Holy One, keep us always in the company of those who fearlessly seek the truth. And hide us under the shadow of your wings from those who think they have already found it.
There is a lovely Hasidic Jewish story of a rabbi who always told his people that if they studied the Torah, it would put Scripture on their hearts. One of the people asked, “Why ON our hearts, and not IN them?” The rabbi answered, “Only God can put Scripture inside. But reading the sacred text can put it on your hearts, and then when your hearts break, the holy words will fall inside.”
In the Jewish tradition in which Jesus was steeped, the human heart was the seat of thinking, as well as feeling. There are 556 references in the New and Old Testaments to the heart, even more than the 492 references to love. This heart business is of more than just a passing reference to the biblical writers. In today’s Gospel, we see Jesus very concerned about what is going into and out of the human heart. Like so many of us here today, Jesus was very aware of the failings and struggle of the religious institutions of his day. Like all the biblical prophets before him, Jesus called into question all those rules and practices of secondary importance that got in the way of following God’s will. In other Gospel passages, the religious authorities also criticize Jesus and the disciples for healing people on the Sabbath, for dining with those who were not keeping the purity codes and for feeding the poor on the Sabbath. As in many of our “church wars” today, Jesus turned to Scripture to know how to respond to those questioning why his disciples were breaking the Sabbath rules. He quoted Isaiah 29 back to his critics. “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”
The purity codes, commandments and rules of the Temple in the days of Jesus were generally good things-hand washing, not eating things which could cause disease or poisoning, saved lives. But whenever the rules got in the way of changing people’s hearts, of easing people’s suffering or pain, or including those who had been excluded, Jesus became critical of the rules. The Dalai Lama, speaking of how Jesus worked is reported to have said, “Learn the rules so that you may learn how to break them properly.” Jesus certainly knew the rules, and he did break them, but never frivolously, and always with an underlying commitment to teach.
For violating the rules about when one dined and with whom, what one ate and what rituals one followed before eating, one would be deemed unclean, and would need a mikvah, or ritual cleaning, to again be clean in the ritual sense. The private piety of the religious leaders—the “thou shalt nots” of the purity codes—were being scrupulously observed. Jesus points out that the Scribes and Pharisees were so concerned about the rules that they were missing the central point of what God’s laws teach. Jesus is clearly troubled that the under the crushing burden of the many rules the Temple authorities imposed, only a small portion of the people could afford to follow them scrupulously enough to avoid being considered unclean, while the core, the elements of God’s law of compassion that were to be “written on the hearts” of the believers, were being ignored.
There is the story of the Episcopal priest who was on an airplane and his seatmate was a pastor from a very conservative pietistic denomination. When the flight attendant came to take drink orders, the Episcopal priest ordered a gin and tonic. The pastor ordered orange juice, and the priest could see that the pastor was disturbed by his ordering alcohol. The priest asked ‘Does my ordering a drink upset you?” The pastor responded, “You better believe it does. This is an awful model to set for people to see a man with a collar on ordered alcohol.” The priest responded, “But the first miracle Jesus performed was to turn the water into very good wine at the wedding feast, in Cana of Galilee.” The pastor sniffed and responded, “Yes, and think less of him for it too!”
A silly story, but it illustrates the point that Jesus did not feel that the Pharisees and Scribes were getting the point. Jesus was very clear, when pressed, what was at the heart (there I go again, always the heart) of the Law. “The summary of the law is this. Love God. Love your neighbor.” Keep that straight and you’ll be alright.
Know this. The Jewish prophetic tradition that animated so much of what Jesus did was focused upon justice and righteousness. It was about reconciliation and community. There were rules about that as well. To violate these rules was not to become unclean but to be outright sinful. Harvesting ones fields up to the very edge, and not leaving grain for the poor to harvest to make their bread and merely survive…now that was sin. Ignoring the needs of the widows and orphans, that was sin. What was called for was far more than a mikvah, or ritual washing, but teshuvah, concrete actions to make things right.
In the Epistle of James, Scripture gets blunt about the nature of teshuvah. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” For the practicing Jew, and yes, for us Christians as well, the care of the poor, the distressed, the heart broken, is not optional. It lies at the heart of the Law of God.
What do we do in the richest nation in the world when nearly 47 million of us are without health insurance, the vast majority of whom are working? On this Labor Day weekend, one wonders what became of the things the labor movement worked so hard to achieve? What do we do about the fact that one of every six American children lives in poverty and the number is climbing? What do we do with the fact that the average male worker makes the same as they did in 1973 adjusted for inflation. What do we do about the fact that the gap between the rich and the poor is as wide as it was at the depths of the Great Depression of the 1930s? What do we do about the fact that public schools are failing the children of the poor, and with the falling test scores, maybe all children. My grandson goes to a DC public school considered one of the best in the city, and yet class size is ridiculously high, the roof leaks, and the parents are asked to give significant sums of money, beyond what poor families can easily afford, to buy materials schools have always supplied. What are we to think of the fact that 15,000 people are homeless in this, our nation’s capitol on any given night? What are we to make of the genocide in Darfur, the on-going suffering in wars, large and small across the world? Are the churches raising enough Cain to get some relief to those suffering? Are we the peacemakers that Jesus calls “blessed?”
Ah me, the churches. Those of us deeply involved in the life of the church, professional Christians one of my friends calls us, what are we doing in the councils of the church to address these issues that lie at the heart of the faith? When my mother was slowly, agonizingly slipping into the shadow of Alzheimer’s disease, she began not to recognize me. My wife suggested that when I wore my clerical collar, she seemed not to know me. So I squatted down next to her wheelchair and asked her, “Mom, its me, Howie. Linda says you might not recognize me in my clerical collar. Is that so?” She looked at me very intently. She said nothing. Then, as a smile spread across her face, she reached up, touched the collar and said, “I think those things cut off circulation to the brain.” I would amend what she says and suggest we are cutting off circulation to our hearts as illustrated by our constant fighting and dividing the church over issues that to Jesus, were secondary.
Frankly, most of the Christian denominations are fighting over just what Jesus accused the Pharisees of fighting over, secondary things…figuratively, hand washing. While the hands of the poor, of children, of the homeless, of those widows and orphans today’s epistle writes, are empty. Nowhere in Scripture that I remember, does Jesus seem impressed with any person’s righteousness, their cleverness, their status, wealth or ritual cleanliness. And yet we in the church are tied in knots about human sexuality questions, about the inerrancy of Scripture, about who should be ordained and who should not. Do you think the people homeless in Washington care a lick about whether we ordain women or gay folk? Do you think that parents who work hard for a living and yet cannot afford health insurance for their children care whether we think Jonah was really swallowed by a whale?
When we pray Morning Prayer together here each morning, there is a prayer that rubs my nose in my own failings. Each day we pray, “Let not the needy, O Lord, be forgotten; nor the hope of the poor be taken away.” All across this city, the nation and the world, the poor, the victims of war, those ill or in prison are losing hope. What I think Jesus is calling us to do, what the Epistle of James is warning us to do, or else, “ is to “put feet on our prayers.”
Jesus is upset with the very devout keepers of the law not because he dislikes or hates them, but because he loves them. He is worried that they will not achieve the Kingdom of Heaven. He is worried that they will forget the teaching of the prophets who always called the people of God, be they kings, presidents, prime ministers or common folk, to care for others as the primary expression of their love for God.
Jim Forbes, senior minister of Riverside Church in New York and one of our nation’s finest preachers has said, “No one is getting into heaven without a letter of reference from the poor.” Now that ought to get us to stop worrying about hand washing and who eats with whom, or even who loves who, and get at the work to which Jesus and God’s law calls us.
The ethics of Jesus are almost without ritual demands. Most of those we humans have added. At first blush, it is hard to find a lot of do’s and don’ts in the teachings of Jesus, especially when one compares them to the laws in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. In that part of Scripture, sound advice is given on everything for weights and measures, to diet, to when religious holidays are to be held. But the love commandment, the ethic of Jesus, is almost impossible to follow. “Love your neighbor..okay, will do. Love your enemy? Well, that’s a stretch. Sell all you have and give the money to the poor. Now wait a minute, now you’ve stopped preaching and started meddling. Dear Ones, Jesus wants our hearts, our passion, hands and feet to do his work of compassion.
So if you are, as I am, broken-hearted about the state of the world, about the state of the Church, about the plight of the poor, about war, famine, disease, then don’t despair. Remember that what we learn in church, what we read in Scripture will be written on our hearts. And if we are broken hearted, the holy words will fall into our hearts, spurring us into action that will allow us, with God’s help, to bring hope, and peace, reconciliation, and comfort to those most in need. To that end:
May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half truths, superficial relationships, so that you will live deep within your heart.
May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people so that you will work for justice, equality, and peace.
May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejections, starvation, and war, so that you will reach out your hand to comfort them and change their pain into joy.
And, may God bless you with the foolishness to think that you can make a difference in the world, so that you will do the things which others tell you cannot be done.