Sunday, September 2, 2012

Pentecost Fourteen
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
Psalm 15
James 1:17-27
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

This people honoreth me with their lips, But their heart is far from me. But in vain do they worship me, Teaching as their doctrines the precepts of men.

Doesn’t it seem like scientists are constantly changing their minds about what is good for us and what is bad? Perhaps it is not the scientists themselves, but those who report what they hear from the scientific community. One day we are told we should not drink coffee and the next we are told that coffee can be good for us. We’ve been told to avoid alcoholic beverages and that wine is very healthy to drink. We have heard it said that we should avoid all red meats and yet there was a successful diet that recommended heavy meals of protein, including red meat. Who is right? Which is the right answer? Should we drink coffee, wine and eat meat or should we avoid them? It is hard to know the truth when the expert opinions change almost daily.

I had to laugh the other day when I heard another report, this time about circumcision. The same confusing opinions have been reported for decades about circumcision. One day it is good to do, the next it is not. There was recently a controversy over this very practice as some wanted to outlaw it, despite the Jewish religious belief that it was commanded by God. The latest report I heard has said that it is good to have a boy circumcised very early in life. So, which is right? Is it good or is it bad? Is it so bad that we should outlaw it?

When I heard this latest report, I have to admit that I thought to myself, “Well, if people would listen to God, we wouldn’t be so confused.” Yes, the circumcision of baby boys is a religious practice, but God did not command anything that would harm His people. The laws about pork are good, because we know today that any pork eaten without proper cooking and refrigeration can cause serious illness and even death. The laws about blood and other bodily fluids are good because we know that disease passes through those fluids. We know the laws about cleanliness are good because it helps to stop the spread of disease. Though these laws often sound archaic to our modern understanding, there is good reason for them and we would do well to consider why God commanded those laws.

There is a lot of law in today’s scripture lessons, and I think that makes us a bit uncomfortable. We are not very good at keeping the law. Though most of us can say that we haven’t murdered anyone, I would guess that most of us would not be able to say the same thing about traffic laws. How many of us speed once in a while or forget to turn on our turn signal? We may not have robbed any banks, but which of us hasn’t ever told a lie? Can any of us say that we have never skipped church on a Sunday morning because we were just too tired to get out of bed? Haven’t we all, at some point, hated our mother and father?

We think about law the way we do Santa Claus. We think of it like God is our dad and he’s bribing us to be good. If we do something, then we’ll get something. We think of the blessing as an earned reward. That’s why we are so uncomfortable about the text today. We don’t always do what we should, and so we know we don’t deserve to get the reward. We fail daily to live up to the expectations of the Law and expect to receive the punishment. But God is not Santa Claus, and He’s not bribing us to be good. The Law is set out to make our lives better. If we do this, we’ll experience the world as it is meant to be. If we don’t, we will live in a world that is skewed and broken. God is not demanding obedience, but He’s showing us the right way to live. If we are obedient to the food laws and the hygiene laws, we will find that we are healthier and will live longer.

The psalmist asks, “Who will dwell in the house of the Lord?” The description of that person is that he or she is one that walks rightly, does good works, speaks truth. He or she does not slander others or harm people with word or deed. The ones who dwell with God are those who fear God and honor those who fear God, who keep their promises and act with grace and mercy. Those who do these things will stand firm, and it is those who abide with God.

But when we waver, when we do not walk rightly or do what is right, we tend to wander away from God’s holy house. It isn’t that God pushes us away, but that we leave that which God has given to us. With God, obedience is not a matter of “if you do this, then I’ll give you this.” God says, “If you do this, you’ll live in the world I have created as I meant it to be.” Blessedness is not a reward for good behavior; it is the fulfillment of everything God intended.

It is easy to convince ourselves that the life we choose by going our own way is the right one, especially if there is some semblance of faith involved. The Gospel text for today does not include the story of Corban, but it is worth considering as we talk about the law. The commandment tells us to love our mother and father. This is not just a matter of saying “I love you,” it is a matter of carrying for them when they need us. Unfortunately, the religious practice of the day was to give Corban, which means “Given to God” while ignoring the needs of the aging parents. The practice looked good and holy because it was a gift to the ‘church’, but it left elderly parents in need.

Do we ever do anything similar? Do we give to the church when the need is closer to home? Do we ignore the needs of our neighbor because our congregation needs a new basketball court for the kids? Do we forget to feed the hungry because we want a bigger sanctuary? How do we give to something that appears ‘holy’ when it ignores what God really intends for our resources? Sometimes we get so caught up in our understanding of the Law that we miss the intention of it. We end up living in a broken world rather than in the world which God has created. We lose the blessedness and experience the loss, not as a punishment but because we have turned away from God’s Word.

In our lesson, Jesus turns His attention to the crowd and says, “Hear me all of you, and understand: there is nothing from without the man, that going into him can defile him; but the things which proceed out of the man are those that defile the man.” The laws we obey are very helpful for keeping us healthy. We know, after all, that eating raw pork is dangerous and that washing our hands helps keep us well. But Jesus tells us that it isn’t our obedience to the Law that will manifest God in this world; it is living the life He intends us to live that will make God’s grace apparent. Those who care for their mother and father will show others what it means to care for those in need. A donation to the church will not.

The Old Testament lesson from Deuteronomy tells about the gift of God to His people: the Law. It was never meant to be a burden; God gave them the Law for a purpose. God is glorified by the obedience because the world will see how great things can be if we live rightly. They would be seen as a great nation not as a reward, but because they would manifest God’s plan. “Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, that shall hear all these statutes, and say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people. For what great nation is there, that hath a god so nigh unto them, as Jehovah our God is whensoever we call upon him?”

They knew they would be blessed by the keeping of God’s Law and set apart from the rest of the nations. They would be different because they would live as man was meant to live. But they fell short. They forgot to tell their children and their children’s children about the Lord and all they had done. They forgot His Law and turned to other gods. They sought the help of other nations instead of trusting in the Lord. Rather than understanding that the Law was a gift, they lived as if they were being rewarded for their good behavior. The interpreted the Law and turned it into hundreds of rules. They made God’s gift into a burden, expecting the people to keep the rules according to their understanding. Their righteousness was self imposed, not a manifestation of God’s grace. And they condemned those who did not live up to their expectations, like Jesus’ disciples when they did not wash their hands.

When they approached Jesus about his disciples, He answered with a prophecy from Isaiah. “This people honoreth me with their lips, But their heart is far from me. But in vain do they worship me, Teaching as their doctrines the precepts of men.” Then He told them that uncleanness had nothing to do with dirty hands. It is about heart, about faith. He went on to tell them that what comes out of a man is what makes him unclean. “For from within, out of the heart of men, evil thoughts proceed, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, covetings, wickednesses, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, railing, pride, foolishness: all these evil things proceed from within, and defile the man.” When we go our own way, follow our own righteousness, we end up in a world that is broken and distorted.

James tells us that it is the word of God that saves us, which He sent from heaven to give us a new birth. The perfect law was a gift from God, one that frees us to be all that God has blessed us to be. Our religiosity does nothing for our faith; our traditions do not bring us closer to God. Too often these things harden our hearts and make us turn from the truth. We are unable to find peace or salvation in our works; we can’t make the world a better place doing what seems to be holy if it isn’t what God intends. It is only through the grace of God, found in Jesus Christ, that we can truly be righteous, and in that grace we are called to live in the world God has created and that He intends it to be. In that world we will be blessed because we’ll be dwelling in the temple of God’s creating, not our own.

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