Proper 17

September 3, 2006
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Song of Solomon 2:8-13
Reading 2: 
Psalm 45:1-2, 6-9
Reading 3: 
James 1:17-27
Reading 4: 
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
By Rick Marshall

Discussing the Texts:

The Psalm and Song of Solomon texts, taken together in their poetic voice, are a powerful contrast to the issue of what is true religion raised in the Mark and James texts. The issue, at its most basic level, is what motivates a person to open themselves to God and under what terms does that opening take shape. Irrespective of the context of the Psalm and the Song of Solomon texts, the reader can’t help but notice the poetic expression of genuine love from the heart, a love that is motivated by the affection and respect, even adoration, of the other and not by self-focused concern. In the case of the Psalm text, it is the King; in the case of the Song of Solomon text, it is a lover. We notice in the voice of each text, the tenderness and care, the utter giving over of self to the beloved. Such love is not self-conscious nor is it calculated for some ulterior gain. The roots of spirituality are here.

The problem with human behavior is when such love is corrupted with the influence of self-calculation. In the Mark text, the presenting issue is purity laws, through the ritual washing of hands before eating. The question of the religious authorities that is posed to Jesus is telling: “Why do your disciples not live according to the traditions of the elders, but eat with hands defiled.” (vs. 5). This whole episode comes on the heels of the story of the five thousand fed and Jesus walking on water and a summary statement about Jesus’ healings in the area. In light of all that has been manifested through Jesus, especially in the kind of power exhibited, the religious authorities focus on, what is obviously, a trivialized view of religious behavior. The trivializing dynamics of the religious authorities have less to do about the presenting issue, but, more deeply, the effort to control others. Focusing on controllable, and therefore, trivialized, issues, gives the feeling of having power over oneself and over others. Washing one’s hands before a meal is public and obvious and can be witnessed: hands were washed or they weren’t. It’s a simple matter, even if it is trivial. The Bible talks about the weightier matters of the law, like justice, and how those are ignored in service to this trivialized version of religiosity. What seems anachronistic (i.e. the concern over purification laws) is actually universal human behavior and expresses itself in every time and place. The same trivialized dynamics are at work today: efforts to display the Ten Commandments in public places, prayer in public school and so on, compare to the weight of washing hands before a meal.

In response to this trivializing tendency in the public arena, Jesus makes a very serious accusation against the religious authorities: ignoring, rejecting, even twisting, God’s word.

Jesus’ response to the authorities goes to the heart of the matter, and these are not his own words, but quoted directly from the Jewish scriptures: “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrine the precepts of men.” Then his owns words: “You leave the commandments of God, and hold fast the tradition of men.” The problem comes down to sin, and in this case, sin comes down to idolatry: setting the self up as ultimate arbiter of what’s right and wrong and what it means to be right with God and then ruthlessly imposing that trivialized measure upon others. The problem continues unchecked today in the church. The focus is on the external behaviors and not on the internal motivations.

The same accusation can be made against much of what passes for Christian religion today: ignoring, rejecting, twisting the word of God, for personal power or gain. Focusing religious life on issues of homosexuality, prayer in public school, public display of the Ten commandments, abortion (which is a serious matter) political affiliation, is to do precisely what the religious authorities were doing in Jesus day in his estimation: trivializing, even rejecting, the word of God. What about justice? What about peace? What about the reality of poverty? What about the destruction of creation? What about perpetuating violence in God’s name? As long as attention is riveted on trivial matters, the weightier matters are ignored.

Jesus announces, as plainly as possible, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person which by going into him can defile him; but the things which come out of a person are what defiles him.” (vss 14-15) The problem is the heart. (vs. 21) In a world where religion is reduced to ritual behaviors, Jesus refocuses attention on the source of spirituality, the heart. And yet, we need both the heart and the behaviors, the inner person and the outer manifestations of behaviors. The James text reminds us of this. If the heart is detached from having any effect on the world, then what’s the point?

The James text focuses on true religion: “to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” True religion is to do and not just hear.

Process Theology and the Texts:

Much of traditional Christianity, indeed much of the philosophical tradition in the west, is focused on external relations: matter in motion, the behavior or status of substance, mathematical descriptions of the material world. This emphases upon the external aspect of the world has influenced religion in the direction of the external: interest in creation of the physical world, the location of God, the status of human bodies after death, the nature of God’s power in the world, and so on. With the advent of science and its efforts to describe the nature of the physical world, the model of reality that gave shape to much of traditional Christianity has shifted quite dramatically. Now the interests of science has led us deeper into a weird world of energy rather than simple matte in motion. Furthermore, the interest in relationships has shifted to include internal relationships. One of the more important observations of science has been that everything is connected to everything else. Another is that internal relations are just as important as external relations. What effect do these observation have on religion? First, these observations affirm what both Jesus and James are saying in the texts. True religion comes from the heart, but must manifest itself through actions. Internal and external relations, for religious purposes, are not contrary but complimentary. We must recognize the importance of both aspects of the world and of human behavior.

Process Theology, in its cosmology, brings back into balance the importance of internal and external relations. It especially is interested in interpreting the divine/human relationship. God is not simply an external influence over creation, controlling and manipulating things from the outside, but is deeply involved in the unfolding of each moment, by providing new possibilities to each emerging event. God is involved both internally and externally in the continual creative process of the world.

Preaching the Texts:

In light of the renewed interest in internal relations, it would be helpful to look at the Mark and James texts and talk about values such as love. How would we describe a religion that comes from the heart? Could spirituality be described from a larger perspective that would include both internal relations and external? Are James and Jesus in tension, or are they providing two pieces of a larger picture? If both internal and external relations are equally important, how are the two related dynamically? If there is a dynamic interrelatedness to everything, how then could that be reflected in our worship? In our daily religious practices? In our daily lives as we live from moment to moment?

A sermon could take an issue such as justice or peace, and describe the issue as religious, but only from an external view. What would, say, peace look like if there were only external relations? Absence of conflict. Balance of political power. Contracts and negotiations. Bargaining. The word Shalom is much more complicated and deeper. Looking at a words such as Shalom could lead back into the texts.

Or a sermon could look at the Mark text and interpret it strictly from and external relations view, taking the side of the religious authorities, and then looking at the James text strictly from an internal relations view, arguing against James. The purpose of such a sermon would be to demonstrate the way religious life gets trivialized by emphasizing one form of relations at the expense of the other.

Another sermon could focus on the binary view of the world: left and right side of the brain, male and female, light and dark, coercive and persuasive power, internal and external. Our whole computer world is set predicated on the binary system of ones and zeros, how we perceive ourselves from the inside of our own experience and how others perceive us from our behavior. The Mark and James texts are noticing the binary nature of religious life and trying to rebalance it by acknowledging the importance of the inner and the outer, the lips and the heart. Even God both gives and receives.

Children and the Texts:

This is the time to be playful with the chosen sermon idea. One way to do this is to point out a thought or feeling they have and how others can’t see the thought or the feeling. Describe the look on their face, body posture. Are you feeling happy? How can I tell? Are you thinking about your dog? How can I tell? Play with the children about their inner reality and the way they are perceived from the outside.

You could ask them how they know their parents love them. They say they love you, but how do you know? By the way they treat you; by the way they look at you. You can’t see the inside of another person, but you can see their outside and how they act. Both are important, aren’t they? How about God? The Bible says God loves us, but how do we know? Do you think God has an inside and an outside, too? I think so. Maybe the world is like God’s body. We see the beauty and the life. Maybe that’s the way God shows us that God loves us.

Or you can ask, how do we know if a person is religious or not? What if they say they trust God, how would we know? Are they religious if they pray a lot, or if they are kind to others? Are they religious if they are mean or hurt other people?

May you be aware of God’s abiding presence as you preach these texts this Sunday. Amen.

Rick Marshall is co-pastor of Brea Congregational Church United Church of Christ in Brea, California, a church he has served for 24 years. He has contributed many resources to the Process & Faith website, including A Process-Relational Guide to Grief, Death, and Funerals.