Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost – August 29, 2021
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
What is wrong with the world? It is a question that people are eager to answer. Especially these days, it seems.
What is wrong with the world? Ask anyone, and they’ll likely be quick to respond. Some will be quick to blame people in red states, or representatives with an “R” next to their names. Others will be quick to blame people in blue states, and representatives with a “D” next to their names. Some will blame conservatives while others will blame liberals. Some will blame the sexual revolution and the breakdown of the family and cultural decline while others will blame oppressive systems and bigotry.
What is wrong with the world? The pandemic has opened up a whole new range of answers. On one side it’s: Oh, it’s those people who won’t get vaccinated! It’s those people who won’t wear masks! It’s those people who don’t believe in science! And on the other side it’s: Oh, it’s those people who are virtue signaling or engaging in hygiene theater or imposing all of these burdens and mandates on me. It’s those people who don’t believe in science!
What is wrong with the world? Ask anyone. They’ll almost certainly have something to say.
If you were to ask the Pharisees in our gospel reading today what was wrong with the world, they would have told you it was people like the ones they were sitting down to eat with. They would have told you it was people like Jesus’ disciples, people who didn’t follow the rules. You see, for whatever reason, some of Jesus’ disciples didn’t do the ritual cleansing before they ate.
This ritual cleansing wasn’t so much a matter of hygiene as it was a way for Jews to distinguish themselves from non-Jews. It was a way emulate the ritual washing of the high priest and mark themselves off as holy. It was a way to be ritually reminded of all the kosher laws around eating which kept them spiritually clean.
Some of Jesus’ disciples didn’t do this ritual washing. They weren’t breaking any of God’s commandments. These were human precepts. They were rabbinical traditions. But by not observing these traditions, the disciples made themselves like Gentiles. They were behaving like the Pharisee’s opponents. They were what was wrong with the world.
When the Pharisees confronted Jesus about this, he told them that the problem didn’t lie so much in the disciples’ behavior as it did in the Pharisees’ hearts. Citing the prophet Isaiah, Jesus said that the bigger problem was that the Pharisees’ hearts were far from God.
Jesus went on to say that it isn’t what goes in which defiles. You aren’t made spiritually unclean by getting Gentile cooties. It isn’t how or what you eat, which goes in the mouth, through the colon, and out into the sewer. It is what is already there in the heart. “It is from the human heart that evil intentions come,” Jesus says. That’s what is wrong with the world! It is the human heart, the human will, it is our fallen human nature which has been bent by sin. It is this universal heart condition that affects us all. It is the human heart, which is radically self-centered and bent inward. It is that the human heart is far from God.
What is wrong with the world? Back in the early 1900s The Times of London invited the great public intellectuals and essayists of their day to write essays on this very question. G. K. Chesterton, a Christian, was one of those invited to contribute an essay. It was a ripe question. It was an opportunity for him to sound off on a whole range of issues in a major national newspaper. It was a chance to rail against all kinds of things he’d written about in the past: industrialization, materialism, corporations, the culture, the government, the educational system. But Chesterton, usually known for his long, verbose, and often pointed essays, responded with one humble sentence. In response to the question he was invited to write about, “What is wrong with the world?” Chesterton simply and humbly responded: “Dear Sir, I am. Yours truly, G. K. Chesterton.”
It wasn’t that he didn’t have opinions about things. He had written at length about all kinds of problems in the world and how he thought they could be improved. But when given a chance to point fingers and land some blows against his opponents, blaming them for what is wrong with the world, he instead gave an answer that reflected his Christian faith. What is wrong with the world? I am.
Only a few decades after Chesterton, the Soviet dissident and writer and Orthodox Christian Aleksander Solzhenitsyn wrote in The Gulag Archipelago: “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart.”
Both Chesterton and Solzhenitsyn illustrate what Jesus is teaching us today through his living Word. There are many, many problems in the world, to be sure. We all have our ideas about how to fix those problems. We all have our opponents who stand in the way of our preferred solutions, who don’t behave as we would like. We all have people we see as “the problem.”
But the main problem with the world isn’t “out there.” The main problem isn’t in those people we are all quick to blame. The problem is sitting right here in these pews. The problem is standing right here in this pulpit. The problem is in here, in our hearts, in our hearts that are radically self-centered and far from God. The human heart, including the ones beating in our chests, is the source of all the world’s problems!
Our gospel reading for today points to the beginning of a remedy to this problem as it invites us to confess our sin, our heart problem. Not someone else’s – ours! Even if we do a good job outwardly by controlling our hands and our lips and our other body parts, which we should all strive to do! – God can see what is in our hearts. God can see what is there better than we can! And so we trust Jesus’ echocardiogram on our hearts and confess that we are in bondage to sin and unable to free ourselves.
The rest of the remedy comes as Christ Jesus speaks his word of forgiveness to us, the word that gives us clean hearts and renewed spirits. The rest of the remedy comes as we look to the cross, where Christ Jesus took all our sin upon himself. The rest of the remedy comes as we receive the body and blood he has poured out for us, taking it into our bodies so that it would literally enter our bloodstreams. The rest of the remedy comes as Christ Jesus literally enters into the chambers of our hearts, so that they are no longer far from God.
Through his Word and his Supper, Jesus fills our hearts with himself, so that they would begin to beat with his love and mercy for all.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church