August 20, 2017

Series: August 2017

Category: Faith

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Today’s second reading comes from the 15th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. It is a lectionary selection, meaning it was chosen for today long ago, yet many of you might find it timely. Hear the words of our savior…

Matthew 15:10-20

10Then Jesus called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: 11it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”

12Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?”

13He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. 14Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.”

15But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.”

16Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? 17Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? 18But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. 19For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. 20These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.” THIS IS THE WORD OF THE LORD. THANKS BE TO GOD.


          I debated this week beginning with a heartwarming story.  Lord knows we could use one.  I ultimately decided against it, because I feared you would be left sitting there slowly getting crushed by the weight of the elephant in the room.  When will he get to Charlottesville, and how hard is he going to hit it?  I sat, like many of you, and watched this week heartsick at what happened, people from this country marching under Confederate and Nazi flags, in the dark of night with blazing torches, shouting things about Jews and African Americans, and proclaiming these were “their streets.”  I watched as the demonstration was opposed by many from different religious backgrounds, some of whom worshipped together, and those who claim no religious faith.  I listened as this demonstration was roundly denounced by figures from both major political parties, and then I witnessed the president stumble over the remarkably low hurdle of simple, swift, and unequivocal condemnation of bigotry.  Further, I saw him play with the fire that is false moral equivalency, all over a gathering at the statue of General Robert E. Lee and Emancipation Park, which had recently been renamed from Lee Park.[1]

          I’ll say from the outset that I have no intention of pounding my fist on the pulpit today, or of spewing unhealed anger, not because I’m not angry, and not because I am seeking to avoid pushback.  My job is to preach the gospel and sometimes that means making some people uncomfortable.  I don’t want to pound my fist because I don’t think it will help.  I love you.  You represent many of the reasons I have hope, because I see how you reason, and care, and dedicate yourselves to being something positive in the world.  Now, I recognize that to be able to slow down and take a deep breath so we can respond a little more reflectively is not a luxury everyone is afforded.  Those people in that church a few days ago didn’t have that luxury when they were surrounded by people with torches.  Children were in that church.  I can’t get out of my head a picture of a little African American girl being held, crying in fear. 

Not everyone gets to take a deep breath, safely, as we do this morning. But, since we can, shouldn’t we, if only so we can reengage in a way that is grounded in who we are and what we are called to be about?   Let’s remember who we are.  In the beginning, it all got off to a start off with a bang, as they say.  Something compelled all that mass and energy to explode outward because it just couldn’t contain itself.  What do you suppose that something was?  My scientific language is clumsy, so let me switch genres.  Jonathan Edwards, who is often remembered for his fiery sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” actually gives us a loving image too-long forgotten and ignored.  Edwards says God is so full of goodness that it is God’s “disposition” to overflow.[2]  God is like a fountain that is spilling over in love.  Creation is what results.  It was uncontainable love that set all of this in motion, and you are the children of that overflowing love.

          Now the journey from there to here hasn’t always been easy.  Sometimes the children of God lost touch with their source, not trusting there was enough love to go around, so they thought they had to fight over it.  Sometimes the children looked to other sources to be filled, all of which proved empty, alluring mirages.  The children of God were enslaved, made slaves by other children of God.  They were freed and led into freedom and new order by those specially sent by God, a God who gave them laws—we remember that part—but also a God who wanted to be in relationship.  This was the revolutionary gesture of ancient Israel’s God, that God wanted to be in touch with what God had made.

          God’s goodness has continued to flow into the world, and those in touch with it throughout time have called us to our better selves.  Then, we believe that God showed up fullness in the flesh and blood of Jesus of Nazareth, a Jewish from the boondocks.  Jesus is a window into the heart of God, and a mirror for humanity, revealing both what it looks like to be godly in the world and how people reject godliness for the way it threatens the order they think is righteous.  In Jesus, God sat with those the religious said were impure, and, in doing so, God defied separation.  In Jesus, God emptied himself of power—Did you know that the oldest hymn we have about Jesus is in Philippians 2, says, that Christ “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,” not a slave-owner, but a slave?  In doing so, God rebuked any notion of supremacy.  In Jesus, God received those who came for him with swords, and told those who drew their swords in his defense, and, in doing so, God disarmed us all.  In Jesus, seemed to lose to the powers and principalities of this world.  And, then, in Jesus, God redefined the very rules of existence, showing us, once and for all who wins.  In doing so, God invites us all over to the winning side. 

          We should say something of sides, because there is some confusion that we should not be choosing sides.  Let me share a quote with you, that has been sitting on my desk for several months now.  It only hit me Wednesday that God put that quote there for today. 

          It reads,

We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.  Silence encourages the tormenter, never the tormented.  Sometimes we must interfere.  When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national boundaries and sensitivities become irrelevant.  Whenever men and women are persecuted because of their race and religion, or political views, that place must—at that moment—become the center of the universe.[3]

           That quote comes from the Nobel Prize acceptance speech of Elie Wiesel whose people were crucified under the flag that walked through Charlottesville last week, the flag that several members of this congregation over the years risked their lives to oppose.  I don’t know how many of you know Col. Cole.  He isn’t always in worship because it’s hard to hear, but Col. Cole refused to marry the love of his life when he was a young man because he was headed to war, and he didn’t want to leave her a widow.  By the grace of God, or luck, or both, he survived and he and Susan built a beautiful life together.  I don’t think, after all that, and after all these years, we should ask Col. Cole to have to face that flag in his own country.

          Jesus loved everyone, and Jesus chose sides. In fact, the choosing was how his love was made manifest.  And, what was Jesus’ nickname?  The Hammer?  The Bomb?  The Truth?  Well, maybe it was The Truth, or The Life, but first it was, The Word.  “In the beginning,” remember the beginning when all things were one bound up together, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…” (Jn 1:1). 

          The Word was God.  Words have tremendous potential, creative or destructive potential.  How did creation happen?  “God said, ‘Let there be…’ and there was (Gen. 1).”  We tell ourselves, in this tradition, that words create worlds.  They hold enormous power to bring certain was of being into existence.  If you have a leadership position in a company, how you speak creates an order to how that world will operate and how those in it will relate to one another.  If you speak in a way that sets up a pattern of discrimination or degradation, or even if you don’t explicitly do so, but you fail to condemn such behavior, you provide cover for such speech and such treatment, because you send a signal to others that such behavior will go unopposed.  Our speech creates worlds.

          I remember this vividly from high school.  I know my beard is showing some grey these days, but I wasn’t in high school that long ago.  I had a teacher, Mr. Beaver, who spoke openly, exclusively, of women as “chicks” and “broads.”  How do you suppose that modeling from the top down affected the way in which we, as students, related to one another, particularly toward the females in the room?  How did it influence how we conceived of women outside the room, out in the world?  You could say, “Well, most of us were intelligent.  We could see this was wrong.  They’re merely words.  They have no substance.”  When I went to graduate school to study rhetoric, one of the first things they told us is, “There is nothing ‘mere’ about words.”  As wordsmith Maya Angelou puts it, “Words are things…I’m convinced…They get on the walls.  They get on your wallpaper.  They get in your rugs, and your upholstery, and in your clothes, and finally into you.”[4]  Once inside, they have an effect.  They have the power to infect, and conversely the words that come out reveal the state of things inside, good or ill.

In the gospel reading today, Jesus reminds us of this. He says, “Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes into the sewer?  But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.”  Jesus is challenging the purity laws about which foods one can eat as ultimately determinative of what defiles a person.  It’s not what one puts in their mouth that defiles them—that ends up in the sewer ultimately.  It’s what one allows out of their mouth, words, which defile, for what comes out of the mouth, when it is flowing unrestricted, which flows directly from the heart.  Words reveal what is in the heart, and when what flows out of the mouth belongs in the sewer, then, Jesus says, we have true defilement. 

          This is why we must work on the heart right now.  I know we want to charge out there, and we should get out there, but if we do so without cultivating the heart, then at the first sight of the torches, or the racist chants, or the Nazi flags, or far worse, we will quickly resort to likewise spewing sewage, which I understand also happened in Charlottesville.  Martin Luther King, who faced racism in this country, knew this, having studied Gandhi, and that’s why his people trained spiritually for the movement, so when the firehouses and the dogs were unleashed, they were ready to hold not only their ground but the moral high ground.  We must likewise train.  Be in prayer and reading Scripture an hour a day.  If that feels like too much, then try two hours.  I say this to illustrate that we will have to work at it if we are to do it well.  We don’t need people wielding the powerful weapon of the Holy Word without being trained.

          We will return to this theme of training throughout the year, so we will be ready to do our part in joining in the flow of God’s righteousness throughout the world that sometimes forgets where it comes from.  For today, let us simply remember to take words seriously and speak words carefully.  A few for you to consider in closing.  These are from a Civil War general, when asked in 1869 to consider attending a gathering to consider a lasting memorial at Gettysburg:       

My engagements will not permit me to be present, and I believe if there I could not add anything material to the information existing on the subject. I think it wiser moreover not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.[5]

 That general was Robert E. Lee, the most famous general of the Confederacy, to whose statue they marched last week in Charlottesville. Lee’s biographer noted even though Lee was “quite prepared to use the past in a rather nostalgic manner when it came to old Southern constitutional principles and paternalist racial assurances…he would have plowed the battlefields over rather than convert them into the shrines others would make of them.”[6]  Lee understood what those who marched to his likeness last week did not, that to memorialize this episode in this manner, is, in effect, to speak an everlasting word of strife, and likewise to inflict an immortal wound upon society.  Let us take this journey now together, one word at a time.  Let us begin with a simple, swift, unequivocal word, one that when spoken from the heart can be a positive word.  No.






[5] Michael Fellman, The Making of Robert E. Lee,

 [6] Ibid.