Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
August 20, 2017
“Actively Evil, Mildly Hateful, Willfully Ignorant... And Other Choices.
What Does the Heart Reveal?”
Matthew 15: 10-20 – The Message (alt.)
Jesus then called the crowd together and said, “Listen, and take this to heart. It’s not what you swallow that pollutes your life, but what you vomit up.”
12 Later his disciples came and told him, “Did you know how upset the Pharisees were when they heard what you said?”
13-14 Jesus shrugged it off. “Every tree that wasn’t planted by God will be pulled up by its roots. Forget them. They are the blind leading the blind. When a blind man leads a blind man, they both end up in the ditch.”
15 Peter said, “I don’t get it. Put it in plain language.”
16-20 Jesus replied, “You, too? Are you being willfully stupid? Don’t you know that anything that is swallowed works its way through the intestines and is finally defecated into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth gets its start in the heart. It’s from the heart that we vomit up evil arguments, murders, slander, adulteries, fornications, thefts, lies, and cussing. That’s what pollutes. Eating or not eating certain foods, washing or not washing your hands—that’s neither here nor there.”
I have started and re-started this sermon over many times this week. I struggled with the question: In the wake of Charlottesville, where do we go from here? What can I say that I haven’t already said? I finally remembered the old admonition, start with the text – not with what I want to say but with what the gospel says. And, as I said last week, not looking for some good advice but for the Good News.
For those who don’t know, I follow the lectionary. It is a 3 year cycle of prescribed readings for every Sunday from which to choose: a passage from a Gospel, a New Testament letter, Psalm, or the Old Testament.
So, you heard Brian read today’s gospel, assigned by the lectionary decades ago. But not surprisingly, once again, the reading is quite relevant. Two verses, in particular, spoke out. Verse 11: “It’s not what you swallow that pollutes your life, but what you vomit up” – a slightly more colorful interpretation of the same verse in the New Revised Standard Version: “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” Secondly, verse 17: “What comes out of the mouth gets its start in the heart. It’s from the heart that we vomit up evil arguments, false witness, slander, etc.”
Our president revealed what is truly in his heart this week when he vomited up his defense of some “really fine people” who hang out with crowds of tiki-torch bearing neo-nazis, white supremacists, and members of the KKK. “They’re not all bad, believe me.” We saw what is in his heart when he contradicted the words carefully scripted for him to call racism evil, but which you could see, wasn’t what he truly believed. And I think knowing the truth is better. I’m glad he shared his truth.
In many ways, it’s too easy to take pot shots at the president – and to give him the attention he so desperately craves. But I can’t help that the Bible said, “What comes out of the mouth gets its start in the heart. It’s from the heart that we vomit up evil arguments, lies, etc.” To stand and defend Nazis and domestic terrorism is an evil argument – it defiles you and it defiles the presidency.
Now, of course, we have to careful. Evil is a dangerous word. It’s important not to casually throw around accusations that so-and-so is evil. But we can certainly identify evil arguments, one of which was on blue-light-special this week. But we can also be distracted by it.
But, before we go any further, we have to put the words of Jesus in their context. What’s he talking about? Gary Charles identifies that one theme running throughout Matthew chapter 15 is the role that tradition should play in religious life, which curiously mimics the question being debated today: what role should heritage and history play by their representation in public life?
In a commentary written several years ago, not this past week, Charles wrote that, “many battles are fought ‘for God’ in the name of ‘tradition.’ Tradition can provide a solid foundation for faithfulness, but it can also function in the opposite way. In this text, Jesus chastises the official keepers of tradition for having squeezed the life and liveliness out of their tradition until it has calcified into an irrelevant relic – or,” he said, “worse.” This week we saw what “worse” looks like when it comes to tradition.
In the gospel right before today’s text, the keepers of tradition pointed at the disciples and claimed they are ritually impure for not washing their hands. It was simply an attempt to distract and delegitimize Jesus and his disciples. Similar to when the keepers of tradition questioned Jesus about healing a man on the Sabbath. But Jesus throws it back. What is more important? Clean hands or a clean heart? Was the Sabbath made for humankind, or humans for the Sabbath? The keepers of tradition were incensed. How dare you?
Now, I don’t know whether the disciples did or didn’t actually wash their hands. It seems clearly to be a pretext, meant to throw Jesus off, to obfuscate – like, rushing to condemn the so-called “alt-left” when the real issues are about the actions of neo-nazis, white supremacists, KKK members… and maybe a grandma or two with some cookies.
Instead, Jesus asked why the scribes and Pharisees broke the commandment to honor their mother and father. It doesn’t say what Jesus was referring to but he got their attention. Especially when he concluded: “You hypocrites! Teaching human rules over the worship of God.”  Jesus looked over at the crowd and then went on to quote the prophet Isaiah, “They act like they’re worshipping God, but they don’t mean it.” The keepers of tradition were incensed at the accusation, appalled, righteously indignant. How dare you?
Tradition can serve as a stabilizing force, especially in a world constantly undergoing change, all of it accelerated exponentially by technology; a 24-hour news cycle. There is something comforting about rituals that never change, the predictability of creed and ceremony. But we also know how stale and irrelevant religion can become – or worse – when the work of the Holy Spirit isn’t allowed. How faith must be made real in every generation. Pride in our history, our traditions, can be a wonderful thing. And it can become an idol more highly revered than God.
Which is more important? Washing your hands before you eat or feeding people who are hungry. But, similarly, which symbol is it really? Heritage, or hate? And is there any difference? Cue the righteously indignant.
Sympathizers beg us to understand that they’re just trying to hold on to symbols of their heritage. They mean no hate. They have no hate in their heart. I take their question seriously: do we want to eliminate history? But, seriously, there is no denying that the majority of those symbols of “heritage” were erected not out of pride but as visual objections to rights gained by African Americans.
Like the words of Jesus, “They act like they’re protecting tradition, but they don’t mean it.” Or at the very least, they’re ignorant of their history.
You’ve probably seen the Southern Poverty Law Center report that explains: “Two distinct periods saw a significant rise in the dedication of monuments and other symbols. The first began around 1900, amid the period in which states were enacting Jim Crow laws to re-segregate society and disenfranchise the newly freed African Americans. This spike lasted well into the 1920s, a period that saw a dramatic resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, which had been born in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War.”
Also, noting their influence in Denver, including electing a mayor named Benjamin Stapleton. “By 1925, Klan members and their sponsored candidates controlled the Colorado State House and Senate, the office of Secretary of State, a state Supreme Court judgeship, seven benches on Denver District Court, and city councils in some Colorado towns.”
The SPLC report continues regarding the erection of memorials, “The second spike began in the early 1950s and lasted through the 1960s, as the civil rights movement led to a backlash among segregationists.”
When was the Confederate flag was first displayed over the State Capitol in South Carolina? 1961. The Confederacy ended 96 years earlier. But gee, what was happening in the world in 1961? What isn’t clear about that?
And what’s happening now? Racists hate the Black Lives Matter movement. Racists hate the truth being revealed one cell phone video at a time. Therefore, false accusations and pretexts are created to delegitimize them, equating mobs attempting to take rights away to attempts to fulfill the US Constitution that all men are created equal. And if confederate flags are morally neutral, then why would anyone allow swastikas and nazi flags at the same rallies? What does that say? What tradition does it honor?
Mitch Landrieu wrote a masterful speech explaining his reason for removing the Confederate statues in New Orleans. I highly recommend it. He makes several persuasive arguments. Among them,
The Old Testament reading today is from Isaiah 56. Verse 1 says “Thus says the Lord: Maintain justice, and do what is right.” “Maintain” justice is also translated “Guard justice.” But I like how the prophet Isaiah simply said, “Do what is right.” However, how is that done when what’s in someone’s heart is not right? When the heart reveals evil arguments. I guess it falls to the rest to do the other thing. Guard justice. Resist. Persist. Be ever vigilant.
It occurs to me, however, that there is something more important than debating statues. Statues can become a distraction from such things as watching what is actually going on in places like the office of the budget director. For example, “Countering Violent Extremism” sounds pretty important. But funding for the part that monitors white hate groups has been eliminated. As well as federal funding for such groups as Life After Hate, the only organization in the country to help people disengage from neo-nazis and other right-wing extremists. Where you put your money reveals your heart, regardless of words.
What is more important than the name of a street or a school? It’s watching what is going on in the office of the Attorney General, ramping up the War on Drugs, increasing sentences for non-violent infractions, increasing the role of private profit-making prisons, eliminating consent decrees with police forces found guilty of excessive violence, or even anything that might conclude fault of any kind in law enforcement.
Lindy West wrote in the Washington Post: It is easy to denounce Nazis. But, if you truly repudiate their violence, then repudiate voter-ID laws. Repudiate gerrymandering. Repudiate the Muslim ban. Repudiate the wall.
Jesus asked, which is more important? And, if we must choose, is it a metal statue of a man on a horse or the metal bars of more prisons? We can’t let statues be distractions from that which is behind them.
In moments of hesitancy and doubt, I try to remember the inspiration of Dr. King who lived through much worse, but who also agonized over the resistance of white moderates to actually do anything. Who kept saying “Slow down.”
He gave the speech “Where do we go from here” exactly 50 years ago this week. Chaos or community. Which do we choose? He laid out changes that had been enacted in the previous 10 years: access to city parks, city libraries, lunch counters, voter registration, black legislators. Things are different, he argued, yet we must remain dissatisfied. In the beautiful cadence only Dr. King can offer: “Let us be dissatisfied until America will no longer have a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds.” Deeds over creeds.
But, he said, it won’t be easy, nor, 50 years later, obviously quick. Eerily reminiscent of Heather Heyer, he said, “We may, with tear-drenched eyes again, have to stand before the casket of some courageous civil rights worker whose life will be snuffed out by the dastardly acts of bloodthirsty mobs. But we must walk on with an audacious faith in the future.”
What shall we choose? To actively defend evil, to be reluctantly tolerant of hate, to be willfully ignorant of history’s impact today, to watch it all casually from the sidelines, or get up and out and guard justice. Resistance. Persistence. Vigilance.
The Good News is that the heart reveals our true intent. As well, the Good News proclaims that, whether it be evil, hate, ignorance, or nothing at all, “whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” I find that, perhaps oddly, hopeful.
Speaking of hope, I want to play the end of Dr. King’s speech in his own voice on this clip (find it on YouTube):
Let this affirmation be our ringing cry. (Well) It will give us the courage to face the uncertainties of the future. It will give our tired feet new strength as we continue our forward stride toward the city of freedom. (Yes) When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair (Well), and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights (Well), let us remember (Yes) that there is a creative force in this universe working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil (Well), a power that is able to make a way out of no way (Yes) and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows.
Let us realize that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. Let us realize that William Cullen Bryant is right: "Truth, crushed to earth, will rise again." Let us go out realizing that the Bible is right: "Be not deceived. God is not mocked. (Oh yeah) Whatsoever a man soweth (Yes), that (Yes) shall he also reap." This is our hope for the future, and with this faith we will be able to sing in some not too distant tomorrow, with a cosmic past tense, We have overcome! (Yes) We have overcome! Deep in my heart, I did believe (Yes) we would overcome."
 Gary Charles, “Pastoral Perspective on Matthew 15,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 3, page 356
 Mark 2: 27
 “Human rules” refers to the fact that this admonition was only an oral tradition as opposed to written in the Torah. Honoring one’s parents is one of the Ten Commandments.
 Galatians 6: 7
 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Whkvt3uLblA onward from 1:05:28