This sermon was delivered at Wallace UMC, September, 2, 2012.
7 The Pharisees and some legal experts from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus. 2 They saw some of his disciples eating food with unclean hands. (They were eating without first ritually purifying their hands through washing. 3 The Pharisees and all the Jews don’t eat without first washing their hands carefully. This is a way of observing the rules handed down by the elders. 4 Upon returning from the marketplace, they don’t eat without first immersing themselves. They observe many other rules that have been handed down, such as the washing of cups, jugs, pans, and sleeping mats.) 5 So the Pharisees and legal experts asked Jesus, “Why are your disciples not living according to the rules handed down by the elders but instead eat food with ritually unclean hands?”
6 He replied, “Isaiah really knew what he was talking about when he prophesied about you hypocrites. He wrote,
This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far away from me.
7 Their worship of me is empty
since they teach instructions that are human words.[a]
8 You ignore God’s commandment while holding on to rules created by humans and handed down to you.” 9 Jesus continued, “Clearly, you are experts at rejecting God’s commandment in order to establish these rules. 10 Moses said, Honor your father and your mother,[b] and The person who speaks against father or mother will certainly be put to death.[c] 11 But you say, ‘If you tell your father or mother, “Everything I’m expected to contribute to you is corban (that is, a gift I’m giving to God),” 12 then you are no longer required to care for your father or mother.’ 13 In this way you do away with God’s word in favor of the rules handed down to you, which you pass on to others. And you do a lot of other things just like that.”
14 Then Jesus called the crowd again and said, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand. 15 Nothing outside of a person can enter and contaminate a person in God’s sight; rather, the things that come out of a person contaminate the person.”[d]
17 After leaving the crowd, he entered a house where his disciples asked him about that riddle. 18 He said to them, “Don’t you understand either? Don’t you know that nothing from the outside that enters a person has the power to contaminate? 19 That’s because it doesn’t enter into the heart but into the stomach, and it goes out into the sewer.” By saying this, Jesus declared that no food could contaminate a person in God’s sight. 20 “It’s what comes out of a person that contaminates someone in God’s sight,” he said. 21 “It’s from the inside, from the human heart, that evil thoughts come: sexual sins, thefts, murders, 22 adultery, greed, evil actions, deceit, unrestrained immorality, envy, insults, arrogance, and foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from the inside and contaminate a person in God’s sight.
I’m going to start out by doing something a little different. I came across a story earlier, and I want to read some of it to you. It’s by a humor writer named Eileen Cook. She writes:
“I’ve always been funny. It’s my thing. Some people get beauty, others sports ability, a lucky few even get musical talent. Me? I can’t dance, sing, catch a ball, and no one has called to make me a top model, but I can make people laugh. It’s a handy skill and unlike sports ability, it rarely results in injury. You don’t see too many torn tendons from cracking a good joke.
Being funny is a bit like your own personal super power. It can be used for good or evil. Granted not always as handy as being able to fly, or having your fingertips shoot lightening, but you have to work with what you got. The question is what do you do with all that power? It isn’t that you plan to use your power to be cruel, no one sets out to be the villain, but sometimes it’s easy to make fun of someone who doesn’t fit in, who’s different, or just plain weird. No one means anything by it. It’s just a joke. Besides, if they are laughing at what you say, it means they aren’t laughing at you.
In high school I had a classmate named Dennis. Dennis was pretty dorky. He wore his pants too short and he seemed to always have hot lunch spilled on his shirt. He had terrible acne and wasn’t the best student. He was always trying to fit in, but he never did. I don’t know if anyone ever physically bullied him, but he certainly had more than his fair share of “funny” comments made at his expense.
Dennis died in an accident. They announced it the morning on the PA before classes. He was the first person in our class to die and everyone was shocked and a few of us started to cry. I wasn’t crying because I was sad he was gone. You can’t cry for someone you didn’t know. I cried because I was ashamed. I knew I could have been nicer. I could have used my humor to turn the situation around on the person making fun of him, but I never did. I laughed at Dennis, not with him.
I realized then that it was up to me. Being funny comes with responsibility; I had to use it wisely. Bullies aren’t just the people who shove someone around or the one who makes the snotty comment. Bullies are also the people who stand on the side and laugh. I promised myself I would never feel that shame again. I would use my humor for good, to make people laugh with me, not at someone else. I wanted to be a hero, not a villain. I wanted to know I stood up when it mattered. 
I think it’s safe to say that at some point in everyone’s life, they have been bullied. I know I have, and I know a lot of you have. I have no doubts myself that Eileen Cook was also bullied in some way; through her humor, she was better able to manage it though. Some people are not so gifted, as she explained. But you know, she’s right. Sometimes the bully is not always the one making the insults, or pointing the finger. Sometimes, the bully is the one on the sideline who laughs, who stands by and does nothing while others are singled out and made fun of.
Why is it so hard to stand up for others? Why is it so difficult to do the right thing? Why, in the 21st century, bullying is still a thing that exists? I’m going to read you some statistics to let you get a better picture of the problem.
- Bully victims are between 2 to 9 times more likely to consider suicide than non-victims, according to studies by Yale University
- Suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people, resulting in about 4,400 deaths per year, according to the CDC. For every suicide among young people, there are at least 100 suicide attempts. Over 14 percent of high school students have considered suicide, and almost 7 percent have attempted it.
- A study in Britain found that at least half of suicides among young people are related to bullying
- 10 to 14 year old girls may be at even higher risk for suicide, according to the study above
- According to statistics reported by ABC News, nearly 30 percent of students are either bullies or victims of bullying, and 160,000 kids stay home from school every day because of fear of bullying
There are so many kids—and adults—who commit suicide every year because they have been bullied, have been made to feel worthless, or ugly, or unwanted. I’m thankful that recently bullying has gotten more attention as a serious societal problem. I’m thankful that more people are taking notice of the cruelty that plagues our schools, our workplaces, and everywhere else.
I’m thankful, because it’s a discussion worth having. Christians need to have this discussion, especially. For many people in the world, bullying is a cycle, one that ends either in shame, fear, violence, or worse. Some that are bullied become bullies themselves, because of their own fears and insecurities, out of a misplaced sense of self-preservation, and a lack of self-worth. Others see the only solution to their problem is through suicide, to not even live any more. It’s absolutely tragic, in any case.
The saddest truth of all is that people in the Christian community are just as culpable as anyone else for bullying, and some people who call themselves Christians are sometimes the worst bullies of them all, because for all our preaching and talk about faith, hope and love, there sure are a lot of us who are the ones on the sidelines, never thinking that our laughter, that our self-righteousness, or even our silence, could in some way lead some poor soul to suicide. That, my brothers and sisters, is absolutely deplorable. It’s terrible. But it’s the truth. I know there are times I probably should have stood up, and didn’t. I’m not pointing any fingers; I’m just as culpable, just as guilty. If we’re going to call ourselves a community that lives in the truth, though, we’re going to have to face it.
Jesus apparently had zero-tolerance for bullies, especially the ones who were running the show. The Pharisees, as we have been taught, were known for their fairly stringent and public practice of the Law. These were people who took the scriptures very seriously, or so they claimed. These were also people who didn’t like to be proven wrong. They held holiness in high regard, but did not see that in pursuing holiness, they are just as easily ignoring it, and becoming bullies in the process. Such is the case with these Pharisees in Mark 7.
Now, what they were concerned with was a fairly important thing, that of ritual purity and clean-ness—really, what they were concerned with was holiness. For them, adhering to the ritual purity laws of the Torah were paramount, and for good reason. Keeping clean and holy was what separated Jews from other peoples. It was a matter of ethnic identity. We are not like the people who do not show respect for their bodies, or for the gifts that God has given them. We treat our food and ourselves with respect enough to be clean, pure and holy. My brothers and sisters, this is not a bad thing.
However, it can be a bad thing if taken without a little bit of perspective. Is it bad to show disrespect to yourself and to your food? Yes. Is it the worst thing ever, as the Pharisees make it out to be? Probably not. This was the perspective from where Jesus operated. He saw that the evil in the world was not going to be solved by washing your hands all the time. Not that that’s bad; it’s just not the thing to get all worked up about, when there’s so much else out there in the world that deserves our attention.
So when challenged on this, Jesus took this as an opportunity to give them perspective. He also took the opportunity to point out the hypocrisy of the argument. Here’s the crux of it. If you get all worked up about the little things that, while important, are not the end of the world, you won’t have the energy to take a step back and see the real problem. It’s not what you put in your body that’s evil. It’s what comes out of your mouth.
Seriously, though, what comes out of your mouth shapes the world around you far more than what you put into it. What comes out of your mouth is what causes the conditions of contamination that further the cycle of hatred, violence, shame, and yes, death. If what comes out of your mouth is filthy, is hateful, is spiteful, is sinful, is evil, then that evil is released into the world. If what comes out of your mouth is silence when there is injustice, you are just as guilty of contamination. Jesus says a whole long list of sins that result from hateful speech, from bullying, and it encompasses pretty much the totality of what sin looks like in the world. That’s what causes the real damage, and that damage is hard to undo.
There’s a story that I was told by my old junior high Sunday school teacher, Johnny Gallegos, and it’s stuck with me for a long time. Once there was a boy who was known for being a bully, and had a pretty foul mouth. He swore a lot, usually in anger to other people. He got a pretty bad reputation, actually, because of it. Well, his dad had quite frankly had enough of it, so he sat the boy down and told made him a deal. He said, “Son, you’ve got to stop this cursing, so here’s what’s going to happen. Every time you curse, or pick on someone, I want you to go out into the back yard and hammer a nail into the fence. Can you do that?” The boy rolled his eyes, and said ok. As if this was going to work, he thought.
So the days passed. The boy’s dad had informed his teachers of this deal, and told them to keep track of all the incidents that they had caught the boy in. So the boy came home, and the first day, the boy had to hammer in 47 nails. It took him a long time, and it was hot outside. The boy was miserable, but that just made him madder. The next day was just as bad. Day after day, it went by. Soon enough, the boy started getting the picture, and he swore and bullied less and less, until one day he didn’t even do it at all.
That day, the boy’s father sat him down again, and said “I’m proud of you son. But there’s one thing I want you to do now. I want you to pry out all the nails you hammered into my fence.”
It took the boy all afternoon to pull them out, but he felt good about it. He felt like he was undoing the damage that he had done. That is until he had finished, and his father looked at his handiwork. He told the boy to look around him. He asked the boy what did he see.
“A bunch of holes in the fence,” he replied. “But I took out all the nails, just like you asked!”
The father then looked at him and said, “Now try taking out the holes.”
Our words, our actions, like the nails in that fence, leave an impact, and a lot of times, you can’t undo that. You just can’t. What comes out of your mouth is what contaminates, be it hateful noise, or indifferent silence. Our lives are lives that are contaminated by the hatred and the sins of others, as well as ourselves. We were sinned against, and that sin shapes us. Warps us. Indeed, because of the sins we received, we wind up sinning, and perpetuating the cycle. Every nail makes a hole in the fence, and holes don’t go away.
Jesus said that it’s what comes out of our mouths that make us unclean, that defiles and contaminates. What we can do as Christians is to remember that, and to be people who end the cycles of violence, of hatred, of verbal contamination. We can end the negativity and evil, the sin that surrounds and contaminates. We can stand up for people who have been marginalized, who’ve been bullied and outcast. We can’t just sit back on the sidelines and laugh anymore. To paraphrase Edmund Burke, all that is required for Evil to prevail is for good people to do nothing.
So don’t sit idly by when someone bullies you, or someone else. Don’t give into fear and self-hatred. What’s in your heart comes out of you. You can be the hero. As Christians, we can be the ones without fear, so that others may no longer fear. Hate contaminates; love cleanses. Let’s strive to be the ones who stood up when it mattered.