September 3, 2000
Rev. Virnette Hamilton
First Congregational Church, New Milford, CT  06776
Write to Rev. Hamilton

rule1.gif (2336 bytes)

Scripture Reading

Mark 7:1-23

1 Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from

Jerusalem gathered around him, 2 they noticed that some of his disciples were

eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3 (For the

Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their

hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4 and they do not eat

anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other

traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.)

5 So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, "Why do your disciples not live

according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?" 6 He

said to them, "Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is

written, 'This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far

from me; 7 in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as

doctrines.' 8 You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human


14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, "Listen to me,

all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside a person that by

going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile."

21 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come:

fornication, theft, murder, 22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit,

licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23 All these evil things come

from within, and they defile a person." (NRSV)


James 1:17-27

17 Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above,

coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or

shadow due to change. 18 In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth

by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his


19 You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen,

slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for your anger does not produce God's

righteousness. 21 Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth

of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the

power to save your souls.

22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive

themselves. 23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are

like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24 for they look at themselves

and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25 But those who

look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not

hearers who forget but doers who act -- they will be blessed in their doing.

26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but

deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure

and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows

in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (NRSV)

rule1.gif (2336 bytes)

Sermon:  Avoiding Heart Disease

Do you ever get the feeling that all of America is preoccupied with health

issues? It seems to me that 90 % of the commercials on TV are for

prescription drugs, as though the consumer should go to the doctor and

announce their diagnosis and then request their preferred medication - based

on commercial evidence. Do you get as tired as I do of the disease of the

month - it seems to go on and on - until we are all having sleepless nights -

or we have decided that we just don't care. Last week an entire hour of Larry

King was devoted to the pain medication, Viox, used by arthritis suffers like

Bruce Jenner and Dorothy Hamil. A friend of mine who actually takes the drug

had to turn it off - yawning in disgust.

Does the mass publicity produce the desired effect or is it having the

opposite effect? Some of that same dynamic is at work in the Church - the

larger Church. We have the fundamentalists who take the Bible literally -

who want to set the standard for real faith. Faithful people should

never….have an abortion, live together before marriage, be gay or homosexual

(You fill in the blank). This is contrasted with those of us in the United

Church of Christ on the far other side: we who believe that faithful living

takes on many forms and is always between the individual the God. The mass

publicity by Biblical Literalists at the far right - has a tendency to

alienate the mainline Christians. When we are barraged with only one

concept of how to live faithfully we begin to close our hearts and our minds

to any message about God. We don't want to be labeled with those who

proselytize and categorize.

None of this is new - during the Second Great Awakening, in the early 19th

century the Congregationalists really struggled with what to do with the

revivalist preachers - who "wooed the passions" of the gathered to bring

large crowds to God. The conflicts were obvious and the competition for

parishioners was heated. As one revivalist, Charles Finney put it, "great

sermons lead the people to praise the preacher, - while good preaching leads

the people to praise the savior." Congregational ministers were accused of

"being so wrapped up in prejudice, they wouldn't care if men went to hell if

the weren't saved according to their own notions of salvation." The issue

was tradition - the Calvinist tradition which offered salvation by

predestination - through an act of God - or Methodist tradition where people

were saved by their willingness to open their hearts to God.

And obviously, theological differences arising from adherence to tradition

was not a new issue. It is a very similar issue to what is going on in the

Gospel lesson. Jesus meets with the Pharisees and the scribes after they -

the religious literalists notice the disciples lack of observance of the food

laws. When challenged Jesus tells the Pharisees - you are stuck in human

traditions - and have forgotten the word of God - you honor me with your

words, but your hearts aren't in it.

Imagine - Jesus standing right here in front of you saying: you need to

listen to what I have to say - Most of you or maybe all of you are suffering

from Heart Disease. So you need to pay attention and do what I tell you -

otherwise you won't like what happens next.

That is the intent of our Gospel lesson this morning. Jesus cautioning us

that we are afflicted - with heart disease. Jesus warning us that our hearts

have begun to atrophy from lack of use.


That is the unfortunate by-product of our efforts to avoid being labeled an

evangelical - we end up with spiritual heart disease - when we struggle to

distance ourselves from literalists we also distance our hearts from God. We

become as focused on outward actions as those we seek to distance ourselves

from. And the more that we focus on outward actions, the less attention that

we give to our inward attitudes. Suddenly we are stuck, our fears of giving

an outward sign of our faith to others means that we deny it to ourselves

also. When we don't use the language we lose track of the meaning behind the


Last week I was talking with the Chaplin at Western State University, who is

a UCC minister. He was telling me how exciting it was to work with college

students, because they come with a willingness to speak the language and

claim it as their own. In their educational process they can not only absorb

the specific language of their majors, they extend that learning capacity

to their faith also. So they use phrases like "my ministry" - "our mission"

- " I believe" - comfortably. They let their hearts be involved, then their

ears can hear.

Our passage from James this morning cautions us to be doers as well as

hearers of the word. I think that we all need to be reminded that before we

can be doers of the word, we do need to be able to hear the word of God.

Remember I said, When we are barraged with only one concept of how to live

faithfully we begin to close our hearts and our minds to any message about

God." We can't close our ears and our hearts to that word and expect to be

followers of Jesus. It is like a child who is forced to memorize a piano

piece for the recital and executes it perfectly - but whose heart isn't in

it. He is playing the music, but it is nothing that would start voices

singing or feet tapping.

Our hearts need to be involved if our faithful work is going to be authentic.

So what can we all do? I don't think that it is easy - and I don't want you

to think that I have all the answers - (it is easier to name the problem than

find the best solution) We know that if we want to avoid physical heart

disease we need regular exercise - I think that the same thing applies to

spiritual heart disease: we can counter it with regular exercise. Perhaps

the most productive thing that one can do is to talk about the role of your

faith in your life. Look at your own experiences day to day and notice

where you find God - where Jesus leads you to be more compassionate, where

you feel called to intervene or contribute. Give God credit for every

perfect gift and take seriously your struggles with God's commandments. And

then, practice saying that to the people you trust and love, practice

saying it here at the Church, practice with your parents, your children or

your grandchildren - because it is a gift that you will give to them and to

yourself. Talking about it will cement it firmly in your mind, it will allow

you to work through some of the questions that you have - places where your

theology collides and doesn't make sense. Talking about it will make it

yours, you will claim it, it will be a part of your history, nothing that

you will forget. Practice will allow you to get comfortable with the

language - help to restore meaning to lost words and phrases, like my

ministry, our mission, God's call. Talking about it will allow it to enter

into your heart - to open you to more of God's word - to help you to discern

what faithful living for you is. Talking about your faith will connect you

to God. Your faith will become the music of your heart - toes will be


God wants us to be true followers, to have our hearts involved, and to

pass on that heritage to our future generations. We must be both hears and

doers of the word. So let us be as preoccupied with our spiritual heart

health as our physical heart.

This morning as we come to the Lord's table let us open our ears and our

hearts to God's reassuring and compassionate word. Let us invite God to

use this bread and cup to touch our withered hearts, restoring health,

wholeness and life. Then let us remember that we are sent into the world

with all that we have received at this table and to share it . Amen.

Return to Homepage