"It is from within"-Sermon for Proper 17, Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Led Tasso…now…for those fans, like me, of Apple TV’s Ted Lasso…you will know that I did not just butcher Coach Lasso’s name. In episode 2 of season 2, we learn that Led Tasso is Ted Lasso’s alternate ego…it is a façade…a much less warm and fuzzy version of his normal self. I was going to show a clip from the episode but the language is not quite appropriate for church…so I will do my bet to describe it. But first Just a bit of background for those who have not yet fallen in love with the show…and I say not yet fallen in love with the show…for, in just my estimation, it is utterly genius…warm, thoughtful, hilarious, and at times deeply moving. To demonstrate my great love for the show, I will share with you a text exchange between the Rev. Kelly Koonce and me that took place at 9:22 PM on Christmas Eve this past year shortly after I discovered the show. I began: Ted Lasso is the best thing I have every watched on TV. Period. I mean better than everything…like Lord of the Rings…like Battlestar Galactica. Like anything ever. And Kelly responded: It is amazing. It is the gospel. Ted is Jesus. Jason Sudeikis is my new favorite actor of all time. And…I want to move to England. So, I highly recommend the show…though one note…important for me to say as your pastor…it is rated TV Mature…and it is, indeed, for a mature audience only…thus I can’t show the clip.
But I have digressed…big time…so back to Led Tasso. You see Ted, an American college football coach turned professional English soccer coach, is known for building strong relationships in his locker room. Connecting his players one to another and building team unity through teaching things like empathy and appreciating one another’s giftedness. It’s like Ted has been to one of Brene Brown’s trainings. He shares, with his tough and tumble, hyper-masculine team members, things like Walt Whitman quotes, “Be curious…not judgmental.” Ted meets all the challenges that face him and his team through an unorthodox approach to coaching that always seeks to build people up, honor their dignity, and help them understand their own unique wonderfulness…and that of the others they share a locker room with. In season one, when Ted is asked by Rebecca, his boss and the owner of the soccer team, if Ted believes in ghosts…I can’t remember why they were talking about ghosts…but anyway his response is, “I do. But more importantly, I believe they need to believe in themselves.” Ted believes that if his team members believe in themselves and believe in each other that they will become the very best version of themselves…both on and off the field…and that’s what success looks like for Ted…not winning games. And I sort of feel the same way about St. Julian’s…for I believe that when we believe in each other and ourselves and believe in the real presence of the God of love who sits at our center, both individually and together, we become the very best version of ourselves…or in the language of the church that I use so often with you…we become more and more the life-givers and love-spreaders that God has uniquely created us to be.
But then seemingly out of nowhere there is Led Tasso…this alternate ego…this façade…this false self…that breaks out of Ted. Now for those who follow the show, you know that Led Tasso actually doesn’t show up out of nowhere. In fact, Ted is trying to deal with a particularly difficult problem in his locker room. You see, Ted brings back to his team a former player, Jamie Tart, who had left the team in the previous season…a departure that was very welcome by all of his teammates. For Jamie is a tart…a narcissistic, self-absorbed, ball-hog who, though an amazingly gifted soccer player, had torn the team a part by being, on top of all that, profoundly cruel and incentive to all of his teammates. And now in season 2, through all of his own poor choices…all the bridges he has set alight and burned to a crisp, Jamie finds himself with no soccer team who will touch him. That is no one but Ted who has a soft spot for hard cases and believes at his core that no one is beyond redemption. But, as you might imagine, the players are much less sympathetic to Jamie’s plight…at least at first. Ted’s players feel a sense of betrayal that he has brought Jamie back to the team profoundly disrupting the healthy locker room culture and family they have created together. The team is angry. They do everything they can to give back to Jamie just what he had dished out to them. The locker room is in an uproar and their play on the field is equally a hot mess. So, enter Led Tasso…a hard-nosed, rude, mean, angry, vindictive coach…a Bobby Knight throwing chairs across the basketball court…chewing his players out…sort of coach…the polar opposite of Ted.
And, at the end of a particularly brutal practice…with Led screaming at his players…making them run lap after lap and canceling practice early, the intuitive and deeply insightful team psychologist, Dr. Sharon Fieldstone, unveils what is really going on. She says to Led, who has just been snapped back into his normal self, so really she says to Ted something like…I know what you were doing…you pretend to be a real jerk (she used a more colorful metaphor) so that you become the common enemy and not Jamie. Ted responds…yeah…spot on…you got it right away. And, then, the psychologist asks…has that ever worked? And Ted’s only real response is to hem and ha…he is left almost, almost speechless. There is something about Chucky Cheese Pizza in there…but the answer is clearly no…it has never worked. In this instance, the team just thinks Ted has finally cracked under the pressure of finding success in the highly competitive and highly scrutinized world of professional sports, and they still can’t stand Jamie. The façade, Led Tasso, is an utter and complete failure…and it was always destined to be.
And, believe it or not, I actually have a point to make using this long illustration to unpack and approach our Gospel lesson this morning. You see Jesus’ criticism of his own religious leadership is, in my mind, all about facades versus genuine authenticity. Now, particularly as we are living through a pandemic and washing our hands religiously, it is important to note that the religious leadership’s critique of Jesus’ followers who, as we just read, are not washing their hands before eating meals has nothing to do with germs…with hygiene…with the spread of bacteria or viruses that make us sick. Perhaps promoting good health was a part of God’s plan when the Law of Moses, which included such things as hand washing, was handed down to the ancient people of Israel. But, the religious leaders who confront Jesus knew nothing of any of this. There was no such thing as an infectious disease scientist in Jesus’s day. Thus, their confrontation with Jesus was not a concern about the physical well-being of Jesus and his followers.
At best, we could perhaps understand their critique as a deep desire for all Jewish people to strictly maintain the Law of Moses, including all of its purity laws, as an act of genuine devotion to the God of love…believing that the intentional choice to strictly follow the Torah leads them to more deeply root their lives into the life of God…perhaps not entirely unlike our disciplined commitments to our own spiritual practices…like regularly receiving Holy Communion or praying daily or studying the bible. And, I do believe to this very day, that people practicing the Jewish religion do find following the Law of Moses, following the Torah, in their lives and households, in our contemporary context, indeed, brings order and purpose to their lives and does root them more deeply into a life-giving relationship with God. As I have said to you many times before, the Law of Moses is a lasting gift of love given to all who love and honor the Hebrew scriptures…Jews and Christians alike. But…but, in this instance, that harsh word, hard to hear Jesus say out loud, suggests that this is not the motivation of this particular group of religious leaders…and that word is, of course, hypocrite. Jesus calls them hypocrites. So, it seems to me that Jesus is suggesting that the sort of religious rule following that these religious leaders are promoting is about the curating of some sort of image…a façade…a false since of self, not just religious devotion. They are, instead, standing in the holier than thou circle…setting themselves up as better followers of God than Jesus and his friends. They are putting on a show, presenting a false self, that is all about winning adulation and praise and claiming power and spiritual authority based on their own rule following and perceived purity. They are, at least in that moment, the definition of judgmental…seeking to undermine and devalue the love-spreading, healing work that Jesus and his followers are giving every ounce of energy to accomplish. Though one must read between the lines, the religious leaders are publicly saying don’t follow this religiously inferior and unclean ragtag group of carpenters and fisherfolk. We are the ones to listen to. We are the only ones that know the ways of God. And, Jesus rightly calls this judgmentalism, this religious superiority complex, this attempt to devalue the new and life-giving work that God is doing in and through him and his followers…work that is bringing life, health and meaning to so many people…Jesus rightly calls this hypocrisy.
But…Jesus doesn’t stop there…he does not end with his rebuke. Instead, Jesus uses the occasion, as he is want to do, as a teaching opportunity. In a moment, I will flip the words that Jesus uses to their positive counterparts…but he says to the religious leaders, to his own followers, and to all present…strict adherence to human interpretation of God’s law is not what makes us clean…not what makes us holy…not what makes us authentic…not what really heals the rifts in the locker rooms…that is the communities and teams that make up our lives. Instead, what brings hope and healing and transformational change in our own lives and the world is actually becoming who we were created to be…an authentic expression of the love of God…that then moves through us and out into the world in good and Godly ways. And here is the flipping part…for Jesus describes that authentic God-centered life as: self-control, sharing, honoring life, faithfulness, generosity, kindness, truth-telling, words of praise, self-sacrifice, humbleness, and wisdom. Jesus says all these things begin from within and move out of an authentic human…a human who discovers the truth of who they really are, authentically who they are, which is nothing less than a person created in the very likeness and image of love alone.
Led Tasso, the finger wagging, anger driven, enemy making, “lording it over” façade and false self, doesn’t reconcile the team to Jamie and Jamie to the team. It does happen, sorry for the plot spoil, but it begins with Jamie just beginning to get in touch with his authentic self…through the help of that wise psychologist…not Led…and the forgiving heart of his team…that Ted, the authentic Ted, did help cultivate…that begins the healing…that begins the reconciliation…the restoration of harmony and unity for that family, that team.
And the same is surely true for us and the communities in which we live and move and have our being. For our ability to inspire and participate in reconciliation, the ability to be healers and life-givers, the ability to influence for good and for God the people and communities that have been entrusted to our care…begins when we remove the mask, tear down the façade of any sense of superiority…religious, intellectual, cultural or otherwise…over any other person….let the tendency to judge go entirely…and, instead, get in touch with who we really are…the authentic selves found within our souls…an authenticity which is always there for the finding and nurturing…for we begin…we were made, at our beginning, in the likeness and image of love alone. From that recognition, authenticity emerges out of us…and then there is hope…for our lives, for our communities, even our world. Amen.