"This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” Jesus has some hard words for the religious leaders who are clucking their tongues against his disciples for not washing their hands before they ate. These leaders weren’t concerned about the health of the disciples. This wasn’t about hygiene. Their concern was for the massive set of rules and regulations that they – and the priests before them – had constructed to help keep their sect “pure” and “set apart.” But somehow… as the regulations increased, the purpose for the rules got lost. As Jesus said, “Your traditions are getting in the way of being faithful.”
It wasn’t the first time. Jesus is quoting scripture. In the days of Isaiah, there was a similar problem. Isaiah was God’s voice to the people of Israel. Jesus reminds the religious leaders: “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’" Jesus then tells them, “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition."
In this passage, Jesus doesn’t spell out for them what he means by the “commandment of God” – probably because the religious leaders of the day argued all the time about how to fulfill the 600 commandments in the Hebrew Scripture. But in other places, Jesus is really clear about what is the commandment of God. And he keeps it simple: The greatest commandment is: “Love God.” The second commandment is: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus says that everything else hangs on these two commandments.”
The challenge then and now is how to do that – authentically, faithfully and fully – in your life. The church word for that is “Discipleship”. It means living your life faithfully, following Jesus and being the person that God made you to be.
Jesus tells the Pharisees that rather than judge other people, a good first step would be an honest look inside our own hearts. He gives us quite a list! Besides the obvious: theft, murder, and wickedness, Jesus includes things like envy, slander, pride, folly — but ALL of these things are the result of not following Jesus’ second commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
This is what James talks about in his letter. James is the book of the Bible that Martin Luther didn’t like. He called it “straw” – because it referred to what people should do. In Luther’s day, people were so focused on what they needed to do for their own salvation that Luther needed to remind them again and again: “Jesus is our savior. None of your deeds are not going to get you to heaven.” Jesus saves. Period. That was the message people needed to hear then - and it is still true today.
But there is a reason that the church leaders did not throw out the book of James. For, after we are reminded that God’s gift of grace and salvation is FREE and that there is NOTHING that you have to do to earn or deserve it, the question becomes how do you live your life as an authentic follower of Jesus? What does it mean for your life and for the world and the people around you that you are a Christian?
James encourages us: “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers.” In other words, we have received the greatest gift. So now… let’s make a difference.
James gives us some guidance on how we can do that. Our choices to speak or keep silent, our choice to act or not act makes a difference. There is no neutral.
Today our country is incredibly divided about so many things. But what is most concerning to me is the hate and vitriol that comes out of the mouths of people who claim to be Christian – followers of Jesus. It is really astounding - and incredibly hurtful to both God and the neighbor.
Recently I had a conversation with a young adult. She said that her family left the church where they had been attending for years, the church where she was confirmed, because the love and grace that was professed on Sunday morning felt really hypocritical when they looked at what some of the same members were saying on Facebook and other social media sites. So her family stopped going. And the second thing that was hurtful was this: no one from the church ever called or wrote or stopped by or ever asked why.
So what went wrong? I think a couple of things. First…I don’t know her former church - but I was sorry that this family assumed that the hypocritical voices on Facebook represented the whole church. I wish that they had voiced another opinion. Maybe they would have found that other people from their church were also interested in promoting care for the neighbor - instead of hurtful comments. But, regardless of the issue, the truth is… that if people who don’t agree with the hatred and vitriol that is spoken don’t speak up against it, then… frankly…it is fair to assume that people agree. Silence speaks loudly. It is interpreted as assent.
Yesterday, we went down to St.Olaf with our two sons. It was a milestone day for many reasons - but one of the things that really stood out for me was this: the President of the college stood up and said, “Your students will be challenged. They will be encouraged to think about their values — and discuss them in an environment that promotes honest, civil discourse and healthy respect for those with whom they disagree.
That is what we, as a church, can offer the world: loving the neighbor, the other- not because they agree with us but because Jesus tells us to love the neighbor…. regardless of whether they agree with you or not. This is a gift we can offer the world because BEFORE we speak and act or refrain from speaking or acting.
Jesus asks us to first examine our own heart. Evaluate our own words and silence, actions and inactions with this guide: Does it reflect God’s love? Does this action or inaction, or word or silence express love of and for our neighbor? And then we are called to speak the truth in love.
This past week we, as a country, laid to rest two very famous and memorable members of the Christian community: John McCain and Aretha Franklin. At first glance, these two Christians have nothing in common. However, both of them were Christian and both of them operated with respect towards others - and care for those who did not always agree with them.
Aretha Franklin began as a Gospel singer - her father was a pastor and she began singing at church. Later, she became known as the “Queen of Soul.” But, when asked what song she would put in a time-capsule as the most important piece of work that she had ever done, she replied, without hesitation: RESPECT. The lyrics of this song remind us that respect, civility, caring for the other - and being listened to and cared for by the other - is essential. Respect. It’s another word for civility. It is about loving and caring for the neighbor - Jesus’ second commandment.
Likewise, John McCain always insisted on acting with respect and civility towards the other. This was very evident at his memorial service. The people who spoke - both Republicans and Democrats - did not always agree with McCain’s positions - but they loved and respected him for being authentic - and for treating others with respect and care.
But, you may say, that’s Aretha Franklin and John McCain. God doesn’t make people like that any more. And that’s right. But God isn’t asking you to be Aretha Franklin or John McCain. God made you as God’s child and gave you gifts and talents for this time and this place to be a disciple - a follower of Jesus.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, let us reflect upon our hearts and then proclaim in word and deed the heart of God. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Pastor Pamela Stalheim Lane * Faith-Lilac Way Lutheran Church * September 2, 2018