The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 17, Year B)

“From Within, Out”

A sermon from guest preacher, Ryan Mays

Good morning! Happy Sunday. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak to you this morning. My name is Ryan. I want to share a few things about me to help you get a feel for who I am: I’m a full-time psychology student with a concentration in mental health; I love people – I’m fascinated with the complexities of our minds and bodies. I love football, and Christmas, and the NY Mets, which if you know anything about baseball, is a real character builder. But one of my FAVORITE things is….going to the gym. I love it. I love the feeling we get when we put a lot of effort into something and we get to see that bear fruit. Paradoxically, I also love any sort of food that negates all of that effort – namely waffles and pastries. Sadly, I am no longer at the point in my life where I can eat them for every meal and not see adverse effects. You understand. But, there is at least some good news for those of us who like to indulge in the sweeter things, and that is that even though the fruit of eating those things might be unwanted physical consequences, our food habits do not create poor spiritual fruit, which is what we’re going to be talking about this morning.

The passage we’ll be focusing on this morning is Mark 7. Verse 1 says that the Pharisees had gathered around Jesus with some of the scribes that had come from Jerusalem. This was an official visit for them. They were trying to figure out if Jesus was a threat to them. While they’re listening to Jesus teach, they notice that some of his disciples are eating with unwashed hands, and they ask Jesus: “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” ‘Jesus, why do your disciples defile themselves by not adhering to our traditions, your laws.’ Jesus responds quoting Isaiah, the scripture that the Pharisees study and teach so fervently and he uses some strong language to tell them that Isaiah was not just speaking about the past, he was speaking about them. Jesus says “Isaiah, the ne you study, he told us about you. You are the hypocrites, as it is written, “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching that human laws are religious doctrines.’ If the Pharisees feathers weren’t ruffled yet, they sure are now. You honor me with your lips, but your heart is far from me. There’s a disconnect. The Pharisees are going through the motions, but it’s surface level. There’s no substance. Matthew 23:23 says “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.” A few verses later he says they are like whitewashed tombs. They follow the rules but they have no love, no compassion. In the passage we read this morning, Jesus goes on to say that nothing external that goes into us can make us unclean because it is physically expelled from the body. It may not be good for my body, but sugar will not defile my soul. Rather, Jesus explains that it is what comes out of me that defiles me. We are spiritual beings, as our Father is, and our spirits are his primary concern. The Pharisees were missing the point. They were concerned only with ritual and appearances, whereas Jesus is primarily concerned with the heart. Ritual can be comforting: reading the Bible, going to church, tithing, saying our prayers before bed, these are all good and comforting things, and we should be in good habits with them, but if those habits aren’t vehicles for nurturing our relationship with Jesus, they can become rituals that offer a false sense of security.

Last year I had an intense spiritual encounter with Jesus that was very jarring. I was in a prayer group via zoom. A woman I was praying with (whom I did not know) started telling me about what I had been praying for. She then called out some patterns of sin in my life specifically about some of my thought processes and I suddenly felt seen by Jesus in a way I did not want to be seen. I felt laid bare. One of the first questions I asked myself was, “How did I get here?” “How did I allow these patterns to develop?” As I prayed and met with friends, I realized that I had spent the better part of the previous year just going through the motions. I attended prayer groups. I went to Church. I volunteered. I tithed. But somehow everything I did was just automatic.. I was going through those motions. But because I was engaging in all these Holy rituals, I felt like my soul was doing ok. Well, I was wrong. In this prayer group, as this stranger spoke over me, Jesus reminded me very strongly that he is more concerned with what was going on in my heart. Jesus addresses this more in depth beginning in verse 21. He says, “For from within, out of the heart of people, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” From within, out… These evil things are grown in our hearts, but they don’t stay there. They are grown within our hearts and then come out in sinful behaviors that are predominantly committed against other people. The evil thoughts within us come out and usually impact those around us most, those we care about the most: the People we work with, go to school with, hang out with, live with, go to church with, our family, our friends. Our sins negatively affect the people we are in community with. It is these things, it is these behaviors that come out of us that defile a person before God. In Genesis 1:11 when God is creating vegetation, He said plants would yield seed after their kind. Corn produces corn. Roses produce roses. And so on. In Matthew 7:18 Jesus applies this principle spiritually: a good tree bears good fruit, and a bad tree bears bad fruit. The implication here is that our spirits are fertile ground. In both cases there is fruit. The question is whether or not we bear good fruit or bad fruit… whether what comes out of us is from good seed or bad seed. The laws and the rituals that were passed down to Israel from God were there to facilitate relationship between a Holy God and an unholy people. They were in place so that Israel could properly worship God and so God could demonstrate his loving kindness to Israel. But, when the Pharisees began to worship the laws rather than use the laws to worship God, they became hypocrites. Vipers, even.

Life is full of seasons, and sometimes those seasons are us just going through the motions. It Happens. We’re human. Maybe we’re tired. Maybe we feel beaten down. Maybe we’re busy. We’ve all had a rough 18 months, I think. When I had this experience with Jesus I was reminded that there’s forgiveness and healing for those patterns, but to receive that grace, I first had to acknowledge that they were there.

My invitation to us this week is a bit of self-reflection. At the end of each day, I’d like us to spend some time in review by asking ourselves a few questions: 1. Where am I just going through the motions? Where is Jesus inviting me deeper? 2. What kind of fruit did I display today? Was it edifying to Jesus, or was it edifying to myself? Ask Jesus for help. It can be difficult to self-analyze but thankfully we have the Helper who knows us in and out. And if there are patterns or interactions that we think God has highlighted, let’s address them. Our Father has much more for us than just going through the motions, and He’s inviting to experience that abundance this morning.