Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 3, 2006
The Gospel: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Sermon: "A Change in Heart"
The Rev. William D. Oldland
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."
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
A Change in Heart
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost - September 3, 2006
During the mission trips the group is often at homes where the water has been stopped. Sometimes we are at homes where the water is unsafe to drink or wash. One of the things we carry is a waterless hand cleanser and baby wipes. The only problem is they don't clean primer, paint and putty very well. So when we eat at lunch our hands are not always clean. In fact, if we had to wait for our hands to be clean then we probably wouldn't have the opportunity to eat at all during the day. In that heat not eating is dangerous to one's health.
For most of us today, hygiene is not part of our religious lives. It is part of our healthy consciousness. We don't associate eating with ritual purity. So today's lesson seems a bit outdated to us. This custom of washing hands as a spiritual part of our life is just not present.
However, the real opportunity here is to look deeper into the teaching of Jesus. Jesus' disciples are not observing the ritual custom, the tradition, of the day and he is challenged. The Pharisees' challenge to Jesus is that he is not adhering to the religious customs of the day. As I read this I couldn't help but think of the song Tradition from Fiddler on the Roof. In the song the character Tevye is upset because of the loss of some of the old traditions. Some people do not adhere to the old ways passed down from their ancestors. The Pharisees are in the same boat.
The Pharisees are in that place where traditions are key. The traditions help make the Hebrew people who they are. They set them apart from other groups of people. They are to remind the Hebrew people of their allegiance to God, Yahweh. To lose the traditions could allow for the people to be pulled away from their allegiance to Yahweh. If we follow this argument at this level it does make sense. There is real fear here. There is something solid here. The problem is that some of the traditions have taken priority over true faith. Not adhering to the outward traditions is wrong and evil. The only way we know that someone is righteous is if we see them doing the ritual observances. If one does not do these rituals then they are defiled. They are not righteous. They are bad, and even, evil.
Now, before we begin to blow this off as some vague idea of the unenlightened first century, let's examine ourselves. What do we use to determine if someone is religious? We look to see what they are doing, don't we? We look to see if they attend church regularly. We examine how they are dressed. We watch them in their dealings with others. We ask ourselves questions about when and how they pray. We watch to see if they can follow the prayer book. We look for them at special parish events to see if they participate.
Clergy are not exempt from these rules either. In fact, clergy are in a fishbowl where they are the fish and everyone's eyes are glued to the outside. Not only are the clergy examined, but if the clergy person is married and has a family they are too. All of these ritual examinations look at the surface of who a person is.
Yet, it doesn't stop there. We have examinations of churches. We want to know how they measure up. Right now, the Episcopal Church is having difficulties over many issues. They are arguing over issues of sexuality, the authority of scripture, and the role of authority in the Anglican Communion. Some of these arguments have led people to question all kinds of things on the surface. In some circles questions are rising about the use of the 1928 Prayer Book. On the other hand some are questioning the use of prayer books at all. People get attached to the ritual and the things that represent the ritual rather than the issue of holiness itself.
One last example of how far this surface righteousness can go. We all know the coast is a dangerous place for hurricanes. Years ago, one city was pretty severely damaged by a big hurricane including the church buildings. One church sustained very heavy damage to the sanctuary itself. Part of the roof was blown away and debris was all over the inside of the building. Yet, the parish hall which was sizable was basically untouched. The Sunday after the hurricane the parish hall was packed with people. They had the highest attendance at a service in months. The next Sunday the crowd was considerably smaller. The numbers started to drop quickly. Some people were asked why they stopped coming. The answer was, "When they finish the repairs to the church, I'll be back. It's just not worship in the parish hall." They missed the point of worship.
Worship of God is where the people of God are gathered. It doesn't have to happen in a building with carpet, stained glass windows, memorials, and brass crosses. We don't have to have an organ to sing praises to God. They are nice, but they aren't critical.
Jesus' answer to the Pharisees is the absolute center of true faith. Unbelief or defilement comes from inside a person. Jesus warns the disciples and the Pharisees that evil comes from within the human heart. He lists some of the wrong things that find a place there. Fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly make up the list. We find it hard to believe that someone could have these aspects in their lives and us not know about it. Yet, sometimes a person can act one way in public and be something else in private. After all, we don't know what lies in secret. The true intentions of a person are only lived out by their actions whether they are in public or in secret.
So, what help is there for us? If these evil things exist in our hearts then what do we do? I would offer the following suggestions. First, we make the main thing, the main thing. What does that mean? The main thing for us as Christians is true belief in God. We worship God first, not because we are afraid of God, but because God loves us. We worship God from the depths of our spirits. Worship becomes part of our daily life not just in church. This worship includes prayer. It is prayer that comes from deep within us. This deep prayer is done at home, at work, in the car, in the morning, in the evening, everywhere, at all times, and in instances. The main thing we ask for in our prayers is a change in our heart. We ask God to change our heart that we would be like Jesus. See, Jesus didn't sweat the small stuff. He concentrated on the main thing, following the will of God.
If we think about it, we worry too much about the small stuff. Worrying about the small stuff leads us in the wrong way. The task before us is to follow God's will. God's will for our lives is found in the summary of the Law. We are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind. ... We are to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. If we really are trying to follow those two commandments then we are attempting to keep the main thing, the main thing. As a result, we experience a change. It is a change in our hearts. For the evils from within are replaced with the love of God, and we become forever changed. The small stuff becomes no longer important. So, today, we pray for a change in our heart. We ask God to be present within us. We ask for the ability to love as God loves us. AMEN.