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What’s within: A Sermon on Mark 7 and James 1 Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost
September 2, 2015, 1:53 pm
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Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.

Every summer in Eagle River, just about the 4th of July, there’s a festival called Watermelon Days. In addition to vendors, there’s a big pavilion, under which there are troughs of freshly cut, cool and dripping watermelon. One year, after walking through the seemingly endless maze of hand knit caps, decorated sweatshirts, and fine pottery, holding her mother’s hand under the beating sun, a little girl finally made it to the watermelon stand. She ran up and got the biggest, juiciest piece of watermelon. She shoved it in her mouth, and as the juice ran down her chin, a gray-haired lady walked by and said, “you’d better be careful, or you’ll swallow a watermelon seed and then a watermelon will grow in your belly.” The girl froze, dropped her watermelon, and spit everything from her mouth onto the lady’s shoe.

Sometimes, we take the proverb, “you are what you eat” a little too far.

I made stir fry the other day, with broccoli from our garden. I thought I had washed it well, but as it cooked, I saw that I hadn’t quite picked off all the caterpillars, and there was a little extra protein frying in my dinner. Is this how I get butterflies in my stomach?

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus and the Pharisees are debating about the religious practices surrounding ritual cleanliness. The Pharisees wouldn’t have touched my insufficiently washed broccoli, contaminated by the unclean worms.

Today, we can be confused by all this talk of ritual cleanliness and defilement and purity because it’s not our practice or way of thinking. For the Pharisees, ritual cleanliness was what determined your place in the community and the household, as well as your closeness to God. Your personal cleanliness was determined by your ability to keep your diet free of certain foods, washing food, cooking utensils, and yourself, as well as avoiding various bodily fluids. Your personal cleanliness affected the community’s cleanliness. The community’s cleanliness was necessary for God’s presence.

Today, this might be analogous to a group’s sense of welcome. What kind of person are you willing to move over to make room for at your table, and who do you pretend to ignore? What attributes determine if a person is actively welcomed or shunned?

Or, another way to think of the effect of the cleanliness worldview might be with the proverb, “choose your friends wisely.” My parents always reminded me before the school year of the importance of a student’s peer group- with its power to influence either good or bad behaviors. The people you associate with have the power to taint you: being around “dirty” or “bad” people makes you dirty or bad, too.

Ritual cleanliness either made you a part of the community, or set you outside the community for a time, so that the whole community could maintain its purity and its connection to the most holy God.

Jesus counters the Pharisee’s focus on ritual cleanliness by declaring, “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…” (15, 21a).

Jesus is less concerned with the practices of purity. Regarding my opening examples, I think Jesus would have laughed with that little girl and grabbed another piece of watermelon. I’m not so sure I can picture him crunching up those fried caterpillars… but you never know. These foods won’t create something bad within us. Jesus relocates the source of our uncleanliness, from external washing rituals to internal motivations.

But that leaves us with the difficult reality. What’s bad is already within us. The human heart- or whatever we conceive of as our center of being- is a place where evil and sin are harbored. That badness is expressed out of us in our actions and our words.

Alone, we are trapped in sin. All we do, even our best work, is marred by the root evil that resides within us. We might describe this sin as our base self-centeredness, in which we are turned in to ourselves, see only our needs and wants, and attempt to take God’s place in control, power, and judgment.

We are not left alone, trapped in sin. Through baptism, we are united with Jesus and given his righteousness, his sinlessness, and are thus freed from sin. But that freedom from sin is something that is not totally ours yet. We can still be stuck. Even when we try to make ourselves look good, there is something bad deep within.

Jesus says it’s from within that defilement comes. The epistle of James helps clarify how that community-destroying evil is expressed. For the community to whom James writes, sin has found its way into their speech. In James 1: 26, we read “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.” A bit past our reading for today, in chapter three, we read, “6 … the tongue is a fire…9 “with (our tongue) we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 10 from the same mouth comes blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.”

Talking is the central communication tool we have, and we do it all the time. Yet it is one of the greatest dangers to any community, and perhaps one that we here at Cross find we often struggle with.

We are a tight community, sometimes calling ourselves a family. But that can mean that we don’t guard our speech as we might among strangers. We can lose sight of what kinds of speech builds up community and what tears it down. A fun conversation can turn to gossip. Questioning concern can turn to judgment. Familiarity can find us speaking for others because we think we know well enough how they would answer. Talking is necessary for building relationships, and yet it can also so easily break them apart.

It’s helpful for all of us to always bear in mind Luther’s explanation of the 8th Commandment. In explaining what it means to not bear false witness against your neighbor, Luther writes, “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.”

As you go about your day, people can’t see your thoughts. They don’t know what is in your heart. But they can – and do- hear what you say, even when you think they aren’t listening. Think of all the ways you communicate throughout the day, all you spoke about yesterday. That is what shows the world what is inside you. That is what people will hear coming from one who is called to be Christ’s light for the world. That is how people will know Jesus- and may determine whether or not they want to know him more.

Will they hear you sticking up for someone everyone else is talking bad about? Will they hear you working towards an end to the rumor, pointing questions back to the source? Will they hear you encouraging others to try to see how another’s words or actions might be interpreted in a better way? Or will they hear you joining in to relationship fraying conversations? Will they note your silence?

As students return to school this week, we are reminded of how important speech is in developing a healthy learning environment. My heart breaks as we learn about the constant hurt of bullying among our youth. We must work to end this evil and heal those who are hurting.

Taming the tongue is not just a task for the youth. It is a struggle for all of us, and one that doesn’t seem to be valued in our culture.

God works within us, in the midst of our struggling, to bring us more closely into alignment with God’s vision for us. James describes our encounter with the Word of God as looking into a mirror. We see ourselves more clearly, and can turn from the mirror into a life that is continually transformed by that clarity of vision. Sin and struggle are a part of this life, but God also calls us to grow into a newness of life, freed from sin.

We are all on the path towards healing, towards better speech, towards loving action, towards following Christ more closely. Today we gather around Jesus’ table, first for healing and anointing, remembering that wherever we are on the journey, God is beside us, wiping away tears from hurtful words, restoring relationships, and forgiving where we misspoke. Later we gather to be fed by Jesus, who took all the world’s hate onto himself, experiencing the pain of rejection, so that we might be forgiven and made one community in him.

From ourselves, only sin can come. Thanks be to God, you have not been left alone. God has chosen to place God’s own holiness within you. The most holy one has entered our world, has entered your heart, and has not been pushed back by the brokenness that also resides there. Your heart might be a kitchen full of dirty dishes or half-washed vegetables, but the Spirit of God is at work, tidying up and making you holy.

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