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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

September 2, 2018

 The Heart of the Matter

Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

            In some ways, this passage in Mark 7 feels like we have walked in on a bad family argument that has been going on for two thousand years.  We do not really know the who’s and the what’s of the conflict, and it is tempting to simply walk away from it.  After all, it is hard for us to grasp first century Jewish practices, and to know why how a person prepared themselves to eat was so all important and worth a fight.  We are tempted to say, “These practices have nothing to do with us,” because it seems, on the surface, that what Jesus is talking about are the traditional practices surrounding food and its preparation, and the “kosher” ways to eat it.

            In Mark’s Gospel it is also important to note that this passage comes after Jesus takes five loaves and two fish, and uses them to feed a crowd of five thousand, so that everyone had enough to eat.  When they took up the offering of what was leftover at the end, it was twelve baskets full, when everyone had been fed and satisfied.  Now, immediately after this, some leaders are criticizing Jesus’ followers because they are not washing their hands, and their food, and their utensils, in ways that mark them as good Jews.  As is always the case in Mark’s Gospel, irony is the driving force of the story Mark has to tell.  Jesus feeds five thousand with his small band of followers, who have left everything behind in order to follow Him, and how do the religious leaders of the day respond?  They are upset that Jesus’ disciples are not honoring “the tradition of the elders” by washing properly!

            Jesus’ response turns out to be far more searching and deep than an argument over “the tradition of the elders.”  If we listen carefully to what Jesus is saying, we will realize that He is speaking to every last one of us; that this is not just a word on tradition, or a word against tradition, but it a far more universal and crucial word for us to hear.  In fact, Jesus quotes from Isaiah, chapter 29, verse 13, just to make the point indirectly, that “I observe the tradition of the elders as well.”  Here is what Jesus says: “This people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”  Suddenly Jesus is talking to every last one of us.  How often do our words say one thing, and what is really going on in our hearts is quite another?  How often are our outward actions and observances one thing, while what is really going on in our lives is quite another entirely? 

            Then Jesus offers to the crowd a word, that if you are listening, is a word to every last one of us.  He says, “It is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.”  We all know this, don’t we?  The human heart, at least my human heart, is a veritable factory of all kinds of thoughts and feelings.  Some of them are good, some of them are beautiful, and some of them, if I am going to be truthful, are dark, and evil, and ugly.  My friend Craig Barnes says, “People say, ‘Do what is in your heart.’  Sometimes my heart is like a bad committee meeting!”  We have all of us been there.  Jesus uses the word “heart” in this passage three times, where presumably He is talking about ritual practices of holiness.  I think there is a reason for it.  I think Jesus wants all of us to know that what takes place in our hearts is all-important.  The heart for the ancients was the way of speaking about the center of one’s will, of one’s being, the center of what we moderns would call our “character” or “personality.” 

            I served as the Youth Pastor in the first church where I was ordained for four wonderful years.  One day one of the Associates, Jim Morris, asked me if I would substitute for his Bible study at Ridge Oak, the senior living center that this church in Basking Ridge, New Jersey had created.  I forget now the topic of the Bible study.  What I do remember is the room was filled with people who had a whole lot more wisdom, and a whole lot more experience, than the one who was leading the Bible study.  I still remember Polly Ryder’s big blue eyes.  I remember the sadness and the joy that filled them at one and the same time.  I was trying hard to make some point, and I think Polly was trying to say, “Listen.”  She said, “You know, Todd, what matters most is what takes place in your heart, because that’s where God does His reading.”  That is what the Proverbs say as well: “As a man thinketh in his heart, so he is.”  Presumably it means, “As a woman thinketh in her heart, so she is,” as well.

            Faith in Jesus Christ is not about appearances; it is about something that happens deep within us.  It is not about looking good, so much as it is about being good.  Maybe more importantly, it is about being real.  Rituals and traditions can help us in this quest.  Coming to worship helps to shape our souls, and prayers before meals, and scriptures that we read, and the giving of our resources for the work of God in the world, and acts of service, are all ways that we can build character into our lives.  They can also be acts through which we mask, quite nicely, who we really are. 

            “Hypocrisy” comes from two Greek words put together.  It means “acting out a theatrical role,” or even worse, it means “pretending.”  All of us struggle with hypocritical living.  Hypocrisy is as common to being human, as love and hate are.  We all must fight against it.  The word “integrity” means “to be of one piece.”  Every last one of us must engage in the real struggle to discover and maintain the integrity of ourselves.  There is a saying that functions as the motto for the state of North Carolina.  (As a classics major I am always drawn to Latin phrases!)  Stuart, who is a Tar Heel, knows it by heart – “Esse quam videri” - it means “To be rather than to seem.”  This is the challenge if being a Christian.  The Latin phrase comes from Cicero, who was writing about friendship.  He was suggesting that a true friend is good in fact, and not just worried about seeming or looking to be good to another.

            When I was a graduate student in Edinburgh University, I read four novels written by Frederick Buechner, who is one of my favorite authors in all the world.  It is now packaged in a four-part series called, The Book of Bebb.  Leo Bebb is Buechner’s protagonist in these four novels.  He runs his own church out of a house trailer in Florida.  At the beginning of the novels, you think this guy is a charlatan if anyone has ever been a charlatan.  The narrator for the four books is a guy names Antonio Parr.  He is on a quest that feels a whole lot like Fred Buechner’s own quest, to find a faith that is real and true.  At one point, the narrator, Antonio Parr, says, “I wanted to open my heart to Ellie Pearce, not so much so she could see what was inside, but so I could.”  When I read those words, as a twenty-five year-old graduate student, I literally began to weep, because I realized that I wanted the same thing.  I was so tired of living like a phony, of living my life for appearances, tired of trying to please and impress all the right people, tired of trying to do the right thing for the wrong reasons.  I needed something more, something deeper, something that just felt true and real.  I knew then that lives spent trying to look good pale alongside lives that are real, that are deeply authentic, and that are offered to God.  For God is “the audience of one,” the only one of whose opinion of you finally matters.

            On April 23 in 1923, an American icon of a building opened.  Yankee Stadium was rightly called, “The House that Ruth Built.”  Rupert Murdoch may have paid for it, but Babe Ruth sold the tickets.  In one of the early games that first season, a seasoned major league umpire, Babe Panelli, was calling balls and strikes.  The stadium was filled with over sixty-two thousand fans.  Babe Ruth was at the plate, and Panelli called the first pitch a strike.  Babe Ruth did not like the call; he thought it was a ball, and he engaged theatrically, with what I would call the populist argument.  Ruth turned around, and he dressed down Babe Panelli in front of the whole stadium.  Everybody started to scream, “Boo!  Kill the ump!  Give him some glasses, the umpire’s blind!”  (You know how polite New York City fans can be!)  Babe Ruth turned rather ceremoniously to Babe Panelli, and said, “Sixty-two thousand people in this place can’t be wrong, and they all agree with me that it was a ball.”  Very quietly, Babe Panelli said, “There’s only one opinion in this place that matters, and I called it a strike.”  I love that story because it reminds us that there is only one opinion of you that finally and fully matters.

            Harriet Beecher Stowe was the daughter of a Presbyterian minister who would become a social prophet, who changed America through a book called, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  She wrote once that she “went to a party where everyone there seemed to have left themselves at home.”  I think I have been to some of those parties!  Jesus knows how deadly it is to live falsely, to masquerade as anything other than who really are.  Jesus knew it can destroy you bit by bit from the inside.  Pretending to be someone you are not is dangerous and deadly.

            Do you remember Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter?  (I feel safe asking that, because everyone was required to read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, and no one would have read it if they were not required!)  Arthur Dimmesdale, is a prominent minister in Puritan Boston, in the early eighteen hundreds, who fathers a child out of wedlock.  He really wants to come clean, but he reasons that he cannot bring shame on his profession or his congregation, and so for seven years, he acts as if his daughter was not really his.  (Read Steven Jobs’ biography by Walter Isaacson.  For many years Jobs tried to act like a daughter he fathered was not really his.)  When Dimmesdale finally makes his confession public, he quickly dies.  He is literally killed by his own lack of integrity.  Hawthorne writes these words: “No one for any considerable period can wear one face to self, and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be true.”  And then Hawthorne writes: “Among many morals which press upon us from the poor minister’s miserable experience, we put only this one into a sentence: ‘Be true!  Be true!  Be true!’”

            Maybe this is why my favorite part of the worship service happens for me during the week when I write the Prayer of Confession, and look at my own failings, my own sin, and my own sadness.  It is a chance for me, not only to confess my sins, but to accept God’s offer of grace, freely given.  This is the heart of the Gospel: that we are sinners desperately in need of God’s forgiving grace, and that God is good, and this good God is gracious.

            Will Campbell was a Southern Baptist who served as a campus minister in Mississippi during the 1960’s.  He became an incredibly successful author.  Will lived on a farm near Mount Juliet, and shortly after moving to Nashville, a Presbyterian minister friend of mine in town, Perry Biddle, invited me to have lunch with Will Campbell.  (It turned out Will had grandchildren who were going to Oak Hill School, and I think he was curious about who the new minister was at the church shaping his grandchildren’s lives.)  Will Campbell was about as alive as anybody could be.  I had read a couple of his books before that meeting; after it, I read more, and once I read a book about him.  I am going to warn you right now, I am about to swear in the service, but I am quoting a saint, a social prophet and a Southern Baptist preacher!  Somebody approached Campbell, and asked, “Will, could you summarize the Gospel in ten words?”  He thought about it and said, “We are all bastards, and God loves us anyway.”  The journalist said, “You have two words left to use.” 

            Jesus knows.  He knows how cruel and hard our hearts can be, and the grace Jesus offers is not cheap.  It cost Jesus His life, and it demands of us everything that we have to give, in gratitude for what Jesus has done for us.  But Jesus’ grace is the grace we need.  What I have learned deeply and dearly, is that God’s grace can heal a broken heart, and God’s grace can cleanse a filthy one.  God’s grace can forgive any sin.  It can heal any hurt, and it can “create in us a clean heart, and put a new and right spirit within us.”

            Jesus said, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”  We do not need to live this way forever.  Truth to tell, we cannot afford the life and joy that hypocrisy can take from us.  But we can, here and now, offer our hearts to God.  John Calvin had a motto that is written often in Latin: “Cor meum tibi offero, Domine, prompte et sincere” – “My heart I offer you, O Lord, promptly and sincerely.”  No wonder Jesus said, “Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”

                                                                                    Amen.

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