Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A sermon on reality TV & conversion of the heart

Gospel Lesson:  St. Mark 7:1-23

One of the major trends in the reality tv movement of the past two decades has been the makeover show. The same storyline runs through virtually all of them. They start with a person, family or group who are somehow deficient or in need of real help; then enters the expert or experts at whatever difficulty they are facing; the right cure is applied. The conclusion of the show is meant to convey dramatic resolution as the subject has been transformed. These shows point to a fundamental human hunger for salvation. It is remarkable that there is a vestige of the Christian account of the salvation of sinners in the genre of the makeover show. Of course, the problem with these shows is the transformation and salvation offered is purely on the level of externals. A material or physical medicine is applied to what are mostly emotional and spiritual maladies. Take for example, one of my personal favorites for a number of years: Clean House. Each episode introduces a new family who is burdened by clutter. It is clear that many are suffering from more than just an inability to throw things out. But the experts arrive, sell everything at a garage sale, and transform the house from clutter to haven. But the emotional and spiritual issues that caused the chaos are often overlooked or minimized. You see, there is a relationship between one's external circumstances and one's internal state, and an external salve alone will not heal an internal problem.

This is precisely the point our Lord Jesus is making in todays Gospel lesson. The passage begins with a legal dispute brought by the Pharisees and scribes who were the authorities on the application of the law found in the Torah, the first books of the Bible. These Jewish leaders ask Jesus why his disciples do not wash their hands before they eat. It was not a question of sanitation but of ritual purity. You see, according to the traditions of the scribes, hands must be washed prior to eating. There are two problems with this: the first is that it is a very vigorous interpretation of the law. The custom of hand-washing was based on law of ritual washing for the priests prior to entering the temple and offering sacrifice. The tradition was trying to say that even eating a meal is sacred—not, of course, a bad sentiment—but on the other hand, to claim divine authority from the Torah for this custom was more than a stretch. A second and more important problem has to do with the nature of the inquiry made by the Pharisees and scribes. For Jesus it is evident that they are far more concerned with externals than than with internal considerations of motive, will and love. For our Lord it would be far too easy to fulfill all these external customs but have no love for God or for one's neighbor, and this, he says, is fundamentally hypocrisy. He quotes Isaiah as characterizing their hypocrisy: This people honours me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.

Our Lord is not saying that externals are bad or unnecessary. That would be bad news for us Episcopalians because externals are among the things we do best: good music, beautify liturgy, and well-ordered worship. But as we learn from our Lord's response to this line of questioning, we have to begin with internal and allow the external to be manifestation of that. In the discourse following he says, “There is nothing from outside a man, that entering into him can defile him: but the things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man.” He then goes on to list those evils that begin in the mind and in the will and are the source of defilement. By the way, ritual defilement, uncleanness or impurity are those thing that disrupt one's relationship with God meaning most importantly, if you were unclean, you could not enter the temple for worship. Our Lord touches the man with leprosy and is touched by the woman with the issue of blood—both leprosy and blood were causes of ritual defilement. This woman and the leper would have been like untouchables because the defilement was contractible—if one touched them one would be unclean. By touching them, Jesus shows that this notion of defilement is not to be worshiped above love for neighbor, but he also remarkably restores them to society at large and to temple worship and even to God. The point our Lord is making in this lesson is summarized very well in another discourse with the Pharisees where he says, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess. Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also” (Matthew 23:25-26).  Cleanse first that which is within.

Again, I do not think that Jesus is saying externals are unimportant. Later Christian thinking would come to the conclusion that ritual law had been superseded in the New Testament, but our Lord is not rejecting ritual law in our passage. He is saying that religion, if it is to be true, has to be first a religion of the heart. A religion of the heart then can become the basis for the externals of religion. Those externals then are a manifestation of the internal, religion of the heart. In fact, the external becomes the natural complement to the internal aspects of faith. This is something we already realize instinctively. There are many Protestant versions of Christianity where the religion of the heart never expresses itself externally: these tend to produce churches that market a highly subjective faith which results in chaos and volatility. A further complication is when the religion of the heart is not supported by external structure, it often depends on emotions to maintain itself; emotions inevitably turn and can cause spiritual shipwreck. The opposite extreme of well-ordered externals but an absence of internal religion is a temptation for the mainline and Catholic denominations, and this of course is the problem of the Pharisees and scribes. External religion isolated from internal faith results in a sterile and cold religion that we have all witnessed and perhaps even practiced. When our liturgy, traditions and worship become more real to us than the living presence of Christ, we are worshiping a pious myth rather than the living God.

In looking at our lives, we have to start with our hearts and not with externals. Consider this fact that flies in the face of our consumerist culture: material goods are rarely if ever transformative. I promise the desired thing will not bring lasting happiness or joy. Our Lord indicates that our hearts need to be clean if we to be ritually clean, that is, in right relationship with God. Consider again the fact that our hearts are the moral center of our person. St. Augustine said that before Adam and Eve ever ate of the fruit of the forbidden tree, before the serpent ever tempted Eve, Adam had a bad will, a will to sin. Sin is clothed in lots of forms: it can be blatant and uncloaked, it can appear in altruistic guise—after all if you are giving to the poor just to stroke your own ego, how do you think God reckons this act?—and sin can even appear in a religious guise. Think of the Pharisee who went up to temple only to pray to himself about how much superior he was to others. But the matter is even more stark: traditional theology says that if you have the will to sin but not the occasion to sin you are still guilty of the sin.

But how, you might ask, can we ever begin to change our own hearts? It is the heart that seems to be most out of our control. The prophet Jeremiah says of the heart: The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? And in the succeeding verse he answers his own question: I the LORD search the heart, I try the reins (17:9-10). It is God who knows our hearts and intentions, our wanderings even better than we do. But he also wills to change our hearts. The Lord speaks through the prophet Ezekiel, “Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean. . . A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. (36.25-26). A changed heart is not something we can manufacture, it is something that only God can give us. I love this imagery: He can change our heart of stone for a heart of flesh. Again you might ask: how does he do this? What is it that can soften a stoney heart? Brothers and sisters, it is love. Love is the only thing that can transform the heart. Ezekiel prophecy finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Look at the cross, where God's love embraces all of our sin and brokenness. Even as our arms were crossed in antipathy to God, Jesus extends his arms in love. The love of God removes our stoney hearts and gives us a new heart of flesh. Isn't it self-evident that once we accept that we are wholly loved by God, we become free, free to love others not of obligation or self-interest but in the freedom of self-giving and self-sacrificial love, and thus, in our own small way, to be vessels of God's heart-changing love. As we come to this Altar, we remember once again the love of our Savior given in his precious Body and Blood. May we ever be nourished, renewed and transformed by this love given for each of us and indeed for the life of the world. 

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