Sunday, September 2, 2012

Sermon for Sunday September 2, 2012

Deep Change
Mark 7: 1-24 (selected verses)
A Sermon Preached at Centenary United Methodist Church
Richmond, Virginia
September 2, 2012



Jesus offers us authentic, inward change that reflects the love of God to the world. 



As some of you know, I attended college at Oral Roberts University.  One of the interesting memories I have of being there was the way meal tickets were distributed each month.  ORU had a dress code.  Girls were supposed to wear dresses to class, guys had to wear ties.  It was rather odd to see guys in blue jeans, polo shirts and ties.  They met the letter of the requirements, but I’m not sure that was the look the requirements sought.  For the guys to get their meal tickets each month, you had to go through hair check.  Your hair was supposed to be no longer than the middle of the ear and it was supposed to be off your collar.  You’ve never seen so many interesting ways for guys to lower the collars of their shirts.  Occasionally, someone’s hair would be a bit too long, either because they hadn’t taken time to get a haircut or because they simply didn’t want to.  So, if someone’s hair was too long, to pass hair check and get the meal ticket, some guys would put on their best three piece suit, pull their shirt collars as low as they could get them, and get their biggest black leather Thompson chain reference Bible.  Surprisingly, this often worked.  Somehow, the external appearance of piety made the examiners of the hair length think that, even if the hair was a bit long, this was a person of great spirituality.  How could you deny a meal ticket to someone like that?


 One of the things we get better at the longer we’re around the church is how to look, act, and speak like we’re really religious.  We learn how to give the impression that we have it all together, that we are righteous, holy, and pure.  We know there is a certain way to act, speak, and look when you’re in church.  But that outward appearance may not always reflect what’s the real state of our heart.  In fact, we often begin to assume that if things look outwardly proper, that we are in fact all right inwardly.


One of the main tenets of Jesus’ teaching was that it was not the outside appearance of a person that mattered, but the inward state of her soul.  It wasn’t whether an institution observed all the niceties of religious tradition, it was whether it reflected real love for God and neighbor in all that it did.  Jesus was challenged by the religious leaders of his day because his disciples did not scrupulously observe the tradition of ceremonially washing their hands prior to eating.  Jesus not only criticized these pious folks because they had gotten obsessed with the letter of the law rather than focusing on the great principles on which it rested.  He said, “Listen to me, all of you and understand.  There is nothing which goes into a person from outside which can render him unclean; but it is the things which come out of a man which render him unclean.”  He continues “Do you not understand that everything that goes into a man from outside cannot render him unclean, because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and it is then evacuated from him by natural bodily processes?  What comes out of a man, that is what renders the man unclean.  It is from within, from the heart, that there come evil designs, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, covetous deeds, evil deeds, guile, wanton wickedness, envy, slander, pride folly.  All these evil things come from within, and they render a man unclean.”


Some have said that though it may not seem so to us now, this may well have been the most revolutionary thing Jesus said in the New Testament.  The tradition of the elders which had developed layer after layer on top of the law put much emphasis on how what went into a person could make them ritually and ceremonially unclean, thus separating them from God and the community of faith.  Do you remember the long list of animals in the book of Leviticus that are called unclean, and thus forbidden for human consumption?  Just how serious this was taken is revealed in an incident recorded in a series of books called Maccabees which is found in what we Protestants call the Apocrypha.  The Syrian king, Antiochus Epiphanes was determined to destroy the Jewish faith.  One of the things he demanded was that the Jews eat pork.  The Jews died in their hundreds rather than do so. 


“Howbeit many in Israel were fully resolved and confirmed in themselves not to eat any unclean thing.  Wherefore they chose rather to die, that they might not be defiled with meats, and that they might not profane the holy covenant; so then they died.”  (I Maccabees 1:62-63)


 Second  Maccabees chapter 7 tells the story of a widow and her seven sons.  It was demanded that they should eat swine’s flesh.  They refused.  The first had his tongue cut out, the ends of his limbs cut off;  and he was then roasted alive in a pan; the second had his hair and the skin of his skull torn off; one by one they were tortured to death while their aged mother looked on and cheered them on; they died rather than eat meat that was unclean.


 Now, I don’t think that Jesus really wanted to deny the sacrifice that people like this had made to preserve the purity of their faith as they understood it.  But you can see that when Jesus said, it’s not what goes into you that defiles you, it’s what comes out of you that reveals the kind of person you really are—some folks who knew the sacrifices made to preserve ritual purity were deeply offended.  Jesus appeared to be making light of some of their most cherished memories and traditions.  Indeed, Jesus is suggesting that their loyalty to these traditions is preventing them from being truly faithful and obedient to God.  That really angered them. 


Do you begin to see why some people resented Jesus so deeply?  So much so that eventually they wanted to kill him.  He not only wanted to enable people to change from the inside out, but he was calling for the transformation of a whole tradition that in his eyes had become legalistic and dead and was no longer a vehicle to encounter the living God but a barrier to that kind of encounter.


 Friends, let’s think for just a moment about how we view our tradition and how we feel about change.  Do we see our history and heritage as a gift on which we can build and create something new, or do we see it as a relic to be preserved at all cost?  Do we see our duty as following Christ’s command to share the gospel with the world or do we see ourselves as custodians of customs?


 I came up with the title of this sermon when I came across an article about a book that’s influencing many organizations and the people who lead them.  The book is entitled Deep Change.[1]


 The author, Robert Quinn, has studied what it takes for ineffective businesses and other organizations to be transformed.  He thinks it is a fallacy to think that incremental, gradual change lasts, because it is easy to undo the changes.  In essence these changes in an organization are usually only superficial.  For an organization to be transformed, the individuals in the organization have to undergo a deep change in their long-held attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. In other words, if we don’t become different people, we can’t expect our business, our family, or our church to be any different.


For a person within a stale, complacent, dying organization to respond to the challenge to lead or initiate change is a dangerous task.  Quinn says that people who feel called to this kind of transformation often feel like they’re walking naked into a land of uncertainty.  Responding to the challenge to lead a group of people in transformation can be terrifying, he says, often leading one to a dark night of the soul.


Is it any wonder that so many of the people God called to speak for him or to lead people in a new direction were so reluctant?  Moses knew how hard it was going to be to take folks used to the certainty of enslavement to the freedom of the promised land.  Isaiah and Jeremiah knew that they would not be widely loved if they challenged the rich in the way they treated the poor and pointed out to the people all the ways they had forgotten God.  Jesus is remarkable for so many reasons.  Here in Mark’s gospel, he’s remarkable because he has the courage to challenge the leaders of the faith he loved so much to focus on the essential principles of their faith rather than the external trivialities.  He was calling people to be deeply transformed and changed, filled with the love and presence of God, so that they could give that love to others. 


There was a time, I’ll admit, when I believed that the kind of changes the church needed to be effective were changes in style, strategy, and tactics.  Different forms of worship, different methods of communication, new forms of architecture.  The story of how I gave up on that way of thinking is longer than we have time for today, but let it suffice to say now, that I think the kind of change we need to undergo to be God’s people in the 21st century has little to do with style, and more to do with substance, less to do with strategy, and more to do with spirituality.  (Talk about deep structure of worship). 


I think this is what frustrated Jesus with the elders of his day—they were just seeing the surface of things.  They’d forgotten the skill of looking deeply into people, their society, their government.  They’d become like many people in our time who make decisions not after careful thought about their own convictions or painstaking attempts to get the facts, but instead are easily swayed by the repetition of one negative ad, one televised image after another.  If our nation faces a crisis, I believe it is a crisis that arises from our loss of the capacity to think deeply about the great problems of our time and to speak carefully and compassionately about our convictions with those with whom we agree as well as those with whom we disagree.  We face great problems but are more interested in labeling our enemies and yelling at them.  And we’d never be caught dead by agreeing that on many of the great issues that face us, in reality we often agree on more than we disagree.  That doesn’t make for good TV—people sitting around agreeing or talking to each other civilly and respectfully!


A story is told about a newly ordained minister who went to serve his first church. He noticed that on the first Sunday, when he said the prayers, the congregation on the left side of the church stood at the beginning of the prayers, and the congregation on the right side remained seated. The young minister thought this was a bit odd, but he kept going in the prayers—until he began to hear some murmuring between the two sides, then the murmuring turned into grumbling and then people yelling at each other, proclaiming that they were doing the right thing when came to the tradition of the church.

Distressed by what he had seen and all that was taking place, the young pastor went to seek the council of the former, now elderly pastor, who had served this congregation for years. He asked him, “So is it the tradition of the congregation to stand during the prayers?”

The older minister, whose memory was now failing, stroked his beard, replied, “No, that is not the tradition, as I recall.”   “So, the tradition is that they remain seated during the prayers?”

To which the old minister responded, “No, that’s not the tradition either.”

The young pastor threw his hands in the air in exasperation, and said, “There must be some solution to this! The way things are now, half stand and half sit and all end up screaming at one another during the prayers.”

The old pastor’s face lit up in a smile; he lifted his finger high into the air and said, “Ahh, yes! Now I remember—that was the tradition!”


When we look only at the surface of people, or the church, or the world, we miss out on so much.  We run the risk of missing out on the deeper realities that usher us into the realm of truth, liberation, and life!


In a few moments, we come to remember the price paid by the one who came to call the world to be deeply changed by the reality of God’s love and presence.  We can’t help but remember that this offer was rejected—Jesus’ offer of transformation, his criticism of trivial rituals that obscured the central principles of love of God and neighbor, so offended the defenders of the status quo that they put him on a cross.


But we remember that in the end, his faithfulness to God’s vision for him and the world resulted in the vindication of that vision when God raised him from the dead.  We can make the mistake of viewing the sacrament of communion simply as a duty to be fulfilled, an empty ritual to be observed—or we can come expecting to encounter the one signified in the bread and wine—Jesus himself.  We can come looking more deeply into this moment, beyond the bread and wine to the one who himself is the source of all life.   If our hearts and eyes are open, we can be changed from the inside out.  And with God’s power at work in us, God will use us to bring the deep changes that bring life to our city!



        [1]Robert E.Quinn, Deep Change (San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass, 1996).

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