Mark 7:1–8, 14–15, 21–23; James 1:17–27
The Pharisees are at it again. This time they accuse Jesus and his disciples of not washing their hands before eating “according to the tradition of the elders.” Now we know that washing our hands before we eat is a good thing – especially if you’re a germ-a-phobe like I am. But the Pharisees weren’t concerned about proper hygiene. No. For them it was a ritual – a rite – call it a law following the tradition of the elders.
And Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah when he tells them, 'This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”
Thank God Jesus came along when he did. Thank God that we have Jesus to let us know what it is that God truly wants for us – and what it is that God wants from us. God simply wants to love us – that’s what He wants for us – and He wants us to love Him – and to learn what it means to love each other even as we love ourselves – or even as we are loved by God.
So Jesus lets us know today that loving God and loving each other isn’t a matter of having clean hands. It’s a matter of the heart. Folks – I want to talk to you today about your heart. About where your heart is.
Musicians know all about having heart when it comes to their music. I took organ lessons for 10 years. And the last organ teacher I had gave me training on the pipe organ – a kind of training that I had not experienced from any previous teachers.
Now, at the time I was living in Niagara Falls – and my teacher told me something I have not forgotten. He said, “There are many organists in Niagara Falls, but not many musicians. There are many organists who play notes, but not many who play music.”
The difference? A musician plays from the heart. I learned to play from the heart. I learned to play with passion. Greg and Kristen and Billy – when they ar at the keyboard or the organ – we are just blessed to have them because all three of them are great musicians. They are great because they know what it means to play with passion – to play from the heart. Music that sets the heart and the voice to singing – and maybe even a little toe tapping along the way.
When it comes to our faith practices – the same thing is true. Praying daily, daily Bible reading, weekly worship, serving others, developing spiritual friendships, giving to the work of the Lord – these are a matter of the heart. So I want to ask you – where is your heart? Is your heart in these things?
I do not ask this as an accusation or a judgment against you or me or anyone else. But I know that in my life I want to take Jesus seriously here when he accuses the Pharisees of having hearts that are far from God. And although Jesus is talking here about the worship of God, in other words, “This people worships me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me,” this applies to all areas of our faith practices – the 6 marks of discipleship.
In other words – when it comes to you and me living the Christian life – I want to do more than just go through the motions. If my heart’s not in it – then saying the right words and doing the right things – and saying and doing them in the right way – just isn’t going to cut it. No. It’s a matter of the heart. For disciples of Jesus Christ – the Christian way of life is not a system of do’s and don’ts. Yes – there are certain expectations for those of us who do call ourselves Christians – yes, we still have the 10 Commandments – but remember that Jesus boiled these down to two: Love God and love your neighbor.
Quite frankly, I don’t remember Jesus ever saying, “All right now listen up everybody – repeat after me. Get the words right.” No. What did he say, “Come, follow me. Love one another as I have loved you.”
May I suggest to you that what Jesus is talking about is sincerity – a genuineness that others are going to see. As tough as it is for some of us to do sometimes – it’s a matter of living gracious lives – approaching life – approaching others – with the same love and grace – God’s undeserved love and favor – that we ourselves have received from God. So being a follower of Jesus Christ ultimately boils down to be being a matter of the heart. So where is your heart? As a disciple of Jesus Christ, is your heart in it? Are you making a difference?
There is a story many years ago of an elementary teacher. Her name was Mrs. Thompson. And as she stood in front of her fifth grade class on the very first day of school, she told the children a lie. Like most teachers, she looked at her students and said that she loved them all the same. But that was impossible, because there in the front row, slumped in his seat, was a little boy named Teddy Stoddard.
Mrs. Thompson had watched Teddy the year before and noticed that he didn't play well with the other children, that his clothes were messy and he constantly needed a bath. And Teddy could be unpleasant. It got to the point where Mrs. Thompson would actually take delight in marking his papers with a broad red pen, making bold X's and then putting a big "F" at the top of his papers.
At the school where Mrs. Thompson taught, she was required to review each child's past records and she put Teddy's off until last. However, when she reviewed his file, she was in for a surprise. Teddy's first grade teacher wrote, "Teddy is a bright child with a ready laugh. He does his work neatly and has good manners...he is a joy to be around." His second grade teacher wrote, "Teddy is an excellent student, well liked by his classmates, but he is troubled because his mother has a terminal illness and life at home must be a struggle." His third grade teacher wrote, "His mother's death has been hard on him. He tries to do his best but his father doesn't show much interest and his home life will soon affect him if some steps aren't taken." Teddy's fourth grade teacher wrote, "Teddy is withdrawn and doesn't show much interest in school. He doesn't have many friends and sometimes sleeps in class."
By now, Mrs. Thompson realized the problem and was ashamed of herself. She felt even worse when her students brought her Christmas presents, wrapped in beautiful ribbons and bright paper, except for Teddy's. His present was clumsily wrapped in the heavy, brown paper that he got from a grocery bag. Mrs. Thompson took pains to open it in the middle of the other presents. Some of the children started to laugh when she found a rhinestone bracelet with some of the stones missing and a bottle that was one quarter full of perfume. But she stifled the children's laughter when she exclaimed, how pretty the bracelet was. She put it on and dabbed some of the perfume on her wrist.
Teddy Stoddard stayed after school that day just long enough to say, "Mrs. Thompson, today you smelled just like my mom used to." After the children left she cried for at least an hour. On that very day, she quit teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic. Instead, she began to teach children.
Mrs. Thompson paid particular attention to Teddy. As she worked with him, his mind seemed to come alive. The more she encouraged him, the faster he responded. By the end of the year, Teddy had become one of the smartest children in the class and, despite her lie that she would love all the children the same, Teddy became one of her pets. A year later, she found a note under her door, from Teddy, telling her that she was still the best teacher he ever had in his whole life.
Six years went by before she got another note from Teddy. He then wrote that he had finished high school, third in his class, and she was still the best teacher he ever had in his whole life. Four years after that, she got another letter, saying that while things had been tough at times, he stayed in school, had stuck with it, and would soon graduate from college with the highest of honors. He assured Mrs. Thompson that she was still the best and favorite teacher he ever had in his whole life. Then four more years passed and yet another letter came. This time he explained that after he got his bachelor's degree, he decided to go a little further. The letter explained that she was still the best and favorite teacher he ever had. But now his name was a little longer. The letter was signed, Theodore F. Stoddard, MD.
The story doesn't end there. You see, there was yet another letter that spring. Teddy said he'd met a girl and was going to be married. He explained that his father had died a couple of years ago and he was wondering if Mrs. Thompson might agree to sit in the place at the wedding that was usually reserved for the mother of the groom.
Of course, Mrs. Thompson did. And guess what? She wore that bracelet, the one with several rhinestones missing. And she made sure she was wearing the perfume that Teddy remembered his mother wearing on their last Christmas together. They hugged each other, and Dr. Stoddard whispered in Mrs. Thompson's ear, "Thank you, Mrs. Thompson, for believing in me. Thank you so much for making me feel important and showing me that I could make a difference."
Mrs. Thompson, with tears in her eyes, whispered back, "Teddy, you have it all wrong. You were the one who taught me that I could make a difference. I didn't know how to teach until I met you."
That, my friends, is a lesson in grace.
We have been touched by the heart of God. It’s called grace. And we therefore have been called to live a life of gracious living. Whether in our worship life or in how we relate to others. It’s a matter of the heart.
When the heart is in it – well – it seems to me that is what makes all the difference in the world.