8/31/03, P12B

“The Heart Strangely Warmed”
Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23

he story is still told of Queen Victoria who gave a ball in honor of an African Chief. At the end of the meal, finger bowls were served. The chief was not familiar with the British custom of rinsing fingers in water after a meal so he took the finger bowl in his two hands, lifted it to his mouth, and drank it all. After several embarrassing seconds, Queen, Victoria took her finger bowl in her hands, lifted it, and drank its contents! A moment later the surprised British ladies and gentlemen all drank the contents of their own fingerbowls.

It was against the rules to drink from a fingerbowl, but on that evening Victoria changed the rules. It was against the rules of the Pharisees not to wash their hands before a meal, but Jesus changed the rules. The Messiah recognized their slavery to their hundreds of customs, and that they lacked a loving heart.

My mother taught first grade in rural North Carolina for many years. Back then there were no school nurses or counselors so the teachers were required to make home visits. Some of her pupils had never eaten with a fork and many had never had a bath. My mother taught parents the importance of things like washing clothes, bathing and regular hand washing. You can imagine how dirty the little stinkers were. Mother taught me that what was important was not so much what the children looked like on the outside, but that on the inside they were precious souls for whom Christ died. She thought of herself as a missionary on the state payroll.

Today’s story says that the matters of our hearts are far more important than are the legalistic matters of old customs. What is outside of us does not defile us, but the evil that can fester and grow within our hearts can corrupt our lives.

This encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees was precipitated when some of these strict legalists, noticed that Jesus’ disciples were eating food with unwashed hands. The Old Testament Law demanded that hands be washed before touching food; yet, these former fishermen, carpenters and tax collectors were defying the letter of the Law by not washing up before dinner. Jesus quoted Isaiah as he defied the legalists, "...you hypocrites honor me with your hand washing but your hearts are far from me." (v. 6)

The Good News is that when we allow the Spirit to come into our hearts He changes our minds about things, modifies our hard attitudes and makes us more susceptible to matters of the heart and soul. Most of us are in more need of being washed up on the inside than on the outside. Jesus’ way of taking away our sin is to forgive it and wash it away as we confess it.

After becoming famous with his book, The Road Less Traveled, psychiatrist Scott Peck, became a Christian, mainly through the influence of his Baptist wife and a Methodist preacher. In several of his subsequent books he commented that he became a Christian because Jesus has the only way of dealing with sin. Peck says, “We cannot not sin, but when we do Christ has to forgive us!” This has become the cornerstone of his thought and way of leading persons toward a full and free life. It’s the heart that matters most; yet, a simple sanitary practice like hand washing can become a mania as people obsessively wash their hands hundreds of times each day and never feel clean.

Hopefully, we Methodists, who are sometimes called, “The people of the religion of the heart strangely warmed,” can identify with this inner awareness of our sin being cancelled by Christ. This pet name came from the experience of our founder John Wesley, who after a long struggle with guilt and sin was able to find relief. He had been meeting with a group of evangelical believers in a house on Aldersgate Street in London and was hoping that he could somehow find forgiveness. It finally came as someone was reading from Martin Luther’s commentary on Romans. He opened his heart in faith and later wrote in his Journal, “I felt my heart strangely warmed, I felt I did trust Christ, and that he had forgiven my sin, even mine, and that he had freed me from the law of sin and death.” We are a branch of the Church that has reminded others over and over that it’s the heart that matters and not so much the outward and physical rituals.

Let me hasten to say that none of the above is meant to minimize the importance of rituals and sacred ceremonies which act out the deep meaning of what they represent, but Jesus is saying that the ritual alone is mostly meaningless. The Christening of a new member of a family is a highly significant moment as the immediate and extended family take vows to rear the newborn in their shared faith and to do all they can, along with the whole Church to bring the little one along. However, the mere ritual without the deep commitment is shallow, at best. What really matters in the vows and acting out is the commitment of the heart and the love that it bears.

Just as the Pharisees ritually washed their hands yet their hearts were not in it, so we can walk through the process as a mere outward and visible act without the inward and spiritual deeper significance. Ritual becomes a means of Grace only when we are into it. It is a matter of the heart that is longing to be warmed by the Divine fire.

What wife wants a husband who is not really into the marriage with a burning fire? Yet, there are spouses everywhere who seem distracted, or uninterested: The fire has gone out. Recovery of passion is needed in all of us along the way. Passion is absolutely essential in our jobs and careers. Who can doubt that Jesus bore our sin on that tree with all of the passion that was humanly, and divinely possible? As followers of the Christ we can find a recovery of passion as we share in the Divine Passion that bore our sin away.

As we become players in the Passion, actors in the holy scene, participants in the pain and loss of precious blood, we then share in Divine Death and find Resurrection to give us new life in this world and the next. It is the angst that brings sweet relief and deep assurance to fit us for a life of deep meaning; a life that is living from the heart and soul.

a sermon synopsis by C. Robert Allred, Th.D., Pastor
8/31/03, P12B