Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
Jesus words sounded flip and scandalous to religious people in his time. But the underlying question is alive today. What does God care about? I mean really? Being about what God cares about could be the central the objective of any religion. It’s disheartening that Christians share the same bible yet have such different answers.
In college, I was on a Christian outreach team. At the invitation of congregations throughout the mid-west, we drove out to spend a weekend with high school youth and often also led worship. We wrote our own skits. One, in particular, inspired by today’s gospel, always went over well we thought. My job was to do the sound effects. With each word, I cracked my belt really loud. Out of the hearts of men comes fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, and folly” (Mark 7:22). With each one, it appeared as though Jesus was being whipped.
These things defile us and are what God cares about. Yet I also wonder if in our youthful enthusiasm to be dramatic whether we somehow implied that following Christ was all about being nice. As if you can be a good Christian simply by being polite. As if walking the way of Jesus’ cross was about inter-personal morality rather than justice. Using this gospel to justify it, we Christians fall right into the same trap the Pharisees found themselves in mostly because it makes religions so much easier. I don’t have to worry about how my food is produced as long as I’m nice. I don’t have to think about where my clothes are made and who makes them as long as I treat others respectfully. I don’t have to change my lifestyle and I can buy all the stuff I want at Walmart just as long as I never use foul language. But really, is that all God cares about?
I read an Op-ed piece in the paper this week entitled, “Can the Catholic church be redeemed?” Stories of child sexual abuse are sickening. We in the Lutheran might feel a little too satisfied that we don’t have that problem. Yet the loss of trust in the Church as a place of wisdom and guidance is so widespread as to include us all. As Christendom in North America emerges from decades happily embracing the brand of mainline religion, cozied up to political authorities and proudly carrying the banner of American patriotism and civil religion are we surprised now to see so many people around us have come to judge that what church people care about and what God cares about are not the same? Integrity. Our walk matches our talk. It’s one of our ten core values. It is gospel medicine, like this gospel today, calling the whole Church, to focus on what God cares about. Can we, can this congregation, be part of that answer? Can we identify ways we’re already doing that? I believe we can.
We are not afraid to learn something from the world outside the church. We know the arena for living our faith is the world. (Another one of our core values.) When we go outside, we are not surprised to find God already at work there. We are not afraid to follow the Holy Spirit. We do not retreat into moralism and forsake social justice. We will not circle the wagons of traditionalism as if somehow God is to be found in the past and not in the present, or that God cares more about preserving past glories than in working to ensure all life continues to survive and flourish in the future. We can do this because this is what God cares about. We can do this because God gives us the inspiration and the will to do them. We’ve got our work cut out for us.
We read today from the Letter of James, religion that is pure and undefiled before God, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world (James 1:27). Jesus was critical of that way of being religious that wants to judge, and ‘lord it over’ others. Instead, Jesus taught that what really matters to God is to have compassion and to forgive one another.
As Scholar Marcus Borg wrote, Jesus deliberately substituted the Hebrew standard from Leviticus “be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 19:2) with the call to “be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). Catholic journalist and author Gary Wills writes, therefore, “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?” Of course, the answer is no. (Gary Wills, What Jesus Meant)
God is more concerned with how human beings treat one another, and what they say to one another than with religious rules about what we eat or drink, or whether we wash our hands. God is more interested that we live by the gospel than with how well we pray or how often we read the bible. Jesus challenged religious people of his time and of today to remember what truly matters is our neighbor’s well-being. This is the living edge of our religious traditions, not our own sense of purity or defilement.
I say God doesn’t care how often you read the bible, but God does care that you live the gospel. We can’t live this gospel without Jesus. That’s another trap Christians can fall into sometimes called easy grace. As if the gospel is simply about being a good person. That’s only half of it. We can’t be the person we are created to be without God’s help and inspiration to walk the way of Jesus’ cross. We must keep returning to the center—to the table and the font—in order to return again into who truly we are and to what we are called to be. Now, that’s what God cares about.
When people of faith confuse devotion to God with focus on narrow-minded rules for righteousness or lock-step allegiance to some particular aspect of our religious tradition, they begin a dangerous transition from being hospitable and compassionate to being cold and judgmental. History alone should be enough to teach us always to be humble. To listen and talk things out with one another, and always to listen more than we talk. To know what matters about being Christian we must keep our eyes focused on Jesus and not each other.
Simply stated, the cure for sin, and for bad religion is Jesus. Biblical commands never take precedence over what is compassionate and caring. Jesus has proclaimed God’s forgiveness. Who you are and what you might have done is not as important as who you are becoming. Through water and Word, bread and wine, we are on the way, dying to the little things, opening to the bigger things. By grace, God enters our lives through Christ Jesus and makes us new from the inside out—and that’s all that really matters.