Sermon for August 20, 2016

Pastor Anna V. Copeland, Preaching

Psalm 133 and Matthew 15:10-20

Psalm 133

How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!

It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes.

It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion. For there the LORD ordained his blessing, life forevermore.

Matthew 15:10-20

Then (Jesus) called the crowd to him and said to them, "Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles."

Then the disciples approached and said to him, "Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?"

He answered, "Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit."

But Peter said to him, "Explain this parable to us."

Then he said, "Are you also still without understanding?

Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.

For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile."


                                    Sticks and Stones

This is a very dangerous time. It is in such a time as this that we can lose our bearings and go far down the wrong road. The way back can take more lifetimes than we will ever see this side of heaven.

The seeds of the anxious and horrible stories playing out in our news this past couple of weeks were planted a very long time ago by people we do not know whose situation we cannot clearly see.

Five generations ago in the state of Virginia not far from Charlottesville, a good man of Christian standing, wrote his last will and testament in an elegant long hand script. He gave his first-born son all his land holdings and unnamed slaves and all their issue, translated children, to the glory of God. To his second born son he gave his unnamed personal slave, and a small house, and to his daughters he gave God’s speed and good wishes, as was the custom of his day. He signed the will by his Christian name as an upright citizen of the state of Virginia and the United States of America, expressive life purpose as devotion to Christ. He was my great-great-great-great-great grandfather. There are no clean hands in the story of Charlottesville this past week.

According to Jesus, there are no clean lips either. Prejudice and bigotry and a tendency to draw lines around who’s in and who’s out, who has power and who does not is as old as humankind itself. Our Bible tells countless stories of man’s inhumanity to man given our insatiable capacity for self-interest and greed. Thankfully with fear and anger bubbling to the surface all over the place, God provides a way out, a more excellent way that we may be able to endure it.

Today’s message is clear. The antidote to this rising tide of violence within and without our borders is a transformed heart grounded in no other place than the heart of God. Just like any hiker lost in the wilderness in need of a compass, when we follow the way of Jesus, God always shows us the way out.

So what are we up against that makes our utter dependence on Christ so important? Today our culture wrangles over free speech and who did what to whom and who’s to blame for this or that. Like every Monday morning quarterback now eager for football to begin, we think we know what’s wrong with the world and we feel outraged that people in the position of fixing problems whose solutions seen so obvious to us, don't. We imagine that there are enemies out there that need to be removed, locked up, or done away with, to put it politely in the company of our children, and then everything will be alright. A very long time ago God sent a man named Jesus into the world to say, “Think again.”

Just when it looks like Jesus has named the Pharisees as the cause of suffering for his people, Jesus flips today’s story and our thinking on it’s head. Let’s take a look at how he did that and what it means for us today.

“At the heart of this scripture passage lies a proverb: "It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out" Here it looks at first as if Jesus' s naming the enemy out there. He counters the Pharisees' criticism of his disciples for not following their rituals for pre-meal hand washing. Implied is a broader criticism on their part against Jesus and his disciples for not observing their rules for what one could and could not do on the Sabbath and for associating with those they viewed as unclean.

“The spirit of Pharisaic Judaism intended these external rituals to keep the inward heart focused on the heart of the Torah: mindfulness of one's duty to God and neighbor while immersed in the details of daily life. Jesus knew that even the best-intentioned external observances can become corrupted. They can become substitutes for devotion to God while our hearts are occupied with thoughts that promote our personal agendas and whittle others down to size in order to accomplish them.” Alyce McKenzie

Then, watch what happened next. Jesus did what Jesus does. He turned the spotlight from out there to in here. Jesus started off affirming the necessity of confronting the Pharisee’s wrongdoing. Jesus could not have been clearer about speaking truth to the Pharisees who mis-used their power to make religion a greater burden instead of setting people free to live.

It is our obligation to call out and name that which causes harm to God’s people and God’s creation. By virtue of our baptismal vows to resist oppression and evil, we can’t not seek active ways to stand against that which causes harm, and to stand for and with those who stand alone. We do this individually through our care and support of neighbor, and we also do this collectively on behalf of those who do not have the power to speak for themselves.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in World War II, Japanese Americans, United States citizens were rounded up with six days notice and sent to internment camps where many remained for years. Many loving neighbors offered what support they could, bringing in food and sending letters and news of home. These small acts were generous and appreciated, but did not change the unjust imprisonment of their neighbors. Except in the state of Hawaii. No one perhaps had greater reason to fear the Japanese that the U.S. Territory that had been attacked by them. But when the order came to inter the Japanese of Hawaii, the Hawaiians said “No”. Thirty-seven percent of Hawaiians were of Japanese descent. The Hawaiians knew that the political goals of the nation of Japan were not the same thing as their Japanese American neighbors and friends and they collectively resisted.

God sent Jesus to redeem this broken, messed up world to be sure. Jesus became the equipment God sent to do it. The one Jesus came to redeem is not the obvious enemy we see out there somewhere on the morning news. The dangerous one at God’s Table of Plenty is you, and me. In this way, Jesus teaching cuts both ways.

As Jesus confronted the Pharisees, so too we act against injustice. We remember the words of Micah 6:8 “and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. 

So march if you feel called to do so in downtown Kittery or on the Boston Commons or in Virginia as a means of communicating that white supremacy and the KKK and all forms of hate is wrong. It is, and we denounce it in unwavering terms as Christians. But then make it plain that you march not just against the false and hurtful beliefs of others, but as a firm, unwavering and clear commitment to Christ that makes possible your own beating compassionate heart. Only grounded in the life of Christ will your speech and mine be utterly transformed into language and action that makes for peace.

Jesus said: “Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?

But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.” How we speak can poison the water and destroy community. The way out of this wilderness begins with a certain humility before God, repenting of our own critical, bitter, uncharitable conversation toward anyone.

Jesus observes that we have a tendency to honor God with our lips while our hearts, our thoughts, and our behaviors are far removed from God. When we share a racial or ethnic slur, or say something uncharitable about another person, or rage on and on about that so and so, whoever it is that we don’t agree with, the world looks at our outhouse potty mouth and our claim to be Christian, and they see that our claims don’t match up.

Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, Jesus said.

Speak the truth in love, Jesus said.

Blessed are the peacemakers, Jesus said.

Blessed are the pure in heart, Jesus said.

Just because the world is ugly doesn’t mean we get to act ugly.

When we speak with clarity AND compassion, our actions line up accordingly. Our personal and communal commitment to clean up our own house and our own language challenges the injustices we’ve seen this week. Here’s the trick. We need Jesus to do this. We can’t just clean up our speech and clean up our act. We begin the road to peace and reconciliation by humbly turning ourselves over to God, asking God to transform our heart and renew our minds. Then we pray and ask God to guide us and observe how God works from the inside out.

God will give us a change of heart. Then we will experience a change of mind. Then God will give us the words we struggle to find, language that flows from a pure heart in God. And finally, we will act accordingly.

A colleague of mine tells a story about something that happened to her Jewish friend Laurel when she was at Penn State. “In the late '60s, she began her freshman year at Penn State University in State College, Pennsylvania. She had moved her things into the dorm and met several other girls. One of her favorite new friends was a girl named Debbie who had grown up in a little town in rural central Pennsylvania. One day in the lunch line, as Debbie was piling lettuce on her salad plate, she said to Laurel, "Did you know that there were some Jewish girls in our dorm?" Laurel said in pretend surprise, "Really?" "Yes," said Debbie. "I'm kind of glad I didn't get one as a roommate. I never saw one before. I wonder what they look like." Laurel said, "I'll bet you'd be surprised."

  • My colleague’s Jewish friend decided that her roommate was not being malicious, but had led a sheltered life. And she let it go at that in her own mind. When Debbie realized her mistake, she came to Laurel and apologized profusely. "I'm so embarrassed. I wouldn't blame you if you never wanted to talk to me again." Laurel replied, "I just figured this was beyond your experience, and once you learned more, you'd realize we're people just like you." Debbie said, "Thanks for the benefit of the doubt. Still friends?" Laurel nodded, smiling slightly. "But the next time you hear somebody else say something anti-Semitic, you're going to speak up, right?" Her new friend nodded vigorously.

It’s never too late to say the right thing. We clearly can’t take back words already spoken. As we’ve all discovered by accidently punching the send button after ranting about something on our computers, what we say lives out there in the cosmos forever. We’re forgiven by God, but the garbage we’ve already sent out into God’s creation will continue to reverberate over time. God gives us another chance through grace. If you’re headed down a wrong road. Stop. God like Siri on your I-phone will recalculate your journey.

The pure in heart recognize their need for God; they empathize with and extend comfort to others; their lives are graced by daily deeds of compassionate forgiveness to those who wrong them. The pure in heart are those who see others as God’s beloved children, some who are evidently lost and have wondered far from their home with God to be sure. And if so, all the more reason to pray for them. When our hearts are pure, and our words are loving, our deeds usually follow.

This is not the time to be a casual Christian, a Christmas and Easter or when I’m not on vacation or otherwise engaged Christian. The times are too dangerous. The stakes are too high. Through Christ our lives then have great power to bring healing and reconciliation to the world, to the glory of God. This is our prayer. This is our hope. May it be so. Amen

With Gratitude to Alyce McKenzie for her fine work and sermon illustration included in today’s reflection.