A Sermon by

The Rev Barbara Mraz

August 30, 2015

St John the Evangelist Episcopal Church

St Paul, Minnesota

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23


In the faculty room of the high school where I used to work, a large round table near the coffee pot was the scene for intense religious activity.  It was the ominous goodie table, perhaps laden with miniature Snicker bars from Halloween; bagels and cookies provided by parents; half a chocolate cake from a teacher’s home party.

It usually went like this:

First, the confession of personal weakness as the table comes into view: ”Oh no…just when I thought it was safe to come in here.”

Then temptation triumphs: “I’m just going to take this tiny little corner with no frosting on it…” Then, grabbing the whole slice of cake: “I’m eating it, okay?  Life is short.”

Finally penance is assigned: “I’m not going to eat lunch today and I’ll probably skip dinner, too. January first and it’s diet city.”

To well-fed Americans, food has become an occasion for sin; we say we are “being bad” by consuming a slice of caramel cheesecake, described as so good it’s sinful.  

This concern with health is commendable, of course, but giving into unhealthy food may be one of the very few times that we use the term “sin” outside of church.  Of course, according to Scripture, it is through food that sin entered the world when Eve just couldn’t stick to her eating plan!

In the Gospel, the Pharisees are at their baiting game again, trying to catch Jesus in a contradiction.  They note that the disciples break the Jewish purity laws by eating with unwashed hands.  Jesus responds that it is what comes out of a person that defiles them and he gives examples that are almost all are sins of consumption. Adultery, theft, greed, envy, pride — each of these springs from a desire to take, to grasp, to own, to devour.  If our desire for self-satisfaction is allowed to run rampant, we become insatiable consumers: of things, of pleasure, of people, even of our own energy.  How good do you actually feel after spending a day binge watching Netflix?

At its core, sin is breaking the rules of God or of an established moral system.  Sometimes we call it as guilty pleasure, like devouring a stack of People magazine. Some times, there’s humor involved: “Sloth is living in your parents’ basement, still playing video games and you’re 45.” The world’s religions, especially the People of the Book – Christians, Jew and Muslims, have a very similar definitions of what is right and wrong.  

We have, in fact, downsized sin.  For most people suicide, divorce or addiction are no longer considered sinful.  Ditto sex before marriage or having children out of wedlock, breaking the Sabbath by treating Sunday the same as Saturday, not cleaning your plate at dinner (which encourages over-eating).  Other sins have gained more visibility: racism, environmental pollution, sexual abuse, bullying  

There’s a difference between what we consider sinful and what we are shocked by.  We are shocked by the fact 15 people per minute on our planet die of hunger-related causes, even though the world produces enough food to feed everyone. We recoil from the shameless greed of Wall Street bankers. We shake our heads over the plight of refuges that no one wants.  We are disgusted by Halloween costumes of Cecil the Lion and the dentist or of hospital patients dripping with blood.

The thing is, sin can be juicy.

In his book on evil, Terry Eagleton writes:  “Evil starts to look alluring when goodness begins to look boring. We can blame this on the puritanical middle classes who defined ‘virtue’ as thrift, prudence, meekness, abstinence and industriousness.  Goodness became negative and restrictive.”

 So virtue may be admirable but it is vice can be alluring. Eagleton says, “Nobody would have an orange juice with Oliver Twist if they could have a beer with Fagin.”  And I think few of us would have a juice box with Mr. Rogers if they could have a different beverage with Keith Richards. Oscar Wilde remarked that anyone who doesn’t find the death of Dickens saintly insufferable Little Nell uproariously funny must have a heart of stone.

One of the sins mentioned by Jesus is pride. I want to focus on that now. Although it has other definitions, a traditional one is an elevated sense of self-importance while seeing everyone else as inferior.  

Columnist David Brooks contrasts pride with humility when he recounts listening in hi car to a radio broadcast played on the day that World War II ended.  Announcer Bing Crosby said, ”Well, it looks like this is it.  I guess all anybody can say is thank God’s it’s over. Today our deep down feeling is one of humility,” Then a passage was read from war correspondent Ernie Pyle: “We won this war because our men are brave and because of Russia, England and China and eh passage of time and the gift of nature’s materials. We did not win it because we are better than all other people.  I hope that in victory we are move gracious than proud.”

Then Brooks said, he went into his house and turned on a football game.  A quarterback threw a short pass to a wide receiver who was tackled almost immediately for a two-yard gain.  “Then the offensive player did what all professional athletes do these days in moment of personal accomplishment. He did a self-puffing dance as the camera lingered. It occurred to me that I had just watched more self-celebration over a two yard gain than I had heard after the Allies won World War II.”

Pride is insidious. During college and right afterwards I thought I was too cool for church, too smart for organized religion. I had grown up in a conservative denomination whose teaching I scorned, and whose services bored me.  Going to church was what my parents did.  And it was the 70’s and we were all about challenging authority, speaking truth to power, criticizing the “establishment,” and pretty much everything else including the government, the schools, and organized religion. We were for free expression.  We were for art.  We were for equality.  But not in any institutionalized way.

Although I returned to the church by the time I was thirty, I can still jump into that same critical mindset in a heartbeat. Especially now that I am in the pew three Sundays a month and things aren’t always as I want them to be.  Maybe it’s too cold in here or too hot; or I don’t like that hymns, I don’t get the sermon, I struggle with the bulletin pages.  The reader is too oft; other people are too loud. Where did that hat come from?  

But when I shut this voice down I see other things: I see displays of physical courage that stun me; a long-term marriage of 60 years that humbles me.  I see a young woman in tears through most of the service and a longtime member coming up to her later and saying quietly, “Thank you for sharing your tears with us.” All of this happens in a hundred-year-old sanctuary of incomparable beauty graciously and generously provided by our predecessors here who sat in these pews and walked these aisles with feelings and emotions so similar to our own. This room echoes with their prayers.

C.S. Lewis writes this:

When I first became a Christian, about fourteen years ago, I thought that I could do it on my own, by retiring to my rooms and reading theology, and I wouldn’t go to the churches and Gospel Halls; . . . I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music. But as I went on I saw the great merit of it. I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off. I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit.

Maybe we are just resigned to a certain amount of sin in the world we live in.  The poet and environmentalist Wendell Berry observes, “We all live by robbing nature. But our standard of living demands that the robbery shall continue.”

When we walk through these red doors, we come from a world where political candidates have moved beyond arrogance into weirdness; where the viciousness of deep racial hatred is barely beneath the surface; where random shootings scorch the safest landscapes; and where organized religion has less and less influence.  

The connection between sin and the church is this: Church demands you think about it.  Church is a time out in your life to gain strength to deal with it.  A lot of things contribute to this.

Here we hear the stories read that have sustained people for thousands of years.  

Here we pray the prayers  –and what prayers they are — reminding us of what we have done and who we want to be.


Here we pass the peace to each other breaking down the walls that serve so well to prevent engagement with other human beings in our technological world.

We break the bread, we drink the wine–and the bread and wine are as tangible and real as the gifts they promise — and we are so hungry for meaning, for direction, for peace.  “Do this in remembrance of me,” Jesus says, not believe this or else.  

And here we sing our songs, that name for us the feelings we long to express.  Later today, this:

“For the wonders that astound us,

for the truths that still confound us,

most of all that love has found us,

thanks be to God.”

You don’t have to go to church.

You get to. Amen.


Sources: David Brook, The Road to Character, 2015

Tom Eagleton, Evil, 2015

C.S. Lewis  in Touchtone: A Journal of Mere Christianity,  Brothers of St James, 2015.

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