Sunday, August 30, 2009

An Inside Job

Shalom Lutheran Church, Alexandria
August 30, 2009
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

“Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3(For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles) 5So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’ 6[Jesus] said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,“This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; 7in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.” 8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition….’
14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’…21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
In the name of Jesus. Amen.

If this gospel reading strikes you as being all about personal hygiene or “politeness”—guess again.

If these verses from Mark 7 seem to be mainly concerned with Department of Public Health regulations or “Miss Manners” pronouncements…look deeper, far deeper, into what Jesus is saying here.

Jesus isn’t merely tinkering with social mores or the intricacies of “keeping kosher.” Jesus, rather, is going to the heart of the matter—as he usually does!

And that’s why his sparring partners are so uncomfortable. The scribes and Pharisees—dead serious “pooh bahs” from the synod office in Jerusalem—they are so incensed here because Jesus is fiddling around with their moral universe—Jesus is tampering with their most cherished, time-honored assumptions about good and evil and how the world is ordered.

Please notice how these opponents attack Jesus here—indirectly, at first: “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”

Now, the first thing we need to get straight is that the scribes and Pharisees were not the public health department. They had no concept of germs or bacteria.

No. What the scribes and Pharisees imagined to be in jeopardy was their whole view of the universe. And they were especially fixated on the place of human beings in that universe.
You see, in the universe that the scribes and Pharisees cared about, evil was primarily an “out there” problem.

The children of Israel had been set apart, made holy by God. But they believed they lived in a dangerous, defiling world. There were all sorts of things and persons and realities “out there” that could invade their neatly ordered lives. These primarily external threats had to be guarded against—these evils needed to be warded off—at all costs.

So, to preserve the holiness—the set-apartness--of God’s people, the scribes and Pharisees had drawn up a raft of fine-print interpretations of God’s commandments. That’s what they’re referring to here in verse 3, when they speak of “the tradition of the elders,”—all the dietary regulations, ritual washings, kosher food rules that eventually were codified in the 500 volumes of the Talmud.

This whole well-ordered universe of Old Testament law, elaborated upon by generations of rabbis in the Talmud—Jesus and his followers were threatening this whole well-ordered universe by their dismissive approach to the most elementary of rules and regulations:

How they conducted themselves.

How they performed (or failed to perform) all the prescribed ritual washings.

How and with whom they prepared and ate their food.

You name it.

“Why do your disciples,” Jesus!—“why don’t they live according to the tradition of the elders?”

That’s the kind of question you expect to hear from folks who envision their carefully-crafted universe starting to crumble. It’s what persons say when they feel as though everything they’ve ever counted on is suddenly “up for grabs.”

Perhaps you know the feeling. I certainly do. In my nearly 55-years on earth there have been so many changes in how we view what’s right and wrong, what’s proper and improper, who’s “in” and who’s “out.”

Perhaps, like some of the 300 folks I met with this past Thursday at an open forum up in Thief River Falls—perhaps you have been hearing about actions of our recent ELCA Churchwide Assembly in Minneapolis. Perhaps you’re pleased with what happened there. Or perhaps you’re struggling with our church’s decision to find ways to include gay and lesbian persons in committed relationships—and to welcome some of them to the pastoral office—perhaps all of that has you wondering how “they” will affect “us” in our churches. Has our own “moral universe” in the ELCA perhaps been tipped upside down?

The Scribes and Pharisees in our gospel lesson were right to be concerned!

Because Jesus did, in fact, come to fiddle with, to re-adjust their moral universe. Jesus came to reverse the flow of things—to reverse the connection between what’s “out there” and what’s “in here.”

The scribes and Pharisees seemed fixated on evil being an enemy “out there,” an enemy to be kept at bay, warded off, in order to maintain our God-given holiness.

But Jesus pointed out that the worst, the most damaging manifestation of evil isn’t “out there” somewhere.

It’s “in here.” Evil is an “inside job.” Evil works on us from the inside out—not primarily from the outside in. Evil always aims for the heart of things—evil zeroes in on our hearts, in fact. Evil forever seeks a place of residence in the center of our being—and from that command center, evil does its very worst damage. There’s nothing evil out there that can get us, unless the rot is already taking over the core, the heart of our being.

So rather than making nice with the scribes and Pharisees--rather than engaging in a little “ain’t it awful” game with them, Jesus turned the tables, reversed all the arrows, and proposed a positively revolutionary revision in how they—and we—look at our moral and spiritual universe.
“Listen to me, all of you, and understand,” warned Jesus. “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”

Jesus, as usual, gets to the heart of the matter—he aims his arrow for the vital spot, the center inside us ALL, the human heart. The old prophet Isaiah had it right all along: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me….”

Their hearts! That’s what Jesus wants to place in the forefront of our universe. It’s the heart that Jesus zeroes in on. For the heart is where evil always strives for a foothold. From the inside, from the heart, comes all the crud and corruption—all the stuff that turns us rotten: warped behavior, boozing, pilfering, cheapening life, hatching schemes to get what doesn’t belong to us, pining away for the greener grass on the other side of the fence--you name it!

The church has a name for all that—we call it original sin—the sin that none of us had to be taught! Even darling infants, even precious little children—they pick up this “original sin thing” all on their own.

And no one is exempt from original sin—certainly not in the church. All of us—old and young, liberal and conservative, gay and straight and everyone in between—we’re all 100% sinners, we’ve all got that deadly “heart disease.”

But fortunately, it’s our hearts that Jesus has come to heal. It’s the heart that Jesus goes after—it’s the heart that Jesus comes to make new, along with all the other things “out there” to boot!

The scribes’ and Pharisees’ Achilles heel as they constructed their image of the universe was that it left everything at a skin-deep level. Do the right things, go through the right motions, keep up the right appearances--and evil will keep its distance.

Wrong! Jesus says that’s hypocrisy—“play acting!” Evil has, since our first parents rebelled in the Garden, insinuated itself into our lives. It’s been an “inside job” all along.
….which is why Jesus always, always, always aims at the heart. Jesus goes after our center—our nerve center, the core of who we are. Jesus means to capture that. Jesus means to take over.

Jesus isn’t much of a dermatologist.

But he’s a heckuva heart surgeon—and his specialty is heart transplants, or more accurately, creating new hearts within all who belong to him, all whom he draws unto himself.

This is no skin-deep, surface-level stuff. It’s an inside job that Jesus does on us. The baptismal water seeps through our pores, the bread and wine of his Supper are made for our stomachs, the Word is designed to rattle our eardrums and find a home deep within us. Jesus bores right down to our very heart and soul, fixing us all up—from the inside out.

Because, you see, that’s how God’s universe really works—from the inside out. That’s how God’s mission in the world also operates—from the inside out, from the inside of congregations like Shalom, to the outside—to the mission field that surrounds you here in Alexandria.

From the inside out: That’s how the Jesus Way operates—reclaiming us and all things, starting with what’s at the center, starting with our soiled, broken hearts--made brand new in the image of our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.


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