Sermon for 14 Pentecost Yr B

14 Pentecost Yr B, 29/08/2021

Ps 15; Deut 4:1-2, 6-9; James 1:17-27; Mk 7:1-8

Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

“On faithfulness” 

Faithfulness. This Sunday, all of our Bible passages contain the theme of faithfulness. They describe what it means to be a faithful people of God. You and I, everyone, at times, have our struggles to be faithful people of God. There are many words of wisdom in today’s Bible passages, so let’s have a closer look at them. 

The NRSV Lutheran Study Bible gives Psalm 15 the following title: “Who Shall Abide in God’s Sanctuary?” The Good News Bible has this title: “What God Requires.” The Lutheran Study Bibleidentifies Psalm 15 as a liturgy for entering the temple. 

Verse 1 contains two questions: “O LORD, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?” Both of these questions are similar in nature. One line following another like this containing a similar theme, is called parallelism, and there are several examples of it in the Bible. Reference to “tent,” and “holy hill” describe the temple on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. Most likely the people as they are about to enter the temple ask these two questions. Then, in the following verses, a priest would answer the questions. The priest’s answer in verses 2-5 emphasise faithfulness, how people live and treat one another. 

I like the CEV’s rendering of verses 2 and 3: “They speak the truth and don’t spread gossip; they treat others fairly and don’t say cruel things.” The passage from James also addresses the power of the tongue and the need to control it. In verse 26, James gives this advice: “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle (do not control) their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.” The gospel passage also addresses this theme, Mark quotes from Isaiah 29:13: “This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” In other words, they are not faithful and truthful because their words contradict how they live and treat one another. 

That reminds me of one of my faithful parishioners many years ago, who passed the following poem on to me concerning how powerful our tongue is. The poem was written by Joseph Hough, one of her relatives, and is called “The Tongue,” and goes like this:

My subject of discourse I’m compelled to use,/Please keep your tongue silent, nay, do not refuse,/For a babel of tongues is shocking to hear,/In bridled ones there is nothing to fear,/Would’est thou enjoy life and be happy for aye,/Keeping the tongue from evil is the very best way./It’s the organ of taste, the instrument of sound,/Giving great thoughts, deep ones profound,/Crushing a broken heart, or filling it with bliss,/It must be mysterious to have power like this./Now I am going to sit, some of you may rise,/Deal gently with your tongues if you should criticise,/For there’s a very old adage you’ve oft heard said:/It takes a still tongue to make a wise head:/But I heard that reversed when, very, very, young:/It takes a wise head to make a still tongue.

This poem and verses 2 and 3 of our psalm, and verse 26 of our James text all are, in a way a commentary on the 8th Commandment: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.” That reminds me too, of Luther’s explanation of the Commandment in his Small Catechism, which perhaps you remember, it goes like this: “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbours, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.” Would that everyone obey these words of wisdom! Then there would be no fake news that leads so many people astray these days, and the gossip tabloids and magazines, etc., would no longer exist! 

Continuing now with verse 4 of our psalm, another requirement for God’s people to be faithful and to worship in the temple was to: “stand by their oath even to their hurt.” That reminds me of the following story.

Disregard for a moment your convictions about gambling, and take note of something special in this news story.

On Friday, March 29, 1984, Robert Cunningham ate a meal of linguine and clam sauce at his favourite restaurant, Sal’s pizzeria, where he had been a regular customer for seven years. His waitress, Phyllis Penza, had worked at Sal’s for nineteen years. 

After his meal Cunningham made a good-natured offer to Penza. He said she could either have a tip or split his winnings if his number was drawn in the upcoming New York lotto. Penza chose to take a chance on the lottery, and she and Cunningham chose the numbers together.

On Saturday night, Cunningham won. The jackpot was six million dollars. Then he faced the moment of truth. Would he keep his promise? Would he give the waitress a “tip” of three million dollars?

Cunningham, a police sergeant, husband, father of four, and grandfather of three, said, “I won’t back out. Besides, friendship means more than money.”

Promises are to be kept no matter what the cost.1

Speaking of money, verse five addresses the matter of money-lending, interest, and taking bribes. The Message puts it like this: “Keep your word even when it costs you, make an honest living, never take a bribe. You’ll never get blacklisted if you live like this.” That reminds me of the following story.

Like many other Canadian pioneers, the first Jew to settle permanently in Ottawa was a colourful and exciting personality. Moses Bilsky was born in Russian Poland in 1829, and he reached Ottawa from New York in 1858. He faithfully adhered to the Jewish dietary laws as well as to other traditional religious practices.

Bilsky was one of those unique men for whom Jewish belief and tradition constituted a way of life. As a banker, he was reputed never to have charged interest on loans to poor persons, Jew or Gentile. When he encountered a Jew who showed no interest in the religious community, or who lacked proper conduct, he refused to lend him money at all. Reverend Mirsky tells how one night, during a fierce blizzard, Bilsky appeared outside his door covered with snow. He was dragging a sleigh piled high with fruit, loaves of bread, vegetables, milk, butter, cheese, and eggs.

Bilsky took hold of a string tied to the sleigh and pulling it behind him, walked by (Reverend Mirsky’s) side. With the snow beating his face (Bilsky) told him that he had just learned that the family of the rascal whom he had refused a loan was in want. He would not cross the threshold of his house; but he wanted (Reverend Mirsky) to bring the cargo to the needy folks.2

Now that is faith, it describes God’s faithful people who practice verse 5 of our psalm, keeping the commandments in our Deuteronomy passage, and follows James’ exhortation to be doers, not merely hearers of the word. 

May God grant you and I the grace to be faithful to God and one another in thought, word and deed! Amen. 

1 Craig Brian Larson, Contemporary Illustrations for Preachers, Teachers and Writers (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books a division of Baker Book House Co., 1996), p. 190.

2 Stuart E. Rosenberg, The Jewish Community In Canada: Volume 1 A History (Toronto/Montreal: McClelland & Stewart Ltd., 1970), pp. 92-93.