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Sermon based on Mark 7:1-8
One Sunday a father sat through a church service and then on the way out of church he complained about the sermon, he complained about how hot the sanctuary seemed to be that morning, he complained about the traffic on the way to a local restaurant for brunch and he complained about how long it took for their brunch to be served. Upon the food coming to their table he prayed a blessing, giving God thanks for the food. His daughter was watching him all the way through this post church experience. Just before he took the first bite of brunch the daughter asked the following, “Daddy, did God hear you when we left the church and you started complaining about the sermon and the heat and the traffic?” The father said, “Well, yes, honey, He heard me.” “Well, Daddy, did God hear you when you just prayed for this food right now?” And he said,“Well, yes, sweetheart, God heard me.” “Well, Daddy, which version of you does God like best?”
This story illustrates a problem that afflicts far too many people. Too often what we claim to be and what we really are prove to be drastically different. We call this condition “hypocrisy.” This word comes to us from the Greek language. It was used to describe actors in a play. Ancient actors would carry different masks in their hands on stage during a performance. The masks were attached to sticks and could be held in front of the face as needed. A smiling mask suggested humor, a frowning mask suggested sadness an angry mask suggested anger. These actors were called the “hypocritos” meaning one who wears a mask. We use the word today to refer to people who pretend to be one thing when they are actually something else. People who pretend to be your friend while speaking poorly of you around others are hypocrites. People who live one way in public and another way at home are hypocrites. People who attempt to do wicked things under the radar while acting like all is well are hypocrites.
We would think that there are never people like this in religious circles but that is not always the case. Our gospel lesson from Mark is one that focuses upon hypocrisy. We can often fall into the trap of thinking that God cares more for outward appearances and external practices than God does about our inward thoughts and hearts. In William Shakespeare’s work, “Much Ado About Nothing” one character says the following: “He hath a heart as sound as a bell and his tongue is the clapper; for his heart thinks, his tongue speaks.” The way we speak about people, the ideas we express about our world, and our motivations and the attitudes evident in our words reveal our true character.
I believe that in essence is the point Jesus is making this morning. We reveal our true selves by the words we speak, and by the actions that follow. Hurtful gossip, critical accusations, considering ourselves more important than others, these things reveal our true character more than something like our involvement in church. Our activities in the church supported by verbal expressions of faith and commitment are not the means by which our faith is to be measured. The measure of faith comes through our generosity, words and actions. We can’t deceive ourselves into thinking that as long as we go through the motions of faith that God will be pleased with us. Jesus pointed this out to the Pharisees. We too must decide ourselves, what God prefers, clean hands or clean hearts.
As we explore our gospel lesson we see that Jesus and his disciples were eating and some Pharisees came along to observe Jesus. They were astonished when they observed his disciples eating without having first washed their hands. As a matter of religious custom, the Pharisees insisted on special hand-washing ceremonies to remove the contaminating effects of any possible contact with unclean people or objects. The practice originated from Old Testament teachings that prohibited contact with unclean things specified in Leviticus. The Pharisees had plans to make their nation into a kingdom of priests and to impose these types of rituals upon all people. According to this tradition, the disciples were religiously “unclean” and Jesus did not even seem to notice. His response was that those were human habits and traditions and not God’s commandments. Jesus followed God’s law, not the law and traditions of the Pharisees. Later, Jesus explained to the crowd that nothing outside a person could make them unclean. Instead, it was what came out of a person that made them unclean. His disciples later asked him to explain what He meant by those words. Jesus explained that it was not the food or other outside things that made a person unclean but the things that came from within the person. Jesus argued that the source of uncleanness does not come from something external on the outside but from an internal source. This internal source was our heart. What is within our hearts will be reflected in our actions.
Our faith produces loving action. The late Phillips Brooks once said the following: No man or woman of the humblest sort can really be strong, gentle, pure and good without the world being better for it, without somebody being helped and comforted by the very existence of goodness.
The hypocrisy that Jesus claimed the Pharisees were practicing came when they displayed their outer actions without their inner feelings. One such example of showing how our inner faith influences the consequences of outer actions was when a Church had a “Visitors Welcome” on their church sign outside. One Sunday a young couple from the neighborhood decided to visit this church. They were dressed in blue jeans and tee shirts. As they made their way up the church sidewalk, a greeter immediately noticed their attire and appearance and went into action. After getting the attention of two church leaders, the three of them met the visiting couple. While the church members were friendly they were also inquisitive perhaps a bit too inquisitive. The couple shared that they were new in the neighborhood having just moved into town a few days before and they were still living amidst boxes. They had not been brought up in the same denomination as the church they were hoping to visit that day. After a few more personal and intrusive questions that the couple answered graciously, one of the church members encouraged them to worship down the street at another church where they might feel more comfortable. For some reason the decision was made among those church members that this couple was, “unclean.” They were not welcomed despite that church sign out front because they were considered different from themselves. As this illustration shows, often we forget that God calls us to be loving and gracious towards all people.
Jesus reminds us that our relationship with God is not a set of rules and regulations. As most of us know, the Moravians who settled to America came from Germany. Germany is one of the most ordered societies in the world. In Germany there are house rules, school rules, work rules, traffic rules, rules related to social orders and public orders and the list goes on and on. Years ago it was reported in a German newspaper there were4,874 laws, 84,900 regulations and 32,000 regulatory standards which people were called to obey and follow in Germany. While life is more complicated perhaps in these modern times than in Biblical times it’s interesting to note that God was satisfied with Ten Commandments and Jesus summarized them in two.
Jesus answered, “The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, “Your shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31)
When we follow these two commandments in our lives we are pointed in the right direction. That direction points us to the cross. Jesus’ sacrifice upon the cross reminds us that every day we are in need of God’s mercy and forgiveness. In thinking of mercy and forgiveness, there was once a twelve-year-old boy who became a Christian during a revival. The next week at school his friends questioned him about the experience. “Did you see a vision?” asked one friend. “Did you hear God speak?” asked another. The youngster answered no to all these questions. “Well, how did you know you were saved?” they asked. The boy searched for an answer and finally he said, “It’s like when you catch a fish, you can’t see the fish or hear the fish; you just feel him tugging on your line. I just felt God tugging upon my heart.”
This Labor Day weekend marks in many respects the end of the summer as we realize things at Christ Moravian Church are getting busier. The season of fall will soon be upon us. Before too long we will be thinking about our Church anniversary, Thanksgiving, Advent and Christmas and believe it or not the Lenten season arrives in early March of 2019.
The late Albert Schweitzer a Nobel Peace Prize winner once addressed a group of college graduates and he concluded his speech with these words, “I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know, the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.”
Together with love and assurance that God is with us, let us venture out and serve God this day!
The Rev. Dr. David A. Marcus, Jr.
September 2, 2018