Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Trinity 14 - Mark 7

(Audio Link)

Do you gossip? “Of course not.” That’s the easy answer. That’s the answer we’d prefer to give. Do you speak rudely to people when you disagree with them. “Never.” That’s what we’d all like to believe. Do you color the truth in order to make yourself look better when you complain to friends and family about the things you don’t like? “Not really.” Mm-hmm.

So would you say to me, the messenger of God in this place, that at the bottom of your heart you are not really a liar and a blasphemer, that from your heart comes mostly good things, charity, tenderness, mercy? Do you think this snot-nosed kid is so young and inexperienced to as not understand the heart of man? What do you actually know about me? What do you know of my wisdom? More so, what have you said about me and my wisdom in the last few days and weeks of your life? Have you spoken only well of me? Have you spoken only well of all those who sit in the pews around you, those who you shall soon kneel beside in order to receive together the body and blood of God?

Do you gossip? How bridled is you tongue? How freely do you bend and compromise the truth in order to satisfy the desire of your heart to see yourself as a bed of rose petals? How hard are you willing to work to ignore the thorns? Are you willing to suffer for the sake of defending your lying tongue? Are you willing to bleed for it? Are you willing to burn for it?

Such is the fate of all hypocrites. Especially the pietous, religious men and women whom the prophet Isaiah spoke well of, People who honor God with their lips, but whose hearts are far from him. People who worship God in vain, clinging to their traditions and the structures of man’s devising while ignoring the commands of God – while most especially ignoring how much they have ignored the commands of God, such as the command to only speak well of every neighbor, to put the best construction upon the name and actions of others, so as to preserve their honor and integrity in the world and the congregation.

Ah, but don’t you see pastor? You are so young, and you will learn with time. We have striven for so long to wash our hands ourselves, to show that our fingernails are clean and trimmed, to make certain that the external things of religion appear neat and tidy and in order, and if we but keep these appearances up, then we can at the very least say to ourselves that we are good, devout, upright, godly people, even if the church falls apart around us, even if the pews get emptier ever year, even if we cannot convince any of those who visit us that we are more friendly than they realize, even if those who are members with us, disappear without our ever knowing why. Don’t you see pastor? You are so young. You will understand with time.

Children, I see. I see all too well. Do you think I come to you teaching my own ideas? Do you think the Seminary is a bunch of snot-nosed kids talking about what they think the Bible means? Do you suppose I have such confidence in myself? No. I come bearing the Word of God. I come taught by my fathers, who were taught by your fathers, who themselves were taught by the fathers.

I come thus instructed and approved by the entire Church, and I have see all too well a people who are fanatically washing their own hands, scrubbing the skin till it is raw and red, and then holding them up to the light and saying, “See, I have got the dirt and filth off.” But the hands are bloodied with the blood of your neighbor’s good name and integrity, and all of your structures and experience and self-claimed wisdom cannot make that go away.

This is just the fact of Scripture’s testimony. The words from lips which claiming the name of Christian while mouthing liturgy and creed and song, - such words cannot undo the pollution which comes spewing forth the moment you have walked away, into your preferred dark corner, where you know you can poison the wells of others’ lives, by tearing down those who are not present in order to boast all the more of how clean your scabby hands and whitewashed metal building are.

Is such a thing really your preferred decision? Do you want to leave the commandment of God behind while holding to the tradition of men with your every last venomous word?

It is our Lord who said, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: The things that come out of a person are what make him unclean. From within, out of the heart …come evil thoughts…coveting, …deceit, …envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

No matter what you have done otherwise. No matter how lofty your service or suffering or giving, no matter the past glories, dreams or accomplishments, nothing you have done or ever will do can undo your unbridled and decadent tongue. For it was the Apostle James who wrote, “we all stumble…. we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us…. And ships …are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is small…, yet it boasts of great things.

I speak now only James: How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire, and the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set …., staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and [the tongue will be] set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by man, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. I speak only James, My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.”

Is anyone here wise? Then show your good conduct by the meekness of your wisdom. Learn silence, contemplation, a hesitancy to speak, and a hatred of your own anger. But do not expect this pastor to believe that the bitter jealousy and selfish ambitions which I have seen can be overcome by the boasts I have heard about what loving and good people we are. Such boasting, as St. James says, is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, and demonic. For wherever jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. The wisdom from above is pure, peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.

And such wisdom is the wisdom of our Lord, which we have just heard him practice in the words of the Evangelist Mark. For while the Pharisees and hypocritical religious people of his day, those who thought they knew their religion, nonetheless fought and grumbled and slandered and politicked, clawing like immature children to each be seen as the most pure and the most right in the eyes of all the rest, Jesus paid little heed to such men. In the great wisdom of his Godhead, he saw that it was better, since he was able, to care for those who ate without having washed their hands in just the right way, to ignore the unwashed hands on unwashed men in order to focus on the real problem – the unwashed hearts. And He had come, sent from God, to do what man could not do with his hands, no matter how ardently he scrub them. He came to wash the hearts that simple water alone could never reach. He came to cleanse hypocrisy and evil tongues with the fire of rebuke. He came to set up in the place of hypocrisy and jealousy not an empty void for more of man’s wicked words and thoughts, but place for his own Words. His pure, perfect, peace-making words, words which flowed from his heart, which is not evil, but the very ultimate good.

It is Jesus’ Words, Jesus tongue, which is the hope of the man who has unwashed hands. It is Jesus’ Words, Jesus tongue, which must cleanse and pluck out from within each man the evil which there resides. It is Jesus’ Words, Jesus tongue which is given to make peace, to release us from the bondage of gossip and jealousy, to let each of us release the memory of even our very best works, even our best insights, into the dung pile where they belong, that we can be free to cease comparing ourselves with each other. We can stop scrubbing our hands and keeping lists and looking askance as we whisper in dark corners, or speak in anger, or complain out of turn, or fail our God and our neighbors in any number of the other ways we all know that we have.

The beauty of the Lord is that we are free to speak with honest tongues the confession that our hearts and tongues are too often fire and evil. We can confess that we have failed to bridle them. We can confess that our highest performance of service is only the duty of slave, nothing to be boasted of.

It is then, as we mouth this testimony of the Word of God back to Him, confessing who we are, admitting who we have made our selves, ignoring the praise of man’s lips and instead seeking the praise of a broken and contrite heart – of a heart which knows full well that left alone it has no true praise to offer God - it is then that, together, we will see that our unclean hands, though they still remain flecked with dirt, can nonetheless pick up the brother who has fallen besides us, rather than kick him when he is down. Our unclean tongues, which only speak from unclean hearts, can nonetheless strive to protect the dignity of our neighbor, defending him against all words spoken in dark corners. It is when we no longer look at ourselves, but instead cry out to see Jesus, that we no longer will be ashamed of what we see. And when are no longer ashamed of what we see, we will find there is little need to waste our words by boasting of ourselves and deriding the failures of others.

In Jesus, we need not defend ourselves, for in Jesus we see the God who defends us. In Jesus, we need not worry that our lips offer empty praise, for in Jesus we have the Word of God who speaks that praise for us. In Jesus, life ceases to be about trying to make ourselves look clean, for in Jesus we are clean, by the blood he shed on the cross. In Jesus, nothing else matters but Jesus because it is Jesus whose lips and mouth are the Word of God.

And it is Jesus’ clean lips and mouth that will only moments from now smile upon you and say, “Take and eat. Take and drink. This is the forgiveness of sins. This is why you are a gossip and this is why your gossiping will be put to an end. This is why you are a liar, and this is why your lying will be put to an end. This is why your evil heart bursts forth in jealousy, dissensions, envy and pride, and this is why your jealousy, dissensions, envy and pride will be put to an end. This is why you deserve to be the one who dies on a cross and yet this is the cross died upon for your sake in your place, not as the final ending which wrath demands, but as the miraculous beginning which grace bestows. Oh, sweet mouth of Jesus which speaks such words to such people as us. I tell you, congregation, that if this snot-nosed kid isn’t preaching the Gospel to you now, then you will never hear it, for there is no Gospel like “Take and eat. Take and drink.” There is no mouth like the mouth of Jesus. There is no heart so good as our God’s.

There is an old practice in the Church, an ancient practice. Spoken of even in the Scriptures, it is known as the sharing of the peace. If you look carefully in your hymnal, new or old, you will find that the instructions for this bit of liturgy is there, generally following the prayer of the Church. It is the passing point from the service of the Word to the service of the Sacrament, and it is with very good reason that it is there. For none of us should ever come to this table unless we can look into the eye of every other person who joins us there and wish them true salvation in Christ and peace with God and man from the bottom of our hearts. You will find that, as good as we are at lying to ourselves and others when we lurk in dark corners, it is nearly impossible to lie in such a way straight into the face of one against whom you hold a grudge.

Therefore, today, as a gesture our repentance and of our desire that we all together be made right with God and with each other according to the promises given in this meal which we shall eat, we will reinstitute the practice of the sharing of the peace. It is simple and harmless. One merely walks up to another, extends the hand and says, “Peace be with you,” or “God’s peace to you.” And yet, we may in fact find this simple action quite difficult. We may be quite afraid of it, because it quite likely that it will reveal to you the deep and bitter grudges you have hidden in your heart for longer than would behoove a pious Christian. That is precisely why it is good for us. If you can not reconcile with your brother in a fellowship so small as this, then I as your Pastor have no business welcoming you to a table of forgiveness.

So then, let us each swallow our pride crucified for us in the food which now is given. I myself shall meet and greet every one of you in the room, and I deeply encourage you to do the same, not forgetting to greet our children as well. You will find, I believe, that the case truly is as CS Lewis once wrote, “A repentant heart is not a cup which one may sit and sip. To barely taste repentance is to refuse to drink it at all. No. You must drain the cup all the way down to the dregs. And then you will find, bitter though it is, commingled in it is joy beyond your wildest dreams."

This is the joy set before our Lord for which he died on the cross. It is the joy of reconciliation. It is the joy of quietness and peace. It is the joy of hearts washed in a better blood than our own, the joy which comes from the right hand of God, the Gospel itself, which is, after all, why we have come here this evening to begin with. For though our tongues wag and our hearts deny, though our flesh rage and our minds insist that boasting is the only justification, though the grass withers and the flowers fade, this Gospel which is our salvation, even now, the Word of the Lord, endures forever….In the name…

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