New Testament Reading
James 1: 17-27
17 Every good gift, every perfect gift, comes from above. These gifts come down from the Father, the creator of the heavenly lights, in whose character there is no change at all. 18 He chose to give us birth by his true word, and here is the result: we are like the first crop from the harvest of everything he created.
19 Know this, my dear brothers and sisters: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry. 20 This is because an angry person doesn’t produce God’s righteousness. 21 Therefore, with humility, set aside all moral filth and the growth of wickedness, and welcome the word planted deep inside you—the very word that is able to save you.
22 You must be doers of the word and not only hearers who mislead themselves. 23 Those who hear but don’t do the word are like those who look at their faces in a mirror. 24 They look at themselves, walk away, and immediately forget what they were like. 25 But there are those who study the perfect law, the law of freedom, and continue to do it. They don’t listen and then forget, but they put it into practice in their lives. They will be blessed in whatever they do.
26 If those who claim devotion to God don’t control what they say, they mislead themselves. Their devotion is worthless. 27 True devotion, the kind that is pure and faultless before God the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their difficulties and to keep the world from contaminating us.
L: Hear what the Spirit is saying to the church.
All: Thanks be to God.
Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15 (CEB)
7 The Pharisees and some legal experts from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus. 2 They saw some of his disciples eating food with unclean hands. (They were eating without first ritually purifying their hands through washing. 3 The Pharisees and all the Jews don’t eat without first washing their hands carefully. This is a way of observing the rules handed down by the elders. 4 Upon returning from the marketplace, they don’t eat without first immersing themselves. They observe many other rules that have been handed down, such as the washing of cups, jugs, pans, and sleeping mats.) 5 So the Pharisees and legal experts asked Jesus, “Why are your disciples not living according to the rules handed down by the elders but instead eat food with ritually unclean hands?”
6 He replied, “Isaiah really knew what he was talking about when he prophesied about you hypocrites. He wrote,
This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far away from me.
7 Their worship of me is empty
since they teach instructions that are human words.
8 You ignore God’s commandment while holding on to rules created by humans and handed down to you.”
14 Then Jesus called the crowd again and said, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand. 15 Nothing outside of a person can enter and contaminate a person in God’s sight; rather, the things that come out of a person contaminate the person.”
This is the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Praise to you Lord Christ.
Sermon, “Look Within”
It seems like every church leader across the country is asking the same question. “How do we reach new people?” Even more specific than that, it seems like all the talk is about how we reach young people. No one knows the answer to either of those questions. But there are a number of studies out there about the challenges young people have with the church. The words that are often used to describe “church” are difficult to hear, at least for those of us in the church. From those 20 or 30 somethings, many studies found the same words used to describe church; judgmental, not relevant, hypocritical, and inauthentic among others. Many of them are looking for authenticity.
I would agree, which is why I try to be authentic with you all every Sunday, preaching, teaching, and praying out of my own experience recognizing that I can’t pray from a place I’m not at spiritually, nor can I preach from a different place. I try to be real with you, but then I realized it’s really about all of us and how we live our lives, for we are all preachers in what we say and do.
Here we are again in the Gospels finding Jesus being challenged by the religious leaders. How dare he and his disciples, who were Jewish, not live out the Jewish purity laws. Now the religious leaders in this reading are looking at the law as a way to be witnesses to the nations. The tradition or rule of the elders was viewed as a way to preserve the faith and the way of life of the Jewish people while living under Roman rule. So when the Pharisees and legal experts see Jesus’ followers eating without washing their hands, it wasn’t about germs or keeping Covid away, they likely felt like the disciples were undermining and threatening an entire way of life. Seems like maybe they have some fair points and concerns here, yet Jesus gets a little harsh with the religious leaders.
“Isaiah really knew what he was talking about when he prophesied about you hypocrites,” Jesus said. Jesus gets real with the religious leaders and is a little or maybe quite direct with them. The issue that Jesus is getting at here is found in this short reading from Isaiah, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far away from me. Their worship of me is empty since they teach instructions that are human words.” Then he speaks to them directly, “You ignore God’s commandments while holding on to rules created by humans and handed down to you.”
The issue that Jesus seems to be pointing to here is that the religious leaders had become more focused on the external than the internal. Another way to say it is that they focused so much on what others saw that they failed to examine their own hearts. They failed to be real with themselves and with God. Jesus saw this and called them out on it, because what this sort of obedience brings is a spiritual hierarchy between those who are “religious” and those who aren’t; between the “clean” and “unclean; and the “righteous” and “unrighteous.” Faith becomes putting on a show more than aligning one’s heart, one’s desire, one’s life with God.
It’s good to search the internal, the heart, our faith and desire. Howard Thurman, the preacher, teacher, author, and chaplain of the Civil Rights movement, speaks profoundly on the internal. “When have you last had a good reflection with yourself? Or have you ever had. Most often you are brought face to face with yourself only when such an encounter is forced upon you. There may be other causes of self-confrontation (and reflection). It raises real questions about yourself. What is it, after all, that I amount to? Who am I? What is my true self?” Isn’t that how Jesus was challenging the religious leaders here?
I suppose one place where Jesus is absolutely clear and challenges us is when he points out that faith is about our intentions, our desires and ultimately faith is about our hearts. This faith is a journey too, where we’re never really done growing and learning from baptism to vocation, life and death, and into the eternal.
This morning we are witnessing the movement and growth of faith. Baby Hazel was baptized and ushered into the family of faith. She begins this journey of water and the Spirit. It is through these baptismal vows, that her parents and sponsors took on her behalf and later will confirm for herself, that she will live the life of faith. In just a few minutes, we’re going to lift up and affirm Geni to become an official candidate for ministry in the church. It’s the movement of the Spirit from the baptismal waters into authentically living for Christ. That doesn’t mean you have to be a pastor, but it does mean that we have to be authentic witnesses to our faith in the world.
The words found in the New Testament letter of James are so instructive here. “You must be doers of the word and not only hearers. Those who study the perfect law, the law of freedom, and continue to do it. They don’t listen and then forget, but they put it into practice in their lives.”
It’s the law of freedom. It’s the way of the heart. I often use James 1, verse 19 as a heart verse. “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry.” We can easily add verse 20, “With humility, set aside all moral filth and the growth of wickedness, and welcome the word planted deep inside you – the very word that is able to save you.” What if the church, when I say church I mean you and me, would embrace this sort of humility and authenticity? What if we examined ourselves, our hearts first, before we ever attempt to examine or judge others?
It’s really easy to examine and judge the faith of others. Yet Jesus challenges us to look at ourselves first and to examine our own hearts. You might remember when the billionaire space race was happening early last month. Jeff Bezos of Amazon and Richard Branson of the Virgin Group flew their own jets into space. Apparently Branson’s flight was longer, but Bezos’ flight was higher. I remember quipping to my wife Candace, “You know those two could end homeless with the cost of their trips to space.” She quipped back, “Yeah and what are you doing to end homelessness.” Oooh. Well, good point Candace. It’s really easy to look at the billionaire’s space race and judge it, but it’s much harder to look at my own financial accounts and reflect on how I use my money. It’s very tempting to judge those who view the Bible differently than me, but it’s really difficult to reflect on my own Biblical values of my life. It’s really easy to judge those disciples for not washing their hands, yet here I am acting like I have it all figured out.
I’m not saying that I have it all figured out or that I know exactly what young people want from church or what anyone desires when they seek a new church or even if they don’t. What I do know though is that others see our authentic, vulnerable and true selves when we try our best to follow the heart of God which is Jesus Christ. Not only will others see it, but so will God.
This is how the young adult author, the late Rachel Held Evans, put it in an article she wrote in 2015 about millennials and church: When I left church at age 29, full of doubt and disillusionment, I wasn’t looking for a better-produced Christianity. I was looking for a truer Christianity, a more authentic Christianity: I didn’t like how LGBTQ people were being treated by my evangelical faith community. I had questions about science and faith, biblical interpretation and theology. I felt lonely in my doubts. [Church often] felt forced and fake. If young people are looking for congregations that authentically practice the teachings of Jesus in an open and inclusive way, then the good news is the church already knows how to do that.
We are invited to seek a “truer and more authentic Christianity.” This begins with you and me. It’s to be honest with God in prayer, but it’s also to be honest with ourselves. It includes authentic confession of our sins, inner reflection on our lives and spirits, and practices that draw us deeper, like the Daily Examen we’ll use in a moment. To revisit Howard Thurman one final time. He teaches us that the way to keep our hearts close to God is to place ourselves, our desires and our hearts fully in God’s Presence. “For all of us are God’s children and the most crucial clue to a knowledge of God is to be found in the most honest and most total knowledge of the self,” wrote Dr. Thurman.
May we look within this day seeking God in all things and in all ways. As we examine our hearts, may we find our true self, the one who is deeply aligned with the heart of God. Amen.
Throughout the last year and a half or so, we have been engaging in a spiritual discipline or prayer practice at the end of the message, so that we might learn to practice our faith every day, not just on Sunday. This morning, since we have already been sprinkled with the waters of baptism to remind us that we are baptized followers of Jesus, we are going to engage in a brief version of the Ignatian practice called the Daily Examen, something we have done in the past, as a way to reflect, confess, and look within this morning.
Let’s enter into this practice.
First, I invite you to close your eyes, to be still, relax your body and your mind.
Become aware of the presence of God all around you and within you.
Begin by giving thanks to God for all things. Allow your mind and your heart to wander as you reflect on the ways in which God has blessed your life in ways big and small. Allow yourself to be guided and moved by the Holy Spirit.
Now become aware of your emotions. Reflect on your day. How are you coming to this moment? Name whatever you are feeling. Peace. Hope. Disappointment. Fear. Joy. Whatever you are feeling, give it to the Lord. Invite God to receive your emotions.
Next, reflect on those moments where you may have been out of touch with God’s presence or God’s way. Take a moment to face that reality. Examine your heart for those sins and shortcomings. Confess that God. Receive God’s grace and forgiveness.
Look toward the afternoon and the day to come. Ask God to give you light and strength for this afternoon or tomorrow or even this week’s challenges.
Lord, grant that we may always allow ourselves to be guided by You, always follow Your plans, and perfectly accomplish Your Holy Will. Grant that in all things, great and small, today and all the days of our lives, we may do whatever You require of us. Help us respond to the slightest prompting of Your Grace, so that we may be Your trustworthy instrument for Your honor. May Your Will be done in time and in eternity by us, in us, and through us. Amen.
(Prayer of St Teresa of Avilla)