30 August 2009

Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost: "Purity and Prejudice"

There’s a Jewish fable that goes something like this: “A young man once came to a great rabbi and asked him to make him a rabbi. It was winter time then. The rabbi stood at the window looking out upon the yard while the rabbinical candidate was droning into his ears a glowing account of his piety and learning.

The young man said, "You see, Rabbi, I always go dressed in spotless white like the sages of old. I never drink any alcoholic beverages; only water ever passes my lips. Also, I live a plain and simple life. I have sharp-edged nails inside my shoes to mortify me. Even in the coldest weather, I lie naked in the snow to torment my flesh. Also daily, I receive forty lashes on my bare back to complete my perpetual penance."

And as the young man spoke, a white horse was led into the yard and to the water trough. It drank, and then it rolled in the snow, as horses sometimes do. "Just look!" cried the rabbi. "That animal, too, is dressed in white. It also drinks nothing but water, has nails in its shoes and rolls naked in the snow. Also, rest assured, it gets its daily ration of forty lashes on the rump from its master. Now, I ask you, is it a saint, or is it a horse?"[1]

What we appear to be is not always what we are – and what appears to help or harm us often does neither. Let us pray: Father, you created this world, and what we do with your creation is sometimes wonderful, sometimes shameful. Help us to see clearly the dangers within ourselves before condemning or blessing the environment in which we live. Create in us clean hearts, merciful Father, and renew right spirits within us. In Jesus’ name we pray: Amen.

A few years ago, I took the Amtrak Empire Builder train from Fargo, ND to Eugene, OR for my brother-in-law’s wedding. Traveling Amtrak by yourself is quite an experience, especially if you do it in the coach sections. I’ve never been much of a people watcher, but the characters I met on the Empire Builder almost demanded to be watched at times. I was fascinated, repulsed, annoyed, curious, shocked, and in the end, I looked around and wondered who are these people and how is it they share the same genes I do?

If you travel Amtrak and you’re not necessarily a people person, you want to make sure you’ve got a traveling partner, otherwise you’ll be sitting next to a complete stranger and wondering what world they live in. From Eugene to Seattle on my way home, I sat next to an anarchist business developer who launched into an anti-Republican spiel at the first opportunity. When he discovered I was a Lutheran pastor he told me how Christians are ruining America and how his kids had never set foot in a house of worship. When I agreed that some of the extreme right and left wing Christians were indeed doing more harm than good, he assured me that I obviously wasn’t as bad as most Christians. He delivered all of this with spectacularly bad breath.

From Spokane, WA to Whitefish, Montana I shared a seat with a retired bachelor farmer from a small town near Rugby, North Dakota. We had a delightful conversation, but it’s hard to feel comfortable sleeping that close to a complete stranger. Bachelor Farmer guy took the seats across the aisle when they opened up after Whitefish, but that afternoon we both got seatmates. Mine was an organic environmental studies student from Oregon who was spending his summer biking across the northern US. After fighting easterly headwinds across Montana for three days he was, shall we say, organic in every sense of the word, including his aroma.

Those were just my seatmates. I could spend hours telling you about the family whose women all had a Madonna complex, complete with fingerless gloves, or the guy who somehow managed to get drunk on $5 Heinekens, or the young mother with four kids who kept marching up and down the train with one kid in her arms, one holding her hand, and the oldest two leashed to her belt and complaining the whole way.

Somewhere in Eastern Montana I decided to take a look at the Scripture readings for the week and get some reflection done. It was these texts we’ve read here today. You can imagine my humbling experience when I realized what I’d been doing the entire time I’d been on the train. I had been offended by the commonness of these people, by their drunkenness, by their flaws and their indecency. I should have been worrying about myself. I should have been worried about my hypocrisy, my prejudice, my interior corruption and utter lack of respect for these children of God, flawed though they might be.

This is our struggle: to somehow come to grips with the fact that our surroundings and our dedication to keeping ourselves pure and spotless is not what makes us right in God’s eyes. In our Gospel reading today, Jesus goes right to the heart to explain the problem with humanity. “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”[2]

What Jesus is saying is that we can’t save ourselves by avoiding what is unclean and outcast. In fact, trying to do so heaps even more sin upon our heads, because slander, pride, deceit and folly, which Jesus includes in his list of sins, all come from trying to pretend that certain things and certain people are evil and are to be avoided at all costs.

An example of how this works. Before we had kids, Kristin and I were once visiting her sister and brother-in-law and our nephew, Quinn, who was just over a year old at the time. As a favor to Quinn’s parents, Kristin took Quinn upstairs one night to put him to bed while the rest of us enjoyed a beer or two outside on the deck. After about 5 minutes we heard cries for “Help!” coming out of the baby’s bedroom. We dashed upstairs to find Kristin covered, head to toe, in most of Quinn’s supper, which he had just thrown up all over. After we got Kristin into the shower and her clothes into the washing machine, Quinn’s mother, Kim explained that Quinn’s esophageal sphincter wasn’t quite developed yet, so he had no gag reflex to keep his food down if they fed him too much. So being covered in partially digested strawberries and carrots wasn’t an unusual experience in their family.

Now, if remaining clean were the prime directive, how was this child ever going to learn to eat or drink? Kim & Jerry’s God-given vocation as parents is to be right in the middle of the mess. You cannot be a parent without being intimately familiar with all kinds of bodily secretions. But it’s not just a matter of surviving; God intends for the greatest love to be expressed, at times, in the most polluted environments. Martin Luther once said that changing a diaper was as much his vocation as preaching a sermon, and every bit as holy a calling. Here’s a wondrous thing: honoring God with our lips means nothing if we don’t honor each other with our hands and feet in service to each other. Jesus proved this when he knelt and washed the dirty feet of his disciples.

Compare this with our behavior when unpleasant or controversial things must be done. We’re in the middle of rough economic times. One company fired 1,000 of their corporate employees by email. I don’t know what their motivations might have been, but don’t you think God would prefer us to have the compassion to downsize these people face to face at the very least? In the movie Office Space, two ‘efficiency experts’ claim that firing people on Friday is preferable because it give the fired person a weekend to calm down and reduces the likelihood of ugly ‘day-after’ episodes. The fact that we’ve discovered this and use it to deal with uncomfortable situations shows us how hard we work to avoid that which is unpleasant to us.

But here’s the primary dilemma: how do we deal with ourselves in these situations? According to Jesus, what is evil is what comes out of me, not what goes in me or what surrounds me. But I can only control what goes in me and what is around me – I cannot control what happens inside me. What, then, am I to do? When I cannot control my environment, and I cannot obtain my righteousness from what I eat and where I go, how am I supposed to become a righteous person? I can’t scoop out my guts and my heart and replace them with something different, can I?

No, I can’t – but God can. Here’s the unspoken promise in today’s Gospel reading: what is within us is beyond our control, but not beyond the control of God the Father and Jesus Christ his Son. So I should, therefore, pray to God, but not for protection from what is around me: I must pray for a change of what is within me. I must pray for a heart that is pure and clean before God – and for a spirit that is righteous because it is God’s spirit in me, regardless of where I go and what I must do. I must pray for a heart that sees others as God’s children, flawed as I am flawed but all the same God’s creation and my brothers and sisters in Christ – people I have the privilege to serve as Christ had the privilege to serve me in His life, death and resurrection.

Now we see that what is common and fleshy and secular doesn’t make us unholy any more than what is sacred makes us holy: it is God who makes things holy and God who allows us to be holy through the Holy Spirit. God’s law doesn’t set us above others – the law is given to keep us healthy in the midst of the world. The law is give to show the world how great God’s love is, that God should show us how to be healthy and whole rather than broken and following our desires after the next great thing. The law is given so that as we follow it, others may wonder who and what could inspire such loving service in a world that often forgets what it means to serve. Whether we are saints or whether we are horses, in all things we are God’s creation, made right through God’s gift of Jesus Christ and kept holy by the power of the Holy Spirit. Whether we’re changing diapers or changing the world, God’s concern is changing our hearts, and for that we say, “Thanks be to God.” Amen.

[1] A Treasury of Jewish Folklore: Stories, Traditions, Legends, Humor, Wisdom and Folk Songs of the Jewish People. Edited by Nathan Ausubel. © 1948, Crown Publishers, Inc., New York. p. 109. My thanks to Brian Stoffregen for including this story in his exegetical notes. http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/brian.htm.

[2] Mark 7.20-23

This is a sermon I've preached before. As I was preparing this week, it just kept coming up in my mind, over and over again. It's not for lack of effort to try something new - sometimes, what you've done before seems to be okay to do again, and when you get to late Saturday night and you can't write anything new because you're just remembering the old again, well, maybe that's a sign. Or maybe not. You can let me know.

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