Scripture James 1:17-27, Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
James 1:17-27 (New Revised Standard Version)
17 Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18 In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
19 You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 21 Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.
22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25 But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.
26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27 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.
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 (New Revised Standard Version)
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3(For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 5So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
7in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
14Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
I’m sure that many of you have heard the phrase, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” I know it’s a mantra that I learned as a child, and one that I’m sure a well meaning adult taught me to help insulate myself from the boys who would tease me on the playground and call me names or the other kids who would make fun of my clothes. Yes, I was one of those kids that was mercilessly picked on in late elementary and early middle school, and I always wished I had that superpower that I know some of you have that can dismiss someone’s hurtful or mean comments as not affecting you and I have to say that I deeply admire the good boundaries those of you who can do this demonstrate.
Because the truth of it is - words can hurt us. Words can wound and demean and make us feel worthless. Words can also build us up and empower us and affirm us. What we say - and how we say it - comes out of who we are at our core. Out of the heart.
The other phrase that came to mind for me was the one “actions speak louder than words.” The Christian version of this is attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, “preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary use words” - we won’t unpack the nuances of that particular statement for this morning. Suffice to say that the power of words - and the power of actions play key roles in both our passages from Scripture this morning.
To start with Jesus, here he is having yet another conversation with the Pharisees, who have been critiquing his followers for not following the purity code. They weren’t following the prescriptions for ritual washing as observant Jews were expected to do. These codes and laws were meant to help preserve identity and tradition in the midst of a secular landscape - in this case, occupied Roman territory. The performance of these rituals helped define who was “in” and who was “out” - who is clean or unclean, who is part of “God’s people” and who is a Gentile or pagan. The Pharisees taught adherence to these codes, thinking that it is these practices and rituals, passed down from their elders and their elders’ elders and their elders’ elders’ elders as sacred tradition. Jesus laments that the Pharisees are missing the point - that they emphasize, in the words of Debie Thomas at Journey with Jesus, rite over mercy, heritage over hospitality, ritual over compassion….that these actions take priority over the freedom of loving God and neighbor fully.
Even in this, Jesus doesn’t condemn them in their rule-following or in their desire for cleanliness before God - but notes that it isn’t what is on our hands or on our food or dishes that can defile - that can make us unclean or impure - but what comes out of us - the evil intentions that arise within our hearts are the problem.
James also takes the time to talk about what comes out of us - words and actions - and using the language that Jesus used, noted that the actions that are undefiled before God are care for others - the orphans and widows, and to let our actions be sourced in God’s generous love - every generous act of giving with every perfect gift, coming from above, coming as its source, from God’s heart.
In addition, James focuses specifically on words - knowing that words reveal something important about who we are - our beliefs, our motivations, our emotions - and expose us primarily to others, but also lead us to a greater awareness of ourselves. (For example, the more words you know that describe emotions, the greater capacity you have to understand and differentiate your emotional state of being).
Words have so much power - they describe, name, blame, label, convict, lecture, explain, persuade, condole, console, counsel, eviscerate, heal - words can alarm, harm, uplift, inspire, degrade, or silence someone. In the language of James and Jesus - words can defile if they come out of that place of evil intention...words can also lead to healing and wholeness. Words can delineate - who is in and who is out….or words can liberate - setting all of us free.
Where words have power, for James, actions give those words weight and meaning - they give our words life, they are the framework that underpins what we say, they are the means by which we are measured - there needs to be consistency between what we say and what we do...and for both James and Jesus, as we are drawn more deeply into the life of the kingdom, God becomes more fully the source of our words and actions, that we, in the language of John Wesley, are made more perfect in love.
I think we know how hard that can be - even as we tend to look down upon the Pharisees and think that we wouldn’t make the same mistakes - that we wouldn’t mistake religiosity for true authentic worship (that we would never say the “right” words and perform the “right” actions but live lives out of alignment with God’s love and purposes).
But we do - all the time. We cling to old traditions, we set up religious litmus-tests. We draw lines in the sand. We use words to hurt and injure. This is why we confess our sin each week in worship (and hopefully more often personally) to be honest with ourselves and with each other and with God so that our words and actions - so that our lives can be more in tune with God’s kingdom...and so that our words and actions can be truly life giving for others… and for ourselves.
All we need to do is pay attention - the advice Jesus - and James - give is to notice what comes out of you. Notice your words. Notice your actions. Are they in alignment? Do they lead to hospitality and inclusion? Greater compassion and freedom? Do they, as Debie Thomas writes, “lead other people to feel loved and welcomed at God’s table? Make you brave, creative, and joyful? Prepare your mind and body for a God who is always doing something fresh and new? Facilitate another step forward in your spiritual evolution?
Or do they make you small, stingy, and bored? Fearful, suspicious, withholding, and judgmental?”
Moreover, we can ask these questions of ourselves as a faith community - we have words of welcome - do our actions and decisions as a church, especially as we soon move into a new phase of being as the Chebeague Community Church, lead us to make accommodations so that all are welcome? Do our times of worship, prayer, and study equip us to practice what James calls “pure religion” - radical love for those on the edges and a deep trust in a God who is always creating all things new?
These are questions that invite us into a life of reflection - of paying attention, of discernment, of noting God’s movement in our life and in our church as we seek to become the people God created us to be. In that journey, we will be drawn ever more fully into the Source of all that is, the heart of God’s love, and we will find ourselves in that place where we are, as James puts it, “doers of the word” “practicers of pure religion” or as Jesus might name it, a place where our hearts are close to his. My prayer for us as we move forward today is that we find ways, with God’s help, to continually place our words and our actions before God - that they may be used to build a community of compassion and peace, forgiveness and hope, healing and justice. That we may move beyond our purity politics and religious litmus tests and to offer welcome at the Table for all who are hungry. That we may notice the kin-dom of God inbreaking among us and among this community...and in our world, and so be part of God’s redeeming work in this world. May it be so on this day and as we move forward together. Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and five year old son and 2 year old daughter, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.