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8/30/2009 - The Rev. Susan N. Blue - The Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost

posted May 21, 2010, 6:40 PM by Unknown user   [ updated May 21, 2010, 6:40 PM by Terry Brady ]
One would have to live in a bubble to have missed the ongoing news of Senator Kennedy’s death, funeral and the endless rehashing of his life. He was a complicated man and, because of his family, his life was lived out on center stage. It has been said that the turning point in his life came when he realized that he would, in all probability, never be the President of the United States. It was then that he turned to perfecting his skills in the Senate and became one of the most adept and one of the longest serving Senators in the history of that body. He was quoted as saying that “there is a difference between the perfect and the good.” One could argue that that was the mark of his vocation and his ability to reach across the aisle, to compromise, and to push for that which would do the most for those in need. Ultimately he let go of the rampant self-righteousness found in so many of us and put himself aside. It would be refreshing if our representatives of both parties would learn to do the same.
Israel had the well-developed ethical system of the ancient world. As we hear in Deuteronomy, Israel was directed, upon entering the Promised Land, to live according to the law of God, the commandments that had been given them in the Pentateuch. However, a tradition had arisen as the teachers, the Rabbis, began to interpret these commandments and adapt them to everyday life. As a result, the law, through the tradition, had become so detailed with minutiae that only the very wealthy, learned, leisure class could follow it completely. Even then, there was great argument about the details.
The Pharisees in Mark’s Gospel for this morning were criticizing Jesus’ followers for eating without washing their hands, an important tradition. Jesus’ reply to them was: “Listen to me, all of you, there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come…”
Arnold Toynbee, in his work An Historian’s Approach to Religion, said that “All religions start with a promise of universality, but they deteriorate into a concern for particularity.” We know that the Hebrews were not unique in this error. Throughout the history of the Christian Church a legalistic approach has resulted in wars, murder and prejudice. Other religions have acted similarly. Our own Episcopal Church has fought about liturgy, slavery, Biblical interpretation and who is in and who is out. These behaviors come from the human heart, a heart that is not filled with the love that originally grounded most religions.
At the heart of this is a profound hypocrisy…a self-righteousness … that will not hear of compromise and will not listen to the other. Most of us would love to have an immutable list of what we need to do to have our heart’s desire. If we could only follow steps one through ten, we would be happy, healthy, wealthy and wise. This could be rooted in the early years of our childhood when we were deeply rule oriented. One only needs to listen to children arguing on the playground to stir our memory. Small children are most specific as to what is good and bad, right and wrong….and it is mostly according to their individual standards. I realized my grandson, Ryan, was entering this stage when he announced last Monday to his babysitter that “there is nothing good about kindergarten.” Who knows what triggered that, but one hopes his outlook improves!
Jesus ate with and forgave tax collectors and sinners not because they were more fun (though I suspect they were) but because he recognized that they were treated as “other” and that no one, absolutely no one, is beyond the redemptive love of God. Needless to say, this flew in the face of “tradition” and was not appreciated by the Pharisees and powers that be.
The particularity of religious law can isolate and marginalize whole groups of people. In the Middle Ages when the altars went against the wall, the priest’s back was to the people and the language of the Eucharist went from the vernacular to Latin, the peasants felt cut off from Christ, as represented by the priest. They were no longer able to receive the cup of wine and were allowed bread only twice a year. As a consequence, they began to pray to Mary, hoping that Jesus would not turn his mother down. This response created an early Mariology that was twisted at that time by the church to further marginalize women.
According to the Gospel, a real concern for the human heart is central to Jesus’ preaching. We, as followers of Christ, are called to a rigorous self-examination of our hearts and to root out that which defiles us. Let us make no mistake; all of us have sins of the heart – parts of us that need cleansing, repentance and reformation. The letter of James, our Epistle for this morning, links a pure and undefiled heart to reaching out to those in need and keeping ourselves ‘unstained’ by the values of the world.
We now enter autumn…the time of school opening, new pencils and crayons and notebooks. It is a time of new beginnings and a renewed commitment to learning and to growth. Let us focus our energies on what comes out of us in love and ‘let be’ our judgment of other’s behavior. Our world is in desperate need of lovers, we have too many judges. It has been said – we need peace makers not just peace lovers. Let us, with my little Ryan, look for the good in the kindergarten of our lives. Let us listen, compromise and seek the good for all people – the need is great. AMEN