Saturday, August 19, 2017

Persistence Over Pollution

Jesus makes a logical point in Matthew 15 that receives our nod in approval. We've heard this idea before. It's not what comes at us from outside that "defiles" us, nor is it the things that we touch that defile others, instead it is the ideas that we digest in our hearts, the fears that we take within us, and the hate that we allow to impact our thinking that really defiles. Then in turn its the words we say to others, the harsh actions, and the contempt we throw out into the community that do more damage than the germs we accidentally sneeze upon our neighbor while we have the flu.

We know this, in theory. And maybe only, in theory; because our actions far too often do not reflect this truth. It's easier to control the things we touch than it is the things we think and say. Just take a look at the zeal revealed by parents looking to prot
ect their young children with soap and water, flushable wet wipes and hand sanitizer. Oh wow... it's like a religion.

For example, Parents magazine encourages parents of newborns to stay vigilant these 8 ways:

  • educate yourself about the dangers of germs
  • keep your baby close to you
  • stay clear of crowded places
  • throw out unfinished milk or formula
  • place formula in the fridge
  • wash your baby's clothes separately
  • be smart about sterilizing
  • take precautions when it comes to your pets.

The Pharisees of Jesus' time had similar lists as to what defiles and what is safe and clean.  They were pretty good, but I'd say our twenty-first century world can go toe to toe with those of Jesus' time. We know scientifically how the body can be polluted through germs, viruses, and bacteria. We can look all that up on the internet... but I don't know, however, if we're all that good at understanding just how much pollution is produced by what comes out of minds, our hearts and our souls. Pollution from the heart are the words and ideas that get spoken, typed, tweeted, or expressed one way or another to others. They defile us and pollute society like nothing else.

What happened a week ago in Charlottesville, Virginia defiled that community... our nation... and our world, and not because of the empty trash wrappers left behind, or the sweaty dirty hands that touched buildings and statues. The message of hate expressed was appalling and contrary to the gospel modeled and expressed through Jesus. The symbols of swastikas, confederate battle flags, and the evening marches with tiki torches made to look like the Nuremberg Nazi rallies of the 1930's were ugly and clear.

The response has been strong. Brothers and sisters from ELCA congregations in Virginia staged counter protests. The bishops of the Virginia Synod and Metro DC Synod participated. Countless Christians from a wide variety of faiths condemned the rally as un-American, yes, but more importantly un-Christian. Peaceful demonstration is powerful. It's been inspiriting to read about the local pastors who have been involved. My colleague, Pastor Brent Dahlseng from Grace Lutheran Church in Loves Park even attended the Memorial Service for Heather Heyer, who was killed during the events of last weekend. What a show of humble, compassionate, support that reflects the love and healing that God seeks to bring us in Christ.

Not all of the responses were so compassionate, however. On Twitter, tweet after tweet was thrown out into the Twitterverse using expletives, expressing disgust and disdain. Contemptuous tweets abounded toward those participating in the rally and for anyone who would not join in the refrains condemning the white supremacist rally. By the end of the weekend, from twitter to television, our nation was exhausted... seeming both defiled and polluted, inside and out.

I found it to be one of those profound coincidences that on Sunday, last weekend, the New York Times Magazine included an article written before the events of Charlottesville, that looked into the the dangers of getting on your high horse and using social media to condemn the world and everyone else, without actually looking at yourself. They called it "virtue signaling," which means taking a stand mostly to look noble in doing so. Jane Coaston, a Millennial tweeter herself and author of the article, has noticed is that virtue signaling is running rampant on social media and could quite possibly be leading us to stop believing that anyone actually has any real convictions at all.

Which brings us back to the teaching of Jesus: that our words, actions, and tweets defile more than anything you can put in your mouth, because words and actions reveal your heart. Are you actually sincerely interested in helping others, or is your motivation to impress others, look virtuous, and feel good about yourself at the expense of other people? Jesus warns us in the Sermon on the Mount that when you give alms, when you seek to serve your neighbor, you should do it in secret. "Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing," Jesus says. Don't get stuck in the trap of being motivated, above all else, by simply looking like a person who cares.

Here in lies the danger of this pollution. Once such virtue signalling becomes the norm of our discourse, the norm of how we interact with one another... it then becomes a cultural tic and automatic and, as Jane Coaston writes, "almost any public utterance of concern becomes easy to write off as false - as mere performance." We become a society of cynics... where nothing is trusted... nothing is real... everything is done just for effect; and the effect becomes less and less because we are numbed by the constant noise... pollution.

You know, 500 years ago Martin Luther wrote about this very thing. In The Freedom of a Christian he wrote: "We do not reject good works. On the contrary, we highly cherish and teach them. For we do not condemn them for their own sake but on account of this godless linkage and perverse opinion that try to seek righteousness through them... This makes them appear good on the surface when in reality they are not good. By such works people are deceived and, like ravenous wolves in sheep's clothing, they deceive others."

There we find the pollution... There we find what defiles. The one performing the virtue signalling is fooled into believing their contempt is righteous. And the one who hears this pollution from the heart is fooled into believing self-righteous contempt for others it is right.

So what is the student of Jesus to do? This is where we stand in awe of the gospel that is given to us in God's holy words. We are given an example in Matthew's Gospel to follow: a Canaanite women, desperate for hope and healing for her demon-possessed daughter.

The depth in this text is great: from the way she is rejected by Jesus himself, to the way she expresses a persistence of faith that only can be found in a mother's love for her child. In words and actions, she reveals the unexpected. What she brings to Jesus and to the world is positive and powerful. It is the opposite of defilement: It is holy. It is the opposite of pollution: It is pure.

May her words impact you like no statement of condemnation and contempt ever could. They are grace. They are gospel. Responding to Jesus' statement of "Its not fair to take the children's food and throw them to the dogs," she says: "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the masters' table."

"Then Jesus answers her, 'woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.' And her daughter was healed instantly.

Our world is desperate for healing... groaning for wholeness and good news that would banish the demons that possess us. Good news is here. You are called to be the voice of good news for world. Following the persistent, determined, faithful Canaanite mother's model, the words we share will not defile. The actions we undertake will not pollute. Following the model of Jesus Christ our master and teacher we will be transformed so that we no longer seek to look virtuous, but actually become the people of character Christ has called us to be. And that's how God is changing the world... That's how God is throwing hate and bigotry into blast furnace of history.

Again... Martin Luther says this: "If you want to [be virtuous], then look here! Believe in Christ, in whom grace, righteousness, peace, freedom, and all things are promised you."

May God lead us from falsehood to truth, from despair to hope, from hatred to love, through Christ our saving help. Amen