Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 2, 2012. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace Church, Amherst, Massachusetts.

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9James 1:17-27
Psalm 15Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Purifying the heart

“There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” (Mark 7:15)

I am back from nearly a week in Maine, where I reveled in the company of wind and waves, basalt and barnicles, shorebirds and seaweed.  My brother moved to Maine several years ago, and he has just finished building a small house beside the sea.  I visited his house for the first time, and what interested me most about it – besides its being wonderfully energy-efficient – is that the house maintains a kind of flow between inside and out.  I am not an architect, so I’ll put this in simple terms, but an exposed steel beam runs across the living room ceiling and holds the weight of the floor above.  The steel beam extends from the inside of the house all the way outside, where it holds up an outside roof – so you can see that the beam is at work on both the inside and the outside of the house at once, and that it connects the house horizontally, inside and out.  In a similar way, when you walk up to the house you notice that the wood posts that hold up the entryway roof are tree trunks shorn of bark; when you walk inside the house, similar tree trunks serve as pillars inside the first-floor living area.  So the tree posts outside the house are the same as the tree posts inside – again there is a flow between inside and out, outside and in.

I mention this today because our Gospel is all about that flow.  The Pharisees and scribes seem to be focused only on the outside, on what is external: on washing their hands before they eat, on washing the produce that they buy in the marketplace, on washing the cups and pots that they use when preparing their food.  Let me hasten to say that there is nothing wrong with washing our hands before we eat.  I’m not about to tell you to stop asking your children to wash their hands before supper.  Nor am I about to tell you to stop washing your lettuce or apples or mangoes before you put them in your mouth — just ask anyone who’s been to India what can happen if you don’t.  And of course there’s nothing wrong with washing the dishes or with keeping our pots and pans clean.  In fact, ordinary tasks such as washing dishes, harvesting a garden, or packing a school lunch can be mindful, holy experiences. But the Pharisees seem to be so intent on, so attached to outward cleanliness and purity that they have forgotten about inner intention, about the purity of the heart.  Jesus rebukes them for their hypocrisy, quoting from Isaiah, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Mark 7:6, citing Isaiah 29:13).

Let’s pause for a moment to think about how much emphasis we place on outward things.  Like some of you, I’m sure, I grew up in a family that was all about looking good to the outside world – we put our best foot forward, kept our socks pulled up and our shirts tucked in, and put on a happy face.  Never mind the conflict and craziness that was going on in private, behind the scenes – what mattered was to look good on the outside, to achieve, accomplish, and keep up appearances, and to have a spotless house when guests came in. 

Focusing on externals can be expressed in different ways.  Maybe we focus on the grades we get in school, not on how much we are learning.  Maybe we focus on how much money we can make, even if we’ve got plenty already.  Maybe we focus on piling up accomplishments and reaching for accolades, rather than on serving God and neighbor.  Maybe we focus on polishing our reputation and looking good in other people’s eyes, rather than on honoring our own integrity and limits, and doing what we truly feel called to do, even if that sometimes means disappointing the people around us. 

Religion itself can end up being about nothing but externals.  That’s one reason that so many people these days are leaving church, and calling themselves “spiritual but not religious.”  They associate religion with outward things like following rules and repeating rituals that have no meaning, with empty legalism and pompous moralism, rather than with the inner work of purifying and transforming the heart.

The fact is, Jesus was all about purifying and transforming the heart.  And, friends, I hope I’m not saying anything new when I say that our Grace Church community is all about transformation and transfiguration.  If you hang out here a while, you will change.  I am changing and you are changing.  Together, we are going with the flow of the Holy Spirit.  So Jesus reminds us today not to look to externals, but to the transformation of the heart.  As he tells the crowd in today’s Gospel, “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile… For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.” And then he lays out this terrible list of things that can flow out of our heart: “fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.  All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:15, 21-23).

What emerges from our heart can be evil; it can defile us; it can degrade or debase us.  I don’t have to tell you that these are strong words.  I can imagine two opposite reactions to what Jesus is saying.  One is to feel hopeless — When I look inside, I’m going to see nothing but a flow of filth.  The other is to feel angry, defensive, or simply bewildered — Hey, I’m a nice person; I don’t recognize any of that! None of that applies to me!  To both these reactions, I want to make one thing clear: our faith tells us that we are not essentially evil.  Scripture tells us that we are created in the image and likeness of God.  That likeness to God may be sullied, even deeply sullied, deep down some part of ourselves, made in the image of God, is already in union with God.  Deep down our soul is already shining with God’s light, though we may have a long way to go and a lot of work to do before that light can shine out through our words and deeds, through our thoughts and choices and everyday behavior.  It is a lifetime’s work to become who we really are, an expression of God’s love, to let ourselves become not just the image of God, but God’s likeness, as well. 

So how aware are we of what is flowing out of our heart?  If we put all our attention on outward show – if we are busy looking good and behaving correctly, busy following rules and keeping up appearances, busy thinking that church membership is like belonging to a social club – then we may be only vaguely aware of what is going on inside us, and how what is inside us is expressing itself in everything we do. 

Take, for instance, lying. In today’s Gospel, Jesus warns against “deceit,” and our second reading, from the Letter of James, cautions that “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless” (James 1:26).  So how are we doing with avoiding deceit and with bridling our tongues?  Do we consistently tell the truth?  To put it another way, on a typical day, how many times do we lie?  Never?  Once?  Twice?  Only when pressed, such as when someone asks, “Does this dress make me look fat?”?

As part of my light summer reading I read a book entitled Spy the Lie.  It was written by some former CIA officers who were trained to interview suspected terrorists and to spot the signs that indicate whether or not a person is telling the truth.  I was interested to learn that “Some behavioral research suggests that on average, we lie at least ten times in a twenty-four-hour period, including the so-called ‘white lies’ that we tell in order to avoid hurt or conflict.”1  Ten times a day!

I suspect that most of us have no idea that we lie that much.  It is easy to get desensitized to lies, for we live in a world in which lying is almost taken for granted.  Without realizing it, we become attached to a certain image of ourselves and then we present stories about ourselves to other people that reinforce and prove the image that we intend to portray.  But that image is not who we really are.  And we are surrounded by these kinds of deceptions.  Day by day we are bombarded by advertisements making claims that everyone knows are not true, and right now we are in the midst of a fierce election season, when the words thrown about so ardently by politicans and commentators can have only a casual connection to actual fact. 

Yet if we want the light of God’s truth to shine out from within us, we need to resist the cultural pressures to lie.  A way to do that is to start paying closer attention to the words that come out of our mouths.  Are they truthful?  Are they loving? Are they necessary?  That is a good triplet of qualities for defining right speech: whether or not it is truthful, loving, and necessary.  And we can reflect on why we said what we said.  When I said that sharp word, what was going on inside me?  When I boasted just then and inflated the truth, what was that about?  When I kept silent and ducked, rather than speak the truth that the situation required, what was I afraid of?  Jesus is inviting us today to grow in self-awareness, and deceit and lying is just one example of what we may notice when we look within.

By now we may be asking ourselves why in the world we should bother to turn our attention away from external things and do the much harder work of inner exploration.  The answer is simple. 

Because there is a divine love that wants to flow through us without impediment. 

Because the Spirit of God longs to transform and bring into harmony what is inside us and what is outside us, so that we are all of a piece like that little house in Maine, no longer pretending to be someone other than who we really are.

Because the world needs people who are self-aware and awake, open to the flow of God’s love, and intending from moment to moment to let that love be expressed in everything they say and do. 

We may have some distance to go before we become people like that, but the path before us is trustworthy, and we have a loving companion and savior who is walking at our side. 

1. Phil Houston, Michael Floy, and Susan Carcinero, with Don Tennant, Spy the Lie (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2012), p. 17.