August 30th, 2015 “From the Heart” Rev. Heather Jepsen
What makes us good people? What makes us acceptable before our God? How do we judge others and how in turn do we judge ourselves? These contemporary questions are very much at the center of our scripture reading for today.
Our reading this morning comes from the Gospel of Mark. Jesus has been busy healing, teaching, and feeding the people. The Pharisees are keeping a close eye on Jesus and his followers and they are quick to notice when the disciples don’t follow the traditional customs of cleanliness.
Before eating anything, Pharisees, and other good folks of Jewish faith, were always sure to wash their hands and other ritual items. Unlike our modern understanding of washing so we don’t get sick, this was a washing based on tradition and religion. It was not an act of morals but an act of religious liturgy; it was about making oneself holy or acceptable to God. Jesus’ followers don’t appear to be following the customs of good religious people, so it is no wonder that the religious leaders are disturbed by their practice, or lack thereof.
As usual Jesus uses this is an opportunity to teach a lesson. He points out that often people spend a lot of time talking about how much they love God, but that what happens in their hearts betrays them. The church gets too busy being wrapped up in human things, like rules about washing, that the people forget the things of God. Jesus calls everyone together to teach them this lesson; “There is nothing outside of a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
Jesus’ teaching seems clear enough, but it isn’t a lesson people really want to hear. In fact, as soon as he is alone with the disciples they ask him to explain the parable. What parable? Jesus didn’t tell them a parable! He told them a plain and simple lesson; it’s what is inside your heart that matters. Again he is forced to explain. What we eat, what goes inside of us goes to our stomach, but what comes out of us comes from our hearts. It is what lies within our hearts that matters, and those are the things that have the power to separate us from God and from each other.
At first Jesus’ lesson to the Pharisees and to his disciples seems to be miles away from our lives today. Who cares anymore about ritual washing? And being clean and unclean are not really a part of our modern understanding of the world, unless of course we are talking about baths. But, the reality is that the divisions Jesus is talking about are everywhere in our world and in our church.
That brings us back to our first questions. What makes someone a good Christian? At one point in the life of this church, being a good Christian meant that you didn’t dance. Folks who dared to celebrate the joy of living by moving their bodies to music (even in the privacy of their own homes) were folks who were asked not to be a part of this church. Being a good Christian also meant that you didn’t play cards. In the past life of this congregation, members who enjoyed card games at home were no longer suitable to be on the church’s Session.
Of course there are some churches where being a good Christian means you don’t drink alcohol. In fact, I have gotten in trouble in churches for suggesting that members of the congregation might like to join me at a baseball game and enjoy a hotdog and a beer. I’m not kidding. Someone was so mad that I said that during the announcements that they left the congregation. Good Christians don’t drink beer!
So where are we on that spectrum today? What is it that we are worried about when it comes to being good Christians or good people? From silly things like dancing and card games, we can suddenly find ourselves treading other dividing lines. Issues of sexism and racism are not far away in this discussion. What is the role of a good Christian woman? Does she work or does she stay at home to be a good mother for her kids? What is the role of Fathers for that matter? Or, how about gays, can they be Christian? Where is the edge in this congregation? Where do we draw the line between us and other people? For the Pharisees it was handwashing, what is it for us?
I have a feeling Jesus would enjoy the discussion but really doesn’t care what the answer is. God doesn’t seem to care too much about the dividing lines that we draw. That was the whole point of what Jesus was saying. God doesn’t care if we follow the church rules or not, God is interested instead on what is coming from inside of us. What comes out of our hearts and enters the world? Do we choose to be one people, a humanity united in love of neighbor and self? Or do we choose to divide ourselves into groups, declaring that some of us are better than others?
I think the things that Jesus warns against are present in all of our lives. That desire to judge, that desire to place people into categories, and that desire to spend all our time worrying about other people so that we don’t have to worry about ourselves are a part of each of us. Jesus reminds us that it is what is within our own hearts that is sinful.
The list that Jesus offers is a scary one: sexual immorality, taking what does not belong to us, causing and ignoring the deaths of others, faithlessness, greed, pride, stubbornness, talking bad about others, deceiving others, ignoring our God. Not only do we do these things, we often allow ourselves to do more than one of these things more than once a day. Who are we to judge others when we carry these things within our own hearts? It reminds me of Jesus’ other teaching about the speck in our neighbors eye, it is a lot easier to see what is wrong with someone else than to face what is wrong within our own hearts.
Henri Nouwen helps us understand this by opening our minds to discover that the heart is so much more than simply an organ pumping blood. He writes, “The spiritual life has to do with the heart of existence. I find the word ‘heart’ a good word. I don’t mean by it the seat of our feelings as opposed to the seat of our thoughts. By ‘heart’ I mean the center of our being, the ‘place; where we are most ourselves, where we are most human, where we are most real. In that sense the heart is the focus of the spiritual life.”
Nouwen is reminding us that the heart is the core of who we are. And Jesus is telling us that from within our heart comes the evil that separates us from God. I would remind us as well this morning that from within our heart comes goodness. Along with Jesus’ list of evils, our hearts also contain the powers for love and joy, for care and concern, for humility and generosity, for grace. While we may often feel that we make little difference in the world, we also know that one kind act can often make all the difference in the world. The way we act in the world reveals the inner workings of our heart, and the inner workings of our hearts reveal our faith.
And so we come up against the hard lesson that Jesus was teaching his followers that day. There isn’t anything we can do to make ourselves more presentable to God. Life would be much easier if it was all about a checklist that we could work our way through. If all we had to do was come to church each Sunday, dress nicely, bow our heads in prayer, and put money in the offering plate life would be easy. But that is not what God wants from us. Going through the ritual motions of faith, is no different than dressing the part of a good person. It will not get us anywhere in the long run, and it will not make us right with God.
Jesus is challenging us to consider the deeper more difficult work of cleansing our hearts. Are we motivated by a desire to be good, or are we motivated by genuine love of neighbor? Are we doing what we think we are supposed to do, or are we doing what the love inside our hearts leads us to do in our world? Are we simply following the rules, or are we following the guidance of a heart of faith?
I don’t know what is inside your heart this morning, but I know what is inside my own. While there is faith and love of God, I am also well aware of my own ease at judging others or in acting selfishly. We all have areas that could use work and we all have areas where we need to grow. This morning’s scripture reading reminds us that nobody is perfect, even those people who seem to follow all the rules.
I believe this morning that we are called to thank God for the grace that enables us to follow Jesus despite our sinful hearts, and to thank God for the love of God that helps us continually grow into better people. May we live each and every day better than the one before. Amen.