Sermon – September 3, 2006

A Change of Heart

My four-year-old daughter, Sophie, has recently discovered the wonders of the Wizard of Oz.  She has now seen the movie and the stage play a couple of times, and I find her wandering around the house singing, “We’re off to see the Wizard, the wonderful Wizard of Oz”, or creeping down the hallway chanting, “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!  Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!”  She clicks together the heels of her new sparkling ruby slippers, whispering, “There’s no place like home.  There’s no place like home.” 

A wonderful movie that has imprinted in us these lines and images.  These days, I’ve been reminded of my favorite line from the movie, when the Great Oz is exposed as a poser and a fraud.  Remember the line?  “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”  The Great Oz is exposed as the manipulator of levers and conjurer smoke screens to give him the appearance of being someone whom he simply is not.  The curtain got pulled back on Oz.

What Jesus is doing in our narrative from Mark today is pulling back the curtain on the Pharisees who posing and manipulating the law to make themselves appear to be something that they are not, which is clean and righteous before God.  And aren’t the Pharisees surprised to hear it.  And aren’t we?

Instead of blessing the rigid adherence to the law that creates an outward appearance, Jesus goes again to the heart of the matter, and he suggests that the heart of humanity is the very problem.  He quotes Isaiah, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”  He ticks off this inventory of misbehavior, of evil intentions as he calls them, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.  All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” 

He didn’t miss much, and I personally went through that inventory, hmmm;  theft, no; murder, absolutely not; adultery, never; avarice, well sometimes maybe I’m a little greedy; licentiousness, not even sure what that means so I must not do it; pride, maybe; folly, certainly; wickedness, surely not; deceit, maybe once or twice, I’ll have to check my notes.  Hmmmm, not bad, but I could sure fill in the blanks with the names of host of rascals that I know are practicing the whole load.  I sure am better off than those sinners!

Well, of course, that misses the point, doesn’t it?  To line up the litany of sins and view them as exhaustive, and then to address them one by one is to miss Jesus’ point that it is the nature of the human heart to tend toward these things.  None of us, hopefully, would score 100 percent on this list, but all of us can find our place among them. 

As religious people, we respond in two ways to Jesus’ pulling back this curtain.   We can say, “this does not apply to me.  Thank goodness I am not like that sinner over there”, and then get back to our legalistic bean counting to insure ourselves against the consequences of recognizing ourselves in this criticism.  This is a position of fear and I’ll get back to that.  That gives us the self-assurance then, to point to our own righteousness and say look at me, compare my list of moral rightness and accomplishment with the accusation of Jesus’ word and surely you will see that I don’t qualify for inclusion into that crowd.     Or we can respond in another way.  We can accept Jesus’ contention that it is the nature of our hearts to tend to these things.   Then we don’t flee to the false safety of the law—anxiously ticking off our good deeds one by one–but instead seeing that we are helpless to be as God would have us be, and then to take the next step and seek how it is that we might be made clean, how it is that we might be saved, how it is that people like you and me could deserve the grace of God.  And Jesus is anxious to answer that question.

That first choice, struggling to prove our righteousness, posturing with our religiousness, revealing our preference for the law, causes us to see Jesus’ critique as applying to the other.   We know that we have chosen that option when we begin to speak contemptuously of “those people.”   Taking that position inevitably pits us one against the other, even those whom we purport to love.   The folks who put together the lectionary, the readings for today, leave out from Jesus’ teaching 4 verses that I think go right to the point,

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, “Honor 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.’

Jesus was simply saying that you are using the church, using your interpretation of the law, to neglect your parents, which is of the higher.  Nope, can’t give you a hand folks, because I’m all committed to my church, or my job, or my agenda, etc.  Listen, show me someone who claims to “honor his father and his mother” but who never writes to them, calls them, visits them, or supports them on account of a total immersion in mission work for the church and I will show you someone who loves neither his parents nor God to anywhere near the degree he or she claims.

Jesus says this is a problem of the heart, and the law is not going to get you out of it, and soon you will find yourselves far from God and far from another.  It living in fear.  It is the fear of exclusion, it is the fear of getting what we deserve that drives us so to prove our righteousness through the law.

Jesus was a famous lawbreaker in his own right—healing on the Sabbath, not washing his hands, laying hands on corpses, touching women with flows of blood, eating with sinners, keeping company with women and children.  In many ways, he flaunted the law, but not because he was a bad boy or even a bad Jew, but because he was desperately trying to make the point that posing, rigidity to dogma and tradition, even holding too tightly to something as precious to the Jewish people as the law, could steer us from the larger truth of our call to mercy and love toward God and neighbor and our dependence on God for our salvation.    He justly feared that we would hide behind the law, and fail to see ourselves as who we truly are and, thus, fail to see our need for God and for one another.

Garry Wills, a historian and writer on religious issues, makes an excellent observation, “No outcasts were cast out far enough in Jesus’ world to make him shun them—not Roman collaborators, not lepers, not prostitutes, not the crazed, not the possessed.  Are there people now who could possibly be outside his encompassing love?”  Our hiding behind our relgiousity and our traditionalism and our laws, reveal a fear that we, indeed, might be left outside Christ’s encompassing love.

The good news here is that as Jesus pulls back the curtain and exposes the true character of our hearts, he does not do so to humiliate or shame or exclude.  He does so that we might know our need and the hope he brings.   Listen, we can’t change what we don’t acknowledge.   A true understanding of ourselves throws us on God’s mercy and bids us ask, “if this is the nature of my heart, how might my heart be changed.”  And we recall the plea of the psalmist and make it ours, “change my heart, O God.”   He surely will.

Jesus has come to change our hearts, to change us from self-righteousness and self-salvation, to true righteousness and true hope in him.

Our fear is that if we accept that we are who God says we are, he will fail us.  That we will become the outcast.    But Jesus has pulled back the curtain on God and says, you are who you are and I love you and I will change your heart.  The good news is that we are saved by grace precisely because we cannot save ourselves.  That good news is such a marvelous offer of hope that it should transform us from the inside out.  

That, of course, is exactly Jesus’ point.