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Sermon for Sunday 30 August 2015

FIRST READING Deuteronomy 4:1–2, 6–9

1 So now, Israel, give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the LORD, the God of your ancestors, is giving you. 2 You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the LORD your God with which I am charging you. 6 You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!” 7 For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is whenever we call to him? 8 And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today? 9 But take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your children’s children–
PSALM Psalm 119:129–136

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

SECOND READING Ephesians 6:10–20

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12 For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14 Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15 As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16 With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 18 Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. 19 Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.
GOSPEL Mark 7:14–23

14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” 17 When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18 He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, 19 since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20 And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. 21 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

One of the truisms of life, is that you can’t judge a book by its cover. As many of us can attest to, things aren’t always what they seem. I read a humorous story the other day, allegedly true, about a zoo in Spain that decided to conduct an emergency drill. The drill was designed to simulate how to handle a gorilla escaping from its enclosure. To make the drill more realistic, a zookeeper was dressed up as a gorilla and sent loping through the zoo. Unfortunately, not everyone on staff was notified about the drill. Upon seeing a “gorilla” fleeing from its cage, one of the zoo veterinarians grabbed a tranquilizer gun and shot the employee in the leg. I guess you could call the drill a success! Some things are not as they might appear.
There’s an intriguing legend known as “The White Witch of Rosehall.” It’s a tale of a beautiful woman named Annie Palmer who used her unparalleled beauty to lure wealthy men to marry her. Not the first time this has happened. However, each time Annie married someone, she found a way to convince him to add her to his will and then she would poison him. She would then continue to poison the husband even as she pretended to be nursing him back to health. The men would die, leaving her their estate. As a consequence she became quite wealthy. She was known as the “white witch” because of her alluring appearance of virtue on the outside, but her thoroughly evil nature on the inside. Appearances can be deceiving.
In our gospel lesson for today, the Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law had come from Jerusalem to “investigate” Jesus. On the outside these Pharisees were the epitome of respectability. On the inside, however, they were full of fear and envy, and they were growing in their hatred for Jesus. They were looking for ways to be rid of this up and coming itinerate Rabbi. They were looking for any excuse to discredit Him in order to cast aspersion on Him and His followers.
On this particular day, the religious leaders who had come from Jerusalem watched as some of Jesus’ disciples ate their meal without first washing their hands. This, of course, offended them; it broke one of their many so called “religious laws”. First we need to understand that this had nothing to do with sanitation. There were no wash stations with a sign saying all employees MUST wash their hands. It had nothing to do with preventing the spread of botulism or some other foodborne illnesses. They knew very little if anything about germs in those days. As I mentioned a moment ago, this was about the disciples “breaking with religious law. Their objection was about their failure to maintain the religious tradition. In fact, Mark pauses for a moment and explains to his Gentile audience, the Jewish practice of ceremonial washing.
A few verses earlier Mark explains that “unclean,” or koinais in the Greek, means “ceremonially unwashed.” It was a technical term among Jews denoting whatever was contaminated according to their religious rituals and thus was unfit to be called holy or devoted to God. Koinais could refer to either practices or to people. The most common ritual cleansing was the washing of one’s hands before eating food. Not that this is a bad idea. The problem was that the Jewish religious leaders had taken this from being a good hygiene practice to being a religious law. Therefore, for a loyal Jew to disregard this regulation was seen as a sin. You and I might say that these disciples were simply engaging in an unsanitary behavior. However, in the mind of the Pharisees, Jesus and His disciples were indulging in sinful behavior. As I said it’s simply a good hygiene practice.
In a practical way, I’m sure this tradition of ritual cleansing had a positive effect on the health of the Jews that observed it. It always fascinates me how some of the Jewish ceremonial laws protected them from disease. This was one of those cases. But protecting their health wasn’t what was of such grave concern for the religious leaders. What concerned them most was the disciple’s failure to keep the tradition of their fathers. So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?” Funny how Jesus always cuts right to the chase, isn’t it? Jesus knew what this was really about.
Jesus knew the Pharisees were not nearly as concerned about whether His disciples washed their hands, as they were determined to find fault with His ministry. So in responding, Jesus makes no reference to His disciples’ apparent ungodly conduct. Instead, Jesus replies, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’ You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”
Jesus, of course, was correct in His assessment of the Pharisees. The ceremonial laws regarding ritual cleansing were not biblical. They were part of later traditions which the rabbis used to comment on scripture. In truth they were holding fast to human traditions rather than to God’s commands. But Jesus wasn’t interested in the Pharisees’ supposed theology, but in their hypocrisy. What Jesus was getting at, was they were focused on some outward appearance, their façade of honoring God through their outward actions, Jesus, however, was focused on their inner integrity. Jesus citing Isaiah said, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” Their assessment of a person’s Godliness was what they saw on the outside, rather than what was in the person’s heart. They had forgotten the words God spoke to Samuel concerning David. The Lord said, “God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7b)
Pastor David Yarbrough tells of a time when he was in Bible College and he met an interesting young man by the name of Shannon. What made Shannon interesting was his looks. His hair was a different color each week, his ears were loaded with earrings, and he wore big, loose grunge-style clothing. But the most interesting point of his appearance was his shorts . . . and he always wore shorts regardless of the weather. But what made his appearance even more interesting was the way he wore the shorts; he always wore them backwards. As you can imagine, anyone who dressed like that at a Bible College stuck out like a sore thumb.
One day, says Yarbrough, he couldn’t stand it any longer and his judgmental sarcasm got the best of him and he made a crack about Shannon’s shorts. To his surprise Shannon was ready for his criticism. Shannon turned to him and said politely, “I’ll tell you . . . just like I tell everyone else who asks me why I wear my shorts backwards. I tell them that God turned my life around so fast that my shorts couldn’t keep up.” Think about that response for a moment. “God turned my life around so fast that my shorts couldn’t keep up.” It’s quite the interesting response don’t you think?
Yarbrough continued by saying that something interesting happened as that semester progressed. In spite of his odd appearance, Yarbrough began to see, through Shannon’s actions, class participation, research papers and prayers, that he was a very spiritual man. His initial reaction to Shannon was one of rejection, but once he saw past his bias to Shannon’s heart, his rejection soon turned to respect. If the truth be told, I bet all of us are guilty of prejudging. How many times have we been guilty of judging a person by their outward appearance alone?
I know fashion has changed over the past 50 or so years. How many remember when long hair on a man was seen as undesirable? What about men with ear rings? Or, body piercing; or tattoos? I grew up with the return of zoot suits. I know I had an opinion or two concerning those things. What’s interesting is that the way you dress is how people perceive you.
If your wear jeans, boots and a cowboy hat, you’re a redneck. If you wear droopy drawers, you’re a gang banger, a hoodlum. If you wear a nice suit, you’re seen as successful. If you wear a rag you’re a biker. I could go on but you get the point. We have a bad habit of judging people by the way we see them. It makes you wonder if, 40 years from now, people like us, you know church people, will realize how ridiculous our generation was to ostracize young people for such things as gauges, tattoos and piercings. The question is, who is most in need of the Gospel?; the prodigal who has wandered far from the family farm or the older son who has stayed at home and lived just like mom and dad desired. We may treasure that older boy more, and he needs the Gospel just as much as his younger brother, but we shouldn’t write off the prodigal just because he or she looks, or dresses, differently.
I saw an interesting comment the other day that I think is worth repeating. Theologian Leonard Sweet said: “The church loves blue hair . . . until it walks through its doors on a 16-year-old kid.” In many of our churches today we have a large “graying” crowd. The question we’ve been asking and need to continue to ask is, where are the young adults who so badly need to hear the good news of the gospel? Is it possible that we’re guilty of driving them away because they feel they’ll be judged by how they look on the outside and not what’s in their heart? Of course, judging on appearance isn’t limited to our view of the younger generation, the same mistake is made with older people.
Rev. Shambaugh tells about a woman he once knew who got engaged later in life. Her son, a successful businessman, flew in from the West Coast to have lunch with his mother’s fiancé in order to “check him out” and tell her what he thought. Her son’s feedback, of his soon to be step-father, amounted to one sentence: “He is a nice man but he needs new shoes.”
Rev. Shambaugh says the observation about needing new shoes was insightful. The man was going through a grief process following the death of his first wife. He wasn’t taking care of himself as he should and at the time had very low self-esteem. The shape of his shoes showed that something painful was going on in his life. However, what his critics missed, says Shambaugh was the incredible heart the man had inside. Despite the shoes, this couple did get married and were very happy together. We need to be careful about judging people, young or old, by their appearance. Jesus wasn’t concerned about outward appearance, but inner integrity. “These people honor me with their lips,” he said, “but their hearts are far from me.”
I wonder if our tendency to judge people by their appearance is a symptom of our estrangement from them. The answer is, of course, that by getting to know people person-to-person, that we’re able to get beyond appearances. In her book The Shelter of Each Other, Dr. Mary Pipher suggests that our obsession with appearance stems from our lack of relationships with those in our community. Generally speaking, when people live in smaller communities, they often have deep relationships with those around them. They know about their neighbors’ families, health conditions, religion and values, habits and needs. Because people know each other on a deeper and broader level, they don’t need to judge one another on appearances.
The problem today is, we’re less likely to know our neighbors, our sales clerks, pharmacists, bus drivers, colleagues, and so on. When that happens, we begin to judge each other by external appearances. We know nothing about the people we interact with on a daily basis beyond what they show us on the outside. In a disconnected society, we place less emphasis on internal values, like character, and more emphasis on external values, like looks. One man tells about working at a club on the weekend of the biggest motorcycle gathering of the year in his town.
When the motorcycles pulled up outside, the patrons of the club turned their eyes toward the door and conversation turned into uneasy whispering. A group of the tough looking bikers came into the club. He says one of them walked up to him and asked him where the phone was. He pointed it out, and the silence in the room let everybody overhear what the biker said into the receiver. “Hi, Mom,” the biker said. “Just want to let you know I’ll be home late tonight.” If we could look beyond the outer appearances and see every stranger as someone’s son, someone’s daughter, it just might make all the difference.
The Pharisees were concerned about whether the disciples washed their hands before eating. They weren’t concerned with the blind persons who could now see, the lame people who could now walk, the lepers who were now clean, Jairus’ daughter who was back from the dead. How could they be so blind to the work of God in their midst? How could they be so blind to the worth of the people they put down? Even more importantly, are we just as blind? Are we able to look beyond someone’s outward appearance to their inner needs?
Some years ago, there was a story on the news about a bizarre tragedy involving a private jet. Aboard the jet were the pilot and one passenger. During its flight, air traffic controllers noticed that the plane was off its flight plan, and the pilot was not responding to radio calls. The plane followed a straight, high-altitude path across several states and finally out over the ocean. It was tracked by radar until it spent its fuel and fell into the sea.
Though the exact cause of the crash remains a mystery to this day, air safety investigators concluded that the plane must have lost cabin pressure during the flight. Deprived of oxygen, both pilot and passenger either died or fell unconscious. Meanwhile, the plane’s autopilot kept the plane on a straight-line course, kept the wings trimmed, just as if it were being consciously piloted, until the fuel ran out and the inevitable crash occurred. Anyone who happening to look up and see that jet passing high overhead would have noticed nothing out of the ordinary. But even though everything about the plane seemed normal on the outside, something was seriously wrong on the inside. Some of the people you and I meet every day are like that plane.
Everything looks great on the outside, but inside they’re hurting, they’re needy, they’re lonely, they’re afraid. Like Annie Palmer, “The White Witch of Rosehall,” they need to reconcile their inner nature and to bring it into alignment with their outer nature. Maybe that’s true of you and me as well. Maybe on the outside we might look like we’ve got it altogether, but on the inside we’re a mess. If this is the case, with God’s help, you can begin living out the values you truly feel on the inside.
“These people honor me with their lips,” said Jesus, “but their hearts are far from me.” Like the credit card commercial asks, what’s in your heart? Does our heart reflect the heart of Jesus? We know it’s wrong to judge a person simply by how they look; but we still seem to do it. Suffice it to say, we need to take the time to get know others, especially those who might appear to be different. If we do, we just might discover that the person who looks like they don’t belong, might actually have their shorts on backwards because God turned them around so fast their shorts couldn’t keep up.

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