August 29, 2021
14th Sunday after Pentecost, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
This summer, Kyrstin Schwarz, our Rockstar children’s ministry director used the Disney Pixar movie, “Inside Out” to write the VBS curriculum. If you want a few minutes of levity, check out the videos on our website where staff played each of the emotions in the movie: Pastor Lois starring as Joy; Pastor Javen as disgust; Parish Nurse Jill Stewart as fear; Youth Director Katie LeClair as anger; and yours truly as sadness, broken-hearted that there were no donuts with sprinkles for a snack. In the movie, which is a wonderful exploration of the wisdom and complexity of human emotions, a little girl moves from Minnesota to California. The challenge of the move causes her emotional life to teeter, and we see deep within her psyche as joy tries to silence sadness; and then both get lost, leaving anger, disgust, and fear, in charge of her emotional life.
Riley’s life values are established by a series of floating islands that are formed by core memories. There was hockey island; goofball island; family island. When life challenges one of those core beliefs, everything gets out of whack. By the end of the movie, joy discovers the need for sadness and grief, and Riley begins to form new core memories that serve her for the next chapter of her life. The movie ends with anger saying, “She just turned 12. What else can go wrong?” As we see a button for adolescence come into view on her emotional control panel.
I thought of the movie when grappling with this week’s assigned scripture readings.
James is a letter in the New Testament written to Jewish Christians who were spread around the Roman Empire. Luther didn’t like James because he thought it was about about trusting works rather than faith. But lately, the book has had a renaissance. James challenges his readers to be doers of the Word, not just hearers. James calls out religion that yaps about faith but then does nothing to care for the widow or the orphan, the most vulnerable at that time. He warns us of religion that doesn’t bridle its tongue. Perhaps you remember the quote, often attributed to Francis of Assisi, “Preach the gospel. If necessary, use words.” The point being that a life of example is better than a life full of pious words. For James, faith is not faith unless it’s given birth in action for the sake of the world.
In a world weary of pious speech and religious certainty, James may have something to say to us about authenticity. I hear these shifts when I listen to our confirmation students talk about faith. They are seldom interested in learning the doctrines or catechisms that many of us faithfully memorized. Yet they have a keen ear for the the cries of the vulnerable; they see the earth choking and dying; they have deep understanding of difference and welcome. And they see themselves as agents of change. They have a heart for the world.
I suspect Jesus would appreciate that perspective. In today’s odd gospel text, Jesus has reserved his anger for those who been severed from the heart. His disciples had been criticized for not washing their hands according to the ritual tradition of the Pharisees. He calls them hypocrites because they enforce the law but forget it’s Spirit. Religious action can be as empty as the flow of words that slip out of the preacher’s mouth.
We should always be clear when we read texts like this in church that Jesus is not judging his own religion, Judaism. He’s also not suggesting that a new religion in his name would supercede the tradition of Israel. The Pharisees were actually doing a good thing. They took the rituals that only priests did in the temple and tried to bring them into the home. Handwashing or kosher eating were supposed to connect regular people to God, to remind them that faith takes shape, not just in the holy places, but when you’re living your regular life at home, or at work, or in school. Jesus is questioning those of us who forget the inside of the law while practicing outside; those of us who are in it for the show, whether to look good in front of others, or to try to prove it to ourselves. We just can’t believe that God loves us as we are or forgives us of the things we can’t let go of ourselves. We live from our shame, not from love poured out by God.
I like that these two readings are paired together today. Jesus is arguing for inside out, love into action. James argues for outside in, action that leads us to love.
In the end, I suppose it’s the same point. Our inner lives of faith should shape our outward participation in the world, and our faith practices should reflect the core; give witness to the God of love and justice who stands behind all things. It’s about a channel flowing from inside outward, but also recognizing that sometimes external acts of faith, like prayer, or acts of kindness and compassion, or generosity with resources or time, or even a protest at the capitol can have the effect of reconnecting us to what’s truly important in our lives. I’ve heard wise people say, “It’s easier to act your way into a new kind of life, than it is to feel your way there.” When either pattern gets out of whack, we start to forget, or to teeter off the edge, or begin to place blame on others.
Of course, the most pleasant sermon would be to identify all the true hypocrites. We all have our lists. But the real sermon is the one in which we all realize, “It’s me.” It’s all of us, who forget, or lose steam, or get tired, or just don’t have the strength. We yap, or we just wring our hands. Our inner worlds teeter out of balance. Anger or disgust, or despair or judgment take the wheel.
After I watched the “Inside Out” again, I imagined that the Jesus community is aware of one more island floating deep within our being; a sacred memory born at the first light of creation; the very energy that pulses through our bodies and the universe is love. God is love. We remember that God is not far off, but nearby; in the face of Jesus and our neighbor. On that island is a pool that flows with clear, beautiful water. Everyone who sees their reflection in the water sees delight and wonder. There is a table, laden with food, surrounded by centuries of the faithful, singing, praising, hoping. There are no tears on that island; all have been wiped away. No one is afraid; no one is left behind; all has been made new.
It’s the mega island, really, where joy and sadness, anger and disgust, even fear, make their home, along with arch-doer James, the misquoted St. Francis, the dirty-handed disciples, the critical Pharisees, the hypocrites, and me…and you.