A Sermon for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B
James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Can you believe it was ten years ago this morning that we woke up to the horrible news that the levees had failed? New Orleans was under water, and untold thousands may have drowned. 26,000 now-homeless refugees were rounded-up in the Superdome, subjected to third-world conditions. It was a moment I know I’ll never forget. From the Mississippi gulf coast to the Mississippi delta, Katrina’s destruction was staggering, and the human suffering even worse.
While some of us prayed for the victims and sent relief packages and money, there were others who were quick to point fingers. I don’t know if you remember this or not, but there were groups like one called, “Repent America”, and of course the Westboro Baptist Church, who welcomed the death and destruction. “It’s God’s judgement,” they screamed through megaphones. “New Orleans deserved to be destroyed,” they prophesied, “Just look at their depraved lifestyle! Just like Sodom and Gomorrah, God destroyed them!”
In reality, of course, the French Quarter, ground zero for the decadence that was New Orleans, came away relatively unscathed. No, it was the lower 9th ward and other impoverished parts of the city that suffered the most flooding and highest death toll. Was repentance the number one topic of discussion inside the Superdome? Were people saying to each other, “Wow! God sure taught us a lesson!”? One comedian at the time quipped, “Wow! If this is an example of God’s judgement, he drowned a bunch of poor black people. God must have pretty bad aim!”
In our Gospel reading this morning, we hear the Pharisees back at their old tricks – trying to trap Jesus, trying to find him guilty of something. “Hah! We saw your disciples eating with unclean hands!” Jesus’ response is brilliant, as they usually are, he quotes Isaiah! “You honor God with your lips, but you hearts are far from me. You teach tradition as if it were doctrine.”
I may have mentioned this in my sermons before, but the religious style of the Pharisees was a very strict one. They loved God’s Law, and they wanted to protect it at all costs. So whenever there was a commandment, like “Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy,” they added their own laws on top of those God had given them to build what they called a “fence” around the Law, to protect it. So what had started off as, “Don’t do manual labor on the Sabbath,” has become even today for strictly observant Jews, “Putting toothpaste on your toothbrush is ‘work’ and is therefore forbidden on the Sabbath.” So now you have to put your toothpaste on the brush before sundown on Friday.
Jesus is constantly reminding everyone who would listen to him that this is not what God’s Law was about. God’s Law was to benefit our lives, not make them more burdensome. In its essence, the Law, summarized in the Ten Commandments, was about relationships – the relationship between God and his people, and the relationships between God’s people. It was about right relationships on the vertical and the horizontal levels.
But the Pharisees had changed the equation. Now, there was a class system. They kept the Law best of all, especially since they kept adding to it. “Aren’t we marvelous? Go ahead, admire us!” And a new class emerged: the scapegoats. Anyone who failed their test became outcast. If you had a disease, it was because of sin. If you died suddenly, you must have done something wrong, and this is God’s judgement. Sound familiar?
Jesus tries once again to reorient their thinking. Jesus is calling them to repent for their mindset that was so ready to place blame, because they were so focused on the externals. “Look at that woman! They say she’s a prostitute. How disgusting! We ought to throw her out of town! We’d be a lot better off without her around!” And sometimes it would go even so far as, “Let’s stone her!”
“Stop!” Jesus is telling them, and everyone who would listen. They had become so focused on externals that they had forgotten than it is not what goes into us that makes us defiled, that makes us act cruelly to our family or our friends and neighbors. That evil was already inside us.
The Pharisees demanded that the disciples wash their hands. Jesus demanded that the Pharisees wash their hearts instead. He goes on to name the sins of which they and most all of us are guilty at one point in our lives, even if just those last few, “envy, slander, pride, folly.” They aren’t contagious. You can’t “catch” envy. Now, we can blame it on our neighbor’s new car, “Well, look at them. Showing off…” But the envy emerges from our hearts.
This often happens in our relationships. When things go wrong in a marriage, in a larger family, at work, even at church, we are all too often ready to name a scapegoat, to point fingers at others deflecting any blame from ourselves. I’ve seen this tear marriages, families, colleagues, and yes, even parishes apart. When things go bad, we are often ready to find the one to blame and exclude, rather than taking the time to reflect on how we too might share some of the blame for a broken relationship.
The epistle lesson this morning reminds us how to behave around each other: “Be quick to listen” (the shorthand of this is “be in relationship with each other”. “Be slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.”
This is the essence of the Law – be at peace with God and with each other. Love God with all your heart, and mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.
Who are we quick to blame? Was New Orleans really flooded because God was judging its decadent ways? Would-be-president Donald Trump sure likes to point fingers at Mexican immigrants as the cause of all our troubles. This accusation does not come because he knows so many Mexican immigrants. This isn’t said from first-hand experience. No, they are easy target, with no one to advocate for them. When asked what his favorite Bible verse was recently, he danced his way around the question giving non-answers. First, “That’s too personal.” And then, “I like it all.” In response Facebook and Twitter exploded with suggestions for Mr. Trump. One I liked the best was, “I’m sure Donald really loves that verse where Jesus tells his disciples to build a big wall to keep those people out.” In reality the Bible is full of mandates to treat the foreigner and the stranger as kin, as family. Providing shelter and food. The same goes with widows and orphans.
When a politician blames the poor, you can rest assured that didn’t come from God! As James writes, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: “to care for orphans and widows in their distress” (no mention of arresting or deporting them), “and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Notice, it doesn’t say, “take out your anger and frustration on those people,” but to keep ourselves “unstained by the world”. Don’t be like the world, Jesus is telling us. Don’t behave like them. Don’t get caught up in their ways. Be different.
Jesus is calling his disciples to repent of that way of thinking: the blame-shifting, scapegoating others. Guess what, we are his disciples too. Before we point to “those sinners” to explain why a hurricane drowned innocent poor people, we must look at a system corrupted by greed that trapped the defenseless in a dangerous place. Before we scapegoat someone as “disturbed” or a “troublemaker”, we must look in our own hearts first. It is from within that evil intentions come. What might be my share of the guilt in a broken relationship? What can I do to make things better?
Change your way of thinking, Jesus tells us. This is how you can best keep God’s Law.
Lord, help us to have your love, not just on our lips, but in our hearts. Amen.