Sunday, September 2, 2012

Funny The Way It Is

(This sermon was preached at Messiah Lutheran Church, Knoxville, TN on Sunday, September 2, 2012, The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 17B. The sermon derives from the RCL pericope of the day, specifically James 1:17-27 and Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23)

“Funny the way it is, if you think about it” 
sings Dave Matthews,
"Somebody’s going hungry and someone else is eating out.
Funny the way it is, not right or wrong
Somebody’s heart is broken and it becomes your favorite song.” 1

Of course, by funny, Dave Matthews does not mean humorous. He means something more like fascinating, interesting, perplexing, or maybe even ironic.  

Funny the way it is, if you think about it. Like, for example, this past week’s tropical storm turned hurricane, Isaac. As you know initially there were concerns the storm would hit Tampa and interrupt the Republican National Convention. But then, interestingly, it missed. A Florida pastor, the Rev. Jesten Peters of Keys of Authority Ministries told the Christian Broadcasting Network that her prayer group had beseeched God to spare the [convention] from harm. “We have had lots and lots of people praying around the clock that it would move,” she said, “and after you watch from the very beginning where they were saying it was coming and now where they say it is going, then it has really moved out of the way for us and we appreciate God doing that and moving it for us.”2 Funny the way it is. Of course, then the storm moved toward New Orleans and the surrounding Gulf Coast. There, while people prayed to be spared, the storm became a Hurricane which caused the deaths of five people, knocked out power for nearly a million people, and resulted in upwards of two billion in damages. The hurricane’s remnants then moved northward into drought stricken areas like Arkansas, Missouri, and Illinois. There people have been praying for rain to come and bring relief for the crops and livestock. 

Funny the way it is, if you think about it. How does God work then? And what about prayer? Hurricanes, droughts and conventions. Oh my! Is that the purpose of religion and religious tradition?

It’s funny, in today’s Gospel reading from Mark we witness a debate over religious tradition between Jesus and a few of his fellow Jews. These Pharisees and scribes -- who, I think always get a bad rap, but that’s for another sermon sometime -- they question how come Jesus’ disciples are not following the tradition of washing before eating. We’re not talking about proper hygiene here. We’re not even really talking scripture. We’re talking about the religious tradition of washing in the proper and elaborate way as prescribed by the elders. “Everybody does it this way Jesus, except your disciples,” they argue. It’s funny how we can make ourselves feel better when we say everybody does this or everybody said that. Forget what the Evangelist Mark reports, not everybody, not ALL the Jews washed thoroughly before eating. Different Jews followed different traditions.  But, that’s beside the point anyway, and Jesus knows it. 

Funny, how often Jesus reframes the presenting question or complaint in order to get to the heart of the matter. This time, literally to the heart of the matter he goes. Forget this discussion over washing your hands or washing pots, that’s not the heart of it, Jesus suggests. Forget your worries that dirty hands and dirty cups will defile you. Not even close, Jesus says. Evil is what defiles. And yes, evil comes from all those people, like my disciples, who bug you. But, Jesus goes on, evil also comes from within you. 

Now Jesus has really turned the tables. Those Pharisees and scribes thought they were talking about traditions. They were coming to accuse Jesus. Now all of sudden, they’re talking about evil, and the source of evil, and it’s them?  

For the purpose of his debate with the Pharisees and scribes, Jesus gives a long, though not exhaustive list of evil intentions. While certainly not denying that good comes from humans, Jesus focuses on the evil, since the debate is on what actually defiles. And what defiles, does not, Jesus insists, come from somewhere else, only from within the human heart. For the ancients, that which is deep within the human being, "the human heart" represented the place of reason and will. We normally attribute reason and will to the human mind. But not the ancients, not Jesus. No for them, it’s the heart that decides. However you define it, Jesus’ point in this debate is to move his audience beyond the superficial externals. He wants to move them deep down within the heart, the human will, the very place where the real problem lies. 

Funny the way it is, if you think about it. Even though Jesus was speaking to a bunch of middle eastern Jews some two thousand years ago, he could also very easily be speaking to us. Most certainly we too wrestle with evil intentions. We too, like the Pharisees and scribes have a tendency to point to others as the source of evil. Indeed evil does come from all those people who we so easily attribute it to. But it comes from them, Jesus seems to insist, because they are human, just like us. Which, of course, means evil also comes from us, from you and from me.  No one is immune. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was right when he wrote, “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” 3 

And Jesus’ point is to move his audience, to move us beyond the superficial externals. He wants to move us deep down within our hearts, our will, the very place where the real problem lies. 

Funny the way it is, if you think about it. You could easily make the case that we do Christian worship, from organ preludes to hymns, from confession to sermons, from prayers to communion...for its own sake. This, in and of itself is enough, we’re tempted to believe. Maybe even, we’ve been thinking, this Christian enterprise is about making us feel good, asking God for a few favors here and there, having our best life now, and later receiving the promise of eternal life. Maybe even, we’ve been thinking, this stuff can change God. Get God to change an outcome, like the path of a hurricane. But no, that’s not it at all. That’s not the point of this. 

In his debate with the Pharisees and scribes, Jesus says something to them that to our sensitive modern ears, sounds harsh. Jesus calls them “hypocrites.” Maybe it was a slur in the ancient day. I don’t know. What I do know is the original Greek means something more like “acting out a theatrical role” or “pretending.” You see, I think Jesus isn’t so much calling them a name, as he is....pointing out the truth. They, the Pharisees and scribes are acting, they’re pretending, they’re wearing a mask, they are not getting real with themselves. Jesus wants them to take a long look at themselves, dive down deep into their hearts and get real with who they really are. 

So too with us.

The Christian enterprise, including the performing of rituals gives us, as James says in our second reading for today, the mirror to take a deep, honest look at ourselves. We do all this to get real with ourselves. When we perform the rituals as an end in themselves, then we, as James warns, are like “those who look at themselves in a mirror; ...and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.” 4 But when we worship, not as an end in itself but as a means to open our hearts to an encounter with the Living God, then we can really begin to see and to remember. Then, we can really be changed. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “When Christ calls a [human], he bids [that human] come and die. 5 In other words, come and remove the mask you’re hiding behind. Come and let your false self die. Come die to your hypocrisy, your pretending. Come and be changed, be transformed. And for Bonhoeffer, and most certainly for Jesus, that call to die to the false self IS good news. 

Of course, we, along with the Pharisees and scribes don’t always hear it that way. We’ve been wearing our masks, pretending for way too long. And our egos, our hearts, our false self resists the idea of change, we fight it. Change is risky. We are afraid to lower that mask and let people, let God see the real me inside, deep down inside. That doesn’t sound like good news. I’ll look in the mirror, but it would be so much easier to then forget what I am really like. I don’t want to have to deal with that. How can that really be good news?   

But, funny the way it is, if you think about it. "If any want to become my followers, [Jesus said] let them deny themselves.”6 Deny their false selves? Jesus also said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” 7 And in the prayer attributed to St. Francis, we hear “It is in dying, that we are born to eternal life.”

Yes, in our ongoing, honest encounter with the living God, the masks can begin to come off.  In our participation in the traditions and rituals as a means of grace, we can stop pretending. In our authentic participation in the Christian enterprise, we can deal with the false self we show everyone else and begin to live from our true selves. Yes, in our hearing the absolution, in our kneeling to receive the bread and wine, in our remembering our true reflection in the waters of baptism, God comes to us, God encounters us, and God transforms us. In our encounter with God, it isn’t God who is changed, we are! That’s the point. Inside us, the human heart, we are the ones who need to be changed. 

The good news is, when we are encountered by the Living God, we are encountered by the one who sees us for who we really are, good and evil, saint and sinner, whole and broken and loves us anyway! This God, the One of grace, the One of unconditional love and acceptance, is the One who promises to take us as we are, raise us from the dead, and bring us to real, authentic life.

Funny the way it is, if you think about it.  


1 Dave Matthews Band, “Funny The Way It Is,” from “Big Whiskey and The GrooGrux King,” (RCA, 2009)
3 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “The Gulag Archipelago”
4 James 1:23-24, NRSV.
5 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Discipleship” (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2001)
6 Mark 8:34, NRSV
7 John 12:24, NRSV

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