Another moment of confession; when I chose this passage and sermon title over a month ago, I was going to take this in an entirely different direction. Although I am going to cover some of the same ground I was going to cover before recent events took over the preaching calendar, this Gospel passage is very applicable to today.
Jewish dietary laws are as ancient as, well, as people. Every Jew would know what they could and could not eat, when they could eat it, and how it was to be prepared and served. Eating was a complicated ritual for many Jews, and now Jesus is telling his followers that it is not what goes in but what comes out that is the problem.
Jesus is striking at the very heart of tradition here. Those of us in the Reformed Tradition of Christianity like to think that we eschew tradition. However, tradition is anything that we have done in church more than once. Now, not all tradition is bad. Tradition can provide a solid, yet flexible, foundation for faithfulness, but it can also function oppositely. Tradition, and the idea that “we have always done it that way,” can become and idol that will hinder growth. This idol can become a hindrance not only to our spiritual growth but the growth of the community both spiritually and numerically. Just because those that came before us did it, does not mean it will work in the contemporary world we live in and that is exactly what Matthew is writing about today.
Matthew is writing at a time when the Christian community had become radically diversified. The Community in Matthew’s day is no longer just a Jewish community it is a blend of Jew and Gentle and there is a struggle to determine how best to make it all work. Matthew is speaking to those who, based on Jewish tradition was included in the community, but he is also speaking to those who, because of that very same tradition, were excluded from that very same community.
Jewish liturgical and spiritual law and practice was focused on the externals of daily lives. The animal sacrifice in the temple removed the sins without actually have to do anything other than purchasing the appropriate animal at the right time of the year. The dietary law was meant to keep one clean, on the inside, the washing ritual was intended to keep you clean on the outside, but what about the spiritual?
For Jesus, religious purity and faithful discipleship are not measured ultimately by how many perfect attendance badges one earns for Sunday school or worship, how often one has read the bible from cover to cover, or how much money one contributes to the church treasury (Jesus obviously never had to maintain a church structure such as ours) Purity and faithfulness are shown ultimately by how the church speaks and lives out the radical hospitality and love of Christ.
Last week, we were all reeling from the events that had taken place just the day before, in Charlottesville, Virginia. I stood here and publically denounced hate and violence in all forms and called on others to do the same. This past week many of us have been having a conversation about how our community, along with those in Braintree, Weymouth, Hingham, and rest of the South Shore should respond to these incidents, and, I am afraid to say, events like it in the future. Clergy from all Christian denominations and all faiths have been coming together to witness and support each other and our community in these days; it has been a beautiful experience.
Shortly after Charlottesville, it was announced that a “similar” rally was being planned for Boston and that the city had granted a permit to the organizers. Boston’s mayor and police commissioner warned those coming to Boston that there was no place for hate in the city and that violence would not be tolerated.
The call went out for clergy to come to the city to pray and support those who would be marching not for hate but love. I struggled with going or not going and ultimately decided that God was not leading me in that direction so I remained home and prayed for, and supported my brothers and sisters who did go.
On Friday night, there was an interfaith service at one of the Temples in Boston attended by many many members of the clergy of all faiths as well as the faithful. The message was clear; hate will not win, love will. Early Saturday morning, Old South Church in Copley Square held another interfaith service. Again hundreds of folks came to worship and pray together because we all know that before undertaking any work prayer is what is called for. There were prayers for the safety of all those who would be marching, regardless of what side they were on, and prayers for police and others that would be keeping the people safe.
Then they left the church and joined hundreds of thousands of others, Boston Police estimated 25 thousand people, and they began the three mile march to Boston Common. When they arrived there were about 100, I will call them “other” protesters, assembled on the band stand. It did not appear organized, and the police had cordoned off the area so the two groups would not clash. After about 20 minutes, they left the band stand and dispersed. I received a text from one of my friends that were present and the text read, “it is over, they have gone!”
What a different story from just the week prior. Sure, there were acts of violence towards the police by a tiny number, and I will say again, that I denounce violence under any flag regardless of the reason. Violence, like hate, has no place.
But let’s return to the Scripture at hand, Jesus says that it is not what goes into our bodies but what comes out that defiles a person. Last week I mentioned that what we say, even in a fit of anger, comes from inside, from our hearts. We do not “just say things.” The things we say have to reside inside of us, festering, good along with the bad and on occasions, if they are not guarded, will bubble to the surface and come out.
But sometimes it might be something innocent.
We have all heard the juicy bit of gossip about someone that we could not wait to tell the next person about. Sometimes we are bursting at the seams to tell someone, and we do not even know if the story is true. We are confident that it is based on who told us the story in the first place, but we are not sure. But we pass it along anyway. If it is not true, that is what Scripture calls, bearing false witness and is one of the top ten no no’s of the Christian life. Even if we know it might be true, what is the purpose of passing along that story, is it to build up or break down another person? Will it bring edification to the Christian witness or will it bring shame? One little story, one little falsehood can pull on the thread that unravels the entire thing.
Earlier this morning, as I was finalizing these words, I came across this quote:
“At the end of this day, the world with either be a more or less kind, compassionate, and loving place because of your presence. Your move.”
We spend so much time on the externals, reading the bible, studying the words, coming to worship, serving on church boards and putting money in the collection plate. But if it is not changing you inside, if we are not doing the interior work that is required of Christians, and we are spreading hate with our words, then it is all for naught.
As Christians, everything we say should build up the kingdom of God here on earth. Our job is to go, make disciples are we doing that? We have to speak the truth in love, and that truth is that hatred, under any flag, is not a Christian value. Demonizing a group of people because they believe different about the direction of our country or because they chose to worship, or not worship God differently than we do. Demonizing the poor and calling them lazy, building walls that exclude rather than bridges that bring together. Sitting on the sidelines sniping at church leadership rather than rolling up your sleeves and getting involved to make things better. Always complaining about what is happening in the church and the world without offering any real and workable solutions. What have you done today to make your sphere of influence a little better? Have the words that have come out of your mouth helped or hurt another individual? Have they harmed or brought praise to the Christian witness? You must ask yourself these questions.
Words are powerful. God spoke, and the world came into being. Jesus spoke words of healing and love as did his apostles. But sometimes words can hurt and even kill. A young woman was recently sentenced to prison because she urged on her former boyfriend to kill himself, and he did. Words have power, the power to hurt and kill and power to lift up and to save. It is not what goes in but what comes out that defiles a person, and it is not what goes in but what comes out that reveals our hearts to the world. You have a choice to make today, are you going to make the world a better place by our presence or a worse place by our presence. Your move.