August 8th Sermon at Third Presbyterian Church: Making a list and checking it twice
Last week, we heard about people in the crowd asking Jesus why he and his disciples did not observe the traditions of the elders when it came to washing hands and dietary customs. You may remember verses 14-16: 14 Then he [Jesus] 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.”
Jesus changed the conversation about food and ritual to a conversation about how our inmost thoughts and the things we say and do are what matter. And as per usual, everyone left a little confused and with a lot to think about.
Today’s text picks up after Jesus and the disciples leave the crowd.
Mark 7:17-23 NRSV 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.”
Jesus makes what is known in the Greco-Roman world as a vice list. “These lists appear elsewhere in the New Testament (e.g., Gal 5:19-21; Col 3:5-8; 1 Pet 3:15) as well as in Stoic and other philosophical writings and in Jewish writings.” (Wisdom p. 186).
“Mark’s list begins with “evil intentions,” an umbrella term for the defiling actions elaborated by the list.” (Wisdom p. 186) The list is made up of actions and behaviors that destroy social interactions and relationships. Chances are, if you are human, you have had evil intentions and have done several of the things on this vice list.
This time I’ll read the list as it appears in the Contemporary English Version: 20 Then Jesus said: What comes from your heart is what makes you unclean. 21 Out of your heart come evil thoughts, vulgar deeds, stealing, murder, 22 unfaithfulness in marriage, greed, meanness, deceit, indecency, envy, insults, pride, and foolishness.
And if you’re thinking to yourself that you have safely avoided these vices (at least for today), I want you to consider what folly or foolishness means. I’ve written about foolishness in my reflection on Psalm 14. A fool is someone who makes a mistake about reality. That mistake is thinking that we are not accountable to God or that God’s reign is merely symbolic. God’ reign, God’s kingdom is about love and showing loving-kindness to everyone. In wisdom literature as in Psalm 14, the opposite of folly is loving-kindness. We are fools if we do not infuse our hearts, our intentions, and all our actions with love. Only God loves perfectly. But even in our imperfect ways of following God, we are called to be more like God, setting ourselves apart from the fools.
In making this vice list, Jesus “has distinguished his flowers with identity markers that are ethical, relational, and societal and has resisted markers of ethnicity, cultural practice, and gender. His identity markers are accessible to Jew and Gentile, women and men. Yet the passage recognizes a constant aspect of human existence that cannot be eliminated from his family of followers (3:31-35), namely, the presence of evil intentions in the human heart. Given particular personal and societal circumstances, these evil intentions result in a huge range of potentially destructive and harmful behaviors. The passage does not elaborate on how to control such intentions and behaviors so as to secure human community and uphold a good life.” (Wisdom pp. 186-187). Of course not, and really, even if the passage did contain a list of exactly what to do, would we be able to see it’s wisdom and follow in the way of love or would we ignore what is real like the fools we are.
Dealing with what is real and not what was or what we hoped ministry would be is important, especially in this interesting time we are living in. Last week, Mary Louise walked us through what church was like in modern times and in post-modern times and reminded us that experts, scholars, and theologians do not agree on what time we are currently in.
I had lunch with my friend Rev. Dave Roberts earlier this week to talk about Presbyterian Media Mission’s work and how they are pivoting to deal with our new and ever-changing reality. He asked, “what if we are in a pre-Christian time? And if instead of seeing the church as dying, what if we saw it as the beginning of a new era of Christianity? How would that change our priorities?”.
For Dave, the priority isn’t about getting butts in the pews for worship because worship isn’t ministry. Worship is what happens when people thank God for what God has done for them because of ministry. Ministry is the relationships we build with others in our community. Our job is to be in right relationship and to point to God. I think Jesus would agree.
We’ve been studying the gospel of Mark each week in worship. How many times did Jesus invite people to come and hear him teach in the synagogue? How many times did Jesus meet people where they lived (even when the boat went off course and landed in an unplanned place)?
Jesus, the disciples, and the early church met people where they were. They did ministry in every conceivable location. They met the needs of the people they encountered. They offered food, healing, hope, and love.
We are living during a pandemic.
We’ve noticed that some people are having a really hard time. People have lost loved ones. People are sick and suffering. People have lost jobs, homes, and any sense of security they once had. People have lost hope. People feel isolated and unloved.
We’ve noticed that some people have been tremendously financially successful in the pandemic. But we would be fools to think this is ok. The rich have amassed their wealth by exploiting others, by stepping on the backs of those who labor for them and devouring the oppressed. They are under the illusion that power comes from billions of dollars, how many people answer to them, and sailing into space while others sleep in the dirt. This is not power; this is not love. This is greed, ignorance, and cruelty.
We’ve noticed that our church and many others have been struggling to reopen, to create policies that make us feel safe, and to find ways to be what we once were. And while this is important work for an institution, this is not ministry. This is not bringing about the reign of God. People will worship at home and eventually in this building when they have been touched by the love of God that we show in our relationships that they want to worship and thank God for what she has done.
God is love. There is power in love. God’s power, the power we are called to participate in, is the kind of power that heals the sick, comforts the grieving, and gives food to the hungry. Love lifts the oppressed. Love makes sure there is abundance for everyone. Love builds healthy relationships. Love begets more love. And most of all, love points to the source of love. God is love.
For the Children’s Sermon I read: What is God Like? I worked in the last page of the book with something from the sermon as part of the benediction…I wish I had written it down. The truth is I forgot about the benediction and just let it happen on the fly, but it felt like the Holy Spirit was in worship. She also had me say things that weren’t written in the sermon too I think, because it seemed like a better sermon on Sunday morning than it did when I wrote it and now that I read it again to post it…