Sermon on the text of Mark 7: 1-24 by
President Michael Cooper-White
"You do not belong here. You’ll never do it right. You’re hopelessly
foolish to even begin to think you are worthy and capable of a holy life."
That was the clear and unambiguous message of the Pharisees in their encounter with Jesus and his disciples. Jesus did not offer a gentle rebuke nor couch his response in diplomatic language. “You hypocrites,” he responded forthrightly, “you abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
As we know, of course, the scribes and Pharisees did not amend their ways; they did not abandon their arrogant holier-than-thou hyper-criticism. It went on and on. Over and over again, as the gospels tell it, they were always watching; ever ready to pounce on Jesus and his rough-hewn disciples. The scribes and Pharisees, after all, were the properly prepared and duly credentialed holy ones—some might say the seminary-trained rostered leaders of the day? I’m meddling!
Just as the Pharisees were unceasing in their attacks, so Jesus remained firm in his rebukes. But the Pharisaical attacks, as we know, did not cease with the assassination of Jesus. When the final words of what became the canon of Scripture were written, when no more stories would be recorded about Jesus’ escalating encounters with these self-righteous scribes and Pharisees, their movement did not cease. As Jesus said of the poor, “they are always with us,” so it is that Pharisaical attitudes and actions seem part and parcel of the human community.
Such is the way of the sinful dark sides of human ego and psychic constitution. One way or another, we’re always about the one-upsman game. It continued during Jesus’ earthly sojourn and beyond in the early Christian community’s internal squabbles, did it not? Those disciples were always looking to their right and left and thinking, “Well, he’s not really as worthy as I; never gets it quite right; seriously deficient in the holiness quotient.” In an unguarded moment every once in a while, one or another would actually blurt out and put on public display their true feelings: “Lord, surely you recognize I deserve either right or left hand in your kingdom, do you not? Surely you must have come to the conclusion I’m the one for second place on your ticket—vice president of heaven and earth, right? Well, am I right or not?”
The squabbles continued as recorded in the book of Acts. Over and over, one group or another was saying to their peers: You do not belong here . . .
As we soon discover upon delving deeply into church history, the squabbles of the faithful did not cease with the councils at Jerusalem, Nicea or at Constantinople. That the Church of today exists in two overarching communions—East and West—which cannot even agree on calendars and when to celebrate Easter, is testimony to the ongoing spirit of the scribes and Pharisees. The so-called Protestant Reformation and our ongoing ecumenical stalemates are all about the same struggle, with all the different factions saying to one another: “You do not belong in the inner circle of the Christian church. You not only don’t do it right, but you don’t believe rightly. We cannot recognize your ordination, can’t even commune you as a lay member; and how incredible that you even presume to bear the title Reverend or approach our altar with your hand open.”
A gift from family members for my recent birthday was an old cassette tape (remember those?) of some of the speeches and sermons of Dr. Martin Luther King. I’ve been listening while driving. Powerful—they can be dangerous to safe driving! Those speeches, along with the passing into timelessness of Neil Armstrong, have brought back memories of my teenage years in the 1960’s. So many instances of angry white Americans literally shouting to those who dared defy the signs of segregation: “You don’t belong here. You’re not one of us. You can’t possibly perform at our level; how preposterous that you should presume to vote and be a full citizen.”
“Ah,” but we breathe a sigh of relief, “how good those days are behind us.” Are they? Why is it, we might ask then, that only one presidential candidate is still bombarded with demands for his birth certificate? Why is it that there is renewed scrutiny in some quarters of just who is really eligible to vote in a hotly contested election? Why? Why? Why?
Lest we point our fingers at the Pharisees past and present who have hounded God’s faithful and beloved ones in other quarters, however, an examination of our own history on this hill is cause for some repentance and recommitment.
Yes, indeed, we can pride ourselves that here at Gettysburg the first African American was admitted to a Lutheran seminary way back in the 1830’s. But there have been some other ugly chapters. Not all who have felt God’s call and come here to study have felt so welcome. Sit for long with persons of color who have attended any of our seminaries and you will hear stories of misunderstanding, being treated different, having difficulty in the local community if not on the seminary campus itself.
A few years ago I was given a glimpse into just what it was like for the pioneering women who came here to prepare for ordained ministry in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. One of our sisters recounted how her first fall semester here began by being accosted as she walked across campus. A fellow student dressed in a black shirt and clerical collar made a beeline for her; got in her personal space and shook his finger in her face shouting, “You do not belong here, and I’ll do everything I can to drive you away.” Knowing this colleague who has now retired after four decades of distinguished ministry, I suspect her response was something along the lines of a smiling, soft-spoken “and you have a good day too!”
So today’s gospel holds up this mirror for us all. Some of us see in it our own experiences of being on the receiving end of Pharisaical arrogance and accosting. Some of you, sadly, more than once have heard or felt those barbs in your direction: You do not belong here . . .
But, dear friends, the text does not conclude with Jesus’ sharp rebuke to the scribes and Pharisees. He goes on to address everyone within earshot, and perhaps most particularly his own disciples. He names the more subtle and most insidious source of doubt that can, finally, do us in. “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out from inside are what will do you in.”
Jesus offers examples of a host of sins that emanate from the human heart: fornication, theft, murder, avarice, deceit etc. etc. It is, I am quite convinced, not an exhaustive list.
Among those admitted to or employed by a seminary after the rather exhaustive pre-screening, psychological and background checks, essays, interviews and all the rest, not many are tempted to thievery, embezzlement, drug-peddling or murder. But if my observations of many years are accurate, the greater temptation posed for most of us by that subtle, insidious internal voice is the temptation of self-doubt. We may shake off the voices or text messages of others who question our worthiness to be here. But it’s that sneaky, wily internal voice, which seems to interrogate most often in the nighttime that poses the greater threat. “Do I belong here? Really? Can I ever get it right? Why in the world would I even presume to be holy enough to serve the church in its public ministry?”
This Marcan gospel text ends with Jesus’ diagnosis: “All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person and will do you in.” No remedy is offered here in Mark’s 7th chapter. So just what are we to do in order to be defended against the external attacks and internal doubts?
I think the answer lies in the very absence of any verbal prescription from Dr. Jesus. The remedy lies not in his words, but his actions. He forges ahead in ministry! “From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre.” In Tyre he healed. He went on to Sidon and healed again. Then he had compassion on a great crowd that had gathered and he fed four thousand people. He just kept plugging along. So did the disciples. And, of course, they never got it all quite right. But they got it right enough! If they hadn’t, if that little band of poorly educated and very modestly equipped ordinary folk hadn’t got it right enough in the days after Jesus’ death and departure, the mission would have fizzled and died right there at the starting gate.
So our challenge, it seems to me, in the face of both external and internal voices that we may hear from time to time questioning our worthiness, is the exact same challenge faced by those first disciples. Stare down the Pharisees! Look them squarely in the eyes and wait until they blink first; they always do, for eventually they recognize that their arrogance emanates from their own deep insecurities. When questioned about your credentials and competencies, fall back on the same simple three-word response offered often by Martin Luther. I have only one credential, one solitary competency: I am baptized! When either the voice of others or your own internal doubter whispers, “You’ll never get it right; you’re not in any measure holy enough; you won’t make it,” offer your bold confession: “You’re right. I can’t and I’m not, and I won’t.” But God can. Jesus is. The Holy Spirit will.
And then just put in a new tape, CD; download a new recording in your I-pod or -pad, laptop, mobile phone or whatever gadget you plug into (never in the classroom, of course!)
You belong here. You can and will learn to do things right enough.
You’re not perfect. Only one public minister ever was, and he’s with you every day.
And only his power and presence make a holy life. So get on with it! Amen and Amen.
This sermon was preached by the Rev. Michael Cooper-White, President, at the Opening Eucharist of the 187th academic year at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg.