Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 29, 2021 – the Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

(Song of Solomon 2:8-13)+Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10+James 1:17-27+Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

After a five-week sojourn through the 6th chapter of John, we have returned to Mark’s gospel. It occurs to me that many of you may not know the reason behind this jumping around. After all, it is not completely intuitive. As an Episcopal Church, we follow a three-year lectionary cycle – or planned series of readings – with Matthew in Year A, Mark in Year B, and Luke in Year C. But what about the fourth gospel, John? Well, it gets interspersed in the other years, sometimes during Lent or the Easter season, and in this Year B, in the middle of summer with 5 weeks of Jesus as the bread of life. It makes sense, since Mark is the shortest of the gospels, to have this series here, as Jesus is really entering into his ministry in Galilee and people are beginning to wonder if he’s the real deal or if what he has to say is just too challenging.

When we were last in Mark, people are following Jesus everywhere, looking for healing, just a touch of his cloak. He had already sent the Twelve out on their mission and fed 5,000, so his reputation was spreading rapidly, and he was catching the attention of the religious authorities. We read a lot in all of the gospels that Jesus challenged and brutally insulted the scribes and the Pharisees, calling them all manner of names. There are some scholars who say that Jesus was himself a Pharisee because he was clearly learned in Jewish law and scriptures. In today’s text, rather than calling the Pharisees names, he just turns to the prophet Isaiah who, speaking in God’s voice, accuses the people of worshipping with their lips but not their lives. So the criticism of the disciples for not washing their hands is not really what Jesus addresses. Eating something with dirty hands is not the problem. Claiming to follow God when your heart is not in the right place is.

In my message to the children this week, I asked them to think of a time when a parent or other adult told them to share a toy or a treat with a sibling or someone else and they really didn’t want to do it. But with the insistence of the adult, they grudgingly hand over the precious thing, even if, inside, they are not happy about it. They may have done what they were supposed to do, but their heart was not in it. And if your heart is not in it, according to Jesus, does it really count?

The epistle of James emphasizes this point. “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless” (1:26). How many people do you know who go around doing good deeds but are absolutely miserable people? I’ve met founders of charities and even clergy (I’m sorry to say) who grouse about the people they serve, doing the right things but not feeling it in their hearts. When James says, “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves” (1:22). You could also say, “be doers of the word and not just ones who go through the motions.”

Many of you know that I spent a few days last week down in Charlottesville. A little over a month ago, I watched vicariously as friends of mine livestreamed on Twitter and Facebook as the Confederate monuments of Lee and Jackson were hoisted from their plinths, followed quickly by racist statues of Lewis and Clark and George Rogers Clark, the so-called “Conqueror of the Old Northwest.” As the weeks passed, I knew that I really needed to see it for myself. Four years after the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, each August 12 anniversary refreshes the memories, and I can feel my anxiety rise, the need to be among those who shared this experience with me.

As several of my friends gathered in the park where the Lee statue once stood, we reminisced, like sharing war stories, pointing out where the police snipers were on top of the funeral home and the historical society building; where the clergy formed a line at the entrance to the park, singing freedom songs; looking over at the First Methodist Church where those who witnessed the car attack that killed Heather Heyer came for refuge.

One of those gathered there, a historian from the University of Virginia, recalled how she was interviewed countless times back in 2017, and she made it clear to one interviewer that when the story of the next civil war is written, it must be remembered that it started in Charlottesville. As some of the same neo-Nazis and white supremacists who were in Charlottesville attacked the US Capitol on January 6, her remarks seemed prescient.

But there is one other recollection that sobered us all as we gathered there on that empty patch of ground. On the morning of August 12, 2107, a couple of hundred of us had gathered before sunup at the oldest Black church in Charlottesville for a prayer service. And I will never forget that Dr. Cornel West, the legendary activist, scholar, theologian, and public intellectual – knowing that what lay ahead of us that day would be violent and dangerous and frightening – looked at us, pointing his finger, and said, “Do not forget that those you meet today were created in the image of God, just as you were. God loves them, too.”

This was one of those crucial moments for me and for many of us: are we doing this work with hate and anger in our hearts? Do we somehow imagine that our humanity is of greater value than theirs? Is what is in our heart those things that defile, just like Jesus said? Because if that were the case, our “religion” would be worthless.

No, our counter-protest had to be carried out with deep, abiding love, not just for those who marched with us, but with those who showed up with military-grade weapons and hate in their hearts for everything we stood for.

It’s hard. Living an authentic life following the path of Jesus is not easy. Doing the right things while harboring disdain or condescension or hate in our hearts is fruitless. Jesus tells us this over and over again. The only way I know to stay centered in that kind of love is to spend time in prayer, in studying God’s Word, in gathering as a community, and in continually placing ourselves among those we might rather not be around. It changes our hearts. God changes our hearts by the doing of God’s word.

We do not do this work alone. We have a community of believers who support and encourage and share in whatever lies ahead of us. Be doers of the word. Thanks be to God for such friends and neighbors to share the work with us.

ASEPSermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 29, 2021 – the Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas