15 Pentecost—Proper 17-B, September 2, 2018
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9, Psalm 15, James 1:17-27, Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
They say that facts are stubborn things! Today Jesus gives us a fact that is as stubborn as a stone: Jesus says, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand…For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” He goes on to list some of those evil intentions that come from the human heart, listing both hot sins like adultery and murder and cold sins like envy and slander, so everyone can find themselves in the list and realize he is talking to us and not just to those people over there.
The evil in a person’s heart doesn’t come from neighbor, enemy, parents, boss, or spouse. We can’t blame someone else for the darkness that litters our hearts. The first step in human maturity is the willingness to look deeply into our own lives and see what is actually there.
Clearly everyone around us has evil lurking in their hearts too, and when they act on it, they do real damage, both physical and emotional, to us, but I can’t blame my behavior on their behavior.
This is a stubborn fact religious people of all stripes have resisted from the beginning of time. In some cultures, foreign and domestic, women are said to be the cause of the evil in a man’s heart. It is a common defense for bad boy behavior to blame what the woman was wearing, or not wearing. They imagine the perpetrator had a clean heart until this seductive woman came along and made him act the way he did.
In our primal story of Adam and Eve in the garden, Adam blames Eve for his failure to follow God’s directions. His heart was pure as the driven snow, until as he says, “this woman you gave me,” reached in and filled me with her poison. Then, likewise, the woman blames the serpent for deceiving her.
Psychologically this makes sense because we are quite adept at projecting the bad stuff inside us onto others, until we are absolutely certain the evil only resides in them.
So people of one race project their evil onto the people of another race, making it all right to kill them and take their land, like our founding fathers and mothers did to the Native Americans they found here and to the Africans they brought here in the bottom of ships. Most suffered no pangs of conscience, since they were convinced their victims deserved it because they were evil and that they were following the will of God.
But Jesus lets none of us off the hook: “Listen to me, all of you, and understand…For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
Certainly we know that washing our hands is a good thing, but Jesus is asking us to recognize that our biggest problem is not defiled hands, but defiled hearts, which are not so easy to clean.
In this gospel story Jesus does not go on to tell us what the solution is to getting our hearts cleaned, partly because he knows it is important that we sit with this knowledge and let it sink in and partly because he knows that in this life we will never get our hearts totally clean.
This is the same point Jesus makes when he says, do NOT try to remove the speck in your neighbor’s eye, until you have removed the log from your own.
We do get a solution, though, from James. James is also clear that we are susceptible to the evil in our hearts and he calls us to resist the temptations that arise every day.
But he does not for one minute think we do this by our own power.
Rather he says, that “the Father of lights…in fulfillment of his own purpose gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.”
God the Father has given us the profound gift of new life by the Word of Truth who is manifest in Jesus, the Word Incarnate.
And he tells us, therefore, to “Welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.”
Do you see this is not about a person doing heart surgery on themselves, but rather he is describing a community of faith that celebrates the reality that the Word that has been put into our hearts, a powerful Presence of Love that produces forgiveness, acceptance, courage, and compassion.
Does this mean if we believe in the implanted Word strongly enough we will no longer have evil in our hearts?
No, it does not. I agree with Martin Luther that we will always in this life remain sinners and justified at one and the same time.
So what does the Implanted Word do in our hearts?
Just this: Christ gives us the courage to work with, and be responsible for, our inner darkness.
Work with it how? Do four things: first, recognize our inner darkness when it rises in our lives; second accept that we are experiencing it in this moment; third investigate where it comes from in our past; fourth, non-identify with it, to see that it is not the deepest truth of who we are.
So if you like acronyms, here’s one from meditation teacher Michele McDonald—it is R-A-I-N:
R: Recognize when we are in the grip of a powerful emotion or reaction. Most people just get swept into unconsciousness by their emotions and the emotion runs them in that moment. So to be able to be aware enough to say—“oh, I’m really feeling anger rise up in me” is a huge step forward. It is seeing from a deep place of awareness the log in our eye in the moment we are in its grip.
So recognize it as soon as you can—you can tell you spouse or friend, “you know I’m feeling a lot of anger right now”. Give me a moment, or several moments to process this.
Then A: Accept that this what is going on in you: Accept that you’re feeling this reactivity. Don’t push it away, don’t deny, but accept that in this moment you’re feeling it. You can even say, “welcome reactivity!”
Then I: Investigate the source of this reactivity. How is the current situation pushing a button, say, from when you were a child.
Then, lastly, N: Non-identification with the emotion: that emotion is in you at the moment but it is not you. It is like a thunder storm going across the sky. Strong and powerful to be sure, but it is not the sky, for when the storm is over the stars come out and we see the sky is ever so much greater than that tiny storm and unaffected by it. We are the sky, not the storm.
In the presence of Christ in you, as you practice RAIN, you’ll grow in inner freedom, the inner freedom, as James says, to “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”
And what does James mean by doing the word? Washing our hands and scrubbing our faces, so we will look holy to the world and to the church?
No, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows—those who are vulnerable—in their distress.”
So here is the deepest fact: In Christ, we receive the courage and self-compassion to work with our inner darkness—so that through us the least and the last in this world will be touched by Christ.