Top of Page ILLUMINATING AND THINKING ABOUT THE SERMON
Think about where evil comes from. In modern day lingo we talk about making bad choices. But the question is where do those bad choices start? That often start with each of us. We are often the source of good and evil all at the same time. We often must choose between kindness and cruelty every day.
There are many positive and influential people in our lives. Most of them do not appear in the news media or even social media, but they continue to help us with their presence and wisdom day after day. Jesus came to help us make the right choices in our lives. Jesus taught us to hate the choices but to love the chooser. The more positive influences in our lives the less evil can come in. One of the ways to help us make good choices is to remember all the good influences in our lives.
Authentic faith then springs from within, just as evil and bad choices spring from within. Jesus teaches that this is the kind of uncleanness that really concerns God, not ritual uncleanness that is not matched within by authentic faith. Jesus saw the Pharisaic emphasis on ritual cleanliness as motivated by pride and self-righteousness, and perhaps a desire to lord it over others. It became a question of power and superiority on the part of the Pharisaic party who were trying to maintain ascendancy over against the growing popularity of Jesus, with his simple and liberating gospel of social transformation. Jesus viewed the tradition of the elders, the oral law of the rabbis that was later codified in the Mishnah as oppressive and alien to the spirit of the scriptures. He used the term "traditions of men." ("human tradition." in the NRSV) to describe this oral law which the legalistic Pharisees used to separate themselves from the ordinary person. It may be argued that the best Pharisees honestly believed they were showing others the correct path to fervent faith, but Jesus felt the end result was external display and a kind of pridefulness that interfered with a simple, humble faith.
We may want to direct our congregation's thinking to contemporary pridefulness. In everyday life, it may be an outward show of wealth, success, power or influence. Richard Foster's landmark book The Challenge of the Disciplined Life: Money, Sex and Power (Harper San Francisco, 1989) will provide ample illustrations of the challenges to authentic faith found in each of these arenas. We need only think of what gets people on the cover of any popular magazine, and we see what our culture touts as the secret to happiness and success. Obsession or devotion to sports, work, academic prowess, power investing, politics, or innumerable hobbies that become competitive and dominate the self is an insidious idolatry to which we have always been prone. Authentic faith guards against these excesses by placing God at the center of our affections and subordinating every other area of life to God's wisdom.
Such talk can sound stifling or repressive until we recognize that putting devotion to God and neighbor at the center allows every other area of life to unfold in beautiful richness. When things, or rituals, or power are not at the center, we are free to use things, or relationships, or influence to build up rather than oppress, to become avenues or instruments for glorifying God and loving our neighbors. The philanthropy of everyone from Andrew Carnegie to Bill and Melinda Gates is an example of wealth being put to the service of the neighbor's well-being. John Templeton is a shining example of generosity motivated by faith: the annual Templeton Prize for progress in religion seeks to reward and call attention to pioneers in faith, from many traditions, who have helped humankind in our quest for union with God and love of neighbor. The Templeton Foundation's efforts to encourage the partnership of science and religion shows how wealth can be channeled toward reconciliation on the cutting edge of contemporary life.
Jesus faulted the Pharisees who criticized him for honoring God with their lips but being far from God in their hearts. It is not clean hands, or the external observances of tradition that matter, said Jesus, but rather a connection between a person's outward actions and their inward motives. Authentic faith comes from within, as does hypocrisy and evil. Jesus's laundry list of evil intentions (v. 21) are all attitudes and acts that turn other people into objects to be used, rather than people whom we should love. These are idolatrous attitudes that displace God and neighbor from the heart.
The recent downturn in the U.S. economy, the bursting of the "dot com." bubble, and the failure of huge corporations due to the greed of those at the top are all illustrations of the kind of "uncleanness." about which Jesus was concerned. Worshiping anything other than God is ultimately self-defeating and wrong. It is also true to say that the obverse is true: keeping God at the center of our affections puts all other things in their proper priority, and produces not evil but good. We could craft a similar list of duties antonym to the list in verse 21: chastity, trust, protection of life, faithfulness, generosity, kindness, honesty, wholesomeness, contentment, affirmation, humility and wisdom. Compare such a list to the fruits of the spirit listed by Paul in Galatians 5:22-23 to the list of vices, Galatians 5:19-21.
Jesus's understanding of the Law as a help, not a hinderance, to human efforts is central here. When in Mark 2:27-28 Jesus said "The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is Lord even of the sabbath, "(NRSV) he was getting at the same problem. There the Pharisees were faulting his disciples for brushing their hands through the ripened wheat and eating the kernels on the Sabbath, thereby working on the Sabbath according to the oral law. He gave them the example of David (1 Samuel 21:1-7) who ate the Bread of the Presence when it was the only thing available. Jesus was not alone in his teaching that the Sabbath was meant to be good for people; there was a school of rabbinic tradition that taught that as well.
James 1:17-27 is also a reading for today, as well as a beautiful extract from the Song of Solomon. Solomon's love song celebrates the beauties of spring and the joys of human love as wonderful gifts from God, meant to enrich human life. Likewise, James gives thanks for every good gift of God, and compares believers to "a kind of first fruits of his creatures." James urges his readers to shun hypocrisy: "But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves." (James 1:22) He refers to the "the perfect law, the law of liberty." (v. 25) into which believers should look, that they might be a blessing to others as authentically faithful and will be blessed in their doing. Here the law is seen as that wisdom that leads to true freedom and moves one closer to God and neighbor.
The theme of authentic faith, as contrasted with hypocritical outward show, is a theme running through all the lections for the day. Psalm 45:1-2, 6-9 extols God who loves righteousness and hates wickedness, and the king who reflects such equity and justice in his reign. So, Jesus calls his followers to be consistent and authentic in their faith.
It is not hard, unfortunately, to find contemporary examples of public figures, in government, business or the nonprofit sector, who have disappointed public trust. There are all too many reports regularly in the news about failures in responsibility, and the preacher can cull these from many sources.
More positive and hopeful, though, are examples of those who made a difference because of the consistency and simplicity and joy of faithfulness. Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa demonstrated in his work with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission from November 1995 to October 1998, following the abolition of apartheid, how getting at the truth and offering people a chance to come clean has contributed to a lessening of tensions. Amnesty was offered to those with the courage to admit their complicity in human rights violations. Other efforts at restorative justice, such as the work of groups like the Victim Offender Reconciliation Project, aim at bringing aggrieved parties together to work out, in honesty, a plan for making things right again.
Authentic faith goes beyond outward appearances and ritual and transforms the heart. The power of faith in Christ to change lives from negative to positive, from hypocrisy to honesty, from enemy to friend, is enormous. But first we must acknowledge our idols, confess our misguided priorities, and commit to congruence between outward behavior and inner belief. Practicing what we preach is incumbent upon those who would follow Jesus, not out of a desire to win God's favor, but out of gratitude for the loving forgiveness that sets us free.
The world is full of evil influences that sometimes lead us to bad choices. Every single one of us and every listener to this week sermon can think of a bad choice they made. However, there are many positive influences in our lives that we do not even think about. There have been many quiet people who have influenced our whole planet for good. You might bring up a few to help people think about the positive influences in their lives.
The real power of good influences in our lives, starting with Jesus is to help us avoid bad choices. Avoiding bad choices, i.e. evil from creeping into our lives is a day to day struggle. That is the wonderful part of going to church regularly and thinking about Jesus daily.
Top of Page ILLUSTRATING THE SERMON
In the 1970s, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger asked Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai his opinion on the chief consequences of the French Revolution. "It's too early to tell," Zhou is said to have replied.
The comment captures the essential problem of determining which historical moments really matter. None of us can see what directions the world will take in the future, and events that seem monumental today might turn out to be mere pebbles on the road of history.
Take inventor Dean Kamen's gyroscopic Segway scooter. Just a few years ago, it was heralded as the answer to the world's transportation woes, a device that would lead to a redesign of entire cities. It flopped. Conversely, 2,000 years ago few could have predicted the success of a small religious group following the teachings of a Nazarean carpenter. Today Christianity is the biggest religion in the world.
Of course, not everyone changes the world for the better. Clearly, we could do with fewer Osama bin Ladens and more Mikhail Gorbachevs, who, when given great power, directed it toward goals that benefited mankind. Our list is made up exclusively of the latter.
In any case, when it comes to accomplishments that truly alter the way we live day today, political figures prove to be less influential than scientists.
Creators of technology--ideas in physical form-–dominate our list. Take Paul Lauterbur and Peter Mansfield's invention, magnetic resonance imaging, which has transformed almost every area of surgery, allowing doctors to see inside a patient's body without cutting it open first.
"MRI has totally changed neurosurgery," says Nirit Weiss, assistant professor of neurosurgery at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. "If you open the skull and look at the brain, it looks like a blob--you can't just look at it and see the different cell groups. But MRI has allowed us to visualize the brain's structures, so we have a map in our head of where to go and where to avoid."
Sometimes the most influential breakthroughs don't require incredible advances in science and take years to be appreciated. Equipping the trailer of a truck with a large, standardized, removable box required nothing more than a stroke of imaginative brilliance. And yet the current global economy is unimaginable without it.
American entrepreneur Malcolm McLean invented the shipping container in 1956, but it took a decade for its stunning effectiveness to be revealed as it went to use supplying the military during the Vietnam War. Containerized shipping is still growing--by 11% a year--which is something that McLean, who began his business in North Carolina in 1934, using a single truck he bought for $120, would surely marvel at if alive today.
Some revolutionaries were slighted by the scientific establishments of their time--like Rosalind Franklin's exclusion from sharing in the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the structure of DNA. Described by her peers as a "genius," she exposed herself to massive amounts of radiation to try to get the best possible X-ray photograph of a strand of DNA, dying of cancer at 37. Her image of a double helix provided the crucial evidence James Watson and Francis Crick needed to complete their model, but neither scientist acknowledged her work when they received the Nobel Prize in 1962. The history of influence is the history of imagination, passion, hard work and belief. (https://www.forbes.com/2007/05/23/people-changed-world-tech-07rev_cz_tb_0524changers.html#7a1933967b2f)
There are a lot of people who we do not even know who have saved many many lives and worked for the good of all. On July 10, 1962, the US Patent Office issued Swedish engineer Nils Bohlin (July 17, 1920 – Sept. 26, 2002) a patent for the three-point seatbelt. Bolin worked for the Volvo Car Corporation and designed his three-point system in less than a year. Volvo first introduced the seatbelt on its cars in 1959. Consisting of two straps that joined at the hip level and fastened into a single anchor point, the three-point belt significantly reduced injuries by effectively holding both the upper and lower body and reducing the impact of the swift deceleration that occurred in a crash.
Volvo released the new seat belt design for free to other car manufacturers and it quickly became standard worldwide. The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 made seat belts a required feature on all new American vehicles from the 1968 model year onward. The use of seat belts has been estimated to reduce the risk of fatalities and serious injuries from collisions by about 50 percent [Source]. A Volvo research team recently found Bohlin’s invention had saved about 1 million lives.
In 1974, he was awarded The Ralph Isbrandt Automotive Safety Engineering Award, and in 1989 he was inducted into the Hall of Fame for Safety and Health. He received a gold medal from Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Science in 1995 and in 1999, was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame. He retired from Volvo in 1985 and was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. (https://twistedsifter.com/2013/12/10-people-who-made-the-world-a-better-place/)
There are many people who are not famous but have hugely influenced our lives and helped many many people. Maurice Ralph Hilleman (August 30, 1919 – April 11, 2005) was an American microbiologist who specialized in vaccinology and developed over 36 vaccines, more than any other scientist. Of the 14 vaccines routinely recommended in current vaccine schedules, he developed eight: those for measles, mumps, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, chickenpox, meningitis, pneumonia and Haemophilus influenzae bacteria.
Hilleman was also the first to identify how the influenza virus mutates, and he virtually single-handedly spearheaded creation of the vaccine that prevented the Asian flu outbreak of 1957 from becoming a repeat of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, which killed 20 million people worldwide [Source]. He also created the world’s first licensed vaccine against a viral cancer, which blocked Marek’s disease, a lymphoma of chickens. The development revolutionized the poultry industry.
In 1988 President Ronald Reagan presented him with the National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest scientific honor. He received the Prince Mahidol Award from the King of Thailand for the advancement of public health, as well as a special lifetime achievement award from the World Health Organization. (https://twistedsifter.com/2013/12/10-people-who-made-the-world-a-better-place/)
Norman Ernest Borlaug (March 25, 1914 – Sept. 12, 2009) was an American biologist, humanitarian and Nobel laureate who has been called “the father of the Green Revolution”, “agriculture’s greatest spokesperson” and “The Man Who Saved A Billion Lives”. He is one of seven people to have won the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal and was also awarded the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second highest civilian honor. Borlaug received his B.Sc. Biology 1937 and Ph.D. in plant pathology and genetics from the University of Minnesota in 1942. He took up an agricultural research position in Mexico, where he developed semi-dwarf, high-yield, disease-resistant wheat varieties. During the mid-20th century, Borlaug led the introduction of these high-yielding varieties combined with modern agricultural production techniques to Mexico, Pakistan, and India. As a result, Mexico became a net exporter of wheat by 1963. Between 1965 and 1970, wheat yields nearly doubled in Pakistan and India, greatly improving the food security in those nations. These collective increases in yield have been labeled the Green Revolution, and Borlaug is often credited with saving over a billion people worldwide from starvation. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 in recognition of his contributions to world peace through increasing food supply. (https://twistedsifter.com/2013/12/10-people-who-made-the-world-a-better-place/)
Willis Haviland Carrier (Nov. 26, 1876 – Oct. 7, 1950) was an American engineer, best known for inventing modern air conditioning. In Buffalo, New York, on July 17, 1902, in response to a quality problem experienced at the Sackett-Wilhelms Lithographing & Publishing Company of Brooklyn, Willis Carrier submitted drawings for what became recognized as the world’s first modern air conditioning system. The 1902 installation marked the birth of air conditioning because of the addition of humidity control, which led to the recognition by authorities in the field that air conditioning must perform four basic functions: 1.) control temperature; 2.) control humidity; 3.) control air circulation and ventilation; 4.) cleanse the air.
On December 3, 1911, Carrier presented the most significant and epochal document ever prepared on air conditioning – his “Rational Psychrometric Formulae” – at the annual meeting of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. It became known as the “Magna Carta of Psychrometrics.” This document tied together the concepts of relative humidity, absolute humidity, and dew-point temperature, thus making it possible to design air-conditioning systems to precisely fit the requirements at hand. By increasing industrial production in the summer months, air conditioning revolutionized American life. The introduction of residential air conditioning in the 1920s helped start the great migration to the Sunbelt. (https://twistedsifter.com/2013/12/10-people-who-made-the-world-a-better-place/)
Fred Rogers, who died late in February 2003, was an ordained Presbyterian minister. He made a name for himself with his quiet, soft spoken manner and almost shy, retiring personality. He never thought of himself as a celebrity, just a neighbor, he said. Some ridiculed him and made fun of his trademark sneakers and cardigan sweater. But he remained true to himself, and to his calling to use the medium of television as a positive influence on young children. He taught parents how to understand the thought processes of children, how to reassure them and help them feel safe and happy. The authenticity of Fred Rogers was an inspiration to millions. "I am who I am. If people don't like me the way I am, too bad, "he once said in an interview.
One wonders about the good lives of some who are not Christians. Much has been written about the saintliness of Gandhi, or the wisdom of Krishnamurti, or the contemplative power of the Dalai Lama. Who is closer to God, one who professes to be a Christian but is a hypocrite, or one who has not made the Christian confession but lives a life of faithful service? Does faith involve saying the right words, or living as if God is God, and asks authenticity of us? While it is important to give a reason for the hope that is in us, and to make the best witness to the power of the Spirit in our lives, these mysteries must be left to the wisdom of God, who sees the heart. Thank God that God is in charge, not us. We would almost certainly get it wrong.
In the conservative seminary I attended, I had one professor who was particularly virulent in his condemnation of Rudolph Bultmann's program of "demythologization." But one day a sudden emotion gripped the teacher, and in the midst of diatribe, he began to weep. "I think I'll see him in heaven, though, "he said through tear-filled eyes. "He stood up to the Nazis." Thank God, it is not the perfection of our theology that saves us, but the authenticity of our faith.
Children can see through a phony intuitively. Any parent who has tried to bluff his or her way through a half-truth with a child know how penetratingly honest they can be, and how disillusioned when they find their trust is misplaced. Children listen to little we say; but they watch carefully, and imitate, what we do. Authenticity and honesty are their own reward, and this is one of the most profound truths we can only teach through our practice.
We must trust that God knew what he was doing when he put us together, with the particular gifts, insights, life experience, and strengths with which we are blessed. One day I was feeling particularly down and discouraged. I was meeting at that time with a High School principal for an hour of prayer each Thursday. When I spoke to him that day, I must have been jealous of another minister in town whose church seemed to be thriving. My friend looked me square in the eye and said "Stan, all God expects of you is to be the best Stan Adamson you can be." From that moment on, I have striven to be thankful for how God has equipped me, rather than being jealous of strengths I perceive in others.
Nitpicking and legalism is the bane of committee meetings. The eighty-twenty rule applies: we spend eighty per cent of our efforts on twenty per cent of the business before us. Several years ago, my wife was in a board meeting, and the board had argued for more than thirty minutes about spending less than twenty dollars. "I'll write you a check for twenty dollars right now, "she said sternly, "if we can just get on to something important!" We have all been in meetings where people major in the minors, and fool themselves into thinking they are working, when they are just treading water because they are afraid to attack serious issues.
A person can be the epitome of decorum and proper public behavior and be a complete hypocrite. We have all been dismayed to learn of those who criticized others, or were righteously indignant, but then turned out to be predators themselves. Just the other day I learned something very disappointing about a youth leader with whom I had once had a dispute. He had been highly critical of a youth retreat held at our denominational camp, because the we had missed the chance to "challenge the high school students with the claims of Christ." This, in his opinion, was the only reason for such a retreat. He threatened to pull his church out of any further involvement with our youth camps. He was quite intimidating, and there was little reasoning with him. Just the other day I learned he had been indicted for sexual assault on a minor in a former congregation. He has yet to be tried, and deserves his day in court, but he was already under administrative leave from his current charge for failing to obey the "two adult." rule. Sometimes those who are most righteously indignant are masking dark secrets.
The polity of the Presbyterian Church is based on the now unpopular doctrine of "total depravity." This does not mean Presbyterians believe everyone is a drooling pervert, or consumed with evil. Instead it takes seriously what Jesus says here (Mark 72:1-23) about the inner motives of the human spirit, which can be far afield from God's intentions. Presbyterian church government spreads power very thinly, and is a system of checks and balances, so that no one person has too much power.
Jesus asks us all to look in the mirror and be honest and humble about our own proclivities for evil intent. This does not have to fill us with guilt: instead it can help us be realistic, and develop our own inner self-awareness, so that red flags can go up before we go too far down the wrong path. Soberly considering one's own potential for evil keeps us from pointing fingers at others, and helps us own the responsibility for our own behavior. It may very well be our own evil we ask to be delivered from when we pray the Lord's Prayer!
I counsel couples whose weddings I officiate, "When you are about to do or say something, ask yourself `If my spouse knew about this, would it bring us closer together or farther apart?'." Marriage, like faith in God, means living our lives in regard for the worth and well-being of another, of a relationship. So considering how our speech and behavior either strengthen or weaken those relationships is an integral aspect of love and faith.
Tradition is a good thing, unless it becomes idolatry. Tradition can guide us into wise living, as long as we understand the purposes behind it. When it is just "what we've always done, "without regard to the benefit of a particular ritual or habit, it can just be stifling. Italians do not go to the beach in the middle of the afternoon, but if you ask them why, they can't tell you. It just isn't done. There may have been a purpose behind it (avoiding sunburn, letting your food digest?) but now it's just "what you do." All societies have traditions that have gotten separated from their roots. Jesus asked the Pharisees to think through their traditions rather than just accepting them, and there were other schools of rabbinic thought that did the same.
Now that we understand that some illnesses are caused by microbes or contaminants, and that hand washing can cleanse us of these, we know why it's important to wash your hands. That was not the reasoning in Jesus's day, though the practice may have had the same good effect. Washing hands, food and utensils is a good thing. But it does not bring you closer to God, necessarily, and that was the issue Jesus debated with the Pharisees.
We used to have an anonymous aphorism hanging on the wall of our home: "This home is clean enough to be healthy, and dirty enough to be happy." Cleaning can become an obsession with some people. Jesus gently chided Martha (Luke 10:40-42) for being overly concerned with housekeeping at the expense of relationships. In our passage from Mark 7, Jesus' concern revolves around the high priority the Pharisees put on ritual cleanliness, to the neglect of right relationships, and the inner destructive tendencies of the human spirit that bring about hurt and alienation.
Contentious debates over foods and diets continue even today. While discussions in our time don't employ terms such as "clean." and "unclean, "we do get into arguments over what is healthy and what is unhealthy. The subject has come more into the forefront because of the weight problems that many Americans have. According to the U.S. Surgeon General, more than 61% of adults are overweight, and 27% of them—totaling nearly 50 million people—are obese. The Framingham Heart Study indicates that a man who is 22 pounds overweight has a 75% greater chance of having a heart attack than a person at a healthy weight. Being even just 11 to 18 pounds overweight doubles the risk of developing Type II diabetes—a condition that has increased by nearly 50 in the past ten years. The percentage of 6 to11-year-olds who are overweight has nearly doubled in the last twenty years, and the percentage of overweight teenagers has tripled. One source of the problem is that the portions that are served in restaurants are generally much bigger than they used to be. For instance, when McDonald's first opened its doors, its original hamburger, french fries, and 12-ounce Coke contained 590 calories. Today, a supersize Extra Value Meal with a Quarter Pounder With Cheese, supersize fries, and a supersize drink have 1,550 calories.
What causes pollution within us? In January, Afghanistan's chief justice issued an order banning cable TV broadcasts within the nation. The justice cited the fact that many of the cable shows violate Islamic morals. In particular, he said his action was in response to the frequent portrayal of scantily clad men and women on the programs. Opponents of his decision argued that he was leading them back to the days of the Taliban regime. But supporters cheered his attempt to maintain morality among the people.
We often have a negative reaction to those who seek to impose some moral code on us that we think is excessive. In Open Secrets, Richard Lischer tells about a childhood experience of his grandfather. Lischer's grandfather and his brother grew up in a home where their father was a deacon in the local Methodist church. Thus, when the circuit rider preacher came to town, he would always stay at their home. His grandfather dreaded attending the services when the minister would preach, because it seemed that he preached the same sermon every time—a vociferous denunciation of the evils of drinking and card playing. The preacher left no doubt that anyone who engaged in those acts would defile their spirits. One Saturday night, his grandfather and brother thought they would play a joke of the clergyman. They carefully hid a half a deck of playing cards in the man's handkerchief and placed it in the vest pocket of his suit. The next morning during the service, when the preacher went to wipe his brow during one of his fiery tirades, he pulled out his handkerchief and cards went flying everywhere. Immediately the boys' father took them outside and taught them a lesson that they never forgot. But his grandfather always thought that what they did to that preacher was worth the punishment they subsequently received.
What is "clean." and "unclean.”? Postmodernist thinkers like Michel Foucalt contend that a pathology or a disease is a socially constructed reality. In other words, if some condition or behavior differs substantially enough from a presumed desired norm, that condition or behavior is then stigmatized with a label.
A new concern in the fight against terrorism is a fear that terrorists may attempt to contaminate the food supply. In January, the World Health Organization issued a warning saying that an attack using chemical or biological agents through the food supply could lead to people contracting serious illnesses or even dying. The U.N. body fears that harmful pesticides, viruses, and parasites could be inserted into food, resulting in great harm to the general population. WHO officials cited an outbreak of salmonella in Oregon a few years ago. More than 750 people became ill when cult members deliberately contaminated restaurant salad bars. The agency says that approximately 1.5 million people currently die each year from illness related to contaminated food. If terrorists were to deliberately add harmful agents, the death toll could significantly increase.
Even if we take care not to allow our souls to become polluted, we still generate a great deal of pollution for the surrounding world. If all the waste that Americans produce each year were loaded onto a convoy of garbage trucks, that line of trucks would stretch almost halfway to the moon. According to the United Nation Environment Program, Americans spend more on trash bags than ninety of the world's 210 countries spend for everything.
When you get right down to it, Americans like to be clean inside. In particular, we like to have clean mouths. A survey was released a few months ago by the Lemelson-MIT Invention Index at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The poll asked Americans to say which of five inventions they would not be able to live without. The choices they were given were the car, the personal computer, the cell phone, the microwave, and the toothbrush. The undisputed winner of the poll was the toothbrush. According to the American Dental Association, the first toothbrush was made in 1498 by a Chinese emperor who had hog bristles embedded in a bone handle. It was not until 1938 that DuPont introduced nylon bristles to replace the pig hair ones. Ninety-four percent of Americans say they brush nightly; 81% say they do it first thing in the morning. Yet 50% do no receive regular dental care.
There certainly are some things that carry an "unclean." connotation with them. For instance, when many people hear the number 666, they immediately associate that number with the number of the beast found in Revelation. A small Bible college in Kentucky wants to make sure that stigma does not get attached to them. The Kentucky Mountain Bible College, a conservative, nondenominational school in eastern Kentucky, has requested that they be given a new phone number since the first three digits of their current number are 666, something that strikes many of their students and faculty as somewhat appalling. They have asked the phone company to switch them to a 693 prefix, which is also used in their area. A phone company spokesperson said the company understands their concern and will work to correct the problem.
The dietary regulations of the Old Testament were probably mainly intended as a distinguishing mark of the Jewish faith. By refraining from eating certain prohibited foods, Jews forged a bond with one another in distinction from the Gentiles around them. Our current society, however, tends to frown on such religious distinctions. Last fall Rutgers University banned a Christian group from using campus facilities because the group selects leaders based on their religious beliefs. Accordingly, Rutgers ruled that the InterVarsity Multi-Ethnic Christian Fellowship was in violation of the university's nondiscrimination policy because they only allowed Christians to serve as officers in the organization. Certainly, some acts of discrimination are malicious and harmful. But if people of faith are prohibited from drawing any boundaries at all, that eventually serves to undermine and destroy what the faith stands for.
"Sin is not hurtful because it is forbidden but it is forbidden because it's hurtful...Nor is a duty beneficial because it is commanded, but it is commanded, because it's beneficial." (Benjamin Franklin)
"I eat to live, to serve, and also, if it so happens, to enjoy, but I do not eat for the sake of enjoyment." (Mahatma Gandhi)
Jesus is pretty hard on the Pharisees questioning him about fasting. Later, in Matthew 23, he is even more scathing in his denunciation. What do you think his attitude would be toward the priest in the film that has stirred up so much controversy in Mexico and this country, The Crimes of Father Amaro? Fr. Amaro is a bright, ambitious new priest who is being groomed by the Bishop to become his successor. Sent to a village for "seasoning." by an older priest, Fr. Amaro is too good looking for his own good. He immediately attracts the attention of the beautiful Amelia, who teaches a religious education class at the church. Although Fr. Amaro is upset to learn that his mentoring priest is accepting drug money for the building of his new clinic and hospital and also carrying on an affair with his housekeeper, the young priest finds himself giving in to the lures of Amelia. He arranges for a room at the home of a lay leader, telling the man that he is secretly instructing Amelia so she can apply to become a nun. However, his "instructions." employ a bed, rather than a desk. When his lover becomes pregnant, the priest even takes her to an abortionist (back alley affair, as this is Mexico) with disastrous results. The last we see of this priest he is celebrating mass, apparently thinking he has a bright ecclesiastical career ahead of him. Talk about "abandoning the commandment of God.”! (Mk. 7:8a)
Another person who has "abandoned the commandment of God." is Judah Rosenthal in Woody Allen's Crimes & Misdemeanors. A successful eye surgeon, Dr. Rosenthal is being honored at a lavish dinner when the film opens. We soon see, however, that the respectable facade of happily married family man is a cover for his darker activities. He has been carrying on a relationship with neurotic woman who has been badgering him to divorce his wife so that they can marry. Of course, he has no intention of doing so, but he is worried be her threats to tell his wife about their affair. The troubled man even shares his predicament with his patient who is a rabbi. The rabbi tells him that he should make a clean breast of things with his wife in the hope that she would forgive him. The skeptical Judah replies that she probably would not do so. They enter into a discussion about the universe and the God who forgives, which Judah confesses he does not believe in. Judah also goes to his brother, who has mob connections. His advice is the opposite of the rabbi's. Tell no one and have the mistress killed. Judah struggles with this, and when his mistress pushes him hard, he calls his brother and tells him to go ahead and hire a hit man. The woman is killed. Judah goes to her apartment after the murder to remove anything she might have had related to him. Her open, sightless eyes shake him, but by after a period of guilt and fear (of the police) he manages to stifle his conscience, apparently getting away with murder. His place as a prominent member of the medical community is now secure without any fear of besmirchment. What a confrontation Jesus might have with this man!
"The pure of heart are those who seek God in everything and who never fail to find the presence of God everywhere." (Joan Chittister, Seeing with Our Souls: Monastic Wisdom for Every Day [Chicago, 2002] p.100.)
In the wake of September 11 and more recent events, it may be hard to remember the very different kind of fear after the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Immediately after the bombing everyone assumed that this evil must have come from a terrorist from outside the U.S., probably an Arab. We were all shocked to discover that this terror came from within, not only a born and bred American but a veteran. Somehow it would have been easier to deal with our emotions if we would have had an external enemy to blame rather than looking within our own society to try and discover what had produced a Timothy McVeigh.
Top of Page prayers (WorshipAid)
Leader: Every good endowment and every perfect gift comes from above.
People: All good things come down from the Father of lights.
Leader: Of his own will God brought us forth by the word of truth.
People: From a life of darkness we have been brought into the light of truth.
All: Having heard the word, may we now do the word, bearing good fruit in the world!
Merciful God, we often find ourselves to be hypocrites, honoring you with our lips, but ignoring you with our hearts. We hold fast to the laws of men, all the while ignoring your commandments. Forgive us, we pray. Take away our wickedness and grant us the faithfulness to act according to your perfect goodness. In Jesus' name we pray, Amen.
Gracious God, these gifts could be used in one of two ways. Like the Pharisees, they could work toward an outer, superficial purity, holding to tradition and "the way things have always been." Or they could be used for true righteousness—working truth and beauty and goodness in the world. We pray now that these resources would take the latter path, satisfying not a longing for outward appearances, but a desire for holiness. In Christ we pray, Amen.
Loving God, we live in a world of superficiality. Politicians speak in rhetorical sound-bites, but often fail to direct resources toward the betterment of society. Business leaders look to their profit margins to measure greatness, but often fail to take account of the human and ecological cost of such success. Even our educators are pressured to improve test scores, while the needs of individual students are ignored.
We pray that you would shine the light of your truth upon our world of appearances. Reveal our sins for what they are—not to humiliate the sinners and placate the self-righteous—but so that we would all see where your guiding grace is needed in our lives. Shine your light on our families, our institutions, our governments and our world. Turn our world from wickedness to righteousness, from sorrow to joy. In Christ's name we pray, Amen.