Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
The Heart of Faith
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
At a church I knew some time ago, they had recently renovated their worship space. Everything was beautiful and looked new, all except for one thing. The brand new chancel carpet had little tears evenly spaced all along the front edge. It turned out that, in the renovation, the congregation had decided to be done with communion rails and, for various good reasons, to serve communion standing; they had removed them and recarpeted the sanctuary. But one person thought truly holy people should never be done with communion rails. And so, in the dark of some quiet night when no one was around, that person came in and reinstalled the communion rails, right through the new carpet… And the next day, the pastor, upon finding communion rails re-installed, promptly took them back down. And the little holes remain there to this day – a testament to the struggle over what is good and right to do, what is most important. This morning we ask it this way: what is the heart of faith?
That very thing the Pharisees wrestled with in Mark 7. In Mark’s gospel, the Pharisees and the scribes confronted Jesus because his disciples didn’t wash their hands before eating as the elders tradition commanded. And it wasn’t a germs question. When the Pharisees and scribes called the disciples “unclean”, the word they used means “common”. They didn’t want just any old practice or life or faith – they wanted very specific things that they thought marked them out uncommonly as God’s people. They wanted it so much that, over generations, their rabbis and teachers had made hundreds of rules to follow – like just how and when to wash your hands. They’d even said that following these regulations was even more important than following God’s written commands. So, they didn’t like much what Jesus had to say about them – literally that they were “teaching regulations written by men as though they were God’s Word”. And, therefore, that they had “let go of the commands of God and [were] holding on to the traditions of men.”
Essentially, Jesus was saying that the heart of faith isn’t about what we do. Or, at least, that even the best of the things we hand down and hold onto can’t make and keep us holy. It’s a temptation for us too; just think of the things you value. For instance, we make use of communion rails but God certainly hasn’t commanded them. Still, someone might be tempted to feel that true faith only communes like this. We use this red hymnal, but God didn’t write and hand it down from a mountain for us. Still, someone might be tempted to think or say, “This is the one hymnal for worship…” It translates to other stuff too… Some may like a good, craft beer – others might struggle with any kind of alcohol – God doesn’t command us except to responsibly use what we do. Still, someone might be tempted to say, “The only holy way is no alcohol at all…” Can you see? It’s an easy thing to begin to define the heart of faith with rules we’ve made or ways of operating that keep us comfortable. It’s easy to take normal, good things and by them to make a religion that worships us. Like those Pharisees we can become concerned with all the wrong things, miss what’s truly important, maybe even deceive others along the way.
There’s a perspective we ought to have if we’re tempted to make the heart of faith some of our own, even good, traditions. The word tradition is a Latin word, but it has the same picture built into it as the Greek word Jesus used: things that are handed over or handed down. Pair that up with the Pharisee’s concern. They were worried about being clean. They thought that certain activities handed down to them could keep them from being unclean. Now just think of some of the things we hand over, hand off, trade from hand to hand with people. I’m thinking of cash (less and less these days) – in a 2017 study in a peer-reviewed science journal, researchers swabbed $1 bills from a bank in New York City. On them they found hundreds of species of microorganisms – the ones that cause acne, skin bacteria, bacteria from other places on the human body, microbes from mouths, DNA from pets…yikes! It’s absurd to think you could be clean with cash that’s handed off. Likewise, the idea that things we hand down to one another and hold onto would keep us clean before almighty God – that’s equally as absurd. Because we’re just as dirty by nature as those $1 bills.
The problem with deciding what’s at the heart of faith is that we have a heart problem. Jesus grabs us by the shoulders, looks us in the eye and says: “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this…
15 Nothing outside a man can make him ‘unclean’ by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him ‘unclean.’” 21 For from within, out of men’s hearts, come [all sorts of evils] and make a man ‘unclean.’ ”
How absurd it is to think that in any way we could keep away the dirty…we’re filthy already! You plan in your heads – dialogue with yourselves what sins to do sometimes – evil thoughts that lead to evil actions. Immoral, sexual things – pornography on the internet, lusty eyes looking, actions that follow. Stealing – time from your employer, money on your taxes, greed that takes from God. Hatred that makes each of us murderers fairly regularly. Lies, slander, lewd actions… You name it, we’ve known it. Some of it we’ve learned. Lots of it just pours out of our putrid, dumpster hearts. Because at the heart of faith is this truth: we have a wicked nature. And it’s tempting to find rules and regulations to keep us clean because it helps us not to look at how we really are. We are already covered in sin from the start. Which is sad…damnably depressing.
You know, actually, this is the kind of gospel reading that we pastors share a dark laugh about now and again. These ones where it seems weird to read it, and then look up at you and say with a smile, “This is the gospel of the Lord!”… I had to ask Pastor Kolander not to do the normal thing and add a nice gospel-roundup after it this morning – because we oughta see there’s literally no gospel in this text. There’s no message of grace in this gathering of passages, no solution to sin, just the declaration that our hearts are dirty and our actions are worthless to change it.
Jesus has been telling good news in Mark’s gospel by now, however. And the Pharisees refused to see it. Sometimes in all our doing we miss it too. We can be so far away and yet be so close to the truth! There’s a glimpse of the gospel in the Pharisee-feeling – that desire to scrub away any sinful things. Those guys didn’t do anything unless they washed… And that’s true to life with God. No one can eat of God’s heavenly banquet unless they wash their robes and make them white in the blood of the Lamb (Rev. 7:14); unless they “arise” and are “baptized, and wash away all their sins” (Acts 22:16); unless they are cleansed “with the washing of water by the Word” (Eph 5:26); No one is clean enough to belong with God unless “they are washed…sanctified (made holy)…justified (declared not guilty of their sins) in the name of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor 6:11). There’s no gospel spoken in this text, but the good news is shouting right there in the middle of it. The good news grabs us by the shoulders, looks us in the eye, calls us to listen and says, “Nothing can make you holy – not like the holiness I’ve given you in my life. Nothing can keep you clean – not like the blood I shed when I died to pay for your sins. Nothing can guarantee true and pure life with God – except the life I have as the risen Lord Jesus, your Savior – the life I give to you by faith to have and hold in your hearts so that you can hand that off in whatever you do.”
…in whatever we do… What will we do? Here we are now, at the end of the summer, moving into a school year, about to enter a new and rather grand (at least for us) capital campaign… Perhaps this is a particularly appropriate time to consider what’s most important – what makes us who we are as a church – what is the heart of our faith? The Heart of Faith is the one standing in the heart of this gospel. It is Christ our Savior from sin. And the freely given forgiveness of all our sins moves our hearts in faith to keep him at heart of whatever we do. With hands made holy we can hand off to one another so many beautiful traditions and things that help us to hold on to him. With holy hearts we can dream big and boldly build the things that will help others hold on to him too. Listen to your Lord. Look into his gospel eyes. Consider his gracious love and all his gifts. And, over the next weeks in worship – and so that our family of faith can go into the future with what is most important – let your hearts of faith ring with the heart of faith and say that JESUS IS EVERYTHING!