Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’ He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
“This people honours me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.”
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’
Then he said to them, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, “Honour your father and your mother”; and, “Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.” But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, “Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban” (that is, an offering to God)— then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.’
Then he called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’
When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. He said to them, ‘Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?’ (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, ‘It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: 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: 1-23, NRSV
Preached Sunday, October 29, 2017 at Westfield Church on the Occasion of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation by the Rev. Jonathan Chapman
Sermon Title: Reform(ed)(ing)
Scriptures: Mark 7: 1-23
Date: October 29, 2017 (Occasion of the Reformation’s 500th anniversary)
I’m sure this will come as a surprise to you, but I love some drama. And my favorite church drama ever happened 500 years ago Tuesday. I know you’ve heard of Martin Luther, but here’s a refresher just in case you need to be reminded what he accomplished. Martin Luther was a scholar and a theologian and, most famously, the Father of the Reformation. But what many people forget is that first he was a monk. He first went to school, at his father’s behest, to become a lawyer. He was traveling back to University one day, when he found himself caught in a storm. Lightening struck so close to him that he was thrown to the ground—and at that moment he cried out to St. Anne, the namesake of one our hymn tunes this morning—saying, “I will become a monk!” His father thought he was crazy, but Luther had one last part with his friends and the next day entered the monastery.
His time as a monk was, in a word, challenging. He lived an austere life: fasting, long hours of prayer, frequent confession. Despite trying to desperately to make a connection, he felt like he was failing. At the same time, he began to notice the ways the Church was failing. Luther never really intended to leave the Catholic Church. Instead, he wanted to fix it—or reform it. Through his study of the Bible, he came to believe that it was faith alone—not any amount of money or good deeds—that earned salvation.
On October 31, 1517, Luther famously nailed 95 theses—95 statements—criticizing the church on the door of Castle church in Wittenberg. His boldness and statements spread like wildfire. And soon, he was on trial by the Church. At his trial, tradition says he was asked to recant his previous statements. “I cannot,” he said. “I here I stand. I can do no other.”
And so, the protestant church was born—a church that protested old ways and looked toward new ones.
In our scripture this morning, Jesus is protesting the old ways and looking toward the new ones. He’s taking the “tradition of the elders” and reframing them in a new way. Rather than getting caught up in the old traditions—in the nuances of Jewish law and interpretation, Jesus instead shifts the focus. Where the people around him were caught up in the details, Jesus tells them they’re missing the point entirely: “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
The disciples, ever the thick-headed foils to Jesus’ teachings, don’t quite get it. So they ask for some a little explanation. Jesus replies: “Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?’ (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, ‘It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’”
Did you catch it? It’s a little parenthetical statement nestled between verses 19 and 20. “Thus he declared all foods clean.” We often think of Martin Luther as the original reformer. But really, Jesus is.
In fact, that’s the call of the Christian life—to reform, that is to change who we are so we can be better. I’d say, actually, that it’s the heart of the Gospel—that we can be reformed.
You know, our mistake in talking about the Reformation is in thinking it’s complete, that it’s over, that it’s a done deal. But here’s the thing: the work Martin Luther started five hundred years ago is really the work Jesus started millennia ago.
Last Sunday was a remarkable one. It was remarkable because you bore witness to Jesus’ ongoing work of reforming. What I mean is, you testified to God’s love in a way that many cannot do. And you were able to do that because you’ve been reformed—that is, reshaped—by that love.
Sometimes I wonder if we should be clearer about what we mean when we say everyone, everyone, everyone is welcome. We believe that—that everyone should be welcome. And we strive to live into that commitment. We welcome everyone just where they are. But as Christians, we believe we can be better than we are—that is, we believe that we can be re-formed. That’s different than reformed—the process by which the church and civil authorities have attempted to restrict and “fix” people. We’re not looking to fix anybody, but we are looking to re-form them.
We’re Christians—disciples of Christ, people who claim Jesus not just as some dude who had pithy teachings and confusing parables millennia ago, but as the Word made flesh, the Light of the World. And we believe that following Jesus isn’t about getting into heaven. I mean, sure, that’s great—salvation is good, don’t confuse what I’m saying. But what’s more important is that we believe that we can be better than we are and that following Jesus helps us do that—it helps us change for the better.
When I was in high school, we would spend hours writing in each other’s yearbooks. There was the kiss of death for any friendship: “Have a great summer,” abbreviated HAGS. That’s what you wrote for people you either didn’t know well enough to say anything else or didn’t care to write anything more. There were a variety of colorful and descriptive limericks, many of which I will not say from the pulpit. You can google them.
But the one that always confused me was this sign off: “Never change!” It’s meant as a compliment—that the way you are right now is just right, it’s perfect, never change it. But here’s the thing: as Christian we believe in change—that is, we believe that we can be changed for the better. Yes, people are welcome here just the way they are—absolutely. But if you’re not looking to be changed for the better, then this might not be the right place for you.
You know about change. You know it’s not easy, it’s rarely quick. You know that at times it can be painful and daunting. But then, we’re 500 years into this reformation thing, and we’re still working on it—on getting right.
But we believe following Jesus, even when it turns everything we thought we knew about faith on its head, is the right thing. And we believe that re-forming our lives opens us to God even more. So let’s do that—let’s open our lives to God’s continual re-formation, that we might take refuge in God’s might fortress—the very one that has been our help in ages past and will continue to be for ages to come. Amen.