Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
James 1:17-27
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

This morning I want to lift up two iconic figures that have captured my attention these past few weeks.  Their paths appear about as different as any two American citizens could be.  Both lives were filled with challenge and complexity, and yet each has left meaningful lessons for us (at least in my opinion) about principled living characterized by courage and decency, strength, and purpose.

I have listened to hours and hours of tributes about them and I have learned new things; perhaps you have too.  And we might disagree, but I think the beauty of their lives is that that too is acceptable.

The first person is Miss Aretha Franklin, whose voice was like none other.  She helped us understand that regardless of one’s title, position, money, or status in life,  all of us, by virtue of our humanity, are worthy and deserving of a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T.  She seemed adamant about that, which tells me that over her lifetime, she also knew something about being DIS-respected; by lovers yes, but also by a world not quite ready for her from the beginning.  Therefore, RESPECT was the one non-negotiable.

The “Queen of Soul” is what she was called; a one in a million voice, but much more, as she was also a humanitarian and civil and human rights advocate.  She could engage the world’s stage – kings and queens and the highest echelons – but also looked out for the little people; and she never forgot from where she came.

Some have said that in her music we could hear the full embodiment of her life’s experience, the deep roots of her faith that kept calling to her, that allowed her to go to the high place but also to that place where only moans would do.  The power of love was her driving force which allowed her to transcend and maintain her honor.  Not a charmed life at all, but a life that was able to transcend the darkness and embrace the power of love.

The other person is Arizona Senator John McCain.  Now, I must admit that he has grown on me over the years; but in these times especially, his leadership is something to be admired.  I was saddened to hear of his passing, grateful to learn more of his life and works, and awed by the examples of leadership.  He seemed to possess the ability to disagree and was unafraid to live his convictions, which he held onto but not so tightly that he could not see, nor get past, himself.

Some called him a “political maverick”, one who put principle above political party; “a true American hero” having put his body and livelihood on the line as a military soldier and Vietnam War prisoner of war.  A man willing to acknowledge mistakes and shortcomings and to grow accordingly, he defended his opponents at critical moments and was willing to speak the truth and correct a wrong.

In the end, I was equally impressed by the careful orchestration of his final farewell; his choice of eulogists, two people who were his political rivals; and yet, despite their differences chosen to be his friends.  In doing so, he symbolized a greater good, larger than any of their views and opinions, likes and dislikes.  I think there’s a place for stuff like that in our world and our country, don’t you?

They were human beings for sure; not perfect by any means; like all of us, but people willing and able to live with honor and respect; principles and civility; among friends but also among those with whom they disagree.

Our faith is calling to us, my brothers and sisters, to put aside our differences, our likes and preferences for the greater good.  It doesn’t matter how we started out, what we were.  What matters is who we are now and who we are becoming.

I’m old school in this way.  I believe that we ought to have some convictions, some principles around which we live and govern ourselves; some things at our core that when all has been said and done, this is who I am.  I think in our culture we have become so fearful about not being “perfect” that we have lost a desire for higher moral aspirations.  But our scripture lessons today remind us that we are to “be doers of the Word and not hearers only.”[1]

What we do screams so much louder than what we say – a gazillion words everyday but one clear example can take us further.   It is in the doing of what we say we believe in a thousand ways, both great and small, that defines who we really are.

Be doers of the word and not hearers only.  And this is important because in the gospel lesson, the Pharisees and scribes were disgruntled trying the next thing to trap Jesus.  It is the next thing; not the first thing, not the last thing, nor the only thing – the next thing.  They were always at it.  They had a “got-you” mentality so they were always looking.   These were the learned people, scholars.  They knew the law and how things were “supposed to be” and they thought they knew better and more than any others.

They confronted Jesus about his disciples washing their hands on the Sabbath Day.   They were bound by rules and regulations about external matters and handwashing was the subject of the day.  Now I can’t imagine anything being inherently wrong with washing hands – then nor now – can you?

There is no question that our traditions have their place.  We need those things in our lives that have been tried and true; things and customs, rituals and ways that have stood the test of time that remind us of what worked.  They help us to stay grounded and feel safe; validated.  We need things that are proven solid and stable; consistent.

But we must also be mindful that sometimes, our traditions get in the way, preventing us from loving our neighbors and making room for others in the here and now.  They prevent us from opening ourselves up honestly to new possibilities in a fast moving and ever changing world.  We must be mindful whether in the context of family life, Church, academic institutions, or political arenas, that we are not so willing to accept norms that do not offer love and mercy, and justice for all.  Any traditions that do not celebrate women, or our gay,  lesbian, and transgender brothers and sisters; traditions that do not allow us to fully embrace one another, that do not call our attention to the poor and those in greatest need should be re-considered.

Principles of honesty, courtesy, respect, kindness, decency, and good-will.  Hard work, integrity – these things must always ring true.

Jesus said it is not what is on the outside of a person that defiles the person.  It is not about handwashing or showing up or doing any number of things; and there is a whole list of
“sins” and vices listed in the text.  Did you hear them?  I suspect that at least some of us have our struggles: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.  All of these things, Jesus says, come from the heart, from within.  They come without regard to the feelings and well-being of others.   They come because there are no higher principles guiding our way.  Love of God, love of neighbor.

The world needs people willing to live principled lives; who possess a moral fiber that stretches beyond personal likes and dislikes, differences, and preferences; ordinary, regular people whose lives are characterized by wins and losses, successes and failures – like our own.  But who are willing to usher in new traditions for the present age, for the greater good.  This is the voice of God calling to us.  Can you hear?

Our Old Testament passage that we did not read comes from the Song of Solomon:

Arise my love, my fair one, and come away
for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone
The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.
The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom,
they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.[2]

Let us hear that voice calling to us and let us arise for such a time as this

[1] James 1:22
[2] Song f Solomon 2:10b-13