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Outside voices, inner heart - Sermon for 14th Sunday after Pentecost

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You wonder how easy it can be to look at others' wrongs but how hard it can be to look at our own. And how easy we find ourselves being judged by others' self

Listen to the sermon rather than read it.  The text is included for your convenience, but it is not entirely like the delivered version, which includes nuances that can't be read.  

Sermon delivered at Lutheran Church of the Cross in Berkeley. 

August 30, 2015  - Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost.  

"Outside voices, inner heart".  Text is from Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 

Greetings to you, my sister and brothers, saints and sinners, children of God. 

We are back in the gospel of Mark now, and the Pharisees are back on Jesus trying to trip him up because they are afraid of the power that he appears to be possessing, not in spiritual gifts, but of the people that are following him. So taking an opportunity, they see that some of the people that follow Jesus are not observing particular holy customs that the Israelites have been observing since the time of Moses.  

veni sancte spiritus.jpg

Now, to be fair, these men are from Jerusalem, and they've made this trip all the way up to the Galilee just to found out about this man that they've been hearing about for some time. And it may just be that the region around the Sea of Galilee, while nevertheless home to Israelites, has become provincial and it is entirely likely that many of the particular traditions ... laws have become superseded for matters of convenience. After all, water is a scarce resource and you don't have members of the priestly class, the Levites all over the place here scolding people and letting them know what's up. So things get a bit relaxed. 

Not everyone washes their hands before eating. But the Pharisees see the world in black and white, and they're not altogether sure about Jesus. And while many of them themselves want to upset the hierarchy and overturn the Roman way of doing things, there needs to be an order about it and they just cannot see this man Jesus being a part of that order.  So it's not so much about what they've witnessed, that disciples are putting food in their mouths with dirty hands, as it is that a holy man such as Jesus is purported to be would be consorting with such people and allow such people to follow him without rebuking them to amend their ways. And even if there is an innocence about the question, that maybe Jesus didn't see what was taking place and they were being helpful, they certainly couldn't have expected what his response would be, right from the mouth of the prophets, that the traditions of humankind would supplant actual doctrine and that they would stand in place for where the heart was. 

Because the Pharisees and the scribes were following practices that had been developed over a thousand years, many of which had very little to do with what was found in scripture. And there were some very practical underpinnings to these particular laws. For instance, many of the foods that you find in the Torah, another name we generally refer to as the Pentateuch--the first five books of the bible, are those that might have gone bad fairly easily: Pork, shellfish; and we know today from history, that to stop the spread of highly contagious disease means to wash our hands thoroughly before eating, wiping our face, and many other things. So many of the laws that observant Hebrews followed were practical in their application. 

But I know that ultimately that these things that we learn to do to protect ourselves from disease--that are passed down from parent to child--what we think of practical or common sense can become oppressive when we rule them on others. Sometimes people only have one thing they can eat.  And sometimes water is not available for washing hands. And sometimes in polite society, people don't act exactly how we expect them to, and it's not a moral failing or indication of deep-seated flaws. 

To use a modern day example, when I first became a vegetarian, the decision was obvious. Not only for my health and well-being, but for the sustainability of the earth.  The amount of corn that we produce for cattle alone is more than we grow in the United States for human beings and having seen a documentary entitled "Food Inc.," I really came to understand that the few corporations that were responsible for the vast majority of food produced in the United States seemed to have so little regard for the livestock in their care. The conditions that animals used for feed have to live in are deplorable. But time and trouble it would take for me to subsist solely on organic free range meat was not something I was willing to take, so it became easier for me to simply swear off meat altogether. I had plenty of access to healthy vegetables and other non-animal protein sources.  

And many other well-educated and well-meaning people share this new ethical consideration around food.  So would it not make a lot of sense to impose this new, healthier system on the American public and export it to the world in general?

Well, not actually. For one thing, while in the United States, starvation is rarely a problem, in general, people who live in poorer neighborhoods and areas have little access to the kinds of foods that would be required to maintain a healthy vegetarian diet. And without the underlying resources necessary to educate people on food, pointing to the poor and telling them they're not doing their part to achieve food sustainability in the United States is short-sighted and oppressive. How much more destructive it is to withhold life-giving foods to people in poorer parts of the world simply because they offend our first-world sense of ethical accountability or genetic purity. 

It is really easy to impose our systems on others, particularly when there are aims and goals in sight. We find ourselves in the second half of 2015, firmly within a never-ending presidential cycle in which politicians have lost the ability to govern, instead on a constant drive toward the being the front-runner in the next election.  

And doesn't every word that come out of some of these candidates seem like it's designed to encourage some part of the American population to judge another part of them? How words of hate and bitterness emerge in our common dialogue. One cannot even go on Facebook and avoid being subject to the rampant anxiety of one of our friends liking, sharing or commenting on the refuse-stirring rants of an ideologue running for office. 

And how does it feel to be one of the outcast class of people that are to be blamed for all of America's ill will? What if you are the undocumented immigrant worker living in the United States, because there are no opportunities for you back home, and you hear popular presidential candidates saying that your kind are rapists and murderers and should all be sent back? 

Or the person struggling to find a living wage, hearing over and over again that the unemployed just aren't willing to take the jobs that are out there. Or the queer person who keeps hearing that they don't deserve the same public access because of people's religious beliefs. Or the person living on the street that keeps getting told that they're just not trying hard enough to fit in and be like everyone else.

Because it's much easier to appeal to the popular mass of people who are willing because of their own confirmation bias and privilege blindness to believe that they are the ones whose rights are being infringed, that they have an interest in collecting and gathering firearms that any advancement of people who are lower on the societal totem pole than they is actually an affront to their own equality.  

Or like when I'm having a a bad day and I can do nothing but take everyone else's inventory without actually looking at myself and my own actions. Because truth to be told, I'm as much a sinner as the next person down the street, and I need someone to tell me that I am loved. That despite my unconventional life that salvation is promised for me by God's faithful incarnation death and resurrection.  

And it doesn't matter what the prevailing outside voices are telling you, that you're not good enough because you can't find work. That your whole life is wrong because you've fallen in love with someone who's the wrong color, the wrong gender, the wrong religious orientation.  That there's something wrong with you because you don't have a mate. That all you need to get through being depressed is to try harder and all you need to stop drinking is the right amount of willpower. Those things outside don't matter at all, because it's what's within you that's important. That despite all of our failings or shortcomings, Christ has given us the means to overcome the messages that the world give. That the great gift of his faith give us the ability to produce the good things that help us be the people that God has meant us to be. 

In a few hours, my sisters and brothers, our bishop is going to lay his hands on me and through customs that have been developed and over the last two millennia, we ELCA Lutherans believe the Holy Spirit via an official sanction by the holy mother church endows one with the authority to perform some very particular sacramental acts. And yet, as important as that event seems, and believe me, some people are working very hard to make it very special and I'm honored by the attention; it still remains a very human custom. And while the Holy Spirit will be present and apparent there, she is nevertheless here, in this place as well, filling us and allowing us to go out and be the measure of good that God has ordained each and every one of us to be. 

Because while humans may be defiled by ungodly things that come out from them, our God through his son and by the Holy Spirit sanctifies us and empowers us to live better, holier and more rewarding lives readying us to live in the better life to come.

There, my sisters and brothers, is the good news. 

Amen.  


Image credit: Dr. David Schofield, who conducted so beautifully the music at my ordination.

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