|One of the practices that the Covid-19 experience has highlighted has been the importance of washing hands. In addition to wearing a mask and being mindful of personal spacing, the washing of hands is a very effective step everyone can take to limit the spread of the Coronavirus. And I must admit that in the past I have tended to take hand washing for granted. Not any more!
I’ve thought about this, wondering why such a common sense (and scientifically based) procedure could be pooh-poohed and thoughtlessly regarded as … as what? Not necessary for sophisticated adults but required for children? Where did this notion come from?
My mother was the parent who primarily taught and oversaw personal hygiene in our family of four boys. Being the conscientious mother she was, Mom created a regular routine that drilled us in how to take care of ourselves. Things such as brushing our teeth in the morning and before bed and washing our hands before meals and after we went to the bathroom were part and parcel of the developing life in the Bullock household. These practices were the law! Although, truth to tell, none of us boys seemed to succeed in absorbing Mom’s insistence that we put the toilet seat down after use! She just was outnumbered male to female.
Even after all these years and having reached the point where my own children have children, these and other rules and laws that I learned still apply. Without prodding, I still brush my teeth in the morning and evening. I still look both ways before I cross the street; and in light of the pandemic’s sobering reality test, I wash my hands more than I ever did. My point is that all these rules still apply; and to the extent that we absorb them, to the extent that we take these external things inside of us, they form the routines that we perform without too much thought; and all of this shapes who we are.
These habits become part of who we are precisely because we have included them so regularly. What initially came from the outside (in my example, from my parents), now resides deep within me, and what comes out of me stems from what I have allowed in. What is practiced becomes what we are. So it stands to good reason that we need to be very careful about what we practice because our routines form our identity and direct our actions.
In today’s gospel lesson, there are two significant stories conveyed about the place rules and law have in our life, especially our life with God. In the first part of the lesson, Jesus teaches his followers about the relationship between law (in particular, the Torah, the sacred Law) and life (specifically life on God’s terms). In the second part of the reading (the episode where Jesus meets a woman whose background does not share the common rules and orientation that is Jesus. Yet, when she indicates her openness to who and what he is, her life changes.
In this sermon, I want to focus on the first part of the gospel message, raising once more with you the question of the relationship between law and life, but more specifically about what externals you and I allow to shape and develop our insides, our “hearts”, our souls.
To a culture that increasingly displays an antipathy to any source that is not of our own individual making, talk about rules and speaking of laws and standards seems “old fashioned” at best and of oppression and rigidity at worst. Any stance that challenges the “do your own thing” orientation of our highly individualistic time is easily dismissed and often condemned. And when it comes to the church and our life of following Jesus, people in our culture increasingly regard the church as a bunch of judgmental, hypocritical, rule keepers. While issues of morality (that is, of what is right and wrong) are very important, there is something more essential and basic to life than morality and to obeying laws. What this is entails living in loving relationship, which means fostering life. Here the quickest way I know of explaining this. It comes from the game of baseball. (Remember baseball?)
In the game of baseball, one of the essential and defining rules is “three strikes you’re out”. Without this rule, baseball is chaotic and beyond frustration. Yet, as important as it is to know and observe this crucial rule, doing so does not mean that you’re a good hitter. And being a good hitter is the object of the game. Hitting the ball makes the game. Hitting the ball and the crack of the bat create pure joy.
So it is with all just and constructive rules and laws. Their purpose is to direct us toward something larger than the numbers indicate, something that is fruitful and life-giving. To the extent that we absorb the practice of these external rules and laws and also have their ultimate purpose in mind, what initially can be experienced as limiting paradoxically leads us into a deeper life of more freedom and creativity.
So it is a matter of practice, practice, practice, putting external disciplines into play so that our insides (our “hearts” as Jesus puts it) are “pure”, that is, appropriate for God and for the God-life. Jesus’ message reminds us that there is an unavoidable connection between what is inside and what is outside of us. So it matters … it matters a lot as to what we allow in because what is inside us will come out.
Of course, the context of this gospel discussion has to do with the fact that Jesus has been heard to teach that keeping Torah, keeping the covenantal law, doesn’t matter. The Pharisees, in particular, have taken great offense at what they regard as Jesus’ radical and threatening perspective. And ultimately, the Jewish establishment will connive with the Roman overseers to eliminate his threat. Rules are rules, after all.
At this point, we need to step back for a moment to give the Pharisees credit where credit is due. To many Christians, the Pharisees are a group of rigid legalists, but that is a caricature that neither serves them or us well. What the Pharisees were at their best was reformers. In the face of Israel’s own version of a creeping “do your own thing” orientation, the Pharisees urged a getting back to the basics of paying serious attention to scripture and its tradition. (Sounds familiar; doesn’t it.) To return to the baseball reference, the reforming Pharisees sought to pay more attention to the strike zone in order to be able to have a “good eye” at the plate, to discern more clearly the strikes from the balls.
That, I believe, is the focus of all “reformers”; but – again – as important as having a “good eye” is at the plate, being a good hitter is the point. As important as it is to know “right” from “wrong”, it doesn’t mean you are automatically more willing or able to live the difference, which is to have life in its most fruitful sense, to have life as God offers it.
I think that this is Jesus’ fundamental point. The Law and the Prophets are all about what God wants us to be like. They are all about what life with God is like. Issues of “purity” matter but only in terms of what creates in us a “pure heart”, that is, a “heart” and “soul” and “mind” that willingly includes God and what God intends life to be like.
So, where is your heart? What practices do you and I use to strengthen and develop our heart, our willingness and ability to receive the God-life? In what ways do we discipline our thoughts and feelings, our casual words and actions so that our hearts are increasingly open and tender and strong and – yes, even pure?
As Jesus says, what goes in comes out. A computer scientist’s version of this fact is “garbage in, garbage out”. Or as the ancient spiritual truth puts it: “What is not transformed gets recycled”.
Let me close with an observation and then a question.
History reveals that the more a culture or society focuses on “purity” issues — of being good enough, right enough, acceptable enough — what is actually at play is a deep-seated anxiety, a terrorizing sense of fear of being excluded. Interestingly enough, two reactions to this fear most often emerge. One is to crack down on the law and those who violate it. The other is to get rid of what evaluates us and holds us accountable. Both reactions are rooted in fear; and fear is the worst place from which to make helpful decisions.
It is precisely in such anxious times – times such as the ones we live in – that raising the issue of “purity” and the purpose of “law and order” frequently reflect our collective dis-ease and fearfulness.
We see this discerning challenge in our own time and in our own streets. Amidst the protests for justice that have emerged from George Floyd’s death at the hands of police, there have been some incidents of criminal behavior, most recently in the city of Chicago, where 100 people were arrested for wanton destruction and looting. Masquerading under their constitutional right to protest, these individuals have taken advantage of the moment to destroy, steal, and vent their own boredom and greed. This is a clear instance where the need to discern balls from strikes is necessary.
Self-centered behavior that ignores the stabilizing purpose of the law deserves accountability. Yet, what is also needed is to keep the purpose of the larger protests in mind and not lose sight of the profound yearning and need for “liberty and justice for all”.
Keeping the law has its important place, but when the keeping of the law overshadows what the law is meant to illuminate, then that purpose demands renewed attention. As the Dali Lama has famously and appropriately said: “Know the rules well, so you can break them effectively.”
That’s my observation. Now, here’s a closing question.
In 1985, sociologist (and Episcopalian) Robert Bellah published a bestselling book, whose title was: Habits of the Heart. To me, this title is exactly what Jesus is driving at in his discussion of what defiles and what enhances and what all this has to do with the Law. So Jesus’ implicit question to us is this: What are the habits of our hearts? Do our thoughts, words, and actions defile us or enhance our lives? Who or what is in our hearts? Is it God; or is it something easier for us to manage?
In the summary of Psalm 51 that we find in the Prayer Book’s distillation of Morning Prayer [page 137], the following lines speak to the habits of our hearts, when it comes to claiming God at our centers.
“O Lord, open my lips;
And my mouth shall proclaim your praise.
But not always! Transform what is impure in me that we may speak and proclaim what is life, your life.
Create in me a clean heart, O God;
And renew a right spirit within me.
Is my spirit your Spirit, O God? Not as much as I need it to be.
Cast me not away from your presence;
Take not your Holy Spirit from me.
Don’t bench me, Lord. I want to do my part for you, and I need your help!
Give me the joy of your saving help again;
And sustain me with your abundant Spirit.
Grant me an awareness of all your mercies, O Lord; and give me the grace to be grateful.
Striving for what Jesus calls “purity” is a start, but it is not an end. The end, the goal of all our striving, is to be what we see in Jesus: a heart and a life that always make room for God.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
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