August 30, 2015 – The 14th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 17B
© 2015 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
You know those moments when your mamma asks you if you’ve washed your hands, and you tell her “yes,” and then she asks to smell your hands just to be sure, and you turn around and walk back to the bathroom to wash them with soap this time? You know those moments? We seem to have a lot of those moments in our house these days, and almost all of them involve smelling something. Did you wash your hands? Let me smell them. Did you brush your teeth? Let me smell your breath. Did you wash your hair? Let me smell the top of your head. That works well around the house, but it’s a strategy that breaks down in other venues.
Last week, I watched an employee at fast-food restaurant walk out of the bathroom without washing his hands. I wasn’t worried since I was only there because my son needed to go to the bathroom, but I wondered whether I should warn the other guests. And then I laughed to myself as I imagined the manager or an angry customer demanding to smell the guy’s hands. I got into my car still chuckling at the imaginary scene, but then I started to wonder how you screen for other character flaws. Bad hygiene shows up on the outside, but where do you smell to determine whether an employee is skimming off the top? How can you look at someone and tell whether he is an honest, upstanding sort of person or a deceitful, scheming criminal?
We know that the outside and the inside don’t always match up. We’re familiar with stories of people who are supposed to be impeccable in their public persona but end up letting us down: politicians whose names appear on the Ashley Madison list, teachers who engage in sexual relationships with their students, priests who steal money from their church. More often than not, you can’t look at people—or smell them—and tell what they are like on the inside. There’s a long list of people who have been pulled down from their pedestals because the world discovered that they’re human after all. But I’m more interested in the list of people whom the world looks at and thinks that they are rotten to their core only to discover that beneath a grimy exterior is a person of deep faith and remarkable holiness. I’d much rather spend time with people whom you have to get to know before you can tell that they’re religious.
When the Pharisees and scribes noticed that Jesus’ disciples ate without washing their hands, they approached him and asked why they ignored the tradition of the elders. Although eating with dirty hands is gross in any culture, traditional Judaism calls upon individuals to ritually wash their hands not only as a matter of hygiene but also a way of expressing their identity as faithful Jews. If you’re Jewish, it’s just what you do. But Jesus’ disciples weren’t doing it, which is kind of like a Baptist preacher buying a beer at a baseball game—it’s not the end of the world, but it’s pretty darn close. But Jesus wasn’t interested in hearing what religious customs his disciples were breaking because he knew that what happens on the outside doesn’t always match what is going on on the inside. The only thing he cared about was whether their hearts were in the right place.
But how can you tell whether someone’s heart is in the right place? What does that look like? How can you spot holiness in a lineup? It isn’t as easy as looking to see who washes his hands, nor is it as simple as seeing who goes to church. That’s because behavior doesn’t make someone good or bad. Our character isn’t a product of what we do or what we say or what we eat or drink. As Jesus said, “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” In other words, our behavior is a product of our character—not the other way around. And that simple, little principle represents the difference between hypocrisy and true faith.
What do you think makes someone a good person? What do you think makes someone holy? Do you think it matters whether they go to church? Do you think it matters whether they say their prayers? Can’t atheists be good people too? Maybe it’s how they treat other people. Do you think being nice to strangers and helping little old ladies across the street is what makes a person good? Is the Golden Rule the definition of goodness? Are Boy Scouts the epitome of holiness? Perhaps being overwhelmingly generous and giving most of one’s fortune to charity is what makes someone a truly good person. Actually, all of those things are nice, but God doesn’t care one bit about them. And thanks be to God for that because, if God’s kingdom were reserved for nice people, I’d be in big trouble—and so would you.
People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks upon the heart (1 Sam. 16:7). What you do makes no difference at all because nice doesn’t matter to God. Only our hearts matter. Our behavior doesn’t make us holy. It is God himself and God alone who can make us holy. It is God who reconciles us to himself, who wipes our slate clean and grants us a share of his holiness. That’s the story of Jesus Christ. God sent his Son to take upon himself all of the evil of the world so that the world might become holy to God. We don’t do anything to become holy. God did everything to make us holy. That’s where true religion lies. Everything else is just for show.
We practice our faith to show ourselves that God has already made us holy. We don’t do any of this because we want God to think better of us. Unconditional love means unconditional—as in not conditional on anything we think, say, or do. And we don’t do it to show the world that we are holier than they are. Again, hypocrisy is built on the premise that our behavior is what counts. We do all of this—we come to church, we say our prayers, we give to the poor, we tutor students at Banks-Caddell, we work in the Free Clinic, and we serve lunch at the CCC—not because we want God or anyone else to think that we are holy. We do all of these things because God has already made us holy, and, as God’s holy people, we need a way of making that holiness real to us.
Ritual is humanity’s way of expressing something that cannot otherwise be said. We ritualize the big moments of life like coming of age, marriage, and death not because we need a liturgy to make them happen but because we need a way of writing the inexpressible truth of those moments on our hearts. All of the trappings of Christianity are supposed to have their root in the inescapable truth that God has made us holy through the life, death, and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ. But too often our traditions lose their focus and become vain attempts to produce what God has already given us. If you think that going to church will make you holy in God’s eyes, your faith has become hypocrisy. And, if you’re here because you care what other people think about you and you want them to know that you’re a church-going kind of person, your faith has become hypocrisy. We aren’t here because we want to seem holy in the eyes of God or of our neighbor. We’re here to remember and celebrate that holiness is a gift from God. It’s where we start—not the destination we seek.
Ask yourself why you are here. If you’re looking for holiness, you can stop looking; you’ve already found it. Come to church because you are holy. Say your prayers because you are holy. Receive Communion because you are already holy. There is nothing you can do to make yourself a good person. God has already given you his holiness. God has already made you good in his eyes. Practice your faith not as an attempt to manufacture that which God alone can make, but practice your faith as a way of remembering that eternal truth. You are holy because God alone has made you holy.