Sunday, September 2, 2018
Jesus protests against human customs being given the weight of divine law, while the essence of God’s law is ignored. True uncleanness comes not from external things, but from the intentions of the human heart. Last week Jesus told us “the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” Now James says God has given us birth by the word of truth. We, having been washed in the word when we were born in the font, return to it every Sunday to ask God to create in us clean hearts.
Prayer of the Day
O God our strength, without you we are weak and wayward creatures. Protect us from all dangers that attack us from the outside, and cleanse us from all evil that arises from within ourselves, that we may be preserved through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
Readings and Psalm
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9 God’s law: a sign of a great nation
James 1:17-27 Be doers of the word, not hearers only
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 Authentic religion
Title: Pointing Fingers, Opened Arms
This Sunday should be named Finger Pointing Sunday. After hearing these readings assigned for today, our inner judges must be salivating. They must be powdering the wigs, pressing the judicial gowns, and exercising that pointing finger of accusation and condemnation.
Moses is standing with the people, on the threshold of the promised land and he is laying down the law. Making sure that everyone knows it, and obeys it. And, of course, wherever the law is, fingers of judgment and conviction are there. Now, there is some positive finger pointing referred to by Moses. He does envision Israel’s neighbors pointing in a good way and saying, “wow, look at how wise their God is that they have these brilliant laws that come from their God and aren’t they the wise ones to be obeying them.” But then it quickly sours into judging when the Israelites are invited to point fingers at their neighbors and judge their laws as less than.
And then there is James, pointing a finger of judgement and doing a lot of grouping into them and those ones. Them – being the hears of the word that then proceed to do nothing with it. And those ones – who do something with God’s word that they have heard. Those ones are the ones who are pure and undefiled before God, the Father, and turn the faith that they have heard into action such as: care for orphans and widows in their distress, and keep oneself unstained by the world.
Now a little translation note before we proceed into the finger pointing found in today’s Gospel reading. While we hear the word “defiled” used in both James and Mark. In the Greek, there are two different words that have both been translated into the same English word – defiled. James is using a word that is describing purity in a moral sense of the word. A concept that would have been important in the Greek and Roman world in which Christianity was emerging and growing. The word that Jesus in Mark’s Gospel uses is speaking about purity in a ritual sense. Something that would have been very important to the Hebrew community – of which Jesus is a part and to whom he is preaching and teaching.
The purity laws that the Pharisees are pointing their fingers about – because they see Jesus’ disciples breaking those purity laws – are all about keeping oneself pure (undefiled) for the sake of coming before God in the rites and rituals of their faith. In the everyday world, this purity means that you are living apart from other peoples and other nations. Moses says that when the Israelites live differently, apart from others, they will be bearing witness to the wisdom, presence, and holiness of God. James says it “that you keep yourself unstained by the world” when you show your moral superiority.
As we see over and over again with Jesus, his concern is that there be no obstacle separating people from the God who loves them. Complicated practices, burdensome traditions, strict obedience to laws are not to be used as pointing fingers of judgment at the slacker or the violator saying to them: “You are not worthy to come into the presence of God. You are unclean.”
Beyond his words and deeds, Jesus’ very life bears witness to the accessibility of God that he is teaching and encouraging. The incarnation, the eternal Word of God, the open and loving heart of God joining with the frail and faulty flesh of humanity breaks down all obstacles that our sinfulness has attempted to erect and gives us full access to God forever. Not because we keep ourselves pure enough, or we do enough, or live morally enough. God has entered our world, has entered our very lives. And so we are freed to live. (This is the law of liberty that James speaks of.) And Jesus challenges us to live lives that reflect the presence of God within us through what flows out of us. As Martin Luther said: God does not need our good works, but our neighbor does.
With the mention of Luther and the attention to finger pointing and obstacles, it would be very easy for us Protestants to start finger pointing at the medieval church leaders that acted a lot like those Pharisees of Jesus’ time demanding purity of living, strict adherence to laws, and burdensome practices and traditions as the only means for gaining access to God.
Further finger pointing could be encouraged among progressive Christians in America today. For once again this past week, I was outraged when I heard a Christian leader (who was part of a large group that met with a certain elected official) interviewed on the radio about the state of affairs in America today. And this religious leader was excusing much immorality that has been assigned to the unsaid elected official all because the official has “taken in” the political stances that the religious leader’s wing of American Protestantism holds as sacred. Pressed as he was by the reporter, he pointed the finger at everyone else who disagreed with him and remained blind to the offenses that are coming out of his political champion.
Oops, there I’ve done it. I’ve fallen right into Finger Pointing and judging trap so present this day. I told you it was rampant today. Perhaps it is a day best spent in silence.
But let me try one more approach to finger pointing Sunday. On any given Sunday, and any given day, we miss the power of the Gospel if we busy ourselves pointing the finger at others rather than pointing the finger at ourselves. We are best uplifted by the good news of the Gospel if we let the truth of our failings point the finger at ourselves, and then see the loving, nail-printed hands of Jesus, reaching out to us with forgiveness, calling us in to his renewing, loving embrace, offering us bread to eat, and rest from this wearisome world.
The finger of truth tells us that we all take in things that will seek to separate us from God. It may not be unclean food or failure to practice holiness, (as specified by the laws of Jesus time). But we do take in fear, hate, hopelessness, self-centeredness, and the mindset of scarcity. But in grace and mercy, God transforms us. Through Christ’s resurrection power, we are made new. And the Spirit fills us with peace, joy, love, faith, gentleness, mercy – and that is what bears witness to the presence of God that is in each of us through the gift of baptism and refreshed in the continued nourishment of Jesus’ body and blood at the table.
After spending five weeks hearing Jesus say he is the Bread of Life, let us not quickly forget what, by the grace of God, we take in, each time we come to the table.
We do point fingers. It almost feels like it is in our DNA. God in Christ reaches out to us with open arms. No requirements to satisfy. No laws that must be obeyed. No obstacles stand in our way.
As the gifts of God flow into us, through us, and out of us, let others point a finger at us and say that they see the light of Christ in us, in all we do and say. God really doesn’t need our good works, but our neighbors really do. To that truth, we can all point our finger.
The Rev. Mark Erson