Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Do you dare to turn on the news lately? Do you dare to listen or read the stories coming out of Southern Europe, the Balkans, and North Africa?
There is a migrant crisis, so it is being called. These common words obscure the horror of what is actually going on. The civil war in Syria, now four years strong, has displaced millions and millions of people. Ten million, as an estimate in March, are fleeing ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The Islamic State is associated with the horrors of Boko Haram, and chemical warfare, suicide bombers in the middle of mosques, churches, and temples, and public beheadings.
These ‘migrants’ are refugees. Every day people, Jews and Christians, Muslims and athiests, who are fleeing the take-over of the Islamic State. For those pushing the Islamic State are not normal Muslims – but a group teaching that the end of the world is nigh, and they must found a state under ancient Muslim laws since God is watching and soon to send the final prophets. Since the end is near, and this is God we are dealing with, life is valueless. Compromise is not wanted or needed. All must obey the super conservative particular form of Isalm they teach, or one must die.
This is a modern day crusade. Just like when Christians went out and did the same, in both cases anyone who speaks of tolerance, of caring for the weak, of making peace are branded as heretics and murdered. Just like when we had crusades, religious wording, religious after-death promises, and talk of the end of the world and return of God’s full reign on Earth fuel people into a frenzy where new levels of violence seem okay now.
It is so easy to conflate one militant religious group with a whole religion. But just as most Christians back in the dark ages didn’t go on Crusades, and most Christians today say the Crusaders killed a lot of innocent people… so too, most Muslims do not support the Islamic State. Most of our refugees are Muslims themselves, seeking freedom from war, from fanatical military extremists, seeking freedom from the Islamic State.
… More people are displaced and seeking safe harbor from this conflict than were displaced and fleeing Nazi Germany in WWII.
… let that sink in.
There are more people who need safety now than in WWII.
Are we going to be like our grandparents, our grandparents, or ourselves in WWII and ignore those who plea for help? America ignored the plight of those Nazi Germany was destroying and taking over until Pearl Harbor. We even turned away ships of fleeing Jews. And where was there help at all for the gypsy, the homosexual, or any other category sudden chosen to eradicate? Today there are people begging for help, any help, to get themselves, their children, away from another militaristic, fanatical group.
James, the little brother of Jesus, writes to other Christians about pure religion and worthless religion. He isn’t talking about comparing Muslims and Christians, Christians and Jews, Jews and Muslims… James is talking about comparing each person with themselves. In our hearts, in our minds, in our souls, in our actions… are we followers of a pure religion or a religion that is impure?
How to we measure if we are on the right path?
James says we must be quick to listen. Quick to hear the stories of other people. Ready with open ears to hear their perspective. So often when someone begins to say something we don’t like, we formulate, we think of, how to argue against them while they are still talking. This clogs up our ears so we can’t hear what they actually are saying. Instead, says James, just listen. Don’t think of a counter argument. Just listen deeply. For instance, today, when I mentioned refugees and migrants, and ISIS, you may have begun to close your ears. You already have thoughts and opinions on these issues. No need to hear more. James says listen anyways, for you may hear something new.
Then, after listening, think. It’s okay to take time to think, or formulate what you want to say. We don’t have to fill every silence with noise. Sometimes, in the pauses, in the silence, there is a moment for God’s soft voice to speak. In the pause, we can think about what we know of the topic at hand — what we already know about ISIS from the news — and compare it with what the person we’re listening to has just said. Do they match? Is there new information? In the pause, we can consider what we feel. What emotions does this topic bring up in me? What emotions does it bring up in the speaker? Are these emotions because of the topic, the speaker, or something else?
Today, talking about ISIS likely made some angry. Some uncomfortable. Others bored. Others scared. Others felt helpless, or overwhelmed, or confused. I think we each felt many different emotions. James advises we let anger be our slowest emotion. The one we hold back so we can consider all the others first.
“Your anger does not make God right.” James writes. In other words, you are not the one to judge. God knows right from wrong, God does as God will, without you putting your two cents into it. God doesn’t depend on us getting our noses out of joint for God to know about a situation.
So we can take a moment to think. To ponder. To try to understand. And we can take a risk in trying to understand someone who we think is not ‘right’ with God… because we don’t get to judge that. God does. We can set our fear and anger, judgments, aside, and be present now to the person before us.
… We don’t have to decide how God feels about Muslims.
No… says James… don’t worry about the judgment of others. Instead, focus on judging yourself. Go to a mirror and look at yourself. Study who you are.
How do I feel about Muslims?
How do I feel about people fleeing war?
Why do I feel angry?
Why do I feel scared?
Humbly look at yourself, says James. Humbly accept the Word of God and how it points out both how deeply we are loved, and how much sin we still carry. Look in the mirror. Look and don’t flinch. Look and don’t admire. Look and honestly see.
Each of us have good points and bad points.
It is not weakness to admit our bad parts.
It is not vanity to admit our good parts.
It is honesty.
When we know ourselves, it is much easier to know others. Especially those who are from different cultures, different countries, and/or different religions. When we know ourselves, we feel secure to interact with those who’s very existence, who’s very viewpoints and world-views, challenge our’s. When we feel secure in who we are — secure in the good things and bad things about ourselves — we are not threatened by those who are different.
So the sight of a woman wearing a head cloth, a hijab, chador, or other head covering doesn’t make us uneasy. Instead, we can respect for her having enough faith to keep to her religion even when it makes her stand out. We ought to respect that! We, too, teach that a faithful person is heavily pressured to blend with culture which often is at odds with being faithful to God. We are secure in who we are, and so not threatened by someone who is different than who we are.
Indeed, we may have more in common with that faithful woman than someone who isn’t wearing a sign of their faith. We both likely read holy scripture, attend worship services, and are concerned about being a good person. I can’t say that about most of the other people I see during the day.
So James, says, keep open ears. Be ready to listen.
Take reflective time. Thinking time.
Be slow to judge. Slow to respond in anger.
So that you are secure in who you are. We know who we are.
And with these, we are ready to take God’s word and get into action. If we did all this work and didn’t do anything, our faith would be worthless says James.
Now, I don’t know about you, but it’s hard to find something that is worthless. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Everything can be re-purposed. I have a friend who’s mother is the queen of re-purposing. For example, she took outdated refrigerator magnets, cut them into squares, put them into old square makeup cases, and now has a purse-sized sewing kit. The magnets hold the needles in place. Each one has a different color of thread for emergency clothes repairs. She’s incredibly good at re-purposing.
Yet James goes as far as to say that our religion is WORTHLESS if we work and work at it, do all these steps of self-reflection, of listening to others, of knowing the word of God… and do nothing.
Worthless… because although we know much, we have lied to our hearts. Worthless because although we looked at ourselves, we forgot who we are the moment we stopped looking. Worthless because all that work led to no action.
“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God,” writes James, “is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
Religion that is worth something is religion that cares for people in need. Orphans and widows had no political power, no way to make a honest living, and were outcasts. Refugees have no political power, no way to make a honest living, and are outcasts. People who are weak, who are desperate, who are suffering are people who we, as Christians, as the followers of Christ, are supposed to care for. Supposed to look out for. Supposed to say, “We may be really different, but that’s okay. You need help. Let me help you.”
James ends this passage by saying we are to help without being stained by the world.
You don’t need to become Muslim to help Muslims.
You don’t need to think Islam is great to help Muslims.
You don’t even need to Islam is ‘okay’ to be neighborly, to be Christian, to be friendly and compassionate and loving.
A religion has worth when its message and its deeds match up. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “What you do speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say.” What we do tells people what our faith says. Our faith says what we do. When all of this matches up, aligns, we are testifying to the great goodness of God. We aren’t sending mixed signals. Aren’t preaching peace and then shooting death glares at strangers. Aren’t preaching welcoming in the outcast and then telling the outcast to go home and leave us be.
Jesus’ words in Mark are on the very same topic.
In this scene, some of those who follow Jesus are eating without washing their hands. Now, all conservative Jews to this day wash their hands before they eat. So the highly educated and the conservatives went to Jesus and said, ‘Hey, you, Mr. I’m So Holy- if you’re so holy, how come your followers aren’t washing their hands, like the faith elders told us to do in the past?’
Jesus answered, “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” You teach human rules as if they were rules from God.
The commandment of God, as we know later, is to love God. The second is like it – to love one’s neighbor.
Neither of these is about washing hands. Washing hands, a very good thing to do, is still a human teaching. Sometimes, out of love, one can’t wash their hands.
Sometimes, out of love, we have to ignore the good teachings around us to do the best teaching – the commandment of God – to love. So… sometimes this means associating, being around, being nice to people different than us. It means being loving to refugees and immigrants, whether they are here legally or not. It means being loving to Muslims and Christians, whether they think like us or not. It means being loving, being neighborly, being kind to all.
Jesus tells the crowd about him — what you touch and are around outside of yourself does not contaminate, does not defile, your inside. Your core, your soul, your heart — that can defile its outside.
To tie this with James, then, Jesus is saying that if your soul is healthy and happy, other people can sense it. They see it in your deeds. You bless people just by being present. But if your inner core is unhealthy, unhappy, evil… then you defile people just by being present. You spread the deeds of theft, murder, breaking trust, being greedy, lying, being sleazy, speaking badly about others, acting stupidly, acting too prideful, and using your sexuality in a way that hurts yourself or others.
So one who has paused to know themselves, to be at peace with themselves, does not have to fear or be angry with those who are different. In their hearts in the commandment of God — to love. Their religion is pure because they know love, and act loving.
But those who don’t pause to know themselves, or don’t learn from that self-reflection, have a lot to fear from and be angry about with people who have different faiths and ways of doing things. They say their religion is love, but they don’t know love, and so they don’t act loving.
I ask today – does your religion have worth? Does it make you stop, think, ponder, reflect, and then take action? Does your religion challenge you to be better?
If Christianity has become easy, then we are deceiving ourselves. Acting loving is hard. Being Christian is hard. Every person has to work at following the examples of Jesus. Our reassurance is that we do not do this work alone. We’re all in it together. The Spirit is there, guiding us. Jesus is here, leading us. God is here, beckoning us.
“Every generous act of giving is from above,” to paraphrase James, Every generous act we receive is a gift from God. Every time we are generous and kind to others, people receive glimpses of God.
May we, in the words commonly attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words.” Amen.
Given to Saint Michael’s United Church of Christ in Baltimore, Ohio, 8-30-2015