Message from last Sunday. Scripture was James 1:17-27 and Mark 7:1-8, 14-15 & 21-23. Title in the bulletin is “Sincerity in Doing.”
As you know we own cats. Let me rephrase that, we have cats. Like most cat people, they sometimes allow us to live in our own house. Although when I was cleaning up after the old one on Friday, my mother’s cat who is now over 20 years old, I was not so sure we are really being allowed to live in all parts of the house. She has sort of made some of it intolerable. I am afraid we are going to be making a very hard decision before winter if things don’t happen naturally before then.
Part of being cat owners or cohabiters with them is the point I was intending to make and that is with them in the house, I am always paranoid that someone will be eating at my table and find a cat hair in their food. It mortifies me to think that could happen. I believe for that reason, and perhaps the low-grade cupboards we used to have, I am forever cleaning pots and bake ware and such before I use them. Are the pots and utensils really clean is always something I have on my mind, and now with the canning getting into full swing it will be the hand washing. Are my hands clean enough to handle the tomatoes and other garden produce that goes into the jars? You certainly don’t want to get sick or worse, make someone sick because you didn’t handle something correctly.
The story in Mark that we read earlier today might be seen on a superficial level as being about cleanliness in a kitchen. We might want to stop and say, “Why is Jesus scolding the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders for following a custom that likely came about because of a cleanliness issue.” If we look into some of the Jewish customs and laws, we learn that certain of their rituals and rules, like not eating pork actually came about because of the sickness that came with it at that time. If that is so then why is cleaning their pots and cleaning their hands such a bad thing?
After some digging, I found a website that said the ritual of washing their hands, this particular one that Jesus was pointing out to them was not about being clean, and it was not about being kosher. It was a ritual that developed from a superstition about how forces of evil land on your hand during the night and if you eat without washing them off a certain way, those forces will contaminate your food and enter your body thus infecting you with evil.
Jesus refutes those ideas with a pretty clear statement that you cannot be infected with that sort of evil by eating food. He is not talking about getting sick from a germ that might be on a pot or a kettle or on your hand. He is not talking about eating food that has a hair or is infected with something. He is talking about the superstition of ingesting a form of Satan and that infecting your mind with evil thoughts. He is very clear that those thoughts do not come from the outside, but from the inside of us from our hearts, from our centers. Those thoughts aren’t planted, they are there already. There was a famous radio show The Shadow that started with the line, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” That is what Jesus means when he says it is what comes out that defiles. It is what is inside already, and in this passage Jesus gets very specific about the things that defile us. (Read vs. 21-23)
Jesus also in the portion of this chapter that we did not read is pretty clear with the leaders that they have sacrificed following the laws of God in order to follow their man-made traditions, and worst of all have taught the people to do so too. This chapter in Mark is just one example of many encounters Jesus has with the Jewish leaders. In this one as in many of them, he uses scripture from the Old Testament, Isaiah here, to show them how wrong they are. He says, “Isaiah prophesized right about you hypocrites.” Jesus isn’t interested in human traditions. He came to teach humans to love God and love one another and really care for each other.
It is interesting that it is in the book of James that we learn some of the ways we are to act in order to carry out those teachings of Jesus. The book of James according to tradition is written by the human brother of Jesus. James in this selection gives us a pretty strong message that we need to be more than just believers and more than just someone who talks about our faith in God. James is sort of like the cattle prod that moves the animals up the walkway onto the trailer. He tells us how to act and what to do in order to be real Christians in order to be sincere doers for Christ. I can see why this book is called by some, “The Practical Guide to Christian Life.”
I am going to pick out a few phrases here to point out those practical tips that we are getting in this particular passage, starting with “he gave us birth by the word of truth.” We are born to Christianity by the word, the truth that Christ brings. Here is how James writes we are to act: “let everyone be quick to listen” in other words, listen to others, your family, your friends, and others that you know. Really listen to their conversation that you are able to share with them. We get so frustrated with the younger generation never looking up because they are constantly on a device of some type, but how distracted are we at times when we are in a conversation with someone. Next it says, “Be slow to speak, slow to anger and then later in the verses, rid yourself of rank wickedness.” So how many times do we open our mouths before we think about what we are saying and especially when we are upset about something? I mentioned last week that mouth is often my biggest issue, and here it is right in my face.
I have found it interesting lately how just when I am about to share a thought or make a comment that probably is better forgotten or left unsaid, something happens to interrupt my conversation, like a phone ringing or someone else stepping into the area, and the moment is lost and the words are, thankfully, gone. Coincidence? Maybe not always.
And James also says, “Be doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” Wow, that is a tough one. He is pretty much calling us out for sitting in the pew and thinking that is enough to get us by as Christians. There are some arguments about this. There are questions about how fair is it if I work my entire life to be a doer, a worker for Christ and God’s kingdom, and so and so down the road waits until they are on their death-bed to repent. But we know the parable about the vineyard and how the workers all receive the same pay. It lets us know that God takes all of us whenever we come. God gives us all the same reward.
Yet James tells us to be doers of the gospel not just hearers. How does that work? What James is telling us even today is that when we are born into the truth of Jesus Christ. When we become believers, true believers, if we are sincere in our belief, we will want to become doers also.
Many of you know that I am a Peanuts Cartoon strip fan. To me one of the most tragic characters or tragic situations perhaps, in the Peanuts cartoon series by Charles Schultz is the story of Linus in the Pumpkin Patch waiting for the Great Pumpkin to appear. Linus is such a wonderful philosophical character; you can’t help but love the little thumb-sucking, blanket carrying guy. But when he gets all hyped up about a Great Pumpkin coming to the Pumpkin Patch on Halloween night to bring gifts almost like a Halloween Santa Claus, you know from the start that he is walking down the wrong road. There is no hope, no chance for his success.
Yet for all of the disappointment that he feels, he still blames himself. Linus says that the reason the Great Pumpkin didn’t come for him was because he was not sincere enough, he didn’t believe enough. For a short time he wavers and thinks that maybe someone around him was the unbeliever, someone sitting with him, Sally perhaps, or his doubting sister, Lucy. Mostly Linus blames himself. He feels like a failure because he wasn’t sincere in his belief. He never gets the fact that there really is no Great Pumpkin.
We don’t have that issue when we believe in Jesus. Jesus’ existence doesn’t depend on us. But we are the ones who gain when we really and truly believe enough to want to be the doers for Christ. We are the ones who benefit from the work that we will find ourselves involved in. James lets us know in his final verse that we read for today, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this, to care for orphans and widows in their distress and to keep one-self unstained by the world.”
If we love God as we are commanded to do, and if we love our neighbors as ourselves, we will want to do what we can to help others as much as we can, and we will do it without the question of, “what is in it for me, or what gain will I have as a result?”
Real Christianity is really wanting to be there for others and that is what God is looking for from us. When we do that, we are the ones who gain; we are the ones who enjoy the time with God and the Love of our Savior. May we be given the strength to continue doing as we are called to do. Amen!