Aug. 30, 2015

Dt. 4.1-2, 6-9; Jam. 1.17-27; Mk 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23

During the summers when I was growing up, it was a time when all the kids in our neighborhood played hard from morning 'til night. How could anybody get bored? There wasn't time to be bored! Course, we had a TV, but nobody watched daytime TV...why would you, when your friends were calling to come out and play? So, we ran together from morning until night, maybe there was a brief hiatus mid-day to grab a sandwich out of the refrigerator...but it was go, go, go...it was summer. But there was a whole community of people who watched out for us. We knew they were there, our neighbors had authority over us...if we were doing anything dangerous or not very smart...they were like surrogate parents whose, "NO!" carried almost as much authority as Mom and Dad's "NO!" Things like "Amber Alerts" didn't exist. They weren't necessary because there were a lot of eyes watching over all the children, rich and poor, black and white, and people of all kinds sorts and conditions. There was a protective banner over us called "Love". There was a banner over us called love. But today mostly that's changed.

I have been reading an analysis of these changes written by the Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam in his book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. In his book, Dr. Putnam chronicles the difficult history of communities all over the United States. Many profound changes have taken place with families and the children. Fundamentally, Dr. Putnam finds that a common life of shared security and opportunity, which had been experienced by previous generations, has all but given way to a very different picture. Whereas in the 50's and early 60's rich and poor, whites and minorities may have all gone to the same school together and jointly been part of a single larger community, now 50 years later, life for many is no longer a common and shared experience. As the less affluent looked back on their lives from time past, many would say, "We were poor, but we didn't know it." In those earlier times "economic security, family structure, parenting, schooling, neighborhoods" were all shared experiences. Most of the high school graduates of 1960 would have had two parents in their home, and their parents (even working class families) owned their home, and in neighborhoods where people lived, they knew their neighbors on a first name basis. Today, these things are mostly no longer true.

However, 95 % of all Americans still subscribe to the belief that everyone should have the opportunity to work and achieve the American dream. Former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke called this a "bedrock American principle" that everyone should have a chance at success based on their own "effort, skill, and ingenuity". But today despite our common belief in equal opportunity, wealthier Americans report being about as happy now as they were in the late 70's, whereas poorer Americans report being far less happy. There's a problem here.

And to unearth this problem, it's helpful to remember the words of patriot Ben Franklin. He asked, "Who is wise?" And he answered, the one who learns from everyone. And he asked, "Who is powerful?" He answered, the one who "governs his passions." He asked, "Who is rich?" He saw that it was the one "who is content." (And finally he asked, and) "(Where) is that (person)?" (And of course he answered "Nowhere.") Perhaps this is because we all have a hard time confronting problem areas in our lives. But if we don't, we become hypocrites claiming righteousness we do not have. It's so much easier listening to the gospel today and say to one's self, "Oh, those horrible Pharisees!" But we are (at times) Pharisees ourselves! The challenge to Christians today is to let the Lord lead us to justice and righteousness. I love the story of the man who refused an invitation to go to church because as he said, "There are too many hypocrites in the church."...But undeterred the church member said, "Oh, come on, there's always room for one more!"

The gospel today explores this same issue in the conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees. Jesus said, "Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, "This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me". A hypocrite is literally an actor...mouthing lines. And perhaps the most insidious aspect of hypocrisy...is that there is no truth behind the words. In another later passage in Mark's gospel, Jesus calls out the Pharisees for their pretended righteousness and their claims of godliness, but Jesus' accusers were just malicious actors reciting the words of the prophets, but without a heart. Jesus lists the vices most contemptible...and says they come from within the hypocritical heart, not from outside. They ask him, "Why do your disciples not walk in or follow the laws of God regarding purity?" And Jesus comes back directly against their hypocrisy, "You elevate the traditions of men above the laws of God." In other words, you can't purify a heart by meticulously following a set of rules! We purify the heart by confronting problems, not denying them.

The most difficult challenge is whether we will render genuine love to each other in the community or will we simply mutter the words of love with a cold heart? So, in this community and every community that believes in God and in God's justice...we are called to love and look out for each other. That's just the right thing to do.

And the Epistle of James today says, "...be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves." In our church, in our community, in our country we're in this together...we are one people under God with justice and liberty for all. As we honor and care for each other, we honor our God who has taught us to love and cherish each other as brothers and sisters of one Father God. It's not an act, but a call to action. As James' Epistle says, "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world." And that is the banner over us called "Love". And that makes a banner over us called love. Amen.

The Reverend WA Ray

St Thomas Church
Diamondhead, MS