Getting to the Heart of Things (A sermon from James 1:17-27 and Mark 7:1-23)
This story in Mark 7 is a story of how some religious leaders in Jesus’s day, and in Mark’s day, and by extension in our own day get around actually doing the will of God while giving an appearance of holiness and making a claim to be dedicated to God.
This is a story that is easy to misread. Some read this story as if the major contrast is between human traditions and scripture. That is not the contrast at all. I need to say two things about that:
First, tradition is not bad. One of the problems is that many misunderstand the biblical meaning of the word tradition. Tradition in biblical usage simply means “what is handed on.” So scriptures - our sacred texts – are part of our Christian tradition. Paul tells the Corinthians, “I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you” (1 Cor. 11:2). In 2 Thessalonians Paul or someone writing in Paul’s name says, “So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter” (2 Thess. 2:15). The traditions here were the teachings and practices Paul passed on to the churches. And these traditions were not fixed, they were fluid and evolving.
So tradition is not bad. Tradition is necessary. There would be no religious community without tradition. What’s important is how we make use of the traditions, how we make use of our sacred texts and our spiritual practices. Tradition can be employed in unhealthy, negative, life-diminishing ways or tradition can be employed in healthy, positive, life-affirming ways.
Second, the word of God is NOT limited or confined to sacred texts. The word of God is a dynamic reality, not static. It transcends scripture. Our sacred texts, as well as our spiritual practices based on those texts should serve as a medium for the word of God, but the word of God is not literally those texts or practices. When you think about it: a scriptural document/a biblical text represents a particular stage in a faith community’s evolving faith. A biblical text is a developing tradition frozen in time. You can’t freeze in time the word of God. The word of God is God acting in time, which for God is the eternal now.
You see, the word of God is God speaking, revealing, acting, convicting, judging, and engaging our world and our personal lives right now in non-coercive, non-manipulative, and always in life-affirming and life-enhancing ways. The word of God is equivalent to the active presence of God. The word of God is God interacting with the creation.
This is why James says that we are given birth, we are regenerated, given new life “by the word of truth” (1:18). James is not talking about scripture. He is talking about the regenerating activity of the spiritual presence and power of God in our lives. This is what the author of Hebrews is talking about when he says that “the word of God is living and active” (it’s not a written text) and “is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” He is not talking about scripture. They had few written texts in their world. Their culture was an oral culture. Both James and Hebrews are talking about the transforming power of God in our lives.
Now, is God’s regenerating power mediated through scripture and our faith traditions? Certainly. Is God’s regenerating power limited and restricted to our scriptures and our faith traditions? Certainly not. God transcends our sacred literature and practices, both of which are part of our tradition.
Unfortunately, the church-at-large has not done a very good job helping people understand this very important distinction. In fact, some of our practices have muddied the waters and left false impressions. For example, a tradition in many churches (especially mainline churches which is interesting I think) is to say after the scripture is read: “The Word of the Lord.” Is it the word of the Lord? Not literally, no. It can be a medium through which the word of the Lord comes to the congregation, but that remains to be seen doesn’t it? That will depend on how the scripture is presented to the congregation – how it is interpreted and proclaimed. And it will depend on the congregation’s readiness and willingness to receive and act on that word. The scripture is a medium for the word of God, but it is not literally the word of God. I cannot emphasize enough how important this distinction is. Because if you don’t make this distinction the likelihood is that you will revere a written text more than the living God who is so much more and greater than the text.
When Jesus charges the religious leaders with making void the word of God, he is not saying that they are nullifying scripture itself. Rather, he is charging them with making void or nullifying the will and purpose of God as it is understood and expressed through scripture. They were interpreting and applying their faith traditions in ways that opposed God’s good will and purpose, thus revealing their hypocrisy and lack of authenticity.
The critical question is not: What is tradition and what is scripture? Scripture itself is part of our tradition. Scripture is part of a faith community’s evolving faith traditions captured in time.
The critical question is: What is behind our interpretations and appropriations of both our scriptures (our sacred texts) and our teachings and practices based on those texts? What motivates, inspires, guides, and directs our interpretations and appropriations of our sacred traditions, which include both our scriptures and our sacred practices based on those scriptures? That’s the heart of it and that’s where real change has to happen - in the heart – as Jesus points out in Mark 7.
The religious leaders that Jesus confronts in Mark 7 were using their sacred traditions to actually subvert what was clearly God’s will. They used their traditions to justify their lack of compassion and greed. They tried to convince others, having already convinced themselves, that what they were actually doing demonstrated how holy and devoted they were. When in reality it showed just the opposite.
Jesus zeros in on where the real problem lies. It’s in the heart. This is where good and evil originate and what is allowed to settle in our hearts greatly impacts how we use our sacred traditions. An unconverted person – I mean someone who has not experienced significant heart change – will use sacred texts and practices in destructive ways.
Sometimes the way we wear our Christianity does more harm than good. I love the story that the late Fred Craddock tells about the time he and his wife attended a victory party after a University of Georgia football game. They didn’t know anyone there except the couple with whom they were in attendance. It was held in a beautiful home in a suburb of Atlanta – restored Victorian, high ceilings, adorned with expensive furnishings. A lot of people were there, maybe thirty-five or so, mostly in their thirties, forties, and early fifties. They were all decked out in clothing that said, “How about them Dawgs.”
There was an attractive woman present – a little too bejeweled and overdressed according to Fred. And just as Fred and his wife were getting to know folks and getting into the party, this woman suddenly rang out with, “I think we should all sing the Doxology.” And before they could even vote says Fred, she started in. She and a handful of her friends sang with gusto. Others stood around and counted their shoelaces. Some tried to find a place to set their drinks down. There were a few who hummed along. Fred said it was very awkward.
When they finished the woman said, “You can talk all you want about the running of Herschel Walker, but it was Jesus that gave us the victory.” Someone spoke up, “You really believe that?” She said, “Of course I do. Jesus said, ‘Whatever you ask, ask for in my name, and he’ll give it to you.’ So I said, ‘Jesus, I want to win more than anything in the world,’ and we won. I’m not ashamed to say that it’s because of Jesus. I’m not ashamed of the gospel.” And for an exclamation point she added, “I’m not ashamed to just say it anywhere, because Jesus told us to shout it from the housetops.” You to have admit though, that’s a creative use of the Jesus traditions don’t you think?
Fred along with some of the others retreated to the kitchen and tried to refocus on the game. They started to relive the game, talk about the game, when the hostess came into the kitchen carrying a plate of little sandwiches. Things got quiet for few moments. Then one of the men said to Fred, “Do you think that woman was drunk?” Fred said, “Well, I don’t know. We just moved to Georgia last year. I was glad Georgia won, but I’m not feverish about it.” The hostess overheard and broke in to the conversation. She said, “If she doesn’t shut her blankety mouth, she’s going to ruin my party.”
Fred said that it wasn’t like him to speak up, but he did. He asked the hostess, “Are you a Christian?” She said, “Yes, but I don’t believe in just shouting it everywhere.” I don’t know about you, but I get that.
I will confess, I wish some of these NFL quarterbacks would get that too. It kind of gets to me when they shoot at God after thowing a touchdown pass, which is just a way of saying, “Look at me.” Even though I was rooting against the Patriots in last year’s Super Bowl, I admit that when Russel Wilson, who is known for this sort of thing threw that goal line interception, there was something in me that took some pleasure in that. I don’t claim to have been led by the Spirit at that moment.
The most authentic Christians I know never have to talk about their Christianity. They just live it, though they are not hesitant to talk about it if they need to. They don’t have to shout it from the housetops, because the word of the Lord lives in their hearts and they live it out every day. They are doers of the word, like James talks about.
When you think about it, it is doing of the word that actually changes the heart. The more we act, the more we do, the more we engage in fulfilling what James calls the perfect law of liberty, which is the law of love, the more we are changed on the inside as well as the outside. The more we embody the word, the more our attitudes, perspectives, emotions, thoughts, and intentions come into line with God’s good will for our lives and our communities.
James does not leave us in doubt as to what doing the word looks like. The little book of James does not employ dense logic or heady reasoning or a lot of murky, imprecise theological words the way Paul tends to do in his letters, which can leave your head spinning. James is fairly clear about what it means to appropriate and practice the word of God. James shows us what authentic religion looks like.
Those who practice the word, according to James, are “quick to listen” – they are intentional about tuning in to the feelings and thoughts of others. They are sympathetic and empathetic.
They are “slow to speak,” because they know that words can cut deep and be hurtful. They also know that words can heal and empower. They also know that those who profess to be religious but cannot control their speech – what they say and how they say it – prove that their religion is worthless.
They are “slow to anger” because they know that harbored anger does not promote healthy relationships. They know that when anger is allowed to fester it can be very destructive. So they learn strategies for diffusing their anger.
They cultivate a humility, honesty, trust, and openness that makes them ready to receive the implanted word. This enables the true law of liberty, love for others, to take root in their hearts and flourish.
They engage in acts of mercy and justice on behalf of the “orphans and widows” in their community. They care about and do what they can to help the disadvantaged and vulnerable who are often exploited by those in power. They are ready to defend the powerless and they seek to empower the poor.
It’s sad to hear some of our presidential candidates, and one in particular, use such inflammatory language in talking about undocumented persons and families, most of whom are powerless and vulnerable like orphans and widows, who want a safe place for their families, who are simply trying to survive. It really is disheartening to hear the rhetoric and to witness the complete lack of empathy and compassion. I suppose we should expect such things in society. But it really is disheartening to see that there are so many Christians who support this sort of thing.
Persons and communities who do the word, according to James, keep themselves unstained from the world. They are careful not to be sucked into the destructive “isms” of this world, like consumerism, materialism, exceptionalism, nationalism, sexism, racism, and militarism. They keep themselves “unstained” by such pollution.
Sisters and brothers, if we will take steps to engage the word – to practice these things, to do and live the word – I have no doubt that we will experience real heart conversion. And when the heart is changed we are truly changed.
Our good God, forgive us for those times when we use our religious faith, our interpretations and traditions to actually avoid doing what is clearly your will. Give us the will and gumption to be intentional about the kind of lifestyle changes we need to make, the kind of practices we need to engage in, in order for our hearts to be infused and saturated by your love. May your word find a fertile place to grow in our hearts. Amen.