— A Sermon by Robert W. Prim —
~~~ 11th Sunday after Pentecost ~~~
Jesus called the crowd near and said to them, “Listen and understand. It’s not what goes into the mouth that contaminates a person in God’s sight. It’s what comes out of the mouth that contaminates the person.”
Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended by what you just said?”
Jesus replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father didn’t plant will be pulled up. Leave the Pharisees alone. They are blind people who are guides to blind people. But if a blind person leads another blind person, they will both fall into a ditch.”
Then Peter spoke up, “Explain this riddle to us.”
Jesus said, “Don’t you understand yet? Don’t you know that everything that goes into the mouth enters the stomach and goes out into the sewer? But what goes out of the mouth comes from the heart. And that’s what contaminates a person in God’s sight. Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adultery, sexual sins, thefts, false testimonies, and insults. These contaminate a person in God’s sight. But eating without washing hands doesn’t contaminate in God’s sight” (Matthew 15:10-20; CEB).
If you have been a part of this congregation for a decade or more, you may remember the day here in this sanctuary when the lights went out in the middle of worship. We did not know what had happened, but there was a loud BOOM and the power went off. We discovered later that the transformer down near the Old Sautee Store exploded. The sound was BIG and the lights going off was immediate. Once I peeled myself off the ceiling, like a frightened cat in a Looney tunes cartoon, and you all settled back down a thought occurred to me and has been percolating in my mind ever since.
The revelation of that BOOM and the loss of power was this – the fact that the electricity went off did not prohibit in any way what it was we were here to do! We still had all that we needed to continue on with the worship of God in this place. We had daylight so we could still read the Bible – it was a lamp unto our feet! We had a pulpit and a preacher who loves to tell the story of unseen things above, of Jesus and his glory! We had bread and wine on the table ready to satisfy our hungry hearts! We had our voices with which to sing, as we could do in those pre-pandemic days, to the glory of God. We had birds chanting the praises of morning broken! We had our prayerful attention binding us to the needs of our brothers and sisters! We had all that we needed to continue on with a full worship of God!
We worshiped and then were properly sent forth into the world in peace, called to have courage, to hold on to that which is good, returning goodness for evil and offering strength to the fainthearted, to comfort and help to the weak and suffering, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit. We had all that we needed even without the services of our electrical co-op.
As I have pondered this happening it has become richer to me. Where it has led me is to the question “What is essential in the Christian life?” and “What is the essence of what we are to do in church?” And stated even more basically – “What is the heart of true religion?” This pandemic has raised similar questions.
I think the power outage happened in the Spring, but I remember that the summer after we, my family, drove to Minnesota on vacation and on the way home we took a little detour and went to Sewanee, TN to look at “The University of the South.” As we wandered around the campus we, of course, found our way to the book store.
I don’t usually spend much time in the business section but it was a small bookstore and there was a book in that section turned such that the full cover was showing. The title was: “Essentialism: the Disciplined Pursuit of Less” by Greg McKeown. I took it down and opened to the table of contents. One of the chapters is entitled “Discern: The Unimportance of Practically Everything.” Well, I had to buy this book! It is a book to which I still refer.
The first chapter opens with a quotation from Lin Yutang, Chinese literary master and philosopher of the 20th century – The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials. The point of the book is that we offer the world the most when we focus our attention on that which is essential to us. We make the greatest contribution to the world and our communities as we give our energies to the main things in our lives. The author helps us begin to sort through this question of what is essential by inviting us to ask ourselves – “What do I feel deeply inspired by?” and “What am I particularly talented at?” and “What meets a significant need in the world?” I continue to find the book inspiring.
Jesus, it seems to me, was trying to teach his disciples and followers about the essentials of a life of faith. He was espousing a different philosophy than the one those particular Pharisees were offering. The point they were making was that purity is achieved by following certain practices of food consumption and cleanliness. Jesus called those leaders blind and to follow them would lead to falling into a ditch. The essential thing, according to Jesus, is what shapes the heart in the direction of loving behavior toward God, oneself, neighbor.
Religious life should infuse the heart with generosity, with charity and steadfast love. If a person is religiously careful about what she eats in order to be sensitive to the hands of those who provided her food, then such a practice shapes her heart in the direction of compassion for neighbors. If, on the other hand, a person is sensitive about food simply because he has been told one thing is clean and another is unclean and the fullness of the practice is about following some handed down tradition, well, then, that practice is not the essence of religion. The essence of the our spiritual practices is to orient us in the direction of love for God, self, others – not merely to somehow abide by a whole host of rules and practices our forbears have handed down.
A story from the Hindu tradition told by Anthony de Mello –
When the guru sat down to worship each evening the ashram cat would get in the way and distract the worshipers. So he ordered that the cat be tied during evening worship.
After the guru died the cat continued to be tied during evening worship. And when the cat expired, another cat was brought to the ashram so that it could be duly tied during evening worship.
Centuries later leaned treatises were written by the guru’s scholarly disciples on the liturgical significance of tying up a cat while worship is performed (The Song of the Bird, Anthony de Mello, p. 63).
The essence of true religion is not in the tying up of the cat, but in the shaping of the heart in the direction of charity and steadfast love of God, self, and neighbor.
The essence of true religion is not in the washing of the hands before eating in the synagogue or church, but in the shaping of the heart in the direction of charity and steadfast love of God, self, and neighbor. Of course right now washing our hands and covering our faces with masks is the essence of true religion because it protects our neighbors from any germs we might be carrying. We abide by such a practice, however, because of our love for neighbor, and in so doing shape our hearts in the direction of charity.
There is a story about Jesus that comes out of the mystical branch of the Islamic faith called Sufism. It is a story told by the Sufi literary master Attar of Nishapur; it was told about seven centuries ago …
Some Israelites reviled Jesus one day
as he was walking through their part of town.
But he answered them by repeating prayers in their name.
Someone said to him:
“You prayed for these men,
did you not feel incensed against them?”
“I could spend only of what I had in my purse.”
(The Way of the Sufi, by Idries Shah, page 69)
The heart of true religion is making our hearts a purse
of charity and steadfast love for God, self, and neighbor.
In the words of the song sung by Walter and Jeanie Daves,
the heart of true religion is becoming what we pray.
May we always seek the essentials of our faith;
may we always open the purse of our hearts
to be filled with God’s love
and then may we spend it.