"What Are You Advertising?"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - September 3, 2006

James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

    One of my favorite stories begins with a little girl’s question.  While observing her mother cutting off the ham hock before putting the piece of meat into her cook pan, she asked, “Mom, why do you always do that?”  Her mother answered, “I don’t know but let’s find out.”  While using separate telephones, the two called the girl’s grandmother.  The grandmother said, “I honestly don’t know.  I believe I cut off the ham hock because that’s what I saw my mother do.” 

     Fortunately the girl’s great-grandmother was still alive, so they called her.  She had the answer. She said, “Honey, I always cut off the ham hock because that is the only way I could get the ham to fit into my cooking pan.  In those days I only had one pan.”           

     An aspect of Mark’s lesson this morning is nearly identical to this story.  The Pharisees religiously followed the teachings handed down through the centuries from their ancestors.  The practices had assumed a life of their own when quite often the reasons for engaging in such rituals had long since been forgotten.   When they saw Jesus’ disciples not following the rules, they asked, “Why is it that your disciples do not follow the teachings handed down by our ancestors?  They are eating with unclean hands.”             

     This question provided Jesus with the opportunity to teach the difference between blind obedience to rules and the spirit in which people live.  He began his teaching with a quotation from the prophet Isaiah, “These people honor me with their words, said the Lord, but their hearts are really far away from me.  It is of no use for them to worship me because they teach human rules as though they were my laws!”                

     He used the words of Isaiah to launch into his message.  The Pharisees molded their lives around their compliance to rules that had been handed down through the centuries by people they assumed knew more about life than they.  Jesus responded, “There is nothing from the external world that can defile you.  Rather, what comes out of you is what makes you unwholesome.”  Jesus then labeled many of the aspects within our shadow side that can cloud, distort or confuse our values.  He was teaching his listeners that, when they perceive without love, hateful and despicable qualities would come from them.   Such qualities produce distrust in all of us.           

     There was a day when people were more transparent than they are today.  One of the reasons I enjoy talking to men and women who are approaching the century mark is their memory of the way people used to live sixty or seventy years ago.             

     When you wanted a well drilled or a septic field installed, there were no contracts, no one had to pay a 50 percent down payment before the job was started and no one called The Better Business Bureau to see if the company was reliable.  There was an agreed upon price and a handshake.  The job was generally done to the customer’s satisfaction, and the bill was paid when the work was completed.  That is the way life was lived in mostly rural America. 

     What Jesus was teaching had to do with what comes out of us.  What words do we use?  Can we still communicate skillfully when we encounter a point of view different from our own? Is our word our bond?  Can we accept a closed door as an opportunity for an alternative we may not have considered?  What is the first impression we give to people when they meet us?

     One of the more endearing illustrations that came from Dr. Leo Buscalgia’s life occurred when he was a university professor. He made a habit of speaking to everyone he encountered while walking across the campus.  He was both a morning and an evening person. His switch was always turned “On.” Everyone knew him because of the energy he constantly exuded. With great enthusiasm he would say, “Good morning!”  Some people he met would respond with a very lame, good morning.   As Leo walked past them he would think, “If it really is a good morning for you, why don’t you tell your face?”           

     We can’t hide who we are.  Since we are in control of what comes out of us, why don’t we spend more time considering who we want to be when we grow beyond those not so heart-warming responses that for years have been part of our personality?  Jesus really wanted us to dig down inside ourselves and clean out the closet holding the attitudes and thought patterns that do not endear us to anyone.  Such course corrections are part of the adventure of living.

    We all know people who find fault with everyone and everything. Nothing ever suits them.  We have friends that make us smile because we can count on them to cast doubt on our plans.  We can almost predict with near 100 percent certainty that they will say, “Yeah, but suppose it rains?  It is sheer stupidity to plan for an outside wedding.”  And that bride says, “Thanks, Daddy, for your icy enthusiasm! Please let Mom and me handle this.  We have everything under control.”            

     We enjoy being around possibility thinkers.  We thrive on being with people who are filled with optimism, reassurance and hope.  We need people to remind us that being discouraged is just one of many options we have.  Jesus wanted his listeners to understand that what comes out of them can become the leaven for the loaf or make even trying circumstances become worse for everyone.              

     When we are happy, it shows. What Jesus was teaching his listeners was how to let their discipleship become visible. When we radiate our loving, contagious spirits within the St. Matthew’s church family, our entire congregation will sing.  When we listen to that song, mostly what we hear are words like, “How can I help?  What can I do to make a difference?”   As long as we make such music together, we will never run out of ways to heal each other, our community and our world.  The quality of our discipleship depends totally on what comes out of us. 


     Merciful and ever faithful God, we thank you for giving us our minds, our capacity for insight and our ability to respond to each circumstance with creativity and love.  This morning, we acknowledge how often we have allowed others to erode our peacefulness.  Jesus invited us to radiate our faith, and often we have surrendered to what is petty and small.  Jesus asked us to live in a spirit of forgiveness, and we hold on to our pain.  Jesus showed us how to communicate with kindness, and we have decided that love must first come to us.  As we go forth from this place, enable us to bring your presence into our families, our workplaces, our classrooms, so that each day may become a new opportunity for us to express the joy that being in fellowship with you brings.  Amen.