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Sermon for Sunday 2 September 2018

FIRST READING Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9

1{Moses said,} “And now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the rules that I am teaching you, and do them, that you may live, and go in and take possession of the land that the Lord, the God of your fathers, is giving you. 2You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you.
6“Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ 7For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? 8And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today? 9Only take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and your children’s children … .”


PSALM Psalm 119:129-136

129Your decrees are wonderful; therefore I obey them with all my heart. 130When your word goes forth it gives light; it gives understanding to the simple. 131I open my mouth and pant; I long for your commandments. 132Turn to me in mercy, as you always do to those who love your name. 133Steady my footsteps in your word; let no iniquity have dominion over me. 134Rescue me from those who oppress me, and I will keep your commandments. 135Let your countenance shine upon your servant and teach me your statutes. 136My eyes shed streams of tears, because people do not keep your law.


SECOND READING Ephesians 6:10-20

10Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. 11Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. 12For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. 14Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, 15and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. 16In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; 17and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, 18praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, 19and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, 20for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.


GOSPEL Mark 7:14-23

14{Jesus} called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: 15There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” 17And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, 19since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. 21For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”



On the Sunday following Holy Trinity Sunday, our Roman Catholic friends celebrate a feast day known as Corpus Christi, that is the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ. In some countries such as Ireland which is heavily Catholic, this is an important celebration. In many rural communities there’s a Corpus Christi procession through the streets of the parish. Altar boys proceed the procession ringing bells to alert the faithful that the procession is coming near. People will come out of their houses, kneel, and make the sign of the cross as the Holy Eucharist passes by.
A priest here in this country tells about some recent Irish immigrants who had just arrived in his parish and were unpacking their belongings in their new home. Suddenly they heard bells ringing in the street outside. The whole family immediately stopped what they were doing, went outside, knelt down, and made the sign of the cross–just as an ice cream truck went by. I guess for some, it could have been a religious procession. I’ve known a few people that for them, eating ice cream is a sacrament.
In last week’s gospel lesson, we read that the religious leaders had come from Jerusalem to once again see how they could disrupt the teachings of Jesus. As usual, the Pharisees found something to grumble about; something they always seemed to be doing. This time it had to do with the fact that the disciples failed to wash up before dinner. As I reread last week’s and this week’s passages over earlier in the week, I could hear Terry asking Brett and Paige “Did you wash your hands?” This is, of course, an appropriate question for parents and grandparents to ask when trying to teach their young ones good hygiene. But, as we discussed last week, it wasn’t hygiene the Pharisees were concerned about, it was tradition. For the religious leaders it was simply another great opportunity to take yet additional pot-shots at Jesus.
As far as the religious leaders were concerned, Jesus couldn’t possibly be who people said He was, because either He didn’t know the rules of the game, or He chose to ignore the more than 4000 Jewish statutes. The religious authorities were claiming that everyone had to follow all the Jewish laws in order to be acceptable to God. In this particular case, what the Pharisees were preaching is, “Garbage in, garbage out.” Or, in the words of nutritionists, “You are what you eat.” And from a purely health and hygiene perspective, they’re correct.
We all know that if we don’t follow good hygiene practices, we can get sick. Everything from our cell phones, to shopping carts to door handles and so much more are covered in bacteria and germs. Additionally, if we eat nothing but junk food and candy our physical heath will suffer. Even foods that we consider “healthy” sometimes aren’t as healthy as we think, because of the way they are prepared or the dressings we use. All this is well documented, and the heath community does a good job of keeping us informed of good hygiene and acceptable dietary habits to follow. The problem here is, the Pharisees were also applying this philosophy to spiritual matters.
As far as they were concerned, these hygiene laws also applied to one’s eternal salvation. Jesus however, knows the truth. He then uses their rigid interpretation of these human rules to teach the crowd that “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile” (Mark 7:15).
To further His point, a point that the religious leaders were ignoring is, Jesus recites a list of nasty sins that can come out of a person’s heart and defile a person. Of course, the disciples, for some reason, need further clarification, so Jesus spells it out for them. Abstaining from certain foods simply because they were considered unclean, or failing to rinse one’s hands, isn’t going to defile or cause a person to sin. These are human rules; good or bad they have nothing to do with salvation or our relationship with God. The body has been designed to take care of regular everyday germs and the regular amount of bacteria. It’s the evil that comes from within us that produces sin.
Now to be clear, Jesus didn’t defend or excuse the disciples’ lack of good hygiene practices. From a health perspective, this is a good exercise. Jesus was pointing out the flaw in their teaching. He was pointing out that they were ignoring the sin that matters and focusing on the adiaphora, or the things unnecessary for salvation. The Pharisees were concerned about following the tradition that didn’t matter spiritually, choosing instead to ignore the things that will condemn us to eternal damnation. Things haven’t changes much have they?
A friend once said, we shouldn’t eat junk, and we all know what junk is. But of even more importance is, we need to be careful about what we purposely expose ourselves to; to what we hear and see, what values we embrace, the habits we form and practice. These are the things that affect the way we think and act. These are the things of the heart. And it’s the things of our heart that can either show us as Christians or defile us. Jesus listed the things we need to refrain from and guard our hearts against, He said, “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, unrestrained immorality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness (7:21-22.) The world may try to justify or cover up much of what Jesus condemns here, but Jesus is clear; these are the things that defile or cause us to sin.
Over the years I’ve been exposed to a couple of different service organizations, primarily the Kiwanis Club and the Lions Club. Both of these clubs, as well as others, have core values that they expect their members to live by. For example, there are six permanent Objects of Kiwanis International that were approved by club delegates at the 1924 Kiwanis International Convention in Denver, Colorado. Through the decades, they have remained unchanged.
• To give primacy to the human and spiritual rather than to the material values of life.
• To encourage the daily living of the golden rule in all human relationships.
• To promote the adoption and the application of higher social, business, and professional standards.
• To develop, by precept and example, a more intelligent, aggressive, and serviceable citizenship.
• To provide, through Kiwanis clubs, a practical means to form enduring friendships, to render altruistic or unselfish service, and to build better communities.
• To cooperate in creating and maintaining that sound public opinion and high idealism which make possible the increase of righteousness, justice, patriotism, and goodwill.
Like many of the rules the Pharisees had enacted concerning how they were to act toward others and rules concerning food and hygiene, these are all good rules for how to serve others and live a good, respectable life. The Lions club also has similar values.
The Lions Club holds as its core values that of integrity, accountability, teamwork, and excellence. Along with their motto, We Serve, these values become a part of every aspect of the club and all members are expected to adhere to them. Additionally, as a member of the Royal Rangers, our pledge was: “With God’s help, I will do my best to serve God, my church and my fellow man. To live by the Ranger code and to make the Golden Rule my daily rule.” In addition to that, we learned the code, “Alert, clean, honest, courageous, loyal, courteous, obedient and spiritual.” As I mentioned before, all these are wonderful guides to assist us in our human interaction and in our keeping the laws and good personal practices. But we must remember, these are still human precepts. We can follow all these and be “good people”, but none of this will save our souls without God’s mercy shown to us in Jesus the Christ.
As part of my seminary education I was required to complete Clinical Pastoral Education. The focus of this requirement was working in a hospital. I was assigned to Cooper Medical Center in Camden, NJ which isn’t very far from Princeton University. The reason I mention this, is my CPE supervisor was a graduate of Princeton Theological college and a product of the 80’s teachings. Because of his educational experience, he encouraged us to read all of the so-called positive thinking books.
The idea forwarded in all these “self-help manuals” is that there was nothing I couldn’t accomplish if I kept a positive attitude. These books teach you to repeat over and over, positive affirmations. While I do acknowledge that there is some benefit to these approaches, I’m not a big believer. Now on the positive, I suppose it’s more helpful to repeat positive affirmations over repeating negative statements like, I’m too stupid, too slow, I’m too inexperienced. For me the better option is to quote passages from the Bible, many of them taken from the psalms.
One in particular I like, comes from Psalm 51: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me” (v. 10). Of course, many of you recognize this passage from the green book Service of the Word service. A part of the liturgy I think I’ll revive in Advent. Those words, which were sung after the offering, I’ve repeated over and over, and found that they’e been helpful in returning my mind and my heart back where they were focused on serving God. At times these words have helped to protect me from expressing negative or bad thoughts that I’m exposed to day after day.
There are plenty of other very positive passages in the Bible that can, if you want them to, become a positive and uplifting mantra. Certainly the 23rd psalm has been helpful to many people in dark times. Luther taught that we need to recite the Apostles Creed, the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s prayer in the morning and before going to bed each night. Certainly, all these can be very helpful on days when we seem to have lost our grip on hope. This is why the psalmist wrote “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you (119:1.)
Maybe it’s my age, it seems I’ve saying that more often these days, but I’ve been thinking about the years of child rearing gone by and the years of grandparenting ahead of me in my future. I think about the values we tried to instill in our children, and what values we tried not to teach. An example of a bad value I didn’t want my kids to acquire, was that they were to win at any cost. We wanted them to understand that not everyone can be number 1, the winner if you will. We wanted them to instead focus on doing their best, that not being number 1 didn’t mean that you were a looser. The problem is we see the negative side of this in professional sports all the time. Bonuses have been paid to players who injure an opposing team member is just one example. We sometimes see that “value” lived out in business. We often see that “value” expressed in politics. I think you understand what I’m saying here.
Another pastor shared with me that a friend of his lost his job due to corporate downsizing. This friend had gone through a long period of unemployment before landing his current job and the pastor thought he would be devastated to realize that he might have to walk through that desert again. The pastor was surprised however. While the individual was sad and a little scared, he didn’t seem as crushed as the pastor had expected. He learned why a couple of days later when the pastor spoke with his wife. She said that the core values of the company he’d been laid off from, were the very opposite of the values that their family lived by and that they were both relieved that the tension between the two value systems was over, even at the cost of his job.
Garbage in, garbage out doesn’t just apply to what we eat, it also applies to what we choose to expose ourselves to on a regular basis. Jesus wants the religious leaders to understand, that while it’s good physically to watch what we eat and to follow good hygiene practices, it’s just that. These rules have nothing to do with our spiritual situation. Following all the human precepts will not help us spiritually. As one anonymous person once said, “while God doesn’t need our good works, our neighbor does” an important point to remember. What’s of utmost importance to God is what’s comes from the heart.
I don’t care what the world tells us: Jesus said, “For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. “All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.” You are what you ingest.
So, what is it that we harbor in our hearts. What do we want the world and our children to see? What values do we want to instill in our children’s and grandchildren’s hearts? If we allow the sin of this world, the garbage to enter our heart, guess what will come out: garbage. Our prayer should be that of the psalmist, “create in me a clean heart O God and renew a right spirit within me.” If we do this, what will come out will be the fruit of the spirit; love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control (Gal. 5:22.)

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