“Fault Versus Responsibility” September 2, 2018

Posted by on Sep 7, 2018 in Sermon Archives

“Fault Versus Responsibility”

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9

James 1:17-27

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


Don Miller has been one of my favorite authors for the last 10 years or so. In his book, “Blue Like Jazz,” Don told a story about Santa Claus that is one of those that sticks with you forever and ever. He writes, “I remember being at the mall when I was about 8 and seeing Santa Claus relieve himself in the men’s restroom. I was excited because we were going to see him that day, but I didn’t want to disturb him as he was hardly in his element. The Santa in the bathroom was a very tall man, younger than you would think, and a bit depressed in the eyes and unshaven under his beard, (if such a thing is possible.) “Ho, ho, ho, kid,” he said to me, zipping up his fluffy pants. I didn’t say anything back. I just stood there and tried to keep my shoes from getting wet. He looked at me, raised his eyebrows, shrugged his shoulders, and walked out.

That is when I realized the most terrible thing I’d ever realized. Santa doesn’t wash his hands after he uses the bathroom. How awful, I thought to myself. And I was horrified. All those little bacteria, the little flus and colds and cancer bacteria that grow in small villages that grow on a person’s hands if he doesn’t wash them. I could see in my mind the village of bacteria on Santa’s hands, a kind of Tim Burton version of the microbial North Pole, all the textures and contours of the village correct, but the colors off: grays for greens, blacks for blues, lots of coughing, lots of mad cows.” Such is the imagination of a young boy. But you know, he was right. Like most of us, young Don had been taught over and over again the importance of washing your hands. And like young Donald, most of us have been taught the reason for why this is important: to stop the transmission of disease.

Needless to say, the Pharisees at the time of Jesus were not aware of microbial things like bacteria and viruses. No, they scrubbed up only because it was the tradition handed down to them by their elders. And like so many traditions, after a few generations they become law – to the point where no one really knows why the heck we are even doing this in the first place. Yet, because it was tradition and because the Pharisees were the ones large and in charge, they expected everyone else to do the same. They expected folks to conform; to conform to a cleansing ritual that consisted of getting the proper holy look on your face, saying the right words, and then sprinkling water on your hands and arms all the way to the elbow while you scrubbed like you had a case of poison ivy. In reality, there wasn’t a whole lot of washing going on here at all. By sticking to these man made traditions, they were missing the point entirely: that the law-God’s law- was placed here for our benefit; for the benefit of all and not just the few. Furthermore, God’s law was given to us with the trust that we don’t tweak it or tinker with it to suit ourselves. It was true then and it’s true now as well.

So let’s move on from all the hand washing and hand wringing here. The point that Jesus makes is clear: we’re going to eat all sorts of icky stuff –sometimes by accident, sometimes on purpose. But that’s not a big deal. The big deal is the icky stuff that come from inside us: the bad thoughts, greed, lying, proud talk, and foolish living. (vs 23) These evil things come from within a person. And these are the things that make us unacceptable to God. That’s the gist of it: God will be pleased that we make an effort to take care of ourselves and eat healthy foods, but he’s not nearly so concerned with the Fritos that go into our mouths as the garbage that may come out of it.

James, in our Epistle reading today, takes this wisdom of righteousness and goes a step up. He makes it a call to action, and that’s a thing I like about James: he is adamant about getting things done. But you know, while I was studying on the text from James, I ran across something by Will
Smith – yes, the same Will Smith from the movies Men In Black, Ali, and my favorite, The Pursuit of Happiness. I’ll let him speak for himself. –“I was having a discussion with a friend of mine and we got stuck on the difference between fault & responsibility. She kept talking about how ‘It’s always somebody’s fault, it’s somebody’s fault.’ And I was like, ‘It really don’t matter whose fault it is that something is broken if it’s your responsibility to fix it. …’ Fault and responsibility do no go together – it sucks – but they don’t. When something is somebody’s fault we want them to suffer, we want them punished, we want them to pay. We want it to be their responsibility to fix it, but that’s not how it works; especially when it’s your heart. Your heart, your life, your happiness is your responsibility and yours alone.”

We will be spending the next few weeks reading from Book of James. It’s short but it’s action packed. And so, in deference to the Apostle James, I’d like to rename this sermon, “Faith And Responsibility.” If James tells us anything at all it is that there is a responsibility that comes with our faith. We who have been saved by the blood of Jesus Christ don’t have the luxury of playing the blame game. Like the man said, “It really don’t matter whose fault it is that something is broken if it’s your responsibility to fix it.” When I’m reminded of the massive efforts of UMCOR in our Methodist church to alleviate suffering in this world, I am witness to responsibility. When I’m see thousands of arms and voices reaching out to the less fortunate, I am witness to responsibility. And when I hear of the many Methodist clergy who were arrested in Portland protesting the practice of separating immigrant children from their parents, I am witness to responsibility. Fault and responsibility don’t go together. It stinks, but they don’t. Faith and responsibility, however, are a perfect match. James says it best (vs 27) Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. It doesn’t matter whose fault it is; what matters is what God leads us to do about it.

Amen & Shalom


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