Sermon for Sept. 2, 2012
14th Sunday after Pentecost
When I first took a look at today’s Scriptures, my reaction was: What appropriate lessons these are for an election year!
This 14th Sunday after Pentecost is also Labor Day Weekend Sunday, the final holiday of the summer, the demarcation point between summer and autumn, and the official beginning of the 2012 presidential campaign, which has actually been well under way for nearly four years. One party held its convention in Tampa last week, and the other party will hold its convention in Charlotte this week. What an apropos time this is for today’s lessons about rules and laws and customs and governance.
We begin in Deuteronomy. In verse 5, which immediately precedes today’s lesson, Moses tells the Israelites, “I now teach you statutes and ordinances for you to observe in the land that you are about to enter and occupy.” “Statutes and ordinances” are the stuff of legislatures and governance. Moses warns that Israel “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.’” Surely a great nation needs wise and discerning people today, when our leaders are chosen by popular vote, unlike the monarchies and judges of the Old Testament. Moses further tells them to “make them known to your children and your children’s children,” which takes us from governance into childrearing — but can childrearing and governance ever be entirely separated?
The writer of James, who is believed by some to be the brother of Jesus, is most often remembered for his defense of good works, writing, “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” It is little wonder, then that Martin Luther, who proclaimed “Sole Gracia, Sole Fide, Sole Scriptura” — Grace Alone, Faith Alone, Scripture Alone — had no use for James’ epistle. But James is persuasive in arguing that telling a brother or sister who is naked and hungry to go in peace and rejoice in the Grace of God does not meet that person’s needs. Perhaps the lectionary will tackle those verses in the next few weeks.
Millard Fuller, the founder of Habitat for Humanity, is a follower of James’ “good works” doctrine. He wrote about what he called “the theology of the hammer.” “Everybody can use the hammer as a manifestation of God’s love,” he said.
In today’s lesson, James tells us clearly that “Religion that is pure and undefiled … is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Surely, this definition addresses the current political movement that would eliminate food, shelter, medical care and other basic needs from the responsibilities of society and of society’s fundamental organizational unit, the government. In ancient Israel, orphans and widows were the obvious underclass of society, people who could not care for themselves and who had no family to support them. Today, we would add the physically and mentally handicapped, the unemployed and uneducated. James would tell us that if we do not care for the “least of these” (as Jesus described them), then our religion is not pure.
I would take this argument no further than this. I do not believe the Bible speaks to specific legislation or laws or court decisions. I cannot tell you with certitude by reading the Bible whether the federal budget should be two trillion or ten trillion or whether the state should build toll roads or light rail. What I can tell you is that government is made of people, and if we the people are not concerned about widows, orphans and others struggling in a world far more complex than it was in first century Israel, then we need to re-examine our religious standards.
James’ greatest gift to us this Sunday 64 days before a national election might be his admonition to stop yelling at each other. That’s not exactly how he put it. He wrote, “”Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” A few verses later, he says, “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.”
Wouldn’t you like to post that on the screen the next time a political ad pops up on the television or the computer screen or a billboard? Anyone who has been on Facebook — and about a billion people are on Facebook — has probably been offended by some political slogan posted by one of their “friends.” Those of my generation on Facebook are there mostly to see pictures of their grandchildren or to catch the latest development in whatever their passion is — the Carolina Panthers or bee keeping or poodle rescue — and not to read political diatribes. So let me suggest that the next time you see one of these partisan political rants on Facebook, don’t get mad, don’t un-friend the perpetrator, simply quote James, “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. (James 1:19)” I look forward to the day when it’s safe to go back on Facebook again.
James’ advice is solid. We should all be less vocal and more attentive to others. One of my favorite quotes in the world of journalism is from Anders Gyllenhaal, the former News & Observer editor who is now director of news for McClatchy Corp. He said, “You never learn anything when you’re doing all the talking.” If you follow James’ and Anders’ advice, you might learn something.
Today’s lectionary becomes complete, as it so often does, in the Gospel lesson. Here, Jesus and his disciples are confronted with what might be described as a political situation. His disciples have been observed eating their food with unclean hands. This is not a Scripture you want to read to small children who have enough excuses for not washing their hands already.
The Pharisees and Scribes, who might be described as the political power brokers of their day, had seen some disciples eating without washing their hands first, and they confronted Jesus with this violation of law and tradition. But the defiled hands they mentioned had nothing to do with hygiene. These ancients knew nothing of bacteria or viruses; they were cleansing not to avoid spreading disease but to fulfill a rule imposed by religious authorities. So if you want to discreetly squeeze a little hand sanitizer on your hands between the Sharing of the Peace and Communion, that’s OK. Jesus was not talking about that.
Jesus saw their holier-than-thou attitude for what it was and insisted that cleanliness of hands is no substitute for cleanliness of heart. He cited Isaiah in saying this adherence to cleanliness rules was like honoring God with lips but not heart and teaching “human precepts as doctrine.”
He then goes on to expound upon the cleanliness rules and dietary rules of ancient Judaism. It is not what goes into a man that defiles him but what comes out. Those who declare that consuming beer or wine will lead to damnation overlook these verses, for Jesus makes it clear that what you consume does not make you evil; it is only what comes from within you that is evil. “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come,” Jesus said.
It is unfortunate that in an election year, a lot of evil thoughts are coming from within the politicians who would lead our government, and we have difficulty avoiding the ill will of political campaigns. Mark does not tell us how the Pharisees reacted to Jesus’ correcting of their “politically correct” rules about cleanliness. Perhaps they went away chagrined that what they thought was a lawful rule was completely backward. Mark simply writes that Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre, where, perhaps, he was able to avoid the Pharisees’ questions the way we’d like to avoid politicians’ advertisements, speeches and phone calls.
Peace to you on this day, in this year and always. Amen.