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Sunday, September 2, 2018 | 8:00 a.m.

Finding Our Way to Yes

Lucy Forster-Smith
Senior Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 15
Mark 7:1–8, 14–15, 21–23

When we truly encounter Jesus—incarnate and ministering among us, crucified and resurrected—our fireproof hearts catch fire, and in following him we come to know that obedience to God which is perfect freedom, and we begin to find our way home.

William Placher

Princeton Theological Seminary, where I did my seminary education, was a very serious, even stuffy place in the 1970s. The faculty were brilliant, accomplished, published, and often dead serious in their academic pursuits. Sitting in the classrooms back then meant sitting at the feet of these professors, as most of the lecture halls had raised platforms, where the faculty would hold forth, not unlike preachers in churches like this one. So I distinctly recall a day when a very stuffy, suit-clad theology professor undid my image of both theology and also the assumptions I made about seminary, Princeton, and faculty.

It was my first year as a seminarian. I came to seminary with a deep love for theology, for the thinking about God’s engagement with the world through intellectual and spiritual categories. And frankly, as I sat with 90 or 100 other seminarians in the “Introduction to Theology” seminar and day by day heard dry lectures from faculty on grace (who could make the idea of grace tiresome?) or law or ecclesiology or the truth of Jesus’ life, the excitement for my vocational pursuit of doing a Ph.D. and teaching theology began to fade. So it came as a great surprise when one day that fall the stuffy, suit-clad theology professor’s lecture on predestination, of all things, dipped into the stuff of faith with such power, such passion, that I practically jumped out of my seat!

Indeed, the topic was predestination: the idea that many are called, and few are chosen. The theologian we were focusing on was the eminent Karl Barth, a famous twentieth-century Swiss-born Reformed scholar. I think everyone but me knew his work, and as I read the portion of the Church Dogmatics we were to prepare for the lecture, I found it challenging to understand, especially the predestination portion. The faculty member started his routine lecture with the historic background, the central ideas of the material, and a few illuminating connections between Barth and other theologians. But then something shifted in the professor’s voice, volume, and engagement with the material. As he quoted Karl Barth on predestination his voice began to raise, the wrinkles in this brow softened, his eyes sparked with joy and animation. Quoting Barth he said, “The final word is never that of warning, of judgment, of punishment, of a barrier erected, of a grave opened. We cannot speak of [the gospel] without mentioning all these things.” All students’ eyes were suddenly lifted from the mad note-taking and fixed on this professor. He went on, “The Yes cannot be heard unless the No is also heard. But the No is said for the sake of the Yes and not for its own sake.” And then with such passion, such absolute conviction, and not shouting but almost singing he concluded, “The first and last word [of God toward humanity] is Yes and not No” (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. 2, part 2).

I sat in the classroom that day in awe of this professor’s passion, conviction, and certainty that the word of God to this world is Yes. And I thought of all of the rules and regulations my own faith tradition had led me through. I recalled nights at my high school youth meetings when a preacher or teacher would call out behaviors that they said were sinful and how we were, with our eyes closed, to raise our hands when our particular sin was mentioned: cheating, lying, drinking, smoking, lust—oh, that one must have had many hands up—envy, and so forth. The message was a resounding No to these behaviors, and by extension, we, who knew the truth about ourselves, lived with a huge burden of guilt and a large bucket load of shame.  

The passage in Mark’s Gospel seems to be steeped in prohibition and a whole lot of no. Jesus’ engagement with the Pharisees throughout the Gospels often presents a pretty jaundiced view of them. They are seen as petty leaders who are more interested in the jots and tittles, the letter of the law and not the spirit of it. But it is clear that the Pharisees have gotten an unfair shake over the years. They, like many of my seminary professors, took their religious practice very seriously, and of course, an orthodox view of religious life lives on in all religious traditions. In this particular passage we have the Pharisees criticizing Jesus’ followers as they watch them eat with unwashed hands. The Mosaic custom is that if a person does not wash his or her hands before eating, the food that goes into the mouth is defiled, dirty. The immediate implication is that the person is made dirty by the unclean. The larger implication is that they are dirty before God, who, according to the tradition they are upholding, demands clean hands.

What is not apparent in this text is the larger context of the passage wherein a few verses earlier Jesus has been dealing with what some Jewish purists might call unclean people. Jesus has encountered a Syrophoenician woman who asks for crumbs from under the table and whose faith was such a marvel that Jesus heals her daughter. Jesus also encounters in a Gentile area a man who is deaf and mute who has his hearing and speech restored by Jesus. Both of these folks were outsiders, Gentiles, unclean people because they didn’t practice the purity codes.

This is serious business in the New Testament. Jesus’ priority of generous and abundant grace visited upon the “dirty,” non-practicing Gentiles sets some Pharisees and other Jewish leaders’ teeth on edge. (You may recall that such engagement almost got the Apostle Paul murdered in last week’s lesson from the Acts of the Apostles.) When confronted about the disciples’ unwashed hands and taking dirty food into their bodies, Jesus insults those confronting him by quoting the prophet Isaiah: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” He then goes further to say that their absolutes arise from the human tradition, but they abandon the commandment of God. Jesus then clinches it by calling the crowds, who must have been watching the confrontation between the religious leaders and this itinerant rabbi like a reality TV show, and saying to them, “There’s nothing outside a person that by going in defiles, but it is the things that come out of a person that defile.” And he doesn’t stop there but heaps on the burning coals of the evils that inhabit the heart: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, wickedness, avarice or greed, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, and, yes, folly. There is a no-no-no. These things come from within, and they spoil us and the world. It’s almost as if the small-case no of the Pharisees meets the massive shouted “No!” of Jesus.

So, from the No of Jesus in this passage, how do we get to the Yes of the gospel message so alive in that seminary classroom all those years ago? I have a hunch that this is not only a question that comes to us in our youth and in our adulthood but is a primary issue for us from very early in our lives. Think about being around toddlers whose world revolves around the word no. A couple of us on the clergy staff have two-year-old grandchildren. I am one of them. That powerful monosyllabic word, no, orders and even rules the day. It comes out of the little, two-and-a-half-foot-tall person with force and sends the entire household—parents, grandparents, and even the pets—into paralysis for a second. “NO, NONNIE!” the little one says to me. “No, Grandad!” “No, Molly!” (the dog). No to food. No to naps. No to that shirt we are trying to put on her. No to the stroller we are trying to take her to the park in. You get the idea. The child inflicts the no on the world before the world inflicts the no on him or her. James Loder, a developmental theologian, puts it this way: “The general struggle of the toddler’s ego in this period has to do with autonomy vs. shame. In interpersonal terms, the issue is control: mastery of the self in relation to the demands of others” (James Loder, The Logic of the Spirit, p. 135). In practical terms this time is one of seeking independence and also feeling very exposed by the reality that we want to be connected. The tension of wanting to be free to be oneself and the simple lack of confidence or the reality of self-doubt may lead us to a Pharisaic approach to life: holding onto the external absolutes rather than the freedom gained by Christ’s yes on our lives.

Maybe the countermove that Jesus is calling us to embody is to go through the no to the yes. That is, to honestly engage the no and even recognize its place in our lives. It certainly was true in the pattern of the author of our faith, Jesus. He went through an excruciating death—the ultimate no to the gift of life and then a very quiet but increasingly powerful yes of the resurrection. And so, also in our lives, I think, we lean into the areas of our individual and corporate experiences of no or defilement or masquerading as the route to God’s ultimate yes.

No other sustained movement in our own American life has moved through the no to yes more powerfully than the civil rights movement. The leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a minister, brought the gravity of the no to the seat of God’s stirring love. In his book The Soul of America, Jon Meacham recounts the early history of King’s involvement in the movement. Daddy King, Martin Luther King Sr., was a leading preacher and pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Martin Luther King Jr. was educated at Morehouse College, Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, and Boston University. He was called to be the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1954. A year later Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery for declining to give up her seat on a city bus to a white passenger. King’s pulpit was in the center of Montgomery, and when the bus boycott began, it became the center of the first organizing gathering. King articulated his vision through addressing a mass crowd on December 5, 1955. The no was the propelling force toward the yes. King said,

And you know, my friends, there comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression. There comes a time, my friends, when people get tired of being plunged across the abyss of humiliation, where they experience the bleakness of nagging despair. There comes a time when people get tired of being pushed out of the glittering sunlight of life’s July and left standing amid the piercing chill of an Alpine November. . . . We are here, we are here this evening because we are tired now.

And then to an ecstatic crowd he said, “We are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream!” (quoted by Jon Meacham, The Soul of America, pp. 223–224).

Even in the face of having his house bombed within two months of his “debut boycott sermon” King recalled, “I could hear an inner voice saying to me: Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you even until the end of the world. . . . Jesus promised never to leave me alone.”

“It is what comes out of a person that defiles them, not what goes in.” Racism, sexism, greed, power-hungering. Yes, we know what lurks in our human hearts. And the word of Jesus is to hold to the good, embrace the stranger, offer radical hospitality, and stare down anything that would diminish our full capacity to deeply love and serve God.

That day in that Princeton Seminary classroom I experienced the radical Yes of Christ in a world-defying, awakening, powerful way. At that moment I did not know that many things in my own life would arise to try to undercut the Yes. But I stand before you this day holding the gospel truth of Christ Jesus: that God’s animating light shines through our lives, and that light and love is our heart’s deepest desire. Even more, we are not left on our own. God’s promise is to be with us through it all, and that is the most powerful Yes of all! For this we can shout from the mountaintops: thanks be to God! Amen.