"When Being Correct Prevents Mission"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - August, 31, 2003

James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-19

     Our laws are a very powerful tool that society uses to maintain order and establish boundaries for our citizens. When laws are obeyed, everyone gets along as we experience the fruits that our common freedoms give us.  Laws also prevent the ambitions or self-interests of certain individuals from engaging in activities that would put others at risk or take away our freedoms.   

     In addition, many individuals in our society have joined the ranks of our respective police departments to see that the laws of our municipalities are obeyed.  There have been occasions when we have listened to the oath of public office being administered by a judge where dignitaries are being sworn in to uphold the Constitution of these United States.   

     In today's lesson, Jesus became the target of ridicule because the Teachers of the Law found him and his disciples out of compliance with laws by which the Jews had lived for centuries.  Mark records, "They noticed that some of his disciples were eating their food with hands that were ritually unclean."   

     The Jews were brilliant. Whatever else we may think about this illiterate, agricultural-based society, their customs of personal hygiene were bar coded on its citizenry. These rituals were put in place thousands of years before there was any knowledge of bacteria. The Jews instinctively understood that when their hands and food were washed before eating, people tended to stay healthy. These habits of cleanliness carried over to washing their eating utensils and cookware.  They intuitively knew what we know today. 

     After being confronted by the authorities, Jesus rose to the occasion by addressing these Teachers of the Law with a quote from the Prophet Isaiah.  The words I am going to give you are actually from Isaiah, not from Jesus: 

The Lord said, 'These people claim to worship me, but their words are meaningless, and their hearts are somewhere else.  Their religion is nothing more than human rules and traditions which they have simply memorized.'  (Isaiah 29:13) 

     Jesus then gave the passage deeper meaning by including in God's statement some of his own words, ". . . they teach human rules as though they were my laws!"   

     Laws can liberate us and they can also prevent us from revealing who we have been called to be -- representatives of God's Kingdom here on earth.  Do we truly understand the significance of what our identity is to look like every day?

     Some years ago, I was working for the Agency for International Development as a Summer Intern.  A group of us was given the enormous responsibility of compiling the results of an intra-agency survey.  Material was coming in from field offices all over the world.  While the purpose of the inquiry was never clearly stated, most of us believed that AID was engaging in damage control from the public's outcry, an outcry stimulated by the release in paperback of Burdick and Lederer's 1958 best seller, The Ugly American.

     There were two other interns working near our cubicles who were very gifted Ivy League college students.  We approached them to help us with the compilation of the survey results.  I will never forget the scene.  Both of them were sitting at their desks; one was drinking coffee with his nose buried in Business Week.  The other was reading the Wall Street Journal.   

     I asked the two if they would help us compile this data.  The one lowered his newspaper, looked over his glasses and said, "No can do, Dick!  Your request is not part of our job description."  We hear such words too often in the workplace.  While such a statement is correct, it also may reveal the spirit of the one speaking. 

     Both of them were destined to become attorneys, and I am sure that wherever they are, they are good ones.  They were well within their rights to say what they did.  They were correct!  But they missed an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of seven of their "friends" who were on the same GS-7 grade level.   

     Another example of strict obedience to the law was given voice by a colleague. He received a request from a couple in his church to perform a baptism for their four month old grandson. The circumstances were these:  The couple with the baby had moved to Austin, Texas.  The in-laws of the couple with the newborn lived in the Washington area.  They were going to coordinate their gathering around a time when the couple could fly in for Thanksgiving or sometime between Christmas and New Year's Day, whichever would be more convenient for the pastor. 

     The grandparents were shocked to hear the minister's response.  He refused to perform the baptism. His explanation was perfectly correct and well within his authority.  He said that his beliefs are quite strong that children must be baptized in the church where the congregation will surround them with love and support.  The grandparents of the child reminded him of the obvious.  They said, "It wouldn't make any sense to fly 37 people to Austin to experience an eight minute baptism."  

     The minister became agitated when they questioned his integrity and authority as the pastor.  These grandparents, seeking a favor from their pastor, had been in the church for over 35 years.  All their children had grown up in the church.  Still, their minister was not willing to compromise. Literally heart sick, the family left the church and vowed to stay away until a new minister was appointed.  They found someone else who would perform the baptism in their home. Who are we called to be, servants of the people or custodians of "the laws" which govern our beliefs? 

     As we return to our lesson, Jesus called together all those who were witnessing his verbal exchange with the Teachers of the Law and said, "Let me add something to your understanding. There is nothing that goes into you from the outside which can make you ritually unclean.  Rather, it is what comes out of you that makes you unclean." (v. 15) 

     This teaching obviously shocked even Jesus' own disciples.  We learn this from what happens next. Jesus and his disciples left the gathering and entered someone's home.  When they got inside the disciples began to question Jesus about this teaching. 

     We get a rare look at the way Jesus' processed their lack of insight when we read the following verse.  He said to his disciples,  

You are more intelligent than the others.  Why do you find this so difficult to understand?  Nothing that goes into you from the outside can really make you unclean because it does not go into your heart, but into your stomach and then it goes on out of the body." (v. 18-19) Again, it is what comes out of you that makes you unclean. 

     Let us consider this understanding in light of what happened this past week. We have  witnessed another episode that dealt with a Court's interpretation of the separation of Church and State. The Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court failed to follow through on a mandate from a Federal Court.  We watched as the huge chunk of granite containing the relief of the Ten Commandments was removed from its prominent place in the foyer of the State Supreme Court and placed in a room away from public view.  

     We have read the editorials in our newspapers and over the Internet regarding the truth behind the separation of Church and State, and how our Founding Fathers never intended such a rigid interpretation when they framed the Constitution.   

     We have heard the disgust from zealous defenders of the faith about what is happening to our country with prayer officially being removed from public schools and with minority faiths appearing to dictate to the majority that religious symbols must be removed from Federal or State property because they are offensive to their religious beliefs. 

     We American Christians really know how to ventilate our, "I've had it!" attitudes.  It should strike us as being odd that God becomes an all important "war cry" during a time when our beliefs appear threatened. There are times we feel perfectly justified and we allow our righteous indignation to bring our emotions to a boiling point.  Was it not this motivation that caused the Apostle Peter to brandish a sword in the garden on the night Jesus was taken prisoner?  Who are we when our words are defiant and bitter?  Who are we when our cause is "just" and we dispense verbal swords from our mouths?           

     How quickly our selective memory no longer recalls the voice in our lesson this morning which said, "It is what comes out of you that makes you unclean."  We forget the teaching of Paul when he wrote, "But the Spirit produces love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility, and self control.  There is no law against such things as these.  (Gal. 5:22f)

     Are we angry because a granite slab containing the Ten Commandments was removed from the courthouse foyer, or are we angry because other people used the laws of our land to have it removed? A further question, if the Appeal's Court ruling had prevailed and the Ten Commandments had been permitted to stay where they were, would the people of Alabama or all believers in America  have become more attentive and obedient in honoring that ancient law code with how they live?  

     God had something unique to say about the law.  Jeremiah has God say these words, "The new covenant that I will make with my people will be this:  I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts.  I will be their God, and they will be my people." (Jer. 31:33)  As Jesus said, "It is what comes out of you that makes you unclean."  When a cup is shaken and it spills, what comes out of it is its contents.  

     We forget that we walk in a land of constant change.  Chaos swirls around us.  We are inconvenienced. Our electricity fails for days. Our tire may flatten during rush hour on a road with no shoulders.  We may be required to sit six hours in the waiting area of the hospital's emergency room.  We may become agitated when the chef takes a long time to prepare our meal when our restaurant of choice has four stars connected to its name.    

     A still small voice whispers, "It is what comes out of you that makes you unclean."  Are we committed enough to the Kingdom life to remember these words?  Or, are we more inclined to mirror the responses of those around us?  Suppose Jesus made an observation of those gathered on the Alabama courthouse steps, "You are more intelligent than the others, and yet you still  not understand this teaching? You claim to be my followers, my disciples, yet, do you still fall victim to the games people play and the tests of your faith that life brings to you." 

     Jesus was not attacking or belittling the value of laws, particularly laws that were long standing in his culture.  He was merely teaching his listeners that observing the law is not what puts anyone in harmony with God. There are many people who make a point of being correct in all that they do, and there are others whose quality of life radiates a message that far exceeds what the law requires. We have to decide which one we have been called to be. 

     We will always have controversies.  We will always experience others who hold different points of view.  There will be times when no one supports our position.  There will be moments when justice is absent.  Jesus faced all of these circumstances during his final week on earth.   

     Those of us who pay attention to Jesus are profoundly inspired by what came out of him during those moments.  This is why the evidence is in -- he did overcome the world.  What came out of him still lights our path. He invited us to go the extra mile, to do more than is expected, and to forgive  every one every day.  Are we being soft and passive when we respond to life in this way, or are we making love visible to a world that so desperately needs to experience people who have discovered how to be at peace even in the midst of constant change? 


    We cannot live through a single day, O God, without being surrounded by blessings that touch every aspect of our lives.  Yet we realize how easily we allow discouragement to prevent our recognizing them.  We forget that there are no failures; there are only results from how we think.  Jesus taught us that we can change, yet how often we cling to old ways of perceiving.  We have our own unique qualities to share yet often we envy how others are using theirs.  We were invited to live with kind and caring attitudes, yet we allow the wisdom of our unchallenged fears to govern what comes out of us.  Free us, O God, from all that clouds the spirit we wish to display.  Lead us to become adventurers, discoverers and more wholesome creators as we seek to make your kingdom more visible to others.  Amen.


    Merciful God, we invited you into our minds and hearts during these all too brief moments together.  Sometimes it takes an experience like this one to focus our attention on what is timeless, still and capable of nourishing to our spirits.  There are moments when we lose our center.  We make hasty judgments we later regret.  We allow minor inconveniences to flavor the chemistry of the rest of our entire day.  We have a difficult time hiding the fact that we have favorite people at work and others who would bring joy to us if we never saw them again.