Song of Solomon 2:8-13
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
“Nothing outside of a person can enter and contaminate a person in God’s sight; rather, the things that come out of a person contaminate the person.” I found myself thinking about this passage a great deal over the last few weeks, especially as I was confronted, again and again, with values that are different than what our faith teaches.
I began thinking around this when I noticed a magazine cover in the grocery store that said this, “Hair, sex, money, happiness” and then under all of that in bold letters it said “Goals”. And as I stared at this magazine cover, as I reflected on the popular TV programs and the ads that sprinkle through those TV programs, as I thought about conversations overheard in the parent night at the kids’ schools and in the grocery store, I realized those really are the goals for so many in our society. Hair (or appearance), Sex (or physical pleasure of any kind), Money and Happiness - maybe even in that order. Some people believe that the first three lead to the last – happiness. But I’m no longer convinced that even Happiness is the goal our faith sets for ourselves. Jesus never said, “Do whatever it takes to be happy.” Instead he said, “Pick up your cross and follow me.” Picking up one’s cross does not make one happy. It may bring joy, the joy of meaning, the joy of connecting with God. But happy? No. Being willing to die out of love for our neighbors is not about being happy.
The truth is, being happy is an American value. It is not a Christian one. I want to repeat that. Happiness is not a Christian goal. Still, I want to be clear. This doesn’t mean that we won’t find happiness or that we shouldn’t be grateful for life. But the fact is that setting happiness as the goal often has the reverse result of the one we want it to have. When we think we should be happy, when we think being happy is the goal, it is in fact harder to be happy. I’ve shared this before in a blog post for those who read my blog, but a good friend of mine was born and raised in Holland. And one of the things that she pointed out to me years ago was that people in other countries tend to be much more content, much more joyful, much happier than people in the United States. And one of the reasons for this is simply that we who were raised here tend to expect life to be happy and easy and fair. My friend told me that in other countries people don’t expect ease or justice or happiness. They expect that life will be hard. But because of that, they take the gifts of life, the good things that happen to them, each one, as exactly that – an unexpected gift that they then enjoy and appreciate with much greater depth. When things go wrong, they just expect that so they shrug it off. It’s life. That’s what life is, no big deal. But when things go right? That’s unexpected and amazing and wondrous and to be celebrated. In contrast, here in the United States we are constantly bombarded with the messages, “you deserve this!” “Claim your happiness!” “It’s all there right for you!” “If you think positively, it will be yours!” “You deserve to be pampered and spoiled and happy.” And as a result, when things go wrong, which they will because that is life, we can’t handle it. We think it’s unfair and not right. And when things go well, since we believe that’s is how it is supposed, we don’t appreciate it.
But the point I want to make here is that whatever it is that we value, those values truly define what we become, who we are and how we act. Thomas Merton put it this way, “a life is either all spiritual or not spiritual at all. No one can serve two masters. Your life is shaped by the end you live for. You are made in the image of what you desire.” Thomas Merton was really quoting Jesus when Jesus said it like this, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be loyal to the one and have contempt for the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
So, if what you desire is, like the magazine declared, “hair, sex, money and happiness,” your life will demonstrate those values. Your resources will be aimed towards achieving and obtaining those things, and therefore that is how you will spend your time, your money, your energy.
But as I said at the beginning, these are not the things that Jesus calls us to value. We know what Jesus calls us to value: The passage in James put it like this, “True devotion, the kind that is pure and faultless before God the Parent is this: to care for orphans and widows in their difficulties and to keep the world from contaminating us.” Micah said it this way, “What does the Lord require of you but to love kindness, to do justice and to walk humbly with God.” In John, Jesus said it like this, “Love one another. By this you will be known to be my disciples, if you love one another.” And in the other three gospels Jesus said it more simply still: “Two commandments I give you: to love God with all your heart, soul and mind. And to love your neighbor as yourself.”
When we fail to do those things, that is when we “defile” ourselves. It is not what goes in, it is what comes out of a person. It is what a person says, it is what a person does, it is how a person behaves, which says everything about who we ultimately are. The Pharisees had a lot of rules, they were good at following those rules. But when it came to actually caring for the people who were most in need, they did not follow God’s will or obey what God asked them to do. Their lives reflected their values. They valued church authority. They valued the rules. They valued a hierarchy and a ranking of people that allowed them to appear superior, righteous, above others. And in turn, they treated those who they did not “rank” as equal with disdain and without compassion. Their behavior defiled them. If you really want to know what a person’s like, what they value and therefore who they really are, take a good look at how they treat those they consider inferior, not those they consider equals. That poor treatment of those who have less, those who appear inferior, that is what defiles.
I have a story to tell you that is really more about education and educators than about being a good follower of Christ. But I think it is appropriate since we just began school this week, and also because I think it, too illustrates the point I’m trying to make:
The dinner guests were sitting around the table discussing life. One man, a CEO, decided to explain the problem with education. He argued, "What's a kid going to learn from someone who decided her best option in life was to become a teacher?" To stress his point he said to another guest; "You're a teacher, Bonnie. Be honest. What do you make?"
Bonnie, who had a reputation for honesty and frankness replied, "You want to know what I make? (She paused for a second, then began...)
"Well, I make students work harder than they ever thought they could. I make a C+ feel like the Congressional Medal of Honor winner. I make kids sit through 40 minutes of class time when their parents can't make them sit for 5 without an IPod, Xbox or netflicks.
You want to know what I make? (She paused again and looked at each and every person at the table). I make kids wonder. I make them question. I make them apologize and mean it. I make them have respect and take responsibility for their actions. I make them care about serving other people. They use their God given brain, and they learn that their brain was made to love and grow in understanding. I make my classroom a place where all my students feel safe and respected.
Finally, I make them understand that if they use the gifts God gave them, work hard, and follow their hearts, they can succeed in life…
(Bonnie paused one last time and then continued.)
Then, when people try to judge me by what kind of salary I make, with me knowing money isn’t everything, I can hold my head up high and pay no attention because. …. You want to know what I make? I MAKE A DIFFERENCE.”
What do we value? Do we value the things we are taught by our culture to value? Appearance, popularity, money, things? Getting what is best only for me and for mine? Or do we value service, meaning, purpose, caring – love for God and God’s people? Our lives tell. Our lives show. It is what comes out that defiles, not what goes in. And similarly, it is what comes out that makes a difference for the better and can change the world. Not what goes in. Amen.