Community Christian Church of Springfield

4806 E. Cherry
Springfield, MO 65809
(417) 877-7821 


Offending the Pious

Proper  15       August 17, 2014
Community Christian Church
Roger Ray, pastor

Matthew 15: 10-18
10Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, "Listen and understand: 11it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles." 12Then the disciples approached and said to him, "Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?" 13He answered, "Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. 14Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit." 15But Peter said to him, "Explain this parable to us." 16Then he said, "Are you also still without understanding? 17Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? 18But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.

Like most of you, I grew up going to church, though I doubt that many of you would have gone as often as I did.... I'm talking perfect attendance.  Even on my "stay out all night" senior prom night, my dad met me in the garage as I was taking off my coat and bow tie after a night of being "all grown up," and said, "Keep your coat on son, if you are man enough to stay out all night, you are man enough to sit up in church for a couple of hours."

I didn't think that I was man enough, but it turns out that I was.  But even with perfect church attendance, church turns out to give you a little bite of religion every week.  I had regular doses of Jesus in Sunday School and in church all of my life, but it wasn't until about 20 years ago, when I was asked to teach a college course on the "Life and Teachings of Jesus" that I had to step back and try to see the big picture.

In church you read a passage here, a passage there, you talk about what that might mean and what this might mean but I had never asked myself, "What was the primary point of Jesus' teaching?"  "Why was Jesus important?  Different?  Noteworthy? Why do we still care what he said?"

I'm indebted to Marcus Borg's little book, "Meeting Jesus Again (for the first time)" for giving me a big picture context.

Borg points out that the primary message of Jesus is a message of radical compassion and the primary conflict in the gospels is the conflict of the message of radical compassion against the prevailing religion of purity or piety.  You can see it in our reading from Matthew 15 today.  Jesus is saying that all of the obsession about kosher laws, of things you can't touch and things you can eat are absurd. He even rather graphically says that everything you eat simply pass through your body and becomes sewage.

What really matters is not what goes into you but what comes out of your heart, your mind, your mouth.

It is important to see that this is not a matter of Christianity verses Judaism or Jesus against the Jews. This is a conflict between worldviews.  There is, I might dare to say, a great deal more piety in traditional Christianity than there ever was in ancient Judaism.

You have often heard me stress that the practice of a healthy spirituality has to do with behaviors rather than beliefs.  In that sense, piety can masquerade as healthy spirituality because it does stress behaviors... the problem is that there is no compassion in piety.... It is all narcissistic, it is all about keeping oneself unstained by the world, pure enough to be acceptable to God.

If someone says, "I'm having impure thoughts," we tend to think immediately of sex... as if sex were ipso facto impure or somehow defiling.

Which is more impure: the decision to be intimate with your significant other or the decision to spend all of your money on yourself rather than to help the poor?  Which is more impure: watching an R rated movie or keeping your employee's salary down so low that they can't live on their wages?

Traditional religion, whether it is Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, has expended huge amounts of energy on the containment of private sexual thoughts and actions, blended with obsessive concerns with alcohol, drugs, and certain foods, while waging insane wars, creating an economic system that serves the rich and impoverishes the majority.

The United States has the highest rate of childhood poverty in the world.  Poverty tends to lead to crime.  Piety says that we need to build more prisons in which we can punish the impure.  Compassion says that we invest in our children, giving them decent housing, access to health care, and good schools.

Consider how the tragic murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO has unfolded in civil strife in this past week.  An unarmed man, holding his hands in the air, was killed by a small town policeman.  There is little doubt that Michael Brown was not innocent of aggressive behaviors but there is no plausible defense for the lethal force used on him by that policeman.

The public responded with outrage and, at least a part of the public, let their outrage turn into looting and arson.

The initial police response to protest, looting and arson was to roll out armored military vehicles and to have police in full military battle gear, aim weapons at a public already enraged by excessive violence on the part of the police.

A more compassionate response by the state police, once they were put in charge of the situation, saw the officer in charge marching with the protestors, sympathizing, understanding, affirming their cries for justice.  Piety can enforce order but compassion can heal.

The movement from looting and burning towards peaceful demonstration was halted, of course, when the police released video from a convenience store security camera that appeared to show Michael Brown stealing some cheap cigars without releasing any details of the shooting of Michael Brown.

You see, the official pious technique was simply to display Michael Brown as a large, menacing, black man engaged in petty theft... as if to say, "Well, of course, he was asking to be shot."  Piety seeks to diminish a person's worth to the point that you don't have to see them as being human.

Do you remember in the early years of our awareness of AIDS that people, even on network news, would talk about the innocent victims of AIDS... and by innocent they meant people who contracted the HIV virus through a blood transfusion or an accidental needle prick in a hospital room.  Which meant that anyone who contracted AIDS by having sex with an infected person was then deserving of a fatal illness.

Even my puritanical mother would not have suggested that sexual conduct was cause for execution! ... exile maybe, but not death!

The piety system cannot hold a candle to radical compassion.  So the tension in the gospels was that Jesus' teaching about compassion flew in the face of organized religion... of the government.... The police.... The banking system.... The enforcement of wealth for some and poverty for others.  So, they killed him.

It is no longer common to crucify people who defy the piety system but in Ferguson, MO they are doing what they can.... They are arresting journalists for covering the police actions.  I want to say this very clearly for all of you and for all of our American audience and I hope the same is true in most countries, but it is legal in all 50 states for you to take out your phones and video the police at work.  In fact, video cameras have been proven to prevent police violence.

In Rialto, California, the city required every member of their police force to wear a camera while on duty and they discovered a dramatic reduction in the number of times that their officers used their batons, tasers, tear gas or guns.  They have had a 90% reduction in complaints against the police.

As much as I despise the NSA's spying on American citizens and foreign governmental officials, there are times when having cameras turned on can help them to remember their humanity.

H. Jackson Brown famously said that "Character is what you do when you think no one is watching."  That may be true, but even if they are only pretending to have character, I think we need to help our overly militarized police forces to remember that they are here to protect and serve, not to harass and shoot.

Talking about radical compassion offends the pious.  To quiet the prophets of the gospel, they will threaten, ridicule, sometimes arrest and pepper spray and sometimes they will even shoot.  But it was a message that Jesus of Nazareth thought it was worth dying to teach and I am convinced that it is certainly a message that is worth living for.

Roger L. Ray, D.Min. 

Community Christian Church
4806 E. Cherry Springfield, MO 65809
(417) 877-7821

"I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down men other-centered can build up." (Martin Luther King, Jr. - Nobel Speech)
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