Sermon delivered 9/2/12Psalm 15
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
G.I.G.O. is a programmer’s acronym for Garbage In Garbage Out. It is used to describe sloppy program design that results in a computer program that functions less elegantly than it could or should. It also represents a certain knowledge of best practices – or at least the ability to see certain errors that are not obvious to the uninitiated – and, therefore it functions as a type of Pharisaic code.
One could easily use the phrase Garbage In Garbage Out to describe the scriptures we have read today. Psalm 15 tells us that God only tolerates the blameless – those who speak no evil, do no evil, and will not hear of it done. These are the ones who will abide in the tent of the Lord.
James comes across with the one-two punch to tell us that good only comes from God, and that if we hear about Jesus but do not love like Jesus then we are lost even to ourselves. We are pretenders going through the motions of faith. And so our correctness of doctrine and good intentions mean nothing unless we walk the walk. I must admit that although I am honored to stand here every week and hold this holy conversation with each of you, the hardest part is walking out and attempting to practice what I preach.
It’s true. It’s true, because we have this Jesus fellah who comes along and tells us that our concerns over correct behavior have become disconnected with our devotion to God. If James’ words leave us spinning, Jesus delivers the knockout by telling us that he can’t hear our prayers or our beautiful songs because our actions are shouting too loudly for him to understand a single word that we are saying, singing, or praying.
Yup. It’s pretty straightforward - Garbage In Garbage Out.
But wait a second. Where is grace and mercy in all of that? Blameless indeed – who can live up to that?
And what about James’ question about faith? Does faith not save you? How does that square with the Reformed understanding of salvation by faith alone, grace alone, and scripture alone? What about those who are too limited to do anything for anyone else?
Then you have Jesus picking on the Pharisees for washing things. These traditions came from a communal experience of God, and they were designed to save lives. Seriously, nothing gives you an appreciation for good hygiene like an intimate experience with bacteria in a foreign country!
Though I have not had that pleasure – praise God – I can recall getting kicked out of the kitchen, and being given a stern lesson about things I should have known about, on a mission trip with a group of Doctors in Guatemala. The rituals of cleanliness were connected with a very real sense of security and a very real fear of illness. Who was this Rabbi to challenge them, anyway? Did he not care about the health of his followers? He must have seemed like a sloppy and impulsive leader to them – or maybe I just want him to seem that way in order to justify my own limitations!
Either way, there are a lot of questions that are starting to stack up here. Let’s start with this idea that it doesn’t matter what you put into your body. It just does not make sense. It goes against the idea of Garbage In Garbage Out. It does not compute.
All my life I have been told that I am what I eat. In elementary school I remember the cartoon fruits, nuts, and vegetables that we would point to and call each other or claim to be when we ate those items. We had no idea of the stereotypes for these items; we just knew that if you sat next to Scott Thompson he would trade shin kicks with you to see who was the toughest.
I don’t know that this ritual had much to do with what we ate, but it was an indicator of what was inside of us. My memory is a little soft, as I have slept a few times since the mid-70’s, but I can recall telling him to stop and being called a wimp. I can also recall being friends with him – not great friends, but not enemies either.
That seems to me to be a God thing – not a result of our actions, but a result of God’s influence. For the book of James says, “every perfect gift is from above.” I think we want to believe in a God who manipulates every occurrence, but I think God is more influential than that. God is more trusting than that. I think we want God to be like the God in the story of the orphanage cafeteria.
The story goes that the nuns put out a large tray of shiny, red apples with a note that said, “Take only one. God is watching.” About halfway through lunch they noticed the cookie tray at the other end had a note from a student that said, “Take all you want. God is watching the apples!”
Just like the kids who took too many cookies, each of us is confronted with choices (some more often than others) where our individual actions affect the lives of others. It is rarely as direct as the opportunity to contaminate an entire team of Doctors, and a lot of the time our influence goes by unnoticed.
I was confronted by this unexpectedly in a village in Ghana in 2000. Treva and I were on a travel seminar and we were touring a village where they farmed cocoa beans. They showed us how the beans were painstakingly harvested. It seemed so sublimely agrarian and communal that I did not even think about the fact that painstaking means that it hurts to do it. As the reality of their hardship was sinking in, the village elder asked if we – in the U.S. – drink much cocoa. Ignorantly and flippantly I said, “No, we mostly drink coffee.” He simply and straightforwardly replied, “We wish you would drink more cocoa.”
So, I guess my choices do affect others. I think that is the point of the Gospel, as we have received it today. It reminds me of one of the most profound questions of faith I’ve ever been asked. The question is, “Can an ‘I’ be saved apart from a ‘we’?”
Is my salvation dependent on my faith alone, or is it deeply and intrinsically connected to my relationship with you? The answer to each of these, I believe, is yes. Yes, I am saved by faith alone – and that faith is not a product of my actions or decisions. It is by the grace of God that I have been given the faith, attested to in scripture, to believe in the impossible.
It is impossible that I might be without blame. It is impossible that I will never have to say that I am sorry. It is impossible that I will always speak the truth of God apart from my opinion, and that my speech and my actions will always reflect the image of God in which I was created.
Yet God is still willing to be known through me, and God is still willing to be known through you. In fact, our salvation is dependent on God’s actions and only becomes real to us when we respond. Our salvation has been real to God all along, but through our relationships with others it becomes real to us.
The Psalmist reminds us to stand by our word even if it hurts us to do it. Our trust, our faith, our health, and our salvation are not ours to determine but God’s alone – and all shall be well. The book of James encourages us to get rid of those habits, those compulsions, and those convenient justifications that keep us from doing what we know is right. And what is right – anger over injustice or action to offer relief? Obviously, true and right religion is not about doctrine or tradition. It is about loving the way you have been loved and helping those who cannot help themselves.
This is a real struggle for our congregation. We have learned the hard way from giving hand outs, and we have specific ways that we offer help to the needy. As individuals, I know that many of you are involved in your own civic groups and ministries to help and support others. You give generously to our denomination’s special offerings, and the Session is faithful in using a portion of those funds locally.
The Christmas Basket Ministry is an obvious place of support, and last Friday they were in full swing. One of our ecumenical elves, Sharon Bakay, has been sharing stories with me from an inspired Christian named Linda Lanclos who has started up a program called “Escape from Poverty.” Linda is taking a small group of struggling individuals, teaching them life skills, and turning it into a reality TV show on the local access channel. Why would she do such a thing?
She is doing it because she gets it. She understands that caring for the marginalized means being in a relationship that limits her lifestyle in order to empower theirs. She is doing it because she understands that doctrine and tradition help you to name things and to celebrate what God has done, but only by paying attention to our relationships with others can we understand our relationship with God.
That’s what Jesus was telling the Pharisees. He was not attacking tradition. He was warning them against the worship of tradition. He did not want them to end up – as in James – unable to recognize themselves as children of God. Jesus was not just giving a list of things not to do. He was describing the natural consequences of a life devoted to self instead of devoted to experiencing God in our relationships.
And so it is with us. If we are dead set on truly experiencing, exploring, and expressing the love of God in our common unity, then the expectations are pretty good. You know, if you take that list that Jesus uses as a warning and flip it to show the positive expectations for a life of faith lived in community, you get something like this: self-control, respect of property, respect of life, fidelity in relationships, generosity, righteousness, trust, personal restraint, sympathy, esteem for others, humility, and wisdom.
That sounds pretty good from here, but in a few minutes I’ll be walking out that door. Unfortunately, I may not live this faith as purely as I preach it. Fortunately, between this pulpit and that door, a table has been set for you and for me to remind us of who we are and whose we are.
This tradition will not save us, but through our common union we will participate in the salvation that God makes complete through every chance encounter, every imperfect relationship, and every action that extends the grace and mercy we have received to someone else. Who knows – you might even find that through extending that grace you have become the one on the receiving end. And to God be the glory in all things, now and always. Amen!