Thursday, September 24, 2009

Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost Year B 2009

16 Pentecost B 09
September 20, 2009

Proverbs 31:10-31
10 A capable wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels. 11 The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain. 12 She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life. 13 She seeks wool and flax, and works with willing hands. 14 She is like the ships of the merchant, she brings her food from far away. 15 She rises while it is still night and provides food for her household and tasks for her servant-girls. 16 She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard. 17 She girds herself with strength, and makes her arms strong. 18 She perceives that her merchandise is profitable. Her lamp does not go out at night. 19 She puts her hands to the distaff, and her hands hold the spindle. 20 She opens her hand to the poor, and reaches out her hands to the needy. 21 She is not afraid for her household when it snows, for all her household are clothed in crimson. 22 She makes herself coverings; her clothing is fine linen and purple. 23 Her husband is known in the city gates, taking his seat among the elders of the land. 24 She makes linen garments and sells them; she supplies the merchant with sashes. 25 Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come. 26 She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. 27 She looks well to the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness. 28 Her children rise up and call her happy; her husband too, and he praises her: 29 "Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all." 30 Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised. 31 Give her a share in the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the city gates.

Psalm 1
1 Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; 2 but their delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law they meditate day and night. 3 They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper. 4 The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away. 5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; 6 for the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.

James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. 15 Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16 For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.
1 Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? 2 You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.
7 Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.

Mark 9:30-37
30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, "The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again." 32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, "What were you arguing about on the way?" 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me."

A Successful Church

Fred Craddock tells a story about a little church he served in the country that was attended mostly by women. The men, most of them, didn’t come with their wives, and instead went to a diner in town. The diner was where the real business of the town was talked about, where the important things were decided. From time to time, one of the men who went every Sunday morning to the diner would disappear.

“Where did Joe go?”

“Oh, his wife got him to go to church.”

“Another one down.”

One of those diner guys, a good man who worked hard and took care of his family, but who didn’t come to church, would occasionally run into Fred and whenever he did, usually without Fred saying anything, would say, “Don’t even start. I know what you’re going to do.”

And Fred would say, “What’s that?”

And the man would say, “You’re going to try to talk me into going to church. Look, I mind my own business.”

And Fred would usually turn the conversation to other things.

One Sunday morning, the man showed up at church. When Fred asked if anyone wished to be baptized, the man came forward.

Fred said, “Why you? Why now?”

And the man said, “Because I realized Jesus’ business is my business.”

What is the business of the church? How do we measure success for the church? What is Jesus’ business?

Some would say, a successful church is a happy church, everyone having a good time, enjoying each other, getting along well. That’s important. It’s true. Good relationships in the church are very important.

Some would say, a successful church is a growing church, more and more people coming to believe in Jesus. That’s important, it’s true. Church growth is important.

Some would say, a successful church is a learning church, lots of people of all ages in bible studies and Sunday School. People growing spiritually. Learning, it’s very true, is important.

Some would say, a successful church is a beautiful building. Lovely grounds, lots of flowers, pretty steeple. And this is true, a beautiful space for classes and worship services and meetings is important.

Some would say, a successful church is a worshipping church, lively and interesting Sunday morning experiences that inspire everyone and fuel them up for the week ahead. Good worship is certainly very important.

Some would say, a successful church is a service church, meeting the needs of people in the community. Meeting people’s needs, it’s very true, is certainly important.

Some would say, a successful church is a mission church, participating with the denomination in promoting the gospel all over the country and throughout the world. It’s true, you know. Mission is very important.

Some would say, a successful church is a caring church, looking after the members in times of crisis and difficulty, chasing after members who drift away. Caring for our members is certainly important.

Some would say, a successful church is a giving church, everyone tithing, giving ten percent of their income every Sunday, giving lots of money away to the denomination and the community. Giving is certainly important.

Some would say, all of these things are important, and everyone in the church should be doing all of them. Others would say that some of these things are more important than others. Some might say Philippi is successful at all of these things. Others might say we’re successful with some and not others.

Who is the greatest? We all know how success is measured in the world. Success is power. He who wields the biggest club politically or militarily or economically or even charismatically. The richest people in the world, the people that command the biggest and most destructive military forces in the world, the people who are the most charismatic or beautiful or lovable, the people in charge of the big stuff. They are the successful ones, and the world is fascinated by them. Things don’t happen to the successful. The successful make things happen.

Which is the greatest congregation in the world? By what measure do we determine this? The one with the most charismatic and lovable preacher? The one with the biggest building? The one with the largest worship attendance? The one with the biggest education program? The friendliest one?

Our Old Testament lesson comes to us probably from about 600 years before Christ, some think even earlier. It’s what we call “wisdom literature.” The bible is composed of many books, and the books are of different types. There are history books, law books, books of oracles from prophets, all different kinds. Wisdom books are books about everyday life. They’re comprised of little sayings meant to be useful in one’s ordinary affairs. Proverbs was probably written for the training of young men.

The passage this morning is usually called “the ode to the good wife.” It’s a description of what ancient writers thought of as a successful household. Now some modern marriages among Christians still model themselves on this passage, but the ideal of marriage I think is not found here, but in Genesis, an equal partnership between the man and the woman.

The main principle of the ancient Jewish household was that everything and everyone in the household was owned by the man. The good wife described in the passage belongs to her husband, as does everyone and everything else in the household. When Jesus uses the image of Father to describe God, one dimension of his meaning is this household. God the Father is the owner of the house and everyone in it.

The good wife sees her success in the success of her husband. The description we get here is of a tireless and very capable manager of resources. She works day and night to use and distribute the resources her husband has provided, for the purpose of giving honor to her husband. The ode to the good wife is included in our readings today because it is a very fine image of a successful church.

All the business we do as a church, taken together, are dimensions of the one great work of Jesus Christ. Like the good wife, the church provides food and clothing for the members of the household, makes strategic plans to maximize the gain of her husband Jesus, takes time to build herself up in strength, opens her hand to the poor, speaks only wisdom, has no worry about the future, skillfully manages the members of the household, and does everything she can to bring honor to Jesus in the sight of the whole world.

The business of Jesus , the husband of the church, is salvation, and the letter to James makes no bones about what salvation is. The congregation he’s writing to has probably fallen prey to the old worldly wisdom that “bigger is better.” They’re chasing the important people and putting them in charge of the church. James is withering in his condemnation of this idea of success. Salvation for him means nothing if it isn’t really about rescuing people. Remember back when we started reading James? He said, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to care for the widows and orphans in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

What is the measure of the success of the church? According to Jesus, it is in the smallness and insignificance and powerlessness of the people it serves. He says, “Whoever wants to be great among you must be the servant of all.” And then to demonstrate, he picks up a child.

In the ancient world, and perhaps today as well, the child is the very image of powerlessness, weakness, and vulnerability. “Whoever serves the least powerful of all, the bottom of the barrel, the forgotten, the most oppressed, the most hated, the most outcast, the most humiliated, whoever serves the one who is being crucified by the world, that one serves me. And whoever serves me, serves the one who sent me.”

The business of the church is salvation. She is the good wife of Jesus, tending carefully and wisely and tirelessly to the gifts he has given her, and when she opens her hand to the poorest and the weakest, she brings him glory.


Thursday, September 17, 2009

Proverbs 1:20-33
Psalm 19
James 3:1-12
Mark 8:27-38


(Sermon preached by Wyatt Portz while Pastor Mike was on vacation.)

Good morning! I am delighted to be here, and I would like to thank Pastor Mike for calling on me to speak in his absence. The scripture readings for today have special meaning for me, and I’ve always found them compelling, even difficult. Because of this, it was important to me to accept his invitation.

The scripture readings deal with communication – how God communicates with us, and what we can expect when we don’t listen – and also how we communicate with each other, and even how we can communicate with God. The scripture suggests that real communication is a two way street, with communication back and forth. It’s only when it becomes one-way, when we start talking to ourselves, so to speak, that we are wayward and get in trouble. For communication to be two-way, the first requisite is to be a good listener, keep an ear out for truth. And then, when you hear, respond. That is conversation. Anything else is just talk, talk, talk to the ends of the earth.

In Proverbs, “Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: ‘How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?…Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the LORD, would have none of my counsel, and despised all of my reproof, they shall eat the fruit of their [italics mine] way and be sated with their own devices. For waywardness kills the simple, and the complacency of fools destroys them;”

Busted! Wisdom is crying out in the streets, but few are listening. On the other hand, if we do listen to Wisdom, and choose “the fear of the LORD,” a benefit is promised, and it’s a good one: “those who listen to me will be secure and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.”

It’s worth noting here that the fear of the LORD does not mean quaking in abject terror at the feet of divinity. To fear the LORD, in ancient times, was to turn toward him in awe and respect and reverence. That’s still what fear of the LORD means, I believe. But, in the blinking of an eye, you can turn away from divinity, even if you’re trying to lead a holy life. You can be deaf to the voice of Wisdom.

Last week, when I was reading “Mike’s Meanderings” from the Philippi newsletter aloud to my wife, Anna, I changed one of the words to create a pun; it turned Mike’s meaning ‘on its head.’ I often do that in conversation, or other very similar things. I play with words all the time.

“Among Christians of all denunciations around the world,” I read, “there seem to be two main visions of God’s will, both claiming biblical authority, that are both almost diametrically opposed to each other.”

Suddenly Anna broke in to my reading: “Does it really say that?”

“No,” I said, “I made it up. It should say ‘denomination,’ not ‘denunciation.’”

“Did you do that on purpose?”


“Wyatt, why did you do that?” Anna scolded. “You know, you really must examine why you do things like this. On the one hand you embrace all kinds of spiritual knowledge, you’re always reading about it, you regularly practice meditation and sudarshan kriya (a breathing technique we both practice) and on the other hand you hold it all at arm’s length, even deny it. Why do you do it?”

Busted! Wisdom cries out in my own kitchen, and I had better listen.

In Psalm 19, one of my very favorites, “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.” It seems the entire creation is a silent shout proclaiming the divine glory of God. A shout that is not speaking in human speech. The only way to hear this shout is the way it is presented, in silence louder and more perfect than any words or speechifying, because “The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the LORD are sure, making wise the simple.” To hear this shout you have to train yourself to listen. And then, the simple are made wise when they do.

The psalmist continues, listing qualities of the LORD that “rejoice the heart…enlighten the eyes…endure forever…are true and righteous altogether…More to be desired than gold, even much fine gold.” There are two things I’d like to point out at this juncture. One is that every time I have referred to the LORD so far, it appears in the Bible all in capital letters. It was translated like this because the word itself is untranslatable into English. It’s an ancient word that means – sort of – “I am that I am,” the words God spoke out of the burning bush to Moses. “I am that I am.” In other words, pure spirit, the very spirit that “I am that I am’s” creation tells the glory of. The other is that the qualities - dare I say human speech - of “I am that I am” – the law, the decrees, the commandments – are the precepts of that Spirit, that “I am that I am,” and they keep the people of God safe in the presence of Spirit. The next time you read the word LORD all in capitals, you may want to substitute “I am that I am;” It gives a different feeling, and meaning, to the passage.

The psalm ends with a prayer of petition, the kind of prayer where something is asked for. It’s perhaps the most common prayer, certainly one we’re all familiar with. “But who can detect their errors?” the psalmist asks. “Clear me of hidden faults. Keep back your servant also from the insolent; do not let them have dominion over me. Then I shall be blameless…”

It’s a wonderful, heart-felt prayer. Clear me of hidden faults, because I cannot see them. And keep me back from the insolent, do not let them have dominion over me.

When Anna asked why I turned Mike’s words on their heads, I replied that I honestly didn’t know, but that I was painfully aware of the habit. Upon reflection though, I partly pun because there is almost always humor in it, and I think I tend to be entirely too serious about life and work, and for that matter, spiritual matters. It’s nice to inject humor into discussions about eternity, about salvation – these are weighty matters that people have been nattering about for millennia. Sorry, but there’s part of me that thinks this nattering is just talk, talk, talk, talk. The chattering goes on and on to the ends of the earth and prevents us from experiencing the very things we talk about – eternity and salvation. And I think a lot of that experience is structured in silence. So when we speak, our words should count for something. And maybe what they should - or could - count for would be to lead us back to silence, where we can more fully hear the silent shout of the spirit through God's creation. Because, are we not part of this creation? Are we not part of the silent shout? And if we hear it, is not every human heart part of that shout? Yes. I think so. But to hear it, we must first listen for it.

Another reason I turn words on their head is because I enjoy the mental shock of challenging others’ ideas. I like using language in provocative ways. Those of you who have spent time around me know that this is a habit with me, but I’m not sure the habit adds to the discussion of ‘truth’ and ‘what is truth’ that I do love to engage in. It’s more playful frivolity. I like the humor and the laughs. But, in fact, playful frivolity can hinder discussion, hold it at arm’s length, and be a distracting hindrance. I’m mostly listening to myself, and there is no real dialogue. I’m laughing at my own joke. On some level, it is insolent. Just as the psalmist says – LORD, “I am that I am,” save me from the insolent, that I may be blameless.

Busted! By the psalmist – I have met the enemy, and he is me!

When we are talking we are not listening. We cannot hear the wordless voice of God emanating from the silent shout of creation. The danger is that we separate ourselves from a loving God and feel separation. Even worse, we give up our union so that we can think that we are correct, right, and even righteous! And we are seldom aware that that is what is happening. But, as soon as we start thinking that we are important, we start feeling that we are alone. We talk, talk, talk to the ends of the earth; we feel that we are 'right;' we make our points; and, in making our points, we can miss the Point of the silent shout altogether. We feel our energy depleted in aimless talk, while the creation is shouting all around us, unheard.

As James notes, “So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire…no one can tame the tongue…with it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not be so.”

Busted! This time by James.

To use another example from my life, and one I’m sure many can relate to: When I was a young man, I liked to drive fast. I did not hesitate to speak badly of the slower drivers on the road, the ones who held me up.

I willfully told them to go to heck, because they didn’t believe in gosh. (You can laugh, that was a joke).

Now that I’m older, and a much safer driver, I find myself occasionally becoming impatient and angry with the drivers that buzz by weaving in and out of traffic – me at a younger age, of course. Shut up, Wyatt, just shut up; pay attention to your own driving, not the driving of others. Judge not lest you be judged. One difference between the old me and the young me is that I am aware of these things.

So, busted! This time by me. You might think I’m extravagant, but to paraphrase Jesus for the 21st century – the Kingdom of Heaven is like driving all the way to Washington, D.C. without having a single unkind thought for any driver on the road! (That’s not a joke, I’m serious).

But how would you feel if you were busted by Jesus? That’s what happened to Peter in the passage from Mark. Jesus has just finished teaching his disciples that he “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” Peter is listening, all right, but he can’t accept what he hears! Peter takes Jesus aside and starts arguing with him. The actual word the passage uses is "rebuke." Kind of like, "Jesus, how dare you say such things!" I imagine it may have continued something like this: “Hey, let’s just go down to Nag’s Head for a while, until this all blows over. There are lots of folks there who need your teaching, and the weather’s always great this time of year. There will be other Marys and Marthas there, good cooks and good places to stay…think how welcomed we’ll be!”

The response from Jesus is swift and unequivocal: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Peter is busted.

Then, it gets even worse for him – Jesus turns to the crowd and the rest of the disciples, and says “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Sometimes you can be standing right next to God, and he’s talking to you, and you just don’t want to hear the message. And you'll start arguing with him. And you'll try to cut a deal to get your own way. And He will bust you, every time, and lead you away in the handcuffs that you’ve designed yourself. But there’s something else he’ll do, too. He’ll teach you how to remove your handcuffs and throw them away. He’ll teach you how to live in freedom. And He’ll always be there for you.

He asks you to deny yourself and pick up your cross and follow after him. He doesn’t ask you to pick up his, though clearly, once you have picked up your cross, you must have the courage to be crucified for – or by – the truth of your cross. You have nothing to lose but your handcuffs. You have everything to gain – freedom – Paradise and Eternity, in fact – and all you have to do is pick up your cross, whatever it is, and follow after Jesus, who demonstrated that death has no power.

And be advised, more than anything, the power of Jesus’ words in this passage from Mark come from the Resurrection: “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering,…and be killed, and after three days rise again.” It is the Resurrection that gives power to Christianity, not the crucifixion. In fact, the crucifixion means nothing without the Resurrection. So ask yourselves “What is my cross?” or “What are my crosses?” and pick them up, and love them, for they are the way to freedom. This is good news. It is also hard news.

Maybe complacency is your cross. It’s awfully easy to just “kick back” and enjoy here in Deltaville, but the psalmist tells us “the complacency of fools destroys them.” There’s no eternity in being a couch potato, that’s for sure. Or maybe it's an eternity of boredom.

Maybe it’s one of the seven deadly sins - maybe gluttony – “O no! I overate again! The devil made me do it!” No, not the devil – you made yourself do it.

Maybe it’s greed, and the desire for money and possessions burns like a fever in your brain – “O, it’s OK, that’s the way God made me!” No, that’s not the way God made you, that’s the way you made you. You might think of any of these sins as a covering you've put over your true image - the image of God, of divinity, of love - as a pale substitution for your real image. The pale substitution is your cross. On the other side of it is life that is more full and abundant.

You see where I’m going. Your cross is your cross. The pale substitution is exactly what separates you from God. It's what you've put in place of God; it's an idol. It is exactly what has to be unmade in ourselves to heal a separation that, after all, we have imposed on ourselves. Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit are always there, in and with love, saying, "Follow after me! Come to me!" It's a journey we must make; we each have our own journey, but as Christians, we also travel together in community. This is what, for me, the church is for.

The journey starts for me - and maybe ends - in prayer. I mentioned the prayer of petition earlier in this talk, when the psalmist asks and entreats "...who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults." I'm sure we all pray like this, and it's necessary to do so. There is also another kind of prayer, a prayer of surrender. This kind of prayer asks for nothing. I'm speaking of meditation. There is a long and rich tradition of meditation in the Church, but in recent centuries it seems to be a prayer skill that has been relegated to monks and mystics. Brothers and sisters, it need not be so.

I have practiced meditation for decades now, and it is in the silence experienced in meditation that a lively personal spirituality has grown in me. I mention it here because a short time devoted to meditation each day has immeasurably increased the joys in my life, and I think it would improve the quality of anyone's life. Diving in to silence has made me a better listener. Sometimes the 'silent shout' of the creation is a palpable force that shakes me from the inside out. My speech is no longer inflammatory, but informed by silence.

In Matthew, Chapter 5, the first beatitude is "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven." When I was a child, I could not figure out how being poor in anything could lead to the Kingdom. Then, as a young man, I realized that the passage probably referred to being "humble in the spirit." That made more sense to me. But then I started to meditate; in experiencing meditation I began to think that the passage had been mistranslated. Maybe it should be "Blessed are the poor within the spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven." First of all, meditation is a denial of self. When I meditate well, the world falls away, and my self with it. Things become very quiet. There is a feeling of expansion. There is a palpable sense of timelessness and eternity. I become peace. And when I come back to the world, it seems fresher and more alive than before; it's been made new. Through the years, many of my bad habits - not all of them yet, but many - have just naturally fallen away.

I wish this for all. I pray that our crosses, as soon as we recognize them and pick them up, may naturally fall away, and leave us smack dab in the middle of heavens telling the glory of God, the firmaments proclaiming his handiwork. The Peace that Passeth All Understanding.


Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost Year B 2009

13 Pentecost B 09
August 30, 2009

Song of Solomon 2:8-13
8 The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills. 9 My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice. 10 My beloved speaks and says to me: "Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; 11 for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. 12 The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. 13 The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.

Psalm 45:1-2, 6-9
1 My heart overflows with a goodly theme; I address my verses to the king; my tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe. 2 You are the most handsome of men; grace is poured upon your lips; therefore God has blessed you forever.
6 Your throne, O God, endures forever and ever. Your royal scepter is a scepter of equity; 7 you love righteousness and hate wickedness. Therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions; 8 your robes are all fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia. From ivory palaces stringed instruments make you glad; 9 daughters of kings are among your ladies of honor; at your right hand stands the queen in gold of Ophir.

James 1:17-27
17 Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18 In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
19 You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for your anger does not produce God's righteousness. 21 Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. 22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25 But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act--they will be blessed in their doing. 26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
1 Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2 they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3 (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4 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. ) 5 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?" 6 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; 7 in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.' 8 You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition."
14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, "Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile."
21 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person."

A Journey to Gennessaret

That day began late in the bright sunny morning with difficulties with the house servants. The Pharisee had said his morning prayers, thanking God that he was not a woman or a sinner, and thanking God for the many rewards that God had granted him for his pious life. He then reminded his chief steward that he needed not sixteen but seventeen jugs of water drawn from his private well. The steward had the gall to argue with him, complaining that carrying so many jugs of water in addition to all the other morning duties was a burden to the staff. The Pharisee shook his head. He was really paying these lazy servants too much money. He took his rod of birch and whipped the steward. It really is a burden on a good man to have the responsibility of managing such a large household.

The Pharisee joined his wife and children for the morning meal, carefully inspecting the bowls and dishes for cleanliness before he went into the dining room. The servants really didn’t understand the big picture, how important it was to maintain purity before God. He took the opportunity during the morning meal to school his wife and children on the importance of cleanliness, reading aloud some of the many verses from Deuteronomy that were written in his very expensive personal copy of the scroll having to do with exactly how one is to wash to maintain one’s acceptability to God. Of course, these passages were addressed to the priests of the temple, but the Pharisee understood the tradition of the elders, who wisely extended these rules to everyone.

He had a busy day. He had to make a journey out of busy, cosmopolitan Jerusalem up to the country province of Gennessaret with a few of his fellow Sandhedrin members to investigate a teacher who had been getting some notoriety of late. His name was Jesus, and the people were very fond of him. Some of his colleagues on the Sanhedrin thought he was dangerous, that he might be stirring up some kind of revolution. Others thought his message was at the very least interesting.

But before he left with his retinue of servants who would carry his tent and his supplies, he had one bit of business to attend to. A landowner owed him money and hadn’t been able to pay, and today was the day he would seize the man’s land to cover the debt. Really, these country people, so ignorant, so irresponsible. It would be painful to take the land which had been in the man’s family for centuries, but it was after all only what he deserved for his poor management. It would add another fifty acres to the Pharisee’s already wide holdings.

Meanwhile, in the country village of Gennessaret, where Jesus and his followers were staying, the woman was carrying her second jug of water the mile and a half back from the community well. Her back had troubled her for some years now and the daily trips to the well had become a misery. She knew from the synagogue teaching of the Pharisees that bathing was necessary to be right with God, but she just couldn’t manage going back and forth to the well so much. The water she carried was just enough to drink and to use for cooking the family’s meager morning meal. She silently prayed, “I’m sorry, Lord, it’s the best I can do. I hope you understand.”

Her husband was already at work in the fields, fields his family had owned for centuries, now lost to one of the temple priests who had loaned them the money to pay the Roman’s taxes. They hadn’t been able to pay the loan back on time, and so now they were tenant farmers on their own land. The temple priest was very rich and sent overseers out to make sure that the entire tax, along with the tithe to the temple, was always taken, no matter how little was left for her and her family. All of them were getting very thin, and one of the little girls was sick. She couldn’t afford to take her to the priests.

This morning though, her back seemed to feel better. It was strange how hope could make so many burdens lighter. Jesus had come across the Galilee just the day before. So many people healed. God had to be with him. Her husband had come home full of stories about Jesus’ teaching. He planned to take their daughter to him that day. It was said he fed a huge crowd of people a rich meal using only a few loaves of bread and two fish. Could it really be that God had heard their prayers? Could it really be that God was going to save his people?

The Pharisee arrived that evening just in time to join his friends and go to the humble house where Jesus and his followers were to have dinner. There was a huge crowd of filthy peasants milling about outside the house. The smell was just awful. Really, can’t these people take a bath now and then? The peasants cleared the way and bowed and scraped as the Pharisees made their way into the house. The Pharisee recognized several men whose lands he’d seized for debts. Their eyes weren’t friendly.

The house was packed with dirty smelly people. The Pharisee had to cover his nose with his prayer shawl, the stench was so strong. And they were all so happy, laughing and sharing food. There was Jesus in the midst of all of them. He was hard to pick out because he and his disciples looked so much like the poor country bumpkins around them. Their clothes were worn and dirty and so were their hands.

The Pharisee was outraged. This was disgusting. This man was claiming to be a rabbi but he wasn’t even clean. “Why, may I ask,” the Pharisee said, “don’t you and your disciples wash your hands before the meal as we have been taught by tradition?”

And Jesus had the audacity to call him and his friends hypocrites. He even quoted Isaiah. The room fell silent. The Pharisee looked around at the dirty peasants in the room. He saw triumph in their eyes.

He and his friends left the house.

While the Pharisees were heading away from the village to their overnight camp, the woman who had carried the water that morning was with her children, telling them stories about Moses she had memorized when she was little. Her husband had taken her daughter to see Jesus and he hadn’t yet returned. She was anxious and worried, but she was trying to hide it from the children, who were listening to her stories with bright and hopeful eyes.

Suddenly her husband’s frame filled to door. At first she didn’t see her daughter. Without saying a word, her husband led the child into the dark room. “I feel better, Mother. The man Jesus touched me, and I feel much better.”

One question burned in the woman’s mind. She whispered “How much did it cost?”

Her husband said, “Nothing. All he said was, ‘Great is your faith. Let it be done as you ask.’”

At the camp of the Pharisees, over a sumptuous meal of lamb and bread and honey, The Pharisee brought up what they were all thinking about Jesus. He said, “This man has to die.”