It’s been another tough week in the news of the world: A refrigerator truck full of immigrants, including children, found dead on an Austrian highway, and thousands more in desperate conditions. A TV reporter and videographer shot dead at a resort in Virginia. The stock market rivaling many a roller-coaster in its sickening dives and stomach-churning rises. The presidential campaign once again bloated with smarminess and diversions.
All of which makes a conversation about purity and integrity seem a little shocking, out of touch, maybe, naive even. Such are the questions of the Pharisees and scribes to Jesus on his kingdom of God campaign–”Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” Really? You’re worried about our hygiene, which was really a question about purity? In a world that often seems so soiled and tawdry, questions about the washing of hands and pots and pans are almost refreshing, if they weren’t perhaps so irrelevant–except that they are really about integrity, authority, suitability for leadership. What is it that “defiles” a person–their hygiene or their intentions? “Listen to me,” Jesus told them, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within the human heart, that evil intentions come…”
The writer of the Letter of James puts it this way–”Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.”
What defiles or sullies a person? And what defines them? In a world of selfies, videos that capture the most intimate of actions, self-promoting campaigns and profiles, what is it that defines a person? “Be doers of the word,” James says, “and not merely hearers who deceive themselves…If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God…is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
In a climate and culture with more than its share of hypocrisy, deceit, unbridled self-promotion, and sanctimoniousness, it’s easy to get discouraged and depressed about the state of the human condition. But, remember, these headlines and stories are not all there is. They sell, but they do not tell the whole story. They are seductive, but it’s essential that we remember there are other stories and narratives out there, which quite literally can grow and nourish that word of hope planted within us that James talks about–”the implanted word that has the power to save your souls,” as he puts it.
Nancy Rockwell lifts up “three inspiring witnesses to real Christian faith and duty” that have stood out and moved us as a nation recently–
The first is Dr. Kent Brantly, who contracted ebola as a missionary doctor in Africa. In a recent interview on the PBS NewsHour he was asked if he thought his healing had been a miracle, brought about by his faith and prayer. “Dr. Brantly said No. He said his healing had been the result of hard work by nurses, doctors, and researchers who had offered him an experimental medicine. He made this distinction, that it was his faith that brought him into contact with ebola, to which he would not have been exposed if he had not, in faith, volunteered to serve there. And of his healing, he said God was involved, but his thanks and love went to the community of people who were dedicated to healing.” [N. Rockwell, thebiteintheapple, 8/24/15]
Imagine that! Witnessing–on national television, no less– that it was because of your faith that you were exposed to ebola, because that’s where you felt called. Not claiming that you, unlike thousands of others, were healed because of your faith.
The second witness Rockwell lifts up is the community of Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, where 9 of their beloved were gunned down during Bible study. Not only was the shooter welcomed into that Bible study, but in the aftermath of that horrible tragedy, the people of Emmanuel refused to hate or seek revenge. Their tribute to their pastor Clementa Pinckney was dignified, powerful, and full of grace.
The third witness to walking the walk is former President Jimmy Carter, who when it was revealed that he had a grave medical condition, “said that he was grateful to be filled with peace, not fear and not anger, in response to this news, and that he looked forward to the next great adventure, relying on his faith.” [Rockwell, ibid.] He taught his Sunday school class last week, as usual, and with quiet but firm conviction, gave testimony to the faith that has sustained and supported him throughout his life.
Be doers of the Word, not merely hearers.
There may be other examples of people who have exemplified the best, rather the worst, in human beings that you can think of–the 3 Americans and 1 Brit who acted selflessly and bravely to bring down the would-be shooter on the train heading to Paris. Amelia Boynton Robinson, the civil rights activist who died this week at the age of 104 who had been beaten on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma AL on Bloody Sunday. Firefighters who battle the wildfires out west. Are there others who come to mind?
“Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”
I am certain that none of these people who come to mind consider–or considered– themselves perfect or better than anyone else. Just as Jesus said that nothing on the outside can defile a person, but rather what comes out, so it is that what is inside a person defines them. It is our habits that shape and define us, so we must pay attention to what we do habitually. Jimmy Carter taught his Sunday school class last Sunday and spoke at the news conference of a faith that sustains and guides him because that is what he has done over and over again. Dr. Kent Brantly has immersed himself in both a community of faith and communities of healing so he is able to recognize the hard, faithful work that men and women dedicated to healing are able to do and to accept that his own faith calls him to use his gifts and be of service to people in need. The people of Emmanuel Church were held in their grief by love, compassion, and amazing grace because they practice that every Sunday morning and evening, and at Wednesday night Bible studies and in all the ministries that take place through that church. All these have been able to “welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save [their] souls,” because they have practiced that welcome.
“Be doers of the word, not only hearers or talkers about the word.” Welcome the implanted word–that truth which is deeply within you–water it, give it daylight, let it blossom. You may never be singled out for a news story–even a “human interest feature,” but if you tend to that seed, that word, planted in you, you will be part of the saving of the world.
I was inspired this week by 2 groups of neighbors close to home and here in Vermont who have born witness to the “implanted word” that has the power to keep hope alive and so, in a way, to “save our souls.” This week is the 2nd anniversary of the flooding left in Hurricane Irene’s wake, and there was a documentary on VPT about how the community of Pittsfield, VT experienced that storm. The footage of the flood and the stories of the rumbling boulders and tall trees hurtling down streets and rising around houses were terrifying and overwhelming all over again. You could see emotions brought to the surface in re-telling how frightening it was for little kids all the way up to old-timers. But there were also stories of people calmly but resolutely doing what they had been trained to do,–what they had practiced– like the town clerk putting into motion the town emergency plan, and making adjustments as the situation changed; people who set up emergency shelters; neighbors calling on and checking on neighbors, some literally reaching out in the midst of flood waters to bring people to safety. But it was not only during the storm but after that what was planted most deeply came forth and blossomed. No one was left out or left behind. Strangers became friends. Old grudges were not only put aside, but resolved, as the magnitude of what was truly important became apparent. Reserved, independent Vermonters came together daily in the Federated Church to hear the latest news, to catch up with one another, to see what needed to be done. A classroom was set up for the elementary school kids in the town square. They even pulled off a wedding that the couple had assumed would have to be postponed, but which turned into a glorious community celebration. The nearby community of Chittenden sent a truckload of supplies. “If we could live like this all the time, the world would be a better place,” more than one person remarked. (And we can’t because…?)
Another example of calling forth the best, rather than the worst, in human beings was the Do It Yourself Ironman race that our friend Tim Payne swam, biked, and ran last Saturday. Completing an Ironman had been on Tim’s bucket list since he was 18, something he really wanted to do, and especially after witnessing Rachel’s completion of her Ironman in Lake Placid a few years ago, he was more determined than ever to do it. But he decided to forego the expense and hassles of a big Ironman event and do it, rather, on his own. Thus, the “Homegrown Ironman.” But, of course, he didn’t do it alone. He had the benefit of an experienced coach who gave him tried and true training schedules and tips. He had friends who rode and ran with him. And, perhaps most importantly, he had Rachel, Noah, Maggie, and Finn who supported him, trained with him, filled in the family gaps when Tim was missing–out training–, encouraged him, inspired him. Tim wrote a blog throughout his training, which allowed him both to reflect upon his experience, and to bring others along.
The day of Tim’s Ironman was the same day as our Sun and Fun event and an evening outing in celebration of Meredith’s upcoming wedding, so I wasn’t able to physically be present for any of the race. However, I was moved and inspired by the community of friends and family who came out to support Tim, from his early morning swim on Lake Raponda, to his bike ride through three states, and especially on the long and difficult marathon run, when the usual energy drinks and eats were not able to stay down in Tim’s stomach. Rachel put out the word on Facebook and broth, salt tablets, and other more palatable drinks quickly appeared along the route.
This phase of the race, when he had to walk instead of run, defined, rather than defiled, Tim. “It was the first time I thought I might not make it to the end,” Tim wrote in his blog later. “To make it worse, my kids and wife watched me as I struggled to get back on my feet. I resolved to power walk as far as I could, and I was joined by my friend Tracy, who said she would walk a few miles with me.” Tim’s legs and stomach eventually came back to him, and he was able to finish the race, running, still accompanied by his friend Tracy (after 16 mi.), received by a wildly cheering crowd at Mt. Anthony Union High School, and cross the finish line to the shout, “Tim Payne, You are an Ironman!”
“My first emotion was humility,” Tim later wrote. “The truth is I would never have finished my solo Ironman without the help of many people.”
“Welcome with meekness–with openness–the implanted word that has the power to save
Few of us will ever complete an Ironman, but Ironmen come in many different forms– events or situations that push us to our limits, that force us to let go of our preconceived notions and illusions about what we are capable of or who we are. They can be physical, emotional, psychological challenges, and more often than not, all of the above. We do not pray for natural or humanmade disasters, but when confronted with them, we pray that we will be able to meet them with the best of who we are, shaped and defined by the way we have lived every other day and week.
The qualities that we admire in all these people I’ve lifted up–Dr. Kent Brantly, the people of Emmanuel AME Church, Jimmy Carter, the people of Pittsfield and so many other communities, Tim Payne–and other people who come to mind for you–those qualities stand out for us because there is something within us that recognizes them and resonates within us. It is a powerful experience to take the time to list the qualities of people we admire–specifically, carefully–and then to go over that list and pick out 8 or 10 qualities that particularly seem to stand out as qualities of an “ideal” human being. “He is humble.” “They are forgiving and faithful.” “He is not afraid of death.” And then to write out 8 or 10 sentences that begin with “I am….” or “I have…” with each of those qualities completing the sentence. “I am humble.” “I am forgiving and faithful.” “I am not afraid of death.” “I have faith that calls me to serve, even though it may be dangerous.” “I affirm that God works through hard-working, compassionate healers.” “I willingly share what I have when others are in need.””I engage others to help.” “When there’s something I really want to do, I can set a goal and stick to it, welcoming the support of others.”
We know that there is plenty that defiles us. There is within us not only the best but also the worst that human beings can be. But it is what we nurture, what we practice, what we feed and bring to daylight that will define us. “Be doers of the word.” “Welcome the implanted word within you that has the power to save your soul.” So may the world be a better place because of us. So may God’s kingdom come. Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark