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Sermon: Heart Healthy

August 28, 2009

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

I was talking to a new acquaintance this week about our mutual friend.  She was complimenting him and said, “He has a good…”  She pointed to her heart and in my mind I was completing the sentence for her.  “He has a good heart.”  But instead she said, “Core.”  “He has a good core.”

I thought that was a beautifully appropriate way to describe someone.  It may just be another way of saying “heart,” but the “core” seems more solid.  The heart is soft and often goes its own way, but a person’s core represents the firmness of their character.  If you have a good core, you are not likely to betray your deeply held beliefs.  Like the wise man who built his house upon the rock, you are not likely to be knocked flat by one of life’s unexpected storms.  I would like it if someone could describe me as having a good core.

In today’s scripture, Jesus uses the image of the heart rather than the core.  He said that our hearts, though they may contain the best of who we are—love, selflessness, caring, compassion—also contain the possibility of evil: theft, murder, adultery, greed, jealousy, pride and folly.  Side-by-side with my love and compassion is an enormous potential for evil.  Jesus described our hearts in this way to make it clear that it isn’t the outside influences that make us unclean or sinful, but it is the things that we do that are the problem.

Jesus had been in an argument over the Pharisees about particular types of religious conduct.  Jesus argued with the Pharisees quite often, and that may have been due to the fact that they shared much of the same theology.  You know how siblings seem to fight with each other more than with anyone else.  The same may have been true of Jesus and the Pharisees.  The Pharisees took their faith very seriously, and sometimes they disagreed with Jesus.  Yet the scriptures tell us that Jesus dined with them, and some Pharisees even warned Jesus that Herod wanted to kill him (Luke 13:31).  They were not enemies.

In today’s story, the Pharisees wondered why Jesus’ disciples did not wash their hands before they ate.  This was not an issue of cleanliness, but of ritual purity.  The Pharisees believed that this extra washing of hands before meals would reinforce a person’s ritual purity.  These particular acts are not required by the religious law, the Torah, but were extra habits, to make absolutely sure that a person did not become ritually unclean.  That is why Jesus asked the Pharisees why they were so concerned about these non-biblical traditions rather than focusing on the law given to Moses by God.  There is no need to add tradition upon tradition.

Mark’s Gospel gives us the impression that all of the Jewish people were slaves to obsessive-compulsive hand washing.  Your pew Bibles state that “the Pharisees, as well as the rest of the Jews, follow the teaching they received from their ancestors: they do not eat unless they wash their hands in the proper way” (Mark 7:3, Today’s English Version.  Emphasis added.).  That is just not true.

To say that all people in any group do or believe anything is a dangerous statement.  To say that all the Jews of Jesus’ time believed in the tradition of washing their hands is as ridiculous as saying that all Methodists enjoy potlucks, or that all San Pedro residents support unions.  Some do; some don’t.

Mark has presented this story in a way that creates a caricature of the Pharisees as well as other Jews.  He emphasized their intense concern over ritual purity so that Jesus’ point about focusing on scripture is made more clearly and powerfully.  While we can appreciate Mark’s point that scripture is more important than our human traditions, we do our Jewish brothers and sisters a disservice by imagining that Mark gives us a fully accurate description of First Century Judaism.  In fact, some contemporary scholars believe that Mark was using this story to resolve a dispute between Christians and simply used the Pharisees as a foil.  Our text is not about the Jews or Jewish practices.  Our Gospel lesson is about us.

Jesus’ teaching today is about our heart, about our core.  Jesus wants you to be able to say that you have a good core, that your values are solid and enduring, that your heart is healthy.  You want what comes out of you to be clean and holy.  You want to raditate love, compassion and selflessness rather than spewing the greed, deceit and folly that hides within the human heart.

It is true that things that go into our bodies can harm us.  Pollution, drugs and a poor diet damage our bodies.  It is true that other people can do things to damage us emotionally.  Children are particularly susceptible to abuse, but even adults can become seriously wounded by the disrespectful and violent ways people treat us.  That means we need to understand what Jesus meant when he said that nothing going into you can make you unclean, but only that which comes out from your heart.

Jesus was really speaking of our spiritual-emotional connection to God and to others.  In the world of Jewish religious law, there were a number of things that could impair a person’s relationship to God and the community.  Some of these relationship-disrupting conditions are a result of our own behavior.  The Ten Commandments describe a number of life-giving behaviors—love God above all, honor your father and mother, do not steal, murder or covet.  Those are behaviors under our control.  Follow those commandments and you enhance your relationship with God and your neighbor.  If you disregard those commandments, you damage your relationship with God and others.  In one sense, you have made yourself ritually unclean.

That, however, is just the Ten Commandments, and we are in control of our own actions, whether or not we keep those commandments.  But there are also a number of other scriptural commands that are not under our control.  Leprosy is one example.  A person with leprosy was considered ritually unclean.  A menstruating woman was also considered unclean.  There are a number of other conditions—some under our control and some not—that could render a person unclean.  When a person was unclean, there were certain rituals and sacrifices that could return a person to purity.  Remember, though, that these are generalities and not every First Century Jew believed and behaved in the same way, just as not all modern Jewish—or Methodist—people believe and behave the same way.

What Jesus emphasized in our text today is that it isn’t the things imposed on us from the outside that make us unclean.  What really matters, what really determines whether or not we have a good core, is what comes out of us.  Murder will make you unclean more surely than leprosy.  Slander, jealousy and pride will make you unclean more powerfully than coming into contact with a dead body.  I am not made unclean by accident, but by my own choices and behaviors.  And those behaviors are a reflection of my core, the values I hold dear.

There is good news in this idea, and the good news is that the quality of our relationships to God and others is not accidental.  It is not dependent upon the capricious whims of the Universe.  Your actions do a lot to determine whether or not you have a clean relationship with God, and you are in control of your actions.

You might say, with some good reason, that I had just mentioned that all those terrible things like jealousy, greed, murderous intentions and all the rest reside in our hearts, just ready to come popping out into the world.  The even better good news is that even more than our actions it is God’s own action that determines the quality of our relationship.  God has such a great desire for relationship with us, that God has spoken to us through scripture to encourage and mold that relationship.  And because we are only human, God has sent Jesus Christ to us to be an ambassador of that relationship, to heal the wounds that we create with our own sins and failures.

God understands that as we develop a good core, we will slip and fall now and again.  God makes us clean when we have made ourselves unclean.  God does not expect perfection from us.

A seeker after truth came to a saint for guidance.
“Tell me please, wise one, how did you become holy?”
“Two words.”
“And what are they, please?”
“Right choices.”
“And how does one learn to choose correctly?”
“One word.”
“May I know it, please?”
“How does one grow?”
“Two words.”
“What are those words, pray tell me?”
“Wrong choices.”
(William Boggs, Sin Boldly: But Trust God More Boldly Still [Nashville: Abingdon, 1990], 48; from Homiletics Online.)

We make our own choices.  From our own hearts come the things that defile us.  But the good news of the Gospel is that through the grace of Jesus Christ, we are made clean again.  Out of our wrong choices come greater wisdom so that the next time we may make the right choices.

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