questions or find obstacles.
God is a God of the heart. Let us be people of the heart, whose hearts are being transformed. I am hungry for this. I think you are too. I believe our world is desperate for people with transformed hearts.