Sunday, September 20, 2009

"Who Do You Say That I Am?"

Sheepscott Community Church September 20, 2009

Jeremiah 11: 18-20

James 3: 13-4: 3, 7-8a

Mark 9: 30-37

“Who Do You Say That I Am?”

I had thought to “save” the subject of this message for our first Sunday down at the Valley Church, which will be October 4. But then I thought, saving the subject would be exactly what I was preaching against last Sunday. It is not to save and hoard, but to spend and risk life and everything else for God and be in the moment with the idea when it happens. So, I throw caution to the winds and offer these thoughts, connecting them where I can to today’s scripture.

Several of us were talking at the back of the church last Sunday after service, and someone noted that of all the residents in the houses in the development where they live, only one other person went to church. The objection they had heard raised to that seemingly increasingly outdated tradition of going to church on Sunday was primarily that what happens at church is the result of a design by a group of men at some point in history, a religious exercise rendered meaningless in this more enlightened time. Spirituality is a more acceptable term than religiousness or religiosity and doesn’t require that one make any great efforts in the worship department. One can set one’s own agenda about how and when to worship.

I have wanted to talk again, about why we come to church––but I thought it would be like preaching to the choir because those who are in attendance don’t need to hear it. But someone else in the small group at the back of the church said that it would be good to be reminded why we come.

Fair enough. Let’s start there, borrowing the sentiment of the choir’s usual Introit once again: “Surely the Presence of the Lord Is in This Place.” All of us could testify individually how that happens for us, and I expect that for some it would be the music; for others it would be the prayer together; for others it could be the reading of scripture out loud or the message for the day. Still others are blessed simply by being in this building where generations before them, before all of us, have worshipped together. Being caught up in that holy history that praises God in whom there is no time as we know it is almost unspeakably glorious. For me I experience the presence of the Lord in this place through all of those manifestations, but more than any other way, it’s in you-all, the people who come together. I do see Christ in you and that gives me hope for myself.

What about you? Why do you come? Are you affirmed in your faith when you come? Are you challenged in your faith? Do you want more or do you want not to be bothered, to be challenged less?

Let’s turn to today’s gospel and see if we an ferret out some answers or at least a sense of direction in our thinking about why we should bother with this exercise of worship at all. Jesus and his disciples have left the safety of the North around Tyre and Sidon, where Jesus has been spending a protracted period of time with his followers before heading toward Jerusalem and what awaited him there. We most recently heard Peter confess that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah. Shortly after that he remonstrated with Jesus when Jesus said what was going to happen to him in Jerusalem, viz., he would suffer many things, be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed and raised up on the third day. “God forbid that should happen to you,” Peter said.

In today’s gospel Jesus is predicting his passion again. The difference this time is that he added one phrase: “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men,” which was a reference to the traitor in the little band––Judas. Jesus was not only announcing a fact, he was giving a warning and making a last appeal to the man in whose heart the purpose of betrayal was taking shape.

The disciples did not understand it because they didn’t want to understand the what and wherefore of what was going to happen to Jesus. He was speaking plainly, but they were left scratching their heads, and when Jesus went on ahead of them, they returned to a regular topic of conversation: who would be the greatest among them when Jesus came into his power? Who would make up his kitchen cabinet? We human beings have a great ability and capacity for self-deception when we need to employ it. Often it’s because we just can’t face some awful truth––like the death of Jesus––while we can make plans on the temporal plane about what we will do to establish our importance.

When they all arrived home in Capernaum, Jesus had them sit down, and he himself sat down, which is the position a Rabbi will take when he is going to teach his disciples, his followers. His question to them no doubt had the most sensitive among them turning red in the face with shame and embarrassment, and none of them meeting his eye, which could see right through them. “What were you talking about on the road?” he asked. He knew very well what they had been talking about and recognized this as a teachable moment. Their red faces were indicative of a repentance in shame that would make them more receptive to what he had to say. If these twelve didn’t get it, didn’t have at least a glimmer of who he was and why he had come––and actually, there were only eleven who were fully open to what Jesus had to say––what would he do? So he had to seize this moment to try to get across a major point.

And he made that point by picking up a child who was nearby and setting the child in their midst. Jesus took the child in his arms and said to the disciples, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.” In a parallel passage that follows shortly after in Mark 10, Jesus is indignant when the disciples try to prevent the children from coming to him and says to them, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who does not receive the kingdom like a little child will never enter it.” Then he picked up the children in his arms and blessed them.

We need to recognize that this kingdom of God to which Jesus was inviting his listeners was apparently a kingdom of nobodies, emphasized by his use of children as embodiments of who and what we need to be in order to enter the kingdom. Children are nobodies in most societies, and most certainly at that time in history that was true. They have no power and are almost totally dependent on others to care for them. The lifting up of the children was a rebuke of the pretensions of the disciples, who wanted to assume first places and thereby regulate access to the Kingdom of God.

That makes me think of the years of Christianity just after Constantine made it the official religion of the Roman Empire, shortly before he died. Those who had assumed power in the church that was forming in the fourth century were all atwitter about the great unwashed who were then flooding through the gates into the Kingdom of God. They wanted to bar the gate and only let in those who could prove that they knew the right answers to the right questions. But the scale of influx made this impossible. When a whole empire goes Christian, or any other religion for that matter, it gets a little hard to keep track of who has a stamp on the hand and can get into the dance. Can’t you just hear the power brokers: “Oh, that makes me so mad.”

Of course, God was keeping track, and they need not have gotten all fussed about it. The disciples were all wanting to be gatekeepers, having not accepted, as I earlier pointed out, that their leader was heading down a road of no return, and the exercise of their idea of power was not on his mind. On the contrary, he was trying to teach the disciples about powerlessness, as embodied in children, to give them an idea of what was down that road for them, of what they had to embrace if they expected to be part of the Kingdom of God.

Do you remember the story of the Brothers of Thunder, James and John, whose mother buttonholed Jesus to ask if her sons would sit at his right and left hands? We human beings being what we are, like James and John, and like the other disciples on the road, are reluctant to let go of the perks, the bennies that come with being associated with celebrity. I have to interject this piece of wisdom here that I got from a dean I was working with when I was at Bates; I may have shared this with you before, but it bears repeating. Early on she said, if you don’t care who gets the credit, you can get a lot done. Truer words, etcetera.

The disciples had to learn how to be like children, to be nobodies as far as the world’s estimation is concerned, and thereby, somebodies in God’s eyes. They had to learn to be humble, as children are humble, just by virtue of being children. It was the total receptivity of children that Jesus was praising, and for his disciples too, the implication was that they must be equally receptive in their wholehearted devotion to the only aim finally worth pursuing––admission to the Kingdom of God. Our self-love, our self-regard has to be replaced by love for all who are our companions in this work, in our aim, in our struggles, which brings me back to where I began: This community, struggling toward its identity as a house of God, where all can come to worship together in peace and joy and sorrow, caring for one another and celebrating the life we share in God. We have fallen short. We do fall short, but we have an intercessor––I’m talking about Jesus––who can shore us up and encourage us in our best selves in the way we want to go.

I repeat the question I began with: Why do we come together here on a Sunday morning? Why don’t we stay in bed or finish the Times crossword by noon or communicate with all our friends on Facebook who are not at church either? Why are you here? What do you have to bring? What do you hope to take away?

Over the next two weeks, think about your status vis-à-vis God. Would you be ashamed if Jesus were to ask you what you were thinking about at any given time? How far have you come in your hope to live a better life, to give, not counting the cost to yourself but the benefit to the Body of Christ? Many of us are still far from accepting the radical demands of Jesus’s message, to become like children, transparent to the Spirit of God, ready to be taught.

If we do indeed find ourselves falling far short of not only what we want of ourselves before God, but also what God makes clear when we are willing to listen, what God wants of us, if we do find ourselves thus falling short in a given area, repent. Tell God you’re sorry and that you will try harder with the help of the Spirit of Jesus to become the person, the child who can enter the kingdom with the sweet trust that characterizes a child.

When we have our own kids, there’s so much worry and broken bones and trouble at school, and all that that goes with it, that sometimes we lose sight of their preciousness, and especially when they’re younger, their innocence. Our grandkids can pick up a lot of that slack. For me, when I’ve had the opportunity to talk with the kids up here, to look at their sweet faces and indeed to sense their receptivity, as I mentioned earlier, I have no doubt of what preciousness in God’s eyes is, and the desirability for us of that same state of mind and heart, of being before God They are our models..

Would that we could be like those children. God expects us to be. But how can we? We are no longer children, and we are jaded, somewhat cynical, and not easily led. I am reminded of Nicodemus saying to Jesus, who has said he must be born again of water and of the Spirit to enter the kingdom of God, how can that happen? Can I crawl back up into my mother’s womb? Well, no. But we can be born again of the Spirit; we can be new, recover our innocence in ways we won’t discover until we trust God more and our self-seeking selves less.

Let us ask ourselves the question why we come here. Let us consider where we have fallen short in our own movement forward in grace and repent where we have need of repentance––and here I would mention that we are in the holiest part of the Jewish year, Rosh Hashanah which began Friday, and ends with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, on September 28. Rosh Hashanah, which translates literally as “head of the year,” is an opportunity through prayer and reflection for self-repair. The Jewish people remember their past year and ask for forgiveness through repentance. And they always say, “we” in the prayers, not just “I.” They repent communally. We will be doing that in our prayer of confession and pardon before communion on our first Sunday at the Valley Church. Let us reflect in preparation over these next two weeks about ourselves as church––where we have fallen short, why we come together, where we want to go. If we genuinely seek God in these matters, God’s Spirit will guide us like children in the most beautiful and subtle ways.

That can happen in community, the community of this worshipping body whose members are coming more and more fully into relationship with each other, which is to say with Christ through each other. If we continue to choose to grow as a community in Christ, our individual gifts will be released like balloons at a political convention and we can build up this community on the foundation that is already in place. Amen.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

To Lose a Life Is to Save a Life

Sheepscott Community Church September 13, 2009

Isaiah 50: 4-9a

James 3: 1-12

Mark 8: 27-38

To Lose a Life Is to Save a Life

Several points of today’s gospel reading lie at the heart of Christianity. Perhaps none is more central than Jesus’ statement, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and the gospel will save it.” This is addressed to us as surely as it was to the disciples and the crowd that was with Jesus that day.

The message is that God gave us life to spend, not to keep or hoard. If we live carefully, always thinking of our own profit, ease, comfort, security, if our sole aim is to make life as long and as trouble-free as possible, if we will make no effort except for ourselves, we are losing life all the time. But, if we spend life for others, if we forget health, wealth, time and comfort in our desire to do something for Jesus and so, for those for whom he lived, and died, and lives, then we are gaining life, winning life, saving our lives all the time because it is for Jesus and the gospel’s sake that we do what we do.

But not simply. Saying it that way has the hollow ring of duty and ideology. I believe that while we do act out for Jesus’ sake and the gospel, it is because we want to. We do it out of love, God’s divine love working through our own human love that grows through our ongoing choices.

What would have happened in the world if scientists and inventors had not taken risks, even sometimes with their own bodies, to find cures for disease and improve the lives of other human beings? And that’s only one category of people. What about mothers and fathers who say no to themselves and yes, not only to their own children, but to the children of others to coach them in sports or to teach them in music or languages or art. Or to be Girl Scout or Boy Scout leaders and take them to places they might not otherwise see? Introduce them to the world they might not otherwise come in contact with? What if instead they had chosen to stay home and watch Melrose Place? The very essence of life is in risking and spending it, not in saving and hoarding it.

An extreme example of such a risk taker, such a life-spender is a fourth-century monk named Telemachus. He had retired early on to the desert in an Eastern country to be alone in prayer, meditation and fasting. He never sought anything but contact with God. But he felt like something was missing, something wasn’t quite right, and one day as he rose from prayer, he got it. He realized that his life was based not on selfless love but on selfish love of God. If he would serve God, he must serve others. The desert might be a good place to prepare for a life of service by coming to terms with personal strengths and weaknesses, as did John the Baptist and Jesus, but then it is time to leave the desert, to go out among others, to find a way to be of service in the larger human community.

Telemachus had been touched by the Spirit of God both to enter the desert and in time to leave the desert. He set out for Rome, then, the greatest city in the world, and which, by that time was officially, nominally Christian following the edict of the late Emperor Constantine. What must Telemachus’s surprise have been when he followed along the victory procession of the general Stilicho through the streets of Rome, only to arrive at the coliseum, where gladiatorial games were being held to honor the general and his victories. It seemed that although the Christians were no longer being fed to the lions for the amusement of the populace, the gladiators who had been captured in war had to fight and kill each other in order to bring the holiday mood of the city to its full crescendo.

As Telemachus found his way into the area of the arena with the others, the chariot races were finishing up, and the gladiators were preparing to fight. They advanced into the arena with the greeting, “Hail, Caesar! [This was Honorius Caesar.] We who are about to die salute you!” The fighting began and Telemachus was horrified that these men, for whom in his view Christ had died, were now killing each other to amuse a supposedly Christian populace. As the story goes, according to the account written by Theodoret of Cyrus in The Ecclesiastical History, “he [Telemachus] went himself into the stadium, and stepping down into the arena, endeavored to stop the men who were wielding their weapons against one another.

“The spectators of the slaughter were indignant,” he went on, “and inspired by the triad fury of the demon who delights in these bloody deeds, stoned the peacemaker to death. When the admirable emperor [Honorius] was informed of this, he numbered Telemachus in the number of victorious martyrs, and put an end to that impious spectacle.”

A more popular account is considerably more dramatic, wherein Telemachus stood between the gladiators, and for a moment they stopped––shades of the lone man standing in front of the tank in Tianneman Square––but the crowd roared and the gladiators pushed the old man in the hermit’s robe aside and resumed fighting. Again he came between them, and the crowd began to throw stones at him and urged the gladiators to kill him and get him out of the way. At the flash of a gladiator’s sword, Telemachus lay dead, and the crowd went silent. They were suddenly shocked that a holy man should die in such a way and apparently understood and internalized what this larger exercise of killing meant.

The gladiatorial games actually historically ended that day, and they never began again. Telemachus, by his dying, had ended them. As Edward Gibbon, author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire said of him, “His death was more useful to mankind that his life.” By losing his life he had done more than he ever could have done had he remained husbanding that same life out in the desert. God gave us life to spend and not to keep.

Don’t panic. It’s unlikely that you will have a comparable experience. More likely is the example I offered earlier of the coaching dad who spends hours every week as a volunteer, helping not only his kids’ teams but those of other parents’ kids as well. How about those who serve on the town school board or fill the less-than-desirable post of animal control officer? How about our own choir, who again under Carroll’s direction, offered their gift of song to those at the supper at Second Congregational Church, on Wednesday night? What about teachers who every year spend out of their own pockets to ensure that the kids have what they need for supplies and little extras in this tight economy? That is not hanging on to our lives in their several dimensions, including the economic dimension, until our knuckles are white. Exercise fiscal sense, yes, so you don’t necessarily become dependent on the state, although that can happen no matter how careful we think we’ve been, exercise good sense, but open your hands. Let the life and the wherewithal flow out of your hands, through your hands. That is God’s way.

Let me bring up another name that lends itself to today’s gospel in this area of economic considerations: E. F. Schumacher. You may recognize his name as the author of the now-classic, Small Is Beautiful. A prophet in the guise of an economist and philosopher, Schumacher was born in 1911 in Germany and went to England in the 1930s as a Rhodes scholar. He was detained there as an enemy alien during World War II and was sent to work on a farm in rural northern England. That experience of common productive labor influenced his formation as an economist. During that sojourn he also had a Christian conversion experience.

In verse 36 of this morning’s gospel, Jesus asks, “What good is it, what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul, his life? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul, for his life?” Schumacher was asking that question in his work, having come to it after the war when he worked as an economic advisor to the British Control Commission in Germany and as head of planning of the British Coal Board. He came to believe that traditional economics, despite its scientific pretensions, was really a kind of religion in which growth, efficiency and production were the ultimate measures of value. In this way economists ignored the spiritual dimensions of human beings while promoting a civilization potentially headed for catastrophe.

In Small Is Beautiful, published in 1973, and subtitled “Economics as if People Mattered,” Schumacher described an economy regulated by concern for permanence, equality, reduction of desires, the alleviation of suffering, the respect for beauty, and the dignity of work. He implicitly called into contrast an economic system sustained by waste, short-term savings, and the stimulation of avarice and envy. He called for a reverent rather than violent attitude to God’s handiwork. Do you see the connection between what he thought, what he wrote and what he did? How do we take care of one another across the board? God gave us life to spend and not to keep. Risk and spend life, not save and hoard it.

So Schumacher, who gave his life to study and thought and hard work that continues to benefit us with its visionary approach to the ecological evolution of our interconnected systems based on economics, Schumacher was like Telemachus, who had no intention of giving up his life that day in the arena and changing Roman history and so, our inherited history. For both men, I think it was being in and with God in the moment, like Jesus, saying yes to the call. Telemachus had had his years of preparation in the desert, like Jesus’ days, and Schumacher had had his years in the “desert” of rural England where he came to know himself and his relation to God in a way he had not before.

It’s important to note that God’s scope is not limited to our view of what theology is or church or even church in the world. God simply is, as he said of himself to Moses: I Am Who Am. God is Being and sustains all life in himself. Without the breath of his spirit we are not. And so, God doesn’t limit Godself to our ideas or rules or roles. As the scripture says in John 3: 8: “The wind blows where it will. You hear its sound but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

A third focus in this morning’s gospel is Jesus’ rebuke of Peter, who in response to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” answered, “You are the Christ.” After Peter made that confession, Jesus spoke about what lay before him in Jerusalem: suffering, death and resurrection. Peter immediately remonstrated with Jesus, “God forbid that should happen to you.” Jesus’ response was quick and angry: “Get behind me you Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the things of God but the things of men.” Jesus’ anger can be attributed to the fact that he was dealing with what he knew he had to face. He didn’t want to die, and he knew he had powers he could use for conquest. Peter had voiced the temptations that Jesus himself was having in his humanity, a redux of what had happened in the desert, following his baptism and leading to his public life.

How can we be with a friend or a family member who is facing a difficult time in a more helpful way than Peter was with Jesus? Whether that “difficult time” means loss of life, as Jesus was facing, while hoping for some understanding if not some consolation from his friends, loss of health, a job, a relationship. Peter’s response to Jesus is usually what our first knee-jerk response is: God forbid this should happen to you. Not what the person needs to hear.

For example, if a person is at the end of her life and she knows it, she is no longer expecting the miracle of healing––although, as always, God being sovereign, that can happen––but if she is ready to face the end, she doesn’t need us to exclaim, “Oh no, God forbid that should happen.” She needs us to listen, to be with her, not necessarily saying a word, but just being with. This is holy listening, if you want to give it a name. This is how I believe God listens, and we are all capable of it when we get out of the way, not being self-conscious, but losing our life and letting God have God’s way with it.

I’ve seen this kind of listening and have been blessed in my life to experience it myself when I needed it. It is a great gift from one member of the the Body of Christ to another. Be quiet and listen. You know, when the choir sings in the Introit, “Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place”? That feels like what I’m calling “God-listening.” God can be present through us if we will allow it in the most difficult of circumstances. As hard to bear as some moments in this human life are, they are eminently more bearable when we share the burden with each other, with community as community. Amen.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Kindness of Christ

Sheepscott Community Church September 6, 2009

Isaiah 35: 4-7a

James 2: 1-10; 14-17

Mark 7: 24-37

The Kindness of Christ

I will start with a few words about kindness from the novelist Henry James, speaking to his namesake nephew Henry, son of William James. “Three things in human life are important, Henry,” he said. “The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. The third is to be kind.”

I relate this wisdom to today’s gospel, in the verses about the deaf man who was healed. What struck me most about the story was Jesus’ thoughtfulness toward the man, when he took him aside from the crowd all by himself. It was such a tender and kind thing to do, given the man’s situation, such a human thing to do, where we can understand from Christ’s example how God an come among us in the simplest ways. The man was deaf and had a speech impediment, which often goes with the deafness because the person cannot hear himself speak. Deafness can be embarrassing for those who suffer it, not because of the sense deficit itself, but because of others’ reactions to it. Some in the crowd might have been shouting at the man who was deaf, trying to make him hear, as if that made a difference. I don’t doubt that that would have made him anxious, nervous.

So, Jesus quietly took him aside, put his fingers into the man’s ears, spit and touched his tongue. What was that about, you might wonder. For one thing, in those days, people thought that spittle or saliva had curative powers. For another, Jesus was acting out what was happening. It is interesting to note that Jesus did not always heal in the same manner. His repertoire included everything from this unusual but understandable dumb-show approach of today’s gospel, to speaking the word of authority to a paralytic, as in, “Get up, take your mat, and walk,” and the paralytic did what he was told much to the chagrin of the pharisees; to simply touching a man with leprosy and thereby healing him. Jesus was simply in the moment in the Spirit of God, with whom he was filled and who directed his surrendered life. His looking up to heaven when he spoke the the word “Ephphatha”––Be thou opened.––is a reminder of that: the One he considered his source.

In this morning’s gospel we encounter Jesus first in Tyre, in Gentile territory a long way from home. What was he doing there? If you look at a map, you’ll see that Tyre and Sidon are both in Phoenicia, and we probably all remember from elementary school that the Phoenicians were great sailors, their cities built along the Mediterranean Sea as they were. It was the Phoenicians who first figured out how to sail by the stars at night. Until that time, all boats would have to moor at night and wait for the guidance of familiar landmarks visible during the day.

Anyway, what was Jesus doing so far from home? How far? Tyre, which means The Rock, so-called because of two great rocks offshore that were joined by a 3000-foot ridge creating a natural harbor and fortress, Tyre was about 40 miles northwest of Capernaum, where Jesus lived. Sidon was 26 miles further north of Tyre and 60 miles from Capernaum. So, what brought Jesus up from Capernaum? Practically speaking, he may well have been seeking a temporary retreat from the attacks he was under at home from all sides. The Pharisees, as we heard last week, called him a sinner because he broke their rules and regulations, specific to last week’s gospel, he didn’t encourage the disciples to wash their hands before they ate. Thereby they were considered unclean in the sight of God, according to the Law. Herod considered him a menace, and in his own home town of Nazareth, they thought he was just too big for his britches.

Who cared about him were the poor and disenfranchised, who had little other hope. Do you think that speaks well of him? Can we take him seriously knowing that? If you answer the question honestly, you might get an insight into your deeper thoughts about these matters. There’s an echo of that in the epistle of James when he says, “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of he world to be rich in faith and inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?”

These poor, these are Jesus’ chosen people, and they included the Gentiles, who inhabited Phoenicia, which is part of Syria. When he went there, he went into a house and did not want anyone to know he was there because he needed some R & R. But he was found out, as he always was. So much for the retreat from attention and human need and its demands. Notably this first incident in this morning’s gospel is an interaction with a person unclean on two counts: that she was a woman, and a Gentile. A good Jew would speak to neither in this setting, but she challenged Jesus with clever repartee––she being a Greek and Greeks being notorious for their gift for repartee––and he rewarded her with the healing or deliverance of her daughter from a spirit that had been troubling her.

She was a Gentile. In last week’s gospel, we heard Jesus doing away with the distinction between clean and unclean foods. “Nothing that enters a man makes him unclean,” he said, “but it is what comes out of a man that makes him unclean.” He was speaking about the designs that are in a person’s heart. Is it any accident that this incident follows chronologically in the gospel readings? Can Jesus be symbolically wiping out the difference between clean and unclean people? As I mentioned above, just as an observant Jew would never eat taboo foods, neither would he have contact with an unclean Gentile. Symbolically the Syro-Phoenician woman can stand for the whole Gentile world, which eagerly seized on the bread of heaven, which the Jews rejected and threw aside. That rejection became the opportunity for the Gentiles.

If as Gentiles we can all identify with the Syro-Phoenician woman, notice that she didn’t come on with “You owe me.” Rather, she argued for the crumbs that dropped from the table, not claiming to be anything other than a dog, who in that capacity could have at least those crumbs. I should note that in spite of Jesus’ seeming sharp words, because of the word he used for dog, there was probably an affectionate tone and smile between him and the woman. The word he used implied a much-loved and petted lap dog, not the more commonly used word for dog, whose meaning was closer to that of the word we use for a female dog nowadays, and which I really don’t want to say in church. We, through the mercy of God and in the boldness of the woman’s expression, do not have to settle for the crumbs. Look. We have the whole loaf, which we in our several beliefs will share as communion this orning, remembering the Christ. We out-of-towners, we less-than-ners, we Gentile believers grafted on to the root of Jesse, we can have the whole loaf.

One scholar thinks that this long journey, on foot through Syro-Phoenicia took up to eight months. It is a time of long communion between Jesus and his disciples before the storm breaks over the end of his life. It is the peace before that storm. After he left Tyre, he went further north to Sidon, and thence south to the area of the Decapolis, where he cured the man who was deaf whom we earlier heard about. That story shows us clearly that Jesus did not consider the man a “case.” No, he considered him an individual, a man with a special need and a special problem. Jesus dealt with him in a way that spared his feelings, in a way that he––the man––could understand. As Mark Twain said, “Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” The closer we draw to God in Jesus, by our choice, the more we can partake of his holiness, which is marked by this great kindness and sensitivity.

But Jesus isn’t going to do all the work in this department. We have to resist the real temptation to for example send someone up for laughs to the amusement of others. Have you ever been unkind in that way? It doesn’t feel good, does it? Not really. But it’s so easy. More difficult is to hold the tongue back from speaking the sarcastic, rueful word that will make you the toast of the group for some minutes at someone else’s expense. I have the feeling––and it is a feeling; it doesn’t rise or sink to the level of full-blown theology ––that when we do choose to rein in our tongues, when we do choose kindness rather than passing popularity, Someone notices, and there is a turning toward us, and a looking at us, that if we were able to fully look back, would probably frighten us to death with its beauty.

Other, perhaps easier acts of Christlike kindness can be as simple as smiling at a stranger, offering a compliment, opening a door, letting someone out into traffic, offering to help an overwrought young mother in the grocery store. What does any of this cost us except a moment of saying yes to someone else? I wonder if when we do these things, we become like the deaf man whom Jesus healed, who then hears as he has not heard before, or like the man born blind who sees. Acting out Christ, we may be healed in the process in unexpected ways.

After Jesus healed the deaf man, the people who gathered around were filled with amazement and said, “He has done everything well,” which was the same thing that scripture says of God in Genesis 1: 31: “God saw all that he had made and it was very good.” This is God’s verdict on his own creation in the beginning. It had been good, and then sin spoiled it. Came Jesus with healing in his wings, and creation began all over again. It was righted, and we are invited to continue the righting of this new creation. Insofar as we accept the invitation and respond, we will be acting with Christ and in his stead with kindness, always kindness, patience, gentleness, forbearance. We are enabled in this task by the food and drink we will share this morning––Christ himself in the sacrament he has left us, not so much to contemplate but more to activate, to carry into the world that is dying for a taste of his life through us. Amen.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

God Knows the Heart

Sheespcott Community Church August 30, 2009

Deuteronomy 4: 1-2, 6-9

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

God Knows the Heart

God knows the heart. That fact can provide us the greatest comfort in a world where we often feel misunderstood; or, it can be the scariest thing we can think of, knowing ourselves as we do, and what is in our hearts.

What is in our hearts? That is the deeper question in today’s gospel and what I want to spend time on with you this morning because we are community together, and what is in our hearts will determine exactly the kind of community that we are and will be. It may be that by the end of this message, we will all want to think carefully about how we are who we are before God, and if the message does prove scary, rather than comforting, perhaps we can make amends where necessary to be the people God is calling as his own.

Our friend and Redeemer Jesus is having yet another toe-to-toe with the Scribes and Pharisees in today’s gospel. This time it’s about the disciples’ neglect to wash their hands before they ate. They inquire of Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with “unclean” hands?”

Before I quote Jesus in his exasperation, let me give you a bit of background about the ritual of hand washing. We ourselves know our mothers’ mantra before we could sit down at the table to eat––either, “Did you wash your hands?” or, in households like the one where I grew up, where there was less concern for the child’s psychological development, the simple declarative, “Go wash your hands,” that without inspection of the presumably offending hands. That admonition to wash had everything to do with cleanliness and the elimination of germs, which were only discovered in the nineteenth century. Let’s hear it for Louis Pasteur, who was ridiculed from every corner but persevered in his theory, and we all benefit from his brave science and scientific approach. Thank you, Louis.

In Jesus’s time the Scribes and Pharisees were not concerned with the cleanliness of the hands in regard to those as yet undiscovered germs, but rather, it was a ceremonial cleanness that was at stake. Let me briefly describe the hand washing ceremony of observant Jews of the period. The hands had to be free of any coating of sand, mortar, gravel or any such substance. The water for washing the hands had to be kept in special stone jars, so that the water in itself was clean for ceremonial purposes. Nothing can have fallen into it or been mixed with it.

In the first step of the washing, the hands were held with fingers pointing upwards, and water was poured over them and had to run at least down to the wrists. The minimum amount of water was a so-called “log,” which was an eggshell and a half of water. While the hands were still wet, each hand was washed with the fist of the other. Now the water was unclean because it had been used to wash unclean hands. It was discarded and the next step in the hand washing began. The hands were held with fingers pointing downwards, and water was poured over them in a rinsing action that began at the wrists and ran down over the fingers. Only then were the hands considered clean.

Note that the Scribes and Pharisees commented on the tradition of the elders. Significantly, these are not the elders of the synagogue of the day, as we have de facto elders in our church, but they were the ancient legal experts of the old days. What was the tradition of those elders and in essence the Jewish law? For the Jew, the Law meant two things: preeminently the Ten Commandments, and of those, preeminently the first two: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with your whole understanding, and your neighbor as yourself for the love of God. Secondarily, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, called the Pentateuch. While there were some rules and regulations in the Pentateuch, mostly it was the statement of great moral principles, which a person was to interpret in and for his or her life. It was an oral tradition.

But in the fourth and fifth centuries before Christ, a whole new class of legal experts came into being, who were known as the Scribes. They were all about the classification of these moral principles into thousands and thousands of rules and regulations governing every aspect of a person’s life. Depending on the everyday Jew’s observation of these rules and regs, he or she was worthy or not worthy in the sight of God. In the case of the disciples’ unwashed hands, these followers of Jesus, who, to the scandal of the Scribes and Pharisees, was not demanding that his followers observe the Law and wash their hands in the ritual manner, these followers of Jesus were not dirty in the hygienic sense but in the sense of being unclean in the sight of God.

To shed light on how important this washing rule was to those Scribes and Pharisees, there was a story of a Rabbi who once omitted the washing ceremony and was buried not with the traditional ritual, but in excommunication for the violation of that one rule. That to the Scribal and Pharisaic Jew was religion. It was ritual, ceremonial, with regulations like the washing rule, which they considered to be the essence of the service of God. That is what Jesus was up against whenever he encountered these men of the Law. In a real sense, Jesus and they spoke different languages. There was a fundamental division: religion as ritual, ceremony, rules and regulations, and religion as loving God and loving other human beings.

On the particular day in the particular encounter recorded in today’s gospel, it is clear which side Jesus came down on. True cleanliness arises from the purity of one’s interior inspiration and not from soap and water. He is reported to have quoted the prophet Isaiah to them, when he said, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “’These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’” You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.

Jesus was not cowed by the learning or position of these greatly revered men in the Jewish community, and when addressing them, he did not mince words. He called them hypocrites. Let’s look at the word a little more closely. Hypocrite. It comes from the Greek hypocrites, meaning simply, one who answers. It goes on to mean one who answers in a set dialogue or a set conversation, that is to say, an actor. Finally, it means one who is not simply an actor on a stage, but one whose whole life is a piece of acting without any sincerity behind it at all. We can understand that anyone who believes religion is a legal thing, and that religion means carrying out rules and regulations, observing certain rituals and keeping certain taboos, a person like that is by definition a hypocrite.

Which reminds me of an experience I had back in the ‘70s, an interview, a conversation with a woman who was purportedly interested in bringing together the different elements of Christianity in our town in order to be a sign of unity rather than division among Christian denominations. That sounded like a good idea to me, at that time when I was a practicing Roman Catholic. She and I were talking tentatively, and she raised some issues about Catholicism that she disagreed with, and she was off and running, unstoppable. It was as though a curtain or veil dropped and communication stopped.

When she was speaking out of her own idea about Catholicism as contrasted with her religious expression, she guaranteed that I and others like me were on the road to hell and I had better do something about it while I could, which was to say, join her church, which had the truth. I understand this as hypocrisy in the way Jesus was using the word. A set dialogue or set conversation with knee-jerk assertions and responses, based on legalism. It’s kind of ironic, really, because if there’s one church in the whole panorama of Christian churches that is identified with legalisms, it’s the Roman Catholic Church. We concluded our interview that day with my telling her that I would rather go to hell with the Catholics up on the hill than be in heaven with her. That was a long time ago, but I did remember that when I read about the meaning of hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy that springs out of legalism takes account of a person’s outward actions, but it takes no account at all of inward feelings and thoughts, which is where the good or evil begins. The person may well be meticulously serving God in outward things, and bluntly disobeying God in inward things, and that is hypocrisy. While it is good to make religious observance as in scripture reading, worshipping together as a church, praying, all of these observances are subordinated to the fundamental question I began with: What is in our hearts? As Jesus told his listeners, “Nothing outside a man can make him ‘unclean’ by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him ’unclean.’”

Of everything Jesus said that day, that was probably the most radical and troubling, as far as the Scribes and Pharisees were concerned. Why? Because what he was declaring that day would have included and perhaps especially meant kinds of food that an orthodox Jew would never ever eat. Remember Peter refusing the order he heard when he saw the vision of a large canvas dropped down from heaven, which contained many animals that he as an observant Jew would not eat? The voice accompanying the vision told him to get up, kill and eat. Won’t happen, was his first response, and then he saw the vision twice more. He eventually understood that the animals he had been calling unclean and refusing to eat represented the Gentiles, to whom, through Cornelius the centurion, he began to minister to the very next day. It’s a great story. If you want to read it, it’s Acts 10: 1-48.

After making his startling statement about nothing that came into a man from the outside was unclean, Jesus went on to say that if in our hearts there are evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly, these evils that come from inside, these are what make a person unclean. In effect he was saying that things cannot be clean or unclean in any religious sense of the term. Only persons can be defiled , and what defiles a person is the actions of that person, which are the product of his or her heart. This was new and has to have raised fury to a fever pitch with the Scribes and Pharisees. Jesus was certainly consistent in how he dealt with them .

You know how when you watch a horror movie, and the ingenue is heading up a creaking staircase in the dark with a flickering nub of a candle, and you the viewer know there is something perfectly horrible behind the door because you’ve been prepared for it in a way the ingenue has not, you might call out involuntarily, “DON’T GO IN THERE!” Well, sometimes I feel like that about Jesus, even though I know how the story ends. Like Peter, whom Jesus sharply rebuked with a “Get thee behind me, Satan,” when Peter said, “God forbid that these awful things should happen to you,” after Jesus prophesied his end in Jerusalem. When Jesus does get into it with the Scribes and Pharisees, it’s one of those, here-we-go-again situations. He sure knew how to get them going, but that wasn’t his purpose, clearly. That was simply collateral damage in the popularity department, and Jesus never was concerned about that. What he was concerned about was the truth that he, the Way, the Word of God, the Bread of Heaven, the Bread of Life, had come to show and tell.

Before I conclude I’d like to elaborate a bit on what Jesus enumerated as the unclean things that come out a man. He no doubt used the word “man,” but I think it’s worth noting that women are full-service sinners as well and fully capable of all of what Jesus enumerates. Most of these unclean things are self-explanatory, but I’d like to elaborate on two which stand out. The first in the list––evil thoughts. These are evil designs. Every outward act of sin is preceded by an act of choice––evil thought or design out of which an evil action comes. What do we think about on our beds at night?

Next, the one we are probably most familiar with: arrogance or pride, which sets itself up against God, puts a person on a par with God. Think of the poet John Milton’s figure of Satan in his epic Paradise Lost who is the classic expression of this type of overweening pride. “Better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven,” he famously declared in the poem. To serve Jesus, the one who in the form of a man, sat at the right hand of God, Satan’s coveted place. This brightest of the archangels, wherefore the name Lucifer, meaning Lightbearer, refused to bend the knee in worship before a son of man, and as the story goes, he was instantly cast out of heaven to reign in hell for eternity.

In our less dramatic lives, we have the same choice or opportunity to bend, to worship, to surrender––or not––to cultivate the religion of the heart. God knows our hearts. Let us think about allowing God his way that those hearts may be of flesh and not of stone, unfeelingly bound in a straitjacket of legalism constructed by ourselves or others. Amen.