Sunday, September 2, 2018

Pent 15, 2018: It's about cleansing our hearts

Lectionary: Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

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En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

I’d like to begin today by sharing with you the wise words of an under-employed theologian: Calvin, from the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, by Bill Waterson. Calvin says, “You know what’s weird? Day by day, nothing changes, but pretty soon, everything is different.” Calvin is right in that it feels like we are who we’ve always been, but when we look back we realize God has been working in us and actually a lot has changed.

It's always been thus and it’s in community where we see this best. Our Judeo-Christian history shows us that the movement of the Spirit of God within us has led to an ongoing process of change and we can infer from our history that this will continue beyond us into the future.

An example of this is in today’s gospel from Mark. The topic is ritual hand-washing, but that isn’t the point of this story. The point is: how we respond to the difficulty of honoring what is tradition while allowing for the free movement of the Spirit in the world of the moment.

A word about ritual handwashing. It was not about germs but about humility. We must remember that in this moment of history there was no awareness of germs (that wasn’t until 1500 years later). The Torah requires only priests to do the ritual handwashing, but the tradition had developed over time to include everyone (male) to do it. The amount of water used wouldn’t have been enough to clean their hands as it was meant to cleanse their hearts.

It was ritual action, one we have kept and still use as part of our Eucharist. You may notice that the acolyte pours water over my hands before the consecration of our bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. As my hands are washed I offer up a prayer for our assembly taken from Psalm 51: Lord wash away our iniquities and cleanse us from our sins. Create in us clean hearts, O God, and renew a right spirit within us.”

The word “heart” in Hebrew refers to the womb, the interior of a person where new life is conceived and nourished. This is why when the Pharisees ask Jesus why his disciples don’t wash their hands according to the tradition of the elders Jesus calls them hypocrites and using tradition fires back: “This people honors me with their lips but their hearts are far from me.” (Isaiah)

Then turning away from the guardians of the tradition, Jesus addresses the whole crowd assembled and teaches them about the importance of the condition of their hearts. Evil, he says, doesn’t come from outside us but from within us. Evil is that which causes sorrow, pain, or harder labor/work. Remember Jesus said, “My yoke is easy, my burden is light.”

Evil comes from within and it can be thoughts or actions. Then Jesus names a few:

• lasciviousness – a thought: disrespecting another using sex as the means
• fornication – disrespecting another and one’s self using sex as the means

• covetousness – a thought: to want something that doesn’t belong to you
• theft – taking something that doesn’t belong to you
• adultery – taking someone that doesn’t belong to you
• murder – taking a life that doesn’t belong to you (since all life belongs to God)

• slander – making false or damaging statements about someone in order to harm their reputation
• blasphemy – doing the same thing about God and sacred things

• pride – a thought: giving ‘self’ priority over other, even over God. Pride is the opposite of humility, which characterized Jesus, his ministry, and one of the main purposes of our rituals – the cultivation of our humility. Pride leads to…
• folly. When we think unwisely, we tend to act unwisely.

These are the things that defile, Jesus says. We disrespect and violate ourselves, others, and God when we do these things so we must cleanse our hearts when any of these is present.

Jesus demonstrated by his life and ministry that while tradition has value, and the elders have wisdom to share, God is at work doing a new thing, because God is working out God’s plan of redemption for the whole world: all people, in all times and places. Continually examining the condition of our hearts is important if we are to participate with God in this.

Our whole tradition, the Christian tradition, is a new thing God worked through Jesus and the Jews in that time. It’s no wonder the leadership of his time resisted the changes.

Change is difficult, especially for the guardians of tradition. What if important traditions are lost? I’m sure the Pharisees worried about that when Jesus’ disciples dropped the handwashing tradition. Yet, here we are, still ritually washing our hands more than two millennia later.

God is the true keeper of tradition. No leader, no historian, no theologian decides which traditions will live and which must be let go for a time or forever. God decides this because only God knows the full plan of redemption.

As for us, Jesus teaches us to notice the condition of our hearts, the deep interior of our beings, where new life is conceived and nourished by God. When we find the presence of those things that defile within us, we are to repent – to ask God to cleanse our hearts and renew a right spirit within us.

Anglican theologian Evelyn Underhill says this about God’s re-creative work: “The coming of the Kingdom is perpetual. Again and again, freshness, novelty, power from beyond the world break in by unexpected paths bringing unexpected change. Those who cling to tradition and fear all novelty in God's relation to the world deny the creative activity of the Holy Spirit, and forget that what is now tradition was once innovation; that the real Christian is always a revolutionary, belongs to a new race, and has been given a new name and a new song.”

Beloved ones, this isn’t just an interim-time task. It’s an all-the-time task. As followers of Jesus we intentionally open ourselves to the movement of the Holy Spirit within us, trusting that our loving and merciful God is steadily working out a plan of redemption for the whole world – all people, in all times and places. Our only concern is faithfully participating in that plan as it is revealed to us in this moment of our collective history.

The church is supposed to be a place where the condition of our hearts can be examined safely within a community where love is practiced. When we find that we have gone astray, as individuals or as a community, we are supported in our repentance by a community that continually cultivates humility through our ritual practices. In this way, over time, we are able restore the priority of God’s will for us over our own.

Each time we review our history, as we will later this month in our first parish summit, we will see how God has worked in us, day by day, changing us, forming us, preparing us to participate in God’s plan of redemption in this moment of history, in this place in God’s kingdom.

I close with a prayer from another of my favorite Bishop Steven Charleston, the retired bishop of Alaska, retired Dean of Episcopal Divinity School, and a member of the Choctaw nation: “Give your heart to love today, not to old thoughts of who you were, but to the new idea that your kindness could change another life. Give your mind to hope today, not to the usual list of impossibilities, but to a single faith that goodness is the purpose of history. Give your spirit to peace today, not to the anger of the moment, but to the welcoming road of grace that leads to the home for which you have longed. Give your hands to the work of justice today, not in resignation but in certainty, knowing that what you do will make an enormous difference.”


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