A sermon preached on the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Today’s lessons lay before us an important understanding of what it means to “practice what you preach” to use a common colloquialism. In the gospel we have the religious authorities trying to hold Jesus and his followers to an understanding of how one interacts with the world around them. Their objection is about tradition, and it is also about one’s right to access. There is a set of expectations that are put upon Jesus, upon his followers, really on any Jew as the gospel states, expectations based on the traditions of the elders, expectations that are held up and enforced by the religious authority. These expectations are to distinguish who is Jewish, to distinguish those who follow the law as it has been received, who are truly living in the faith as the religious authority is presenting it. These expectations are a barrier, a distinguishing mark, a separation between one people and another. These traditions create a question of who has access to the holy, who has the right to access the holy, for if you are not following the traditions as received from the elders how can you truly be living a faithful and good life for God?
This is an important question. When you have established a set of expectations for what it means to live in community, to learn and grow in understanding of what it means to interact with the holy, if you do not hold others to those expectations equally, then what good are they? What are traditions, expectations, if not community guidelines that are to be followed, especially when it is brought to your attention that you are not following them.
And, when brought to his attention, Jesus acknowledges that his followers are not following these expectations. He does not dispute this fact. But, he does ask who is the source of these expectations and traditions? Where have these expectations and traditions come from? Why do we always do it this way?
It is clear that these expectations are not of God, and in many ways are distracting those who are having to so diligently and purposefully follow them, distracting away from God and to this human precept that is being held up as doctrine. And this distraction of human doctrine leads directly into the understanding of what truly defiles us. For it is not what we bring in from the outside that defiles, but rather that evil which we let fester and stew in our hearts and then put out into the world that is what defiles us. Dirty hands, dirty dishes, not knowing the rules of access, those things do not defile a person for they are human expectations. What truly defiles are those evils that removes God’s central placement in our heart, inviting those evils to take root and ultimately control of us, spreading that defilement back out into the world.
But, it’s not like there are no expectations when we choose to follow God. We have been given a gift in our ability to practice our agency for ourselves, to take ownership of ourselves, to exercise what we call “free will.” This ability to claim our agency for ourselves affords us the opportunity to enter into relationship with God. And, when we choose to enter into this relationship there are a set of standards that come with engaging in the holy and living our lives for the spreading of kingdom. Jesus is clear in this too. He tells the authorities that they “abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” It is this commandment of God that is what our understanding of access to the holy should be built upon, it is this commandment of God that informs and fills us, supplanting from within that which would defile.
The question then remains, how do we combat this inclination we have to hold up those human precepts as doctrine, this inclination we have to abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition?
When we hear from James today in the epistle reading, we are given a pretty clear path, a clear understanding of what it means to live in the commandment of God. As James writes, “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”
“Be doers of the word.”
It really is that simple.
If we take the word of God that we have received through scripture, through the teachings of Christ, if we understand the commandment of God as simply as Christ lays it before us, love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself, it is in this that we keep from being defiled.
I have been here for two weeks, and I already see the doers in our midst. On my third day, I was introduced to Carey and learned about Radical Love. On my first Sunday I met Erika and heard more. This past Wednesday I talked with Carey, Erika, Jack, Nick, Bev, and more who were in the Kitchen helping prepare the meal. What a first impression of this place and the people that make up this body of faithful believers. What a gift that these people are offering to our community. What a gift to provide nutritious, delicious, wholesome, life-giving meals that say to all those who receive them, there should be no barrier to your experiencing a meal prepared in love, prepared with care and concern for those who will eat it. That no matter what human precepts have sprung up in this place, in our world, that creates disparity in access to something that should be simply available: real food, cooked with real love, given to real people, there are doers who see this disparity and are doing something to combat it. There are doers in this place who see the evil that lurks waiting to cement its place in our hearts, and respond by spreading the love of God out into our community and the world.
I also know that I am going to learn about many more doers who exist in this congregation. Whether it’s the person I see stopping by multiple times throughout the week to clean up areas around the church and do minor repairs, or the dedicated volunteers who serve this place in many various capacities, there are doers in our midst who are living into this call we have to not deceive ourselves as hearers who think that is merely enough to get by. Our faith is not something you can simply get by on. It requires a lot of us. But, in requiring a lot of us, it offers something even greater in return, something that most of the time we can’t even begin to understand.
James also writes in our passage today, “let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.” Imagine if that was how the world operated. Imagine if that approach dominated our public discourse. It can be. It certainly can be, if we are willing to live into the commandment of God and give up those human precepts that are clung to so tightly as doctrine. And, we should be encouraged to work for this goal. Because, this is where we experience some of the gifts of our faith. This is where we ourselves are encouraged to practice the grace that God shows to us without barrier. This is where we ourselves are encouraged to practice the forgiveness that God extends to us without barrier. This is where we ourselves are encouraged to love with the love that God has for us, a love that extends beyond anything we can comprehend, a love embodied by Christ and fully realized in his death and resurrection.
That is what we must hold in our hearts. That is what we must carve out room for. That is what must supplant those predilections towards evil, toward defilement, that are, if not directly encouraged, definitely afforded room to grow by our clutching to human doctrines that seek to separate and divide. It is the love of God that we must put out into this world. It is the love of God that we put out into the world that honors the commandment of God. It is in putting the love of God out into this world that we become doers and not merely hearers.
My first impression of St. Stephen’s is that this is a place of doers. I am encouraged by this reality. I am excited about what this means for us as a community moving forward. I am excited to see how we can use this energy, this understanding of what we are called to do, to make a real impact on our community. From feeding those who need radical love to being a leading voice for the care of creation to creating new expressions of ministry that welcome in others who are seeking that presence of God’s grace, God’s forgiveness, God’s love, we will come together as a people dedicated to live into the commandment of God and do.