Setting aside appearances and living from the heart

A sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 2, 2012.  The lectionary readings are Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9, Psalm 15, James 1:17-27, and  Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23.

Someone gave me a book a few years ago entitled simply, “How to Dress for Every Occasion.” The book claims to be written by none other than “the Pope.” It’s a silly book, imagining how hard it must be for the Pope to decide what to wear before going to a movie, going to the beach, or getting on an airplane. Does he wear sandals to the beach? Should he remove his miter in a movie theater?  What does he do when red shoes seems to clash with everything?
Well, I’m not sure the Pope has to worry much about what to wear, but we’re not the Pope.  Most of us do think about what to wear.  We think about how we appear, how we come across to other people. Will we make the right impression? Will we impress the person we need to impress? Or might we risk over-doing it, and need to tone down our appearance? Public relations firms, agents, coaches and even friends sometimes help us manage our image. They help us think even more carefully about how we appear to others. Our work, our families, our friends—virtually our whole culture suggests that image is everything. But today’s Gospel challenges that idea.
In fact, Jesus says just the opposite. While we might spend a lot of energy on appearances, Jesus gives us the good news that it’s what is inside that really counts. It’s what is inside of us that defines us, that controls us, and that affects how we treat one another. It’s what is inside us that either moves us toward God, or encourages us away from God. It’s on the inside that conversion begins. It’s on the inside that healing begins.
The Gospel comes out of the Pharisees’ question concerning the disciples and their eating habits. It’s about the outward appearance of eating and drinking. The Pharisees and scribes watch Jesus and his followers and they don’t approve. Those who follow Jesus are taking religious shortcuts. They don’t seem to value the tradition, or even to be acquainted with the tradition in some cases. And the particular point in today’s Gospel revolves around these religious people noticing that Jesus’ followers don’t wash their hands properly before eating.
Mark the Evangelist gives us a little more background about these folks. He says “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.”

But when the Pharisees ask Jesus about this, Jesus sees to the very heart of the matter. Jesus quotes Isaiah to them, suggesting that they’ve strayed from the commandments of God (which are really very simple) and they’ve gotten all clouded up with rules and traditions made by humans. And then Jesus delivers his zinger: “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 ….” and then Jesus goes on to list the whole host of evil things that might come out of us.

Are there ways in which our rules, our order, our ritual, our procedures ever create barriers between people and God? That’s the real question that Jesus puts to us. Are there things we need to be free of, in order to follow God more closely, more directly? Are there ways in which we may be called to “loosen up” spiritually, so that we might see or hear or know God, as God is trying to meet us?
It’s not what we put into our bodies that gets us into trouble: it’s not what we eat and drink, or how we say our prayers, or whether we kneel or stand. It’s what comes out. Our “words made flesh,” our actions matter:—our words to strangers, our words to family, our words to other people of faith. Our actions matter, as the epistle from James made clear earlier: “…[B]e doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves…. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

What comes out of us is often in the form of words, but words can come from our mouth, and they can come from our heart.  Last Saturday I was at a conference that included three speakers: Richard Rohr, Phyllis Tickle, and Andrew Harvey.  Each has a fairly large personality in a different way.  But at the conclusion of the conference, the three of them plus one other woman who done a workshop at the conference, were on a panel.  The question was asked, “How do you define ‘spirituality’?” 

Rohr answered in his characteristically centered and deeply Franciscan way.  Tickle answered with history and humor.  Harvey answered in a way that tried to dazzle, but managed to make it all about himself.  And then it was the turn of the fourth panelist, the Rev. Kate Braestrup.  Braestrup is a Unitarian minister, author, and chaplain. When the question came to her, “How do you define spirituality,” she paused.
“Well,” she said, “that’s sort of difficult, because I don’t think of myself as a very spiritual person.  I’m better at doing than being.  I guess, spirituality sort of happens, in the moment.  I guess it’s a little like the time when I was volunteering at a nursing home and a woman needed help going to the bathroom.  I helped her.  She was obese and a double amputee because of diabetes.  And there we were in a tiny, enclosed bathroom.  She was embarrassed.  I was embarrassed.  But in the middle of our awkwardness, there was a moment when I looked at her and she looked at me, and we were in love—not the kind of love you can really tell your family about—another kind, entirely.  That moment was important, and I guess it has something to do with spirituality.”* 
Each of those speakers had given us words—some good and helpful; some not so much.  But the last speaker’s words were of a different quality, entirely.  Hers were from a very deep place, from the heart, from her experience, from her pain and awkwardness, and from her highest hopes and best intentions. 

This is how Jesus wants us to speak—not for appearance sake, not for the smoothness or the spin, but from the deep place where God is in each of us. 

Our words matter. Our actions matter.  May we live out of the depth of God’s love and mercy, so that what comes out of us might extend God’s love in the world. 

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

*With apologies to Kate Braestrup, if I’ve gotten this wrong in some way.  This is how I recall hearing her story and found it to be one of the most meaningful moments of the conference. She was part of the closing panel discussion at the Downeast Spirituality Conference, August 24-25, 2012, Ellsworth, ME

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