Grace to you and peace from God, our Father, and our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
It was nearly two weeks ago that I sent bulletin information to the secretary for today’s worship service, because I was planning to be camping this past week. Later I found that my Achilles was actually completely torn, and I didn’t really want to be mucking around in the mud at the farm with my pretty new boot! The reason that’s important I’ll reveal in a few minutes.
So we stayed here through this past week, and I did actually spend some of the time working rather than using all of the time as vacation time. Notably, I gathered with other pastors for text study on Wednesday.
The reason revealing to you the timing of sending the bulletin information to our secretary is important is because my sermon title was in that email. It was two weeks ago that I sent that title, “What Defiles.” It was five days before the rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where people gathered ostensibly to protest the removal of a statue, but then began shouting phrases that revealed there may have been something else behind the gathering as well.
The news this past week has been filled with what happened that day, and in the days following. Over and over and over we hear the words that came from the mouths of what they are calling the alt right protestors. Over and over and over again we hear the words that came from the mouth of our president. Over and over and over again we hear the words that come from people unhappy with what they’ve heard.
And today I find myself trying to address Jesus’ words when he told the disciples and the people of the crowds that it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles a person.
I could have changed it. The bulletin wasn’t actually printed until yesterday. The PowerPoint presentation on the wall before us is not difficult to alter, particularly in such a small way as the title of the sermon. There have been times in the past when I’ve changed a sermon title even though the bulletins were already done, and I merely announced that there had been a change. But we’re sticking with what was sent earlier, in part because it’s difficult.
You know, our catechism teaches us to do our best to explain the actions of others in the kindest way. We are encouraged to look for the best motivation that might be behind the actions of others. Our president is taking a lot of heat right now maybe because he wants to believe that at least some of the people in Charlottesville for the rally had good motivations for being there, that they were not there to proclaim the superiority of one race over others. Maybe he doesn’t understand the racial hatred that others seem to see so quickly and so easily.
The problem is that we’ve all had words come out of our mouths that betray something less than pristine about ourselves. We’ve all said things we regret.
In the summer of 1975, our family was moving from a tiny town in southcentral North Dakota, where all of the people were white and most proclaimed a German heritage, to a littler town in northwestern North Dakota, which just happened to be located within five miles of the border of one of the several (Native American) reservations in that state. I’m not sure why my mother’s sister addressed me with her fears at our move—maybe it was because of the (then) deep auburn color of my hair—but she said, “Aren’t you afraid you’re going to get scalped?”
I’m not sure how I answered, or even if I answered, I was so shocked at the question. I might have said, “No—,” or I might have said, “Of course not!” I remember what I wanted to say. I wanted to say, “Are you crazy? They don’t do that anymore!” I didn’t say that. I was twelve, and I respected my elders—at least on the outside! But I still remember what I wanted to say… I wanted to say she was nuts!
Chris Cantwell was pretty brave when he spewed forth invective from his blog, and when he marched in the rally in Charlottesville. His bravado did not falter as he met with a VICE reporter in his hotel room and said that probably quite a few more people would die before this was over. He even displayed his weapons to her. When he learned that there were warrants out for his arrest, when several of his social media accounts were suddenly canceled, he became frightened. What had come out of his mouth he suddenly recognized as dangerous, and he didn’t even know how to get safely to the courts.
John Grisham’s first novel published in 1988 (A Time to Kill) is about the trial of a black father who kills the white rapists of his 10-year-old daughter. It’s set in 1984, and in it, the white jurors finally become swayed by the emotional closing argument of the defense attorney, describing how the little girl was left by the culprits, and then ending with the words, “Now imagine she’s white.”
On August 18 of this year, in an opinion article that appeared in the Washington Post, Christine Emba says something that reminded me of that line in Grisham’s novel which made it into the movie in 1996 and the Broadway play after that. She titles the article, “I’m tired of arguing that I matter.”
What makes this whole situation even harder—for me—is the way that Jesus treats the woman who is described as a Canaanite in today’s Gospel reading. She, too, is treated initially as if she does not matter. Jesus seems to tell her that she does not matter, as he says, “It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.” What if she had just turned around and walked away? But she doesn’t. Desperate for the well-being of her daughter, she accepts the description provided her, and says, “… even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Jesus then praises her faith and heals her daughter and she goes on her way.
What is it that defiles? Is it a person’s nationality, or race? It seems as if some believe so. Some believe that people do not matter if they are not of a particular race, national heritage, religion, sexuality, community, gender, intelligence, or ability. Add in other descriptors over which people discriminate. But none of these defile. Isaiah (56:1, 6-8) tells us that God’s house is to be a place of prayer for all peoples. Today’s Psalm (67) repeats that many times. The excerpt from Paul’s letter to the Romans (11:1-2a, 29-32) extends the promise of God to Jew and non-Jew.
What is it that defiles? Jesus tells us it’s what comes out of the heart, things like insults, threats, and curses. Of course, those weren’t the words he used. He said several things, including slander, false witness, and evil intentions, which cover the words I used pretty well, I believe.
Jesus comes to us as the light of the world, through a people called to be a light for all nations. All of us matter, particularly those who are told so often and in so many ways that they don’t.
I left several copies of Christine Emba’s article on the table in back, and I’m hoping I won’t find them all still there when I’m ready to leave today. The secretary can also make more copies if we run out. I’m hoping we can take Christine’s concern to heart. It’s time that we find ways to tell people who are used to being marginalized in this country that they matter, to us, and to God.
Surely, defiling things will still come out of our mouths. We will not automatically become righteous with our good intentions to do better. But maybe some good things will also come out of our mouths, and into the community through our actions. Maybe God’s healing will come into this neighborhood through people who have gathered here. I believe that can happen. I believe it needs to happen, because people are dying, and too many do not yet know God’s love.
In the end, remember that what defiles is not nearly as important as what saves, and for that, we trust in God alone, through Jesus Christ. In Jesus’ name. Amen.