August 17, 2008
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Grand Forks, ND
This morning I am going to begin with something I have never done from a pulpit before. I am going to make a confession to you. Now, I know some of you have now probably frozen in your pews imaging what possible confession Fr. Jamie could be making. But my confession is not as bad as you might think.
My confession this: I have a big mouth.
Now, I know this probably does not come as a big surprise to some of those of you who know me. My parents are here this morning and, let me tell you, this is not a surprise to them by any means. For the rest of you, this is not what you probably want to hear from a priest. And, to be clear, when I say I have a big mouth, I don’t mean that I have ever violated any confidences, nor I have I ever broken the seal of confession. I am also not saying that I have professed atheism or any intentional heresy (I think we all sometimes are guilty of unintentional heresy). I hope I am not guilty of having spoken true evil from my mouth.
When I say that I have a big mouth, what I mean is that, when I look back over my life, I realize have said some dumb things in my life. And when I looked back over my life, I realize that the really bad things that have happened to me, that I’m truly responsible for, can all find their root in something I have said. I am one of those people who, on a regular basis, wishes that, as the words are coming out of my mouth, I could grasp them in the air and stuff them back in my mouth.
My grandmother used to always reprimand me about my big mouth. She would say to me: “Jamie, think before you speak.” And there’s the real source of my problem. I sometimes I just don’t think before I speak.
As I said, I have said some dumb things in my life, I have said things that I greatly regret and that I wish I had never said, as we all have at one point or another. And in addition to the dumb things, or the hurtful things I may have said to people when I was angry, I have also been somewhat opinionated in what I have said. I have been outspoken. I have been insensitive sometimes. I have given unneeded and unwanted advice to people when that advice hasn’t been sought.
So, when Jesus tells his followers—and us—in this morning in our Gospel reading of this morning—“it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles” these are words that hit home for me, and no doubt, for many of us.
We were all raised reciting that little verse:
Sticks and stone may break my bones
But words will never hurt me.
The reality of the matter is that words DO hurt. Words are sometimes much more painful and hurtful than sticks and stones. And when it comes to our relationship with God, the words we say carry much weight.
In today’s Gospel we find Jesus making very clear statements: “…what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart and this is what defiles. For out of the mouth comes evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”
Jesus is clear here about what makes one unclean. The words that come out of our mouth are really only the end result of what’s in our hearts. The words that come out of our mouths are really only little mirrors of what is dwelling within us. When we say dumb things, we harboring dumb things in our hearts. When we say hurtful, mean things, we are carrying hurt and meanness in our hearts. And what’s in our hearts truly does make all the difference. If our hearts are dark—if our hearts are over-run with negative things—then our words are going to reflect that.
When we talk about something like “sin,” we find ourselves thinking instantly of the things we do. We think immediately of all those uncharitable, unsavory things we’ve done in our lives. And when we realize that sin, essentially, is anything we chose to do that separates us from God and from each other, it is always easy to instantly take stock of all the bad things we’ve done.
But the fact is, we can truly “sin” by what we say as well. The words that come out of our mouths can separate us from God and from each other because they are really coming from our hearts—from that place in which there should really only be love for God and for each other. We have all known Christians who are quick to profess their faiths with their mouths, but who certainly do not believe that faith in their hearts. And, I think, we have also known people who have kept quiet about their faith, who have not professed much with their mouths, but who have quietly been consistent in their faith. If we profess our faith with our mouths, but not in our hearts, we really are guilty to some extent.
There is a well-known saying that has been attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the Gospel, use words if necessary.” To be honest, I have long had a problem with this saying. I think we’re inundated in this world by people who are constantly preaching their faith with words. When we turn on the TV, we find televangelists and others going on and on about their faith and only later do we find out about their scandals and shortcomings and we realize that they certainly do not practice what they preach. We’ve also known our fair share of clergy who have done this as well. And probably few things drive us away faster from church than those self-righteous people who shake their fingers at us and spout their faith to us, but who, in turn, don’t show their love and compassion.
The name we encounter in the Gospels for those people who do not practice what they preach is “hypocrite.” And throughout the Gospels, we find that Jesus isn’t ever condemning the ones we think he would condemn. He doesn’t condemn the prostitute, the tax collector, any of those people who have been ostracized and condemned by society and the religious organizations of their times. The ones Jesus, over and over again, condemns, are the hypocrites—those supposedly religious people who are quick to speak their faith with words, who are quick to strut around and act religiously, but who do not hold any real faith in their hearts.
The Pharisees that Jesus is having trouble with in today’s Gospel, are not at all concerned about what is in their hearts. Their faith has nothing to do with their hearts. They are more concerned about the purification rites. They are more concerned about making sure that the food one eats is clean and pure—that it hasn’t been touched by those who are unclean. They are concerned that they are the clean ones and they are concerned that there is a separation from those that are unclean. They are more concerned with the words of the Law, rather than the heart of the Law. They are more concerned with the letter of the Law, rather than the spirit of the Law.
We’ve all been guilty of such things. Let’s face it: it’s easier to stick the letter of the Law. It’s easy to follow the religious rules without bothering to think about why we are following them. It’s just so much easier to go through the motions without having to feel anything. Because to feel means to actually make one’s self vulnerable. To feel means one has to love—and, as we know, love is dangerous. Love makes us step out into uncomfortable areas and do uncomfortable things.
But the message of Jesus is all about the fact that to be a follower of Jesus means not being a hypocrite. The message of Jesus is that to be a follower of Jesus means believing with one’s heart.
This morning, we are celebrating a wonderful event. During this Mass, we will be baptizing Abigail Briggs Baptisms are prime opportunities for us to take stock of our Christian faith. In a few moments, when we baptize Abigail, we will renew the vows that were made for us at our own baptisms and we will be reminded of what it means to be a baptized Christian. In the Baptismal Covenant we will once again promise to try, “with God’s help,” to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.” To “proclaim by word and example the Good News” is, in essence, to say that, as Christians we will strive not to be hypocrites. To proclaim the Good News, we need to do so by both word and example. It is to truly practice what we preach.
Now that I have confessed to you the sin of my Big Mouth, I now can work on myself. I am now able to recognize that what sometimes comes out of my mouth isn’t my mouth’s fault. It is only reflecting what I am holding in my heart. And it is a change of heart that I need to work on. When I am a big mouth, when my mouth gets me in trouble, it is only giving voice to the darkness and the lack of love that I harbor sometimes in my heart. And that darkness means that I am not letting the Light of God shine through.
So, take to heart what Jesus is saying to us in today’s Gospel. Take his words and plant them deeply in your heart. Let the words of his mouth be the words of your mouth. Let the Word by your word. And let that word find its home, its source, its basis in your heart. When it does, your words will truly speak the Word that is in your heart. Allow no darkness, no negativity to exist within your heart. Do not be a hypocritical Pharisee to those around you. But let your heart be the source of your faith in everything you do in faith. Let your heart be so filled with love that nothing else can exist in it but love. Strive to live out your Baptismal Covenant with God by proclaiming “by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.” And if you do, you will find that Good News pouring forth from your mouth and bringing joy and gladness and love to others—and to yourself.