Sermon by The Rev. Patrick J. Wingo
Sunday, September 2, 2018
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The Gospel: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
When the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
Sermon for Proper 17B 9-2-18 Church of the Ascension PJW
The Poet/songwriter Don McLean was perhaps most famous for his song “American Pie” which was a kind of anthem for the 1970’s. He also wrote another little song which was not quite as well known, a song called “Vincent”, which was about the artist Vincent Van Gogh.
The song begins like this:
Starry Starry Night
Paint your palette blue and gray
Look out on a summer’s day
With eyes that know the darkness in my soul
Shadows on the hills
Sketch the trees and the daffodils
Catch the breeze and the winter chills
in colors on the snowy linen land.
Now I understand what you tried to say to me
How you suffered for your sanity
And how you tried to set them free
They would not listen they did not know how
Perhaps they’ll listen now.
Vincent Van Gogh sold just one painting in his lifetime for a very small amount of money. Now, of course, his paintings sell for millions of dollars, but during his lifetime he was considered a radical, a troublemaker, and a failure, a strange painter whose use of bold strokes and bright colors was unorthodox and uncouth. No one understood Vincent, because artists in the late 19th century used muted colors and short, smooth strokes in the paintings. And technique, doing things the correct way, was extremely important to them.
They were not ready for someone like Vincent, who saw the world differently, with eyes that saw the darkness in his own soul and in the souls of others, yet eyes that also saw the world as bright and hopeful. Vincent’s paintings reflected the hope that the world could be a beautiful place in which to live.
And indeed, if you’ve ever seen one of Van Gogh’s Starry Night paintings, it is amazing how someone can paint what can only be called a bright and beautiful darkness. But no one could ever accept this vision of Vincent’s in his own lifetime. Technique was everything. No one had the eyes to see the world in a new way. They were blinded because they were holding on to tradition and to technique, and it seemed that no one but Vincent had dared to step outside the parameters of the art of the day.
It is this same kind of blindness that the Pharisees are accused of by Jesus. The Pharisees had made an exact science of living under the Torah, the law, so exact that they had become fearful of it. So they built a sort of fence around the law, constructed of more and more rules and legalities that had to be kept so that the Law itself could never come close to being broken. They had lost sight of the reason the law existed in the first place: to remind the people of their relationship with God, that Yahweh was with them. The reason the Law existed in the first place was so that there would be justice and mercy for everyone in Israel; so that those who were weak, and outcast, and poor, and worthless in the eyes of society would not be left without hope.
So the darkness of the world could become a little more bright and beautiful with God’s love.
But the Pharisees were an exclusive group. At the time of Jesus they monopolized the interpretation of the Law, and their intense legalistic adherence to every part of the Law served to keep others away, because if a Pharisee came in contact with a non-Pharisee, in their minds there was danger of becoming impure. There was a reason that Jesus saved his harshest words for the Pharisees, because he saw that the Pharisees had forgotten that the Law was a gift that ultimately pointed to the Giver, the Holy God who cares for all creation.
What a fearful way to live. What a closed up way of seeing the world.
Starry, Starry night
Portraits hung in empty halls
Frameless heads on nameless walls….
How do we see this world, this life that God has given us? Do we see it as a fearful place, where we are afraid that if we don’t adhere to some strict religious code then God will exact vengeance upon us? Our collect for today has an interesting phrase in it—if you look at the first page of your bulletin you will see it. In the collect we ask God to “graft in our hearts the love of your Name,” and to “increase in us true religion…”.
It seems to me that the idea of religion has somehow gotten a bad reputation. People who are not church-goers look at the church from the outside, and I’ll bet more than a few of them see Pharisees. They see what they believe to be purity laws, they hear things on the news about scandals and the mis-quoting of Scripture, and even the word “religion” becomes distasteful, not to mention actually going to a church or mingling with church people.
As Jesus said when he quoted Isaiah in today’s Gospel, they see the church teaching human precepts as doctrines. And there is so much about this that seems contrary to an authentic love of God, that seems to be the antithesis of God ‘grafting onto our hearts the love of God’s Name.’
But true religion is so different. True religion is not legalistic, it is relational; true religion is not dark and boring—like a Van Gogh painting, it is full of light, even in darkness, and it can be thrilling. It is, as the Letter of James puts it in our reading, caring for people in distress; true religion is a matter of the heart—people moving closer to the heart of God, and our hearts becoming more and more open to the love of God and the movement of the Spirit of God in our lives and in the world.
True religion is not about technique, if you will, it’s not about the rules, it is about the bright colors and broad strokes of love that bring the world closer and closer to Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God.
It would be easy to take Jesus’ list of “evil intentions” at the end of the Gospel lesson and create a list of rules, and in fact that has happened a lot, in churches and elsewhere .
But notice that all of the things that he lists there, in one way or another, have relational aspects.
Jesus knows that being connected to God is the thing that changes hearts, so that the things that thencome from within are, to use a list of St Paul’s, things like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, self-control.
God does not call us to purity, because that’s really impossible. God does call us to faithfulness, to wake up each morning determined to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, even if we stumble along the way. An authentic heart open to God is what Jesus seems to be after, a heart that is given over to the same God that parted the Red Sea and brought Israel out of Egypt, the same God who raised Jesus from the dead. God didn’t bring those things about because God wants us to be perfect.
The story of salvation is a love story, and the theme that we hear over and over is that God pursues us and redeems us and weeps over us and rejoices in us because God loves us. God loves this broken and beautiful world, and will never, ever let us go. It’s not a mistake, I think, that our Old Testament reading for this week is part of a love poem. Because that’s the story of salvation, and it will be the story of God’s relationship with us, no matter what happens in our lives or in the church or in the world.
At the end of Don McLean’s song, he sings this about Van Gogh: “I could have told you, Vincent, this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.” Maybe he’s right, I don’t know. Sometimes the world is not in a place to handle beauty, or truth, or the depth of love in human form.
And yet this world desperately needs all of those things, and God has given them to us in Jesus, because he is the image of God right here among us. Living the Christian life is all about finding true religion in him, with all of our heart, and living out our lives in such a way that the world has no doubt about the truth of his love.