St. Thomas Evangelical Lutheran Church

3800 East Third Street

Bloomington, Indiana 47401

(812) 332-5252


Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (August 30, 2015)

Liturgical Color: Green

Reverend Doctor Lyle E. McKee


Lip, Heart, and Hand

Grace to you and peace from our loving God, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

The gospel for today one of those passages that gets the juices flowing. We like hearing from Jesus about forgiveness and grace—what we know as the center and the essence of the gospel. We like feeling good about ourselves when we come to worship. We need to be filled and fed and provided with a word we can use in our life during the week.

So, where is that word here? It is a challenge, as well as fun, to find the gospel in hard words like this one.

The first thing that needs to be said about this part of Mark's gospel is that the church has misused it for too long. It has been turned into an excuse to judge others—especially the Jews; and it has helped to foster a lot of hatred in the form of anti-Semitism. That, of course, is simply not appropriate for a gospel of love. You've heard me say such things before.

I know I'm preaching to the choir here. This congregation, some of you may not know, served as host to congregation Beth Shalom in the 1980s when their facility was fire-bombed. So this space has seen worship also by the people of Israel, and we are proud to have a long friendship with our neighbors.

In this text from Mark, it is important to know that Jesus is not speaking to the Pharisees and the scribes out of hatred, but out of concern and love. His words to them are not meant to be used by us to judge others who may share some characteristic of theirs. The words of Jesus are meant to be heard by them and by us, as if spoken directly to whoever is willing to listen. For, in truth, they judge us as surely as they do any ancient Pharisee or modern Jew.

Listen, and hear the words Jesus speaks to you:

You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition...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.

Shame on any who hear these words and look beyond themselves. And shame on the church for using them—words spoken to inspire the heart to devotion—as weapons to oppress.

It is true for all of us, as hard and uncomfortable as it may be to hear, that evil comes from the intention in our hearts; and it is the intention that keeps us from doing God's will. First of all, Jesus is preaching to us this morning about our intentions, about the nature of our hearts, about what God now looking deep within us sees in the recesses of our most inward parts.

It feels an awful lot like judgment. Who among us can withstand such scrutiny? Who is without sin, mixed emotion and motive, and sometimes evil intention? Who has a heart that is not, in some way, far from our Lord?

Not one of us. We can answer unhesitatingly that there is no one who is so worthy, pure, or spotless. None but Jesus might make such a claim. And it is in his righteousness alone that we all have the hope of the gospel that calls us to eternal life.

So where is the gospel—the good news—in this passage?

I believe there are two ways to find it. The first, we've already seen. When we live into this conversation between ancient Jews and Jesus (himself, remember, a Jew), we discover one of the most important truths of the gospel. We have no merit of our own. We cannot be redeemed by attempting to follow a bunch of laws that lead us into ever more complicated processes of trying to cleanse ourselves. Such behavior is futile, destructive, self-defeating, and only a feeble way of trying to justify ourselves.

This is not a bad bit of truth in itself, but it is not enough to give us the help we need to live.

There is another and deeper gospel word for us here, in the midst of all the judgment. Discipleship.

Jesus is calling the Pharisees, the scribes, and us to make our actions consistent with our words and our intentions. As James puts it:

"be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves."

Mark speaks of hypocrites and quotes Isaiah:

"This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me."

Hearing is easy. Giving lip service is easy. It's the doing that's tough. Hearing and knowing what to do, is not nearly as important as doing what we know to do. What we say is translated best by how we behave. Lip, heart, and hand, at best, match up.

Jesus never asked his hearers, "Do you agree with me?" or "Does this sound reasonable to most of you?" or "Get my drift?" Jesus wanted more than mere agreement. Most of the time they called Jesus "Teacher," but he is about far more than the mere inculcation of knowledge. What Jesus said was, "Follow me."

He was after discipleship, not simple intellectual agreement. I really like the phrase, "Jesus wants orthopraxy, not orthodoxy" (right practice, not right belief). Perhaps our tendency to over-intellectualize is why we tend to ask the wrong questions of the gospel. Upon hearing scripture, we tend to ask, "Now, how could that have happened?" Or, "Now let me think about that." Or, "What doctrine does this suggest?" But scripture doesn't simply want to be understood. It longs to be put into action—to be lived. Yes, it is fine to step back, ponder, think, consider, and reflect on scripture. That's what we're doing right now and why I so enjoy bible study. And yet, the bible longs for us to get moving, to get into the act, to live out the text rather than just speak or believe it.

In this vein, one preacher asked folks what they look for in a good sermon. "I like a sermon that helps me to think about things in a new way." was a predominant response. "I like a sermon that engages my mind and spurs my thinking and reflection."

He writes, "For a while, that sounded good to me. After all, I like to preach interesting, engaging, thoughtful sermons—when I can! Yet the more I thought about it, I wondered if their responses were not quite right. There really is something about us that loves to think that all worship is about is sitting, listening, taking in.

"Is this why today's texts link our inaction to deceit? 'Be doers of the word, not hearers only who deceive themselves.' 'Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites.' Some kind of link is being made here between our inaction, our inability to put the word into motion, and lying." (Willimon)

We deceive ourselves into thinking that we have done the faith when we have merely listened, reflected, pondered, agreed. What we profess is not as important as what we are able to do. Beliefs, right beliefs, must be embodied, enacted in order to be real. Orthopraxy trumps orthodoxy.

Sometimes I've heard people say of church on Sunday morning, "I think of church as a filling station. I come here empty, and during the service I get filled so I can make it through the week." Such thinking is passive and receptive, not active. It makes church into a place where we come, sit back and say, "OK preacher, choir, organist, Jesus, do it to me; fill me up."

No. The test for good worship, the mark of a good church is not what we do here, during this hour of worship; it's what we do outside the doors of the church for the rest of the week. And yet here, as elsewhere, after all is said and done, more is said than done.

The world may be right in judging the truth of the gospel on the basis of the sort of lives the gospel is able to produce. Do we really behave like the God whom we praise here on Sunday morning? Have our songs and prayers changed us and made us into what we profess?

We know that any sermon that is "seen" in deeds of love and justice, is more effective than one that is only spoken and heard and believed. How many people have been turned off with the church, have turned away from Jesus, because they've been hurt or scandalized by the actions or lack of action on the part of those who profess to follow Jesus?

It is worth noting by way of spreading a good word that the national church of which we are a part is encouraging us to practice what we preach at the "God's work. Our hands. Day of Service" two weeks from today. It is not the only opportunity to put our faith to work in our community. I know well that many of you are already very good at that. But I commend it to you nonetheless. Sign-up sheets are in the narthex.

And so the sermon ends. And the test for the sermon, the mark of whether or not this was a good sermon, a good service of worship, is about to come upon us. You already agree with the sermon—I hope. You already understand the biblical text for today—I trust. But agreement and understanding are not the problem.

The issue is now before us. And now for the final questions: What will we do with what we have said, sung, and heard? Do lip and heart and hand all work together?

"Pastor, that was a wonderful sermon," said the parishioner at the door after the service.

"That remains to be seen," said the preacher.

Amen.

May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus our Lord unto eternal life. Amen.

 

 

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