Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Heart Service

Heart Service
Dt. 4:1-9; Mk. 7:1-23; Jas. 1:17-27[1]
As we enter the last phase of this year’s political campaign season, it seems to me that most of us have heard so much rhetoric that we have become almost immune to it all.  It wouldn’t be too hard to find sound bites where most of the politicians running for office have taken one side of a position, and then have reversed themselves completely.  Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that they have contradicted themselves.  We have been so saturated with words and promises and claims and counter-claims that none of it means much to us any more.  Most of us have already made up our minds any way.  Politics these days—especially presidential politics—are about where you take your stand in the cultural battles that divide us.  And yet, the parties will spend hundreds of millions of dollars to try to win our votes.  But in my humble opinion, most of the words we’ll be exposed to in the coming months won’t do much to change anybody’s mind. 
I suspect a lot of people view our faith the way we view politics: it’s all a lot of words that don’t mean much.  If they’re not completely jaded by religion, they may still look to see if those of us who profess faith follow up with actions that demonstrate it. But many people in our world have already given up on religion.  And it’s because we religious people have spent our time and energy arguing about things that tend to appear to the average bystander as something like debating the right way to wash your hands as a religious ritual.  Or we’ve done things that have completely contradicted our claim to faith.  Or we’ve bogged down our religion with making rules about who’s in and who’s out.
 But Jesus took a completely different approach.  Jesus demanded that his disciples do two things: love God and love their fellow human beings.  While it’s not a long list of rules, it’s still not particularly easy when you think about it.  We shouldn’t think that Jesus came to let us off the hook when it comes to obeying God’s commands.  Jesus doesn’t make it easier for us to live the life of faith, he makes it harder!  He challenges us “observe the commandments of the Lord your God diligently” (Deut. 4:5-6) by fulfilling the spirit of the commands, not just the letter.  Jesus follows the tradition of the biblical prophets when he insists that faith should include one’s whole life.  From the very beginning, that tradition has insisted that those who profess faith show that their faith truly makes a difference in the way they live.[2]   Otherwise, it’s no faith at all; as Jesus said, it’s just “lip service” (Mk. 7:6-7; quoting Isa. 29:13)!
Now it may seem strange to people raised on the gospel of grace to hear about observing the commandments.  But the simple truth is that the biblical witness has always insisted that the way you live your life demonstrates the quality of your faith.  For example, James says that “true religion” is to bridle your tongue, care for widows and orphans, and keep yourself untainted by the world (Jas. 1:27).  Like the prophets before him, James knew that putting your faith into action has to be specific—faith is a matter of how you use your words, how you treat the powerless and destitute, and how you view “holiness.”  If you think about it, these three areas of our lives are where our faith shows up—or doesn’t.  How easy it is to turn from our “Christian life” to slandering or condemning another person!  How easy it is to make ourselves feel less impotent in this world by mistreating someone who has no voice!  How easy it is to rationalize and justify our failure to “do justly and love mercy and walk humbly with our God” by wrapping ourselves in a mantle of false piety.
It seems to me that is precisely one of the great problems with all religions. It is all too easy for religion to become nothing more than a cultural phenomenon—it simply endorses “the way things have always been” and uses God and Scripture to reinforce that tradition.  But since God’s word challenges all societies and all cultures to recognize their profound failures, if we are going to simply go along with the way things are, then we must “abandon the commandment of God” (Mk. 7:8).[3] 
But Jesus makes it clear in his dispute with his Jewish opponents that it’s not the so-called cultural “sins” that defile us in God's sight.[4]  You know what I’m talking about here—those ways we define people who are different from us as “unclean” regardless of their true character!  For the Pharisees of Jesus’ day it was washing your hands the right way.  We have different ways of defining people as unclean, but they are just as culturally motivated.[5] Jesus says that it is what you do that defiles you. 
Jesus presents us with a choice.  The reality is that if we choose to live the life of faith, we will have to turn our back on sham religion that justifies our sin—even if it means turning our back on the cultural norms that most of us cling to for a sense of stability.[6]  The plain but challenging truth is that authentic faith has always been about God’s grace changing your heart and mind so much that it changes the way you live. It’s not a matter of lip service, but of heart service.[7]  Authentic faith is about a different way of living that flows naturally from a heart that has been changed by God’s love and mercy and grace, and therefore a heart that can do no less than seek to make all of life about loving God and loving others

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/2/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. Emil Brunner, The Divine Imperative, 116, speaking of God claiming us for his kingdom through his love; cf. also Paul Tillich, “Doing the Truth,” The Shaking of the Foundations, 114-117; Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity, 187-206; and Brian McLaren, Generous Orthodoxy, 249-51.  Cf. also Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 63, where he can say that only those who are obedient believe!
[3] The specific commandment involved supporting aged parents as a way of “honoring your father and mother.”  For the background, see Pheme Perkins, “The Gospel of Mark,” New Interpreters Bible VIII:606-7; H. W. Attridge and A. Y. Collins, Mark, 351-53.
[4] John Ortberg, “Pharisees Are Us,” The Christian Century (Aug 23, 2003): 20, where he points out that even though the Pharisees knew that the heart of the Torah was loving God with heart and soul and mind and strength, they focused on things like dietary laws (hand washing) as “boundary markers.”  He says, “All groups of human beings have a tendency to be exclusive; they want to know who is inside and who is out. So they adopt identity markers—visible practices of dress or vocabulary or behavior that serve to distinguish who is inside the group from who is outside.”
[5] Ortberg, “Pharisees Are Us,” 20 says, “Any time people are not experiencing authentic transformation … they will inevitably be drawn toward some kind of faith characterized by boundary markers. We will look for substitute ways of distinguishing ourselves from those on the outside. The boundary markers change from century to century, but they all reinforce a false sense of superiority, fed by the intent to exclude others.”
[6] Cf. Cynthia M. Campbell, “ID Check,” The Christian Century (Aug. 22, 2006): 16.  She says, “For many Christians, there seems to be a need to find ways to guard the borders of religious identity All sorts of issues are lifted up as identity-defining, and the stance one takes with respect to them determines whether one is a ‘real Christian.’”  Cf. similarly, Lamar Williamson, Jr., Mark, 135-36.
[7] Cf. Heidi Husted, “Matters of the Heart,” The Christian Century (Aug. 16, 2000): 828.  She says, “It’s ironic that the first-century Bible believers and the big-time Bible defenders are the ones who end up being the worst Bible breakers, because they do not realize that, as Mary Ann Tolbert says in Sowing the Gospel, ‘if the heart is God’s ground, nothing else is required; and if the heart is not God’s ground, nothing else will suffice.’”  Cf. also Perkins, “The Gospel of Mark,” NIB VIII:606; and Robert A. Guelich, Mark 1-8:26, 371.

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