Carla J. Bailey, Pastor
A sermon given at
The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
A congregation of the United Church of Christ
I’m so glad not to be running for president of the United States. For some reason, I started thinking of all the things that some news organization or scrappy reporter would reveal about me, the innumerable faults and quirks that would prove, beyond any doubt, that I am not someone who should be president. Why would anyone subject him or herself to such public scrutiny? You’d have to be delusional! You’d have to have an ego of such breadth and heft that there would be no room for nuance or doubt. It’s kind of funny, isn’t it, that the things we demand of presidential candidates are the very things that would make us dislike these people if we were to know them personally. Imagine having Michelle Bachmann to dinner, or taking a long trail walk with Mitt Romney. Imagine Rick Perry as a deacon of our church, helping to plan the fall picnic or prepare hot chocolate for the Christmas carol sing. It gets to feeling kind of ridiculous, doesn’t it? It’s one of those strange American paradox – we want someone who we can imagine is just a regular, beer-drinking guy, a girlfriend with whom we exchange good chicken recipes. At the same time, we expect that comfortable neighbor to be able to inspire us, make us want to be self-sacrificing. We’d prefer there be no divorce in our president’s past. A difficult childhood is apparently an asset. We want our president to intimidate other world leaders, and secure for us a good job with decent benefits and an annual, automatic pay increase. We want our president to fit a kind of super-American mold, smart but not acting smart, good-looking but not vain, warm but above the fray, clever but not mean, religious as long as its Christian, Christian but not part of any particular denomination, tough on crime, except when it’s committed by our nation or within one’s own party, able to convince us that we are still the greatest nation on earth and that such standing is indisputable and important. Really, what sane, thoughtful, likeable, interesting person would choose to pursue such a position? Which explains a lot, doesn’t it?
I’m already a little sick of the campaign and there’s still fourteen months to go. If only I didn’t feel there is so much at stake. If only I didn’t have the nagging worry that our nation’s moral center has turned rancid. If only I didn’t believe that the gospels, from which we learn the most important lessons for our Christian discipleship, are about national, community struggle, identity, failure, and purpose. If only I could believe that the most important lessons Jesus had to teach were about individual piety, correct prayers and practices, and personal articles of faith.
I would love to ignore what’s happening in our public, political life. But I can’t. Christian discipleship won’t allow it. As long as there is suffering, as long as there are people who are oppressed, made poor, or in danger, as long as there is such profound disparity of wealth, as long as there are innocent people in prison, starving people anywhere, despairing people trying to make a livable life on an hourly wage that, by every measure, is inadequate, well, what choice do we have but to rail, critique, prophecy, serve, demand, and oppose? Really, since we’re Christian, what choice do we have?
You should know a little something about Matthew’s view of Christianity to understand this story better. Matthew was very concerned that Jews should find in this new religion about Jesus enough to convince them that Jesus, himself a Jew, was the Messiah, the awaited Savior, the new King David, the fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures. Matthew wanted to bring the Jewish community, as a whole, into a new relationship with God, so he embellished the stories about Jesus a little bit. Matthew included a long genealogy at the beginning of his gospel tracing Jesus’ lineage back to David himself. Matthew used a phrase over and over in describing the events of those three years of Jesus’ life, saying “in fulfillment of the Scriptures”, to remind his listeners and readers that Jesus really was the new David. Matthew had Jesus quoting the prophets right and left. And Matthew had Jesus explain, at length, how the laws were to be reinterpreted, old laws, good laws even, but laws that needed a new breath of meaning.
Like this one in today’s story, a dietary law over which the Pharisees, law-observant to a fault, had a disagreement with Jesus. It had to do with ritual hand-washing. Now, of course, we know and understand how important it is to wash one’s hands before eating, how hand-washing is the single most effective way to prevent the spread of illness. So, it could be said, that the Pharisees were actually on to something important when they insisted that to eat with unwashed hands was to defile a person. It was, in other words, a sin. But that wasn’t what Jesus was talking about when he made the distinction between what goes into the mouth and what comes out of it. The Pharisees, he explained, were very concerned with correct behaviors, with strict adherence to the letter of the law. They were worried that the very fabric of their faith was eroding. They clung to a belief that the old, ritual ways, which had served so well for so long, would reinstate the Jews to their position of God’s chosen, special, singularly superior nation. Yes, Rome is oppressive. Yes, money is scarce. But if we all could just recapture that time when life was better, we would be great again. And the way to do it was to insist upon the laws as they had been handed down and practiced for centuries, with no room for interpretation or updating to more adequately address a contemporary world view.
As we have been doing for the past several weeks with Matthew, let’s dispense with the literal interpretation of these words. There is no miracle in today’s story, as we have had in the past weeks, but still, it’s important to see that Jesus was speaking metaphorically to his disciples. What actually is sinful – what goes into the mouth or what comes out of it? Even the most literal among us can see that he wasn’t only talking about food, digested, its waste to go into the sewer. No, Jesus elevated the conversation from the literal to the language of the heart. And it is the language of the heart that matters. And it is the language of the heart that reveals the quality, the personhood, the faith of each person.
Do you pray before every meal? I don’t. I probably should, inasmuch as it would be a moment, however brief, when I acknowledge that what I am about to receive is not of my deserving. Do I practice obvious rituals that identify me as a Christian? Not many, I’m afraid. The rituals make me feel a little silly, a little like those who practice their piety before others in order to be seen by them. I think of the good old song about how “they will know we are Christians”. How will they know? “By our love, by our love. They will know we are Christians by our love.” I’m afraid we are, many of us, anxious for people to know we are Christians by our rituals, our symbols, our public prayer meetings, our elected politicians, our correct and law-abiding good behaviors.
But, Jesus pointed out, it doesn’t matter what your public actions say, if your heart defiles. And the heart defiles when it murders, fornicates, steals, lies, slanders. When the heart harms another person, when what comes forth from one’s heart brings pain to another, demeans or diminishes another, makes another’s life more difficult, that is what defiles. Jesus made a subtle but important distinction between behaviors. What you take into your body is an individual act. It harms or heals you, but it is about you, as an individual. But what comes out of you – in particular from your heart – if it harms someone else, then it is behavior that defiles. It is sinful.
Personally, I don’t much care about the religious ritual acts of those who are running for president. I think some of them are silly but it isn’t what I look for in my nation’s most important leader. Rather, I look for the intentions that are coming from the heart. And what do I see? What do you see?
Fourteen more months. There is so much at stake in our common life – so many who are being harmed. I promise I don’t care about their rituals. I really don’t. But I’ll be watching closely for the things that come from the heart. Amen.