Cultivinating a heart for God...

NOTE: Here are this week's sermon notes for Sunday, August 30th 2009. After Sunday's worship, I will be away for another week of vacation - I hope to visit my 78 dad in DC - and see some of the wider family. My blessings to you all as this sweet but wild summer begins to come to a close.

Late Monday afternoon last week, my oldest daughter phoned me from NYC: “Hey, before school starts again – and our move happens and you get all crazy-wild with church stuff in the fall – any chance I might come up to see you guys for dinner and an overnight?” I was delighted – and a few hours later she called back to say: “Hey poppa, what do you think if sister and her hubby joined us for dinner, too?”

• Oh my, my… Those of you who know me well know that I LOVE – yea let me say verily unto you I ADORE – my daughters and cherish the times we spend together. So this surprise – and its amplification – was grace upon grace for this old guy.

• And let me take that you one step deeper: this was particularly sweet because for the last few years I’ve been estranged from one of my children. I’ve hated it – it has helped remind me that I REALLY am NOT in control of most of my life – but it has been hard and I give thanks to God that now it is over.

So, having dinner with the WHOLE clan… man that was Christmas and Easter and my birthday all wrapped together! “Yeah, bring it on, sweetheart” I said with enthusiasm and started to plan the menu in my head. “Should I kill the fatted calf?” I wondered – and then settled for barbecued chicken - which was almost as good.

Now please understand two additional things about this dinner for me: first, just last week, Dianne and I experienced a car accident on the road during a rainstorm in NY State where we literally saw our lives flash before our eyes. When the whole thing settled we found ourselves safe but tossed off the highway onto the side of the road along with another car in the ditch beside us and a tractor trailer jackknifed some 500 yards ahead of us. It may have been the most terrifying moment in my life this side of September 11th 2001 and I give thanks to God that we are both alive.

And, I had a long standing, all day Tuesday meeting to attend in both Worcester – and later Framingham – on the day this new family feast was being proposed that was important. You see, I’ve been working with the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ as a part of the worship planning team for the annual meeting for the last six months and we were scheduled to gather that day to look over the hall and finalize some of our planning. This is important work – but given the grand scheme of things – in my family, in my heart and in the world at large – ultimately there was no question: I was going to go to the feast with my lover, Dianne, and the kids come hell or high water. And I did…

And it was a wonderful time of good food, laughter, love, music and lots of healing. I wouldn’t have – and I really couldn’t have – missed it for all the world. But here’s the thing: in addition to missing an important professional meeting, I had to delay working on this message.

In order to be with my girls, I had to put aside my regular routine – my time tested tradition, mind you – and hang loose for a while because Wednesdays are my regular days for study, prayer and writing. I’ve been working on Sunday sermons almost every Wednesday for the last 20 years so this is a deep and satisfying tradition. In fact, my week feels out of balance when I don't settle into the rhythm of study, prayer, reflection on writing: it has become part of my very soul - and it is disorienting when I don't go there.
But this week was different: this week involved a break in my rhythm in order to be at the feast and deepen the healing of my family - and while I loved it all my daughter could see that I was just a little off as the day evolved.

Eventually we had the chance to talk about this week’s scriptures together. We have ALWAYS loved to talk theology and culture since the time she was 7 – and as we did so of nowhere it hit me – right here, in my every day, walking around, ordinary life as a father and husband were exactly the theological concerns and questions being raised in today’s reading from the gospel of Mark. Specifically, today’s readings talk about three things:

• First, how is it that tradition and habit either helps or hinders our quest to cultivate a heart for God? Tradition can be a blessing or a curse – so what’s going on and why?

• Second, is my path towards God balanced or out of whack? A healthy spirituality always involves both the journey inward as well as the journey outward: so is one side or the other claiming greater importance in our experience now – and why?

• And third: how is my path towards God deepening real compassion in my life?
Marcus Borg made the keen observation that before Jesus there was an often an emphasis on holiness – “be ye holy for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2) – but after his earthly ministry the new community began to say, “be ye merciful just as your Father in heaven is merciful.” (Luke 6:36) It is not that this was absent, but it took on a new significance in the new community.

These are the key concerns in this morning’s readings. And as we talked about them over breakfast – and later over tea – all of a sudden my daughter started laughing and laughing. Eventually she said, “Man this whole trip is going to be your sermon, isn’t it?” And for a while I really wasn’t sure what she was talking about – I’m a pretty slow learner – but after I kissed her goodbye and went for a hair cut the fog started to lift, right?

God has an uncanny way of interrupting our best plans to help us go deeper sometimes, don’t you think? Being fully present in love and compassion is what it is all about, beloved, everything else is commentary. And as I thought about my two daughters – and our growing reconciliation – a few things about our readings came into focus:

First, Jesus isn’t suggesting that his way supersedes the way of the Pharisees; this isn’t about Christianity versus Judaism as I’ve always been taught. No, this is a story about how two very different spiritual paths can get out of whack.

• One path involves separating ourselves from the grit and grime of everyday life. These are the Pharisees of the Bible but these are also the monastics of the Catholic tradition as well as the radical Anabaptists or early Pilgrims in the Protestant way: men and women seeking a way into the holy life by fleeing the temptations and activities of ordinary culture.

• At the heart of this spirituality is the journey inward – being separated from the busy world – in order to nourish and strengthen the spiritual soul: It is a time-tested and noble way of cultivating a heart for the Lord.

The other path – which is equally noble but often the minority report – is it’s polar opposite involving a radical engagement with the world:

• Here spiritual maturity is defined by challenging injustice and sharing compassion and radical hospitality. Think of the social justice reformers – Dr. King, Mohandas Gandhi, Sojourner Truth or Mother Teresa – ok?

• At the heart of this spirituality is the journey outward – making the words of faith flesh in the real world – so that there is a growing connection between the will of God in heaven and the kingdom of God on earth. Remember how we put it in the Lord’s Prayer? Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on… where? Earth as it is in heaven?

Two very clear spiritual paths – two historically viable ways to nourish a connection with God – two roads for cultivating a heart for the Lord. Now I hope you will agree with me that every up-side in the spiritual journey also has a clear down-side, as well. Just as every blessing usually has a curse and every light has a shadow, so, too in the quest for a heart for God.

• The path of separation from society often breeds contempt for the world God created – this is the sin of quietude and escapism – as John 3: 16-18 puts it: God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son… not to condemn the world but to save it. To redeem it. To make it whole and healthy.

• And sometimes those who retreat into an exclusively inward journey come to hate – and fear – the world. They are the souls Mark Twain said were so heavenly minded that they were no earthly good.

There is a corresponding wound for those who are excessively outward in the journey, too: they can be a pain in the ass! You’ve met them – maybe you’ve even been one – I know I have! I’m talking about the people who harangue you and guilt trip you for not doing more! The activists who are so driven about social justice that they forget to share compassion and tenderness with those who are nearest and dearest? Someone described this lot as the souls who say I really LOVE the people – I am totally dedicated to the people – it’s just these damned individuals I can’t stand. Are you with me?

I think Jesus was talking to them both: beware of self-righteousness he said. Look out for your blind spot – it will get you every time – no matter what road of holiness you choose. The Pharisees were committed to holiness – they wanted the commitments of the Temple priesthood to be expanded – so they developed a tradition that sought to separate the people from the ordinary things of life that might soil or defile them.

They weren’t mean spirited nor was their tradition wrong or even unhealthy as Christian tradition often suggests. They simply forgot that God’s grace does not come in a one size fits all – that is what Jesus was trying to tell them – not that there way was wrong. Just that it didn’t work for 95% of the Jewish people in first century Palestine.

• You see, most of Christ’s people were peasants who could not afford the luxury of living a spirituality like the Temple priests: their hands were rough and dirty with farming and their lives were on the edge.

So Jesus emphasized the holiness of mercy and compassion rather than a spirituality of separation – and that is the other thing my daughter and I talked about. You see, the best scholars of our generation remind us that this whole dispute was NOT about food or the ritual of washing hands: no, Mark – writing two generations after Jesus – was dealing with a culturally diverse faith community that was searching for a way to welcome everyone to the table of grace.

There were Jewish Christians in this church right alongside Gentile Christians, ok? There were people who followed the ancient tradition of the elders as well as those who had been given an exemption – a pass – by the ministries of both Peter and Paul. And what Mark was doing is what WE have to do, too: sort through the traditions and scriptures that serve life in our generation and let go of those that do not. Like our Hebrew great-grandparents, we, too have to see that God sets before us this day the ways of life and death and asks us to make a choice - for life -l’chayim – for life is the way of the Lord.
So what St. Mark was doing involved a midrash on the words of Jesus – an improvisation on both scripture and tradition – so that a new way of living and a healing spirituality might emerge from what had could be an oppresive spiritual norm. It is, if you will, pointing out the difference between a museum and a vibrant community of faith. One is about preservation while the other is about compassion. Pastor Brian Stoffregen puts it like this:

Once upon a time a young man came to a great rabbi and asked him to make him a rabbi of compassion and holiness. It was winter time and the rabbi stood at the window looking out upon the yard while the student droned on and on about all of his piety and learning.

"You see, Rabbi, I always go dressed in spotless white like the sages of old. I never drink any alcoholic beverages; only water ever passes my lips. Also, I live a plain and simple life. I have sharp-edged nails inside my shoes to mortify my flesh. Even in the coldest weather, I lie naked in the snow to torment my body. Also daily, I receive forty lashes on my bare back to complete my perpetual penance." As the young man spoke, a white horse was led into the yard and to the water trough. It drank, too, and then rolled in the snow as horses sometimes do. “Look, look!" cried the rabbi. "That animal, too, is dressed in white. It also drinks nothing but water, has nails in its shoes and rolls naked in the snow. Also, rest assured, it gets its daily ration of forty lashes on the rump from its master. Now, I ask you, is it a saint, or is it a horse!"

We all have responsibilities in this life, yes?
Families to love, churches to serve, jobs to finish, budgets to balance and all the rest: some of us are called to emphasize the inward journey – to point out that which can and does defile us – while others have been invited to engage and heal the world through acts of justice and compassion.

I sense that Jesus is saying to us all: Remember, sisters and brothers, you can’t do this without one another – and you can’t do without God’s grace – so please do your work gently and with great tenderness? God is calling you to the feast – to the banquet – so let those who have ears to hear: hear.

credits: stock photos of various feasts; be ye merciful @; jesus was jewish liberat @; inward/outward journey @; katrina @; community and diversity @; the rabbi


Black Pete said…
You have yourself a great trip, y'hear?
RJ said…
thanks brother...!

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