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Sidetracked by Trivia

September 2, 2018 Speaker: Rev. Dr. Ben Nass Series: Lectionary

Topic: Biblical Verse: Mark 7:14–7:23


A sermon delivered at St. John’s Lutheran Church, Alexandria, Virginia

 September 1-2, 2018, Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (PENT-15A)

By the Rev Dr. B. F. Nass, Pastor emeritus


Dear members and welcome guests of St. John’s Lutheran Church:

This fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost coincides with our national holiday.  Labor Day is observed the first Monday every September. The original holiday was meant to handle a problem of long working hours and no time off – ten-hour days, seven days a week. No government or company recognized the first Monday in September or any day as a day off work. The toll and the trials this placed upon workers and their families became unbearable. Finally, strikes and protests eventually caused politicians to view this issue as one that would bring votes so the hours were reduced by legislation passed on the first Monday of September which marks the date of the holiday.  It was a victory for many workers.

The holiday’s founders in the late 1800s envisioned something very different from what the day has become.  Unlike most U.S. holidays, it is a strange celebration without rituals, except for shopping and barbecuing. For most people it simply marks the last weekend of summer and the start of the school year.  Its original meaning has been sidetracked by trivia.

Today’s Gospel Lesson from St. Mark presents another issue in Jesus’ day that had been sidetracked by trivia.  As we heard last week in the section preceding today’s Gospel, like news reporters hounding a candidate, the religious elite sent a delegation all the way from Jerusalem to investigate the troubling rumors and dig up some dirt on the popular rising prophet in Galilee named Jesus. Eventually, they noted that “some” (it doesn’t tell how many) of the people following this teacher had not washed their hands before eating.  The issue, as we heard, had less to do with sanitation and more to do with following tradition.

Today, Jesus continues that conversation but directs it to the wider audience that had gathered and makes a startling and emphatic pronouncement.  “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.”

Together with you I want to say, “Hold on there, Jesus!!!!! That simply doesn’t jibe with reality.  Tell that to anyone who injested tainted food and suffered food poisoning.   Tell that to the thousands who have foolishly overdosed on opioids. It messed them up terribly and, in some cases, caused death.  You need to either correct or explain yourself, Jesus.”  In response, Jesus would clarify two things: the meaning of “defile” and the obstacle of kosher restrictions.

The laws regarding food as to what was “clean” and “unclean” were on the books.  Since the Jews considered life to be in the blood, clean or kosher meat was meat that had no blood in it.  Think back two weeks ago when we heard Jesus tell the crowd they needed to eat his flesh and drink his blood.  That literally sent them into another orbit.  The forbidden items and the way food was prepared became so entrenched in Hebrew life that to break the rule would cause one to become, not ill, but morally defiled and unacceptable to God.  Not only what you could eat but who you could eat it with became part of the equation that eventually trivialized the intent of the laws.  So much attention was placed upon these minor things that the real purpose and intent of the whole law was sidetracked.

That was not at all what God had in mind as we hear in today’s Old Testament Lesson.  Allowing no additions and no deletions, when the people lived out the laws God, it would serve to call the world’s attention first to such a wonderful and just way of life; but more importantly, point the world to the marvelous God who designed such laws in the first place. .” Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him?

One of the purposes of the law had a missional or outreach effect – one that would bring the nations together and worship the one true God.  What the practice of the dietary laws had become had just the opposite effect.  Jesus is severely criticized because he associated with sinners and even ate with them.”  How can one attract the faith interest of someone when the beginning premises is, Well, you clod, I’m just a little bit superior?” Something had to change to juxtapose the defilement incurred by separatism and despising Gentiles and the defilement of simply eating unprescribed, but healthy food.  This is where Jesus main-tracks what had been sidetracked by distinguishing between external and internal defilement.

External food, he explains, is a stomach issue.  Food goes in one end, is digested, and then goes out the other. End of issue!!  Internal defilement is an issue of the heart.  When we allow suspicion, envy, and other contaminants to enter, to lay there, to fester and grow into evil thoughts and then into explosive actions (and he mentions a long list of what some of these are) that is what lays a layer of filth on our inner being and separates us from God and from one another. 

It became Jesus’ ultimate mission to get us back on the main track with our creator God and remove the barrier into which our sinful defilement had created.  In the Law of God such defilement was removed once a year on the day of Atonement (which will be celebrated in two-and-a-half weeks from now).  On that day, the high priest would sprinkle the sacrificial blood on the altar in the holy of holies and then on the people to purify them.  We note that the author of Hebrews tells us that the blood of sheep or goats could do only remove external guilt; but Christ, our great high priest, has entered into the holy of holies with his own shed blood to make us internally clean once again. (Heb 9:11 ff).

So, each day we pray: “O God create a clean heart within me,” so that my thoughts and actions will not only call attention to the good things I do and the manner of life I live, but to even cause them to wonder and to ask about what kind of a wonderful God could make this happen.  This is our mission.  This is our calling – to re-route a derailed world that has been sidetracked by the trivia of sin back to the main track of meaningful and fresh lives that are connected from our heart to God’s heart by the artery of Christ’s love. 

As I mentioned in the introduction, the original intent of Labor Day was to celebrate the freedom from the slavery of over work but one that has lost its meaning.  May we mark this day with a powerful meaning as a day in which the labor of God’s love in Jesus Christ frees us from defilement so we can enjoy His marvelous grace.  Amen.



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