Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The Santa Claus Conspiracy

Tis the season of Santa Claus. Who doesn’t love to hear the man with the white beard, all decked out in a red suit, laughing, “Ho-ho-ho!”?

Despite the fact that the Santa narrative often overshadows Jesus’ birth narrative, the jolly old elf is so much fun that most Christians are hard-pressed to do away with him. (Christian cultures all around the world have some kind of a Santa figure.) So, we tell our children dueling dual stories and figure that, eventually, they’ll figure out the real meaning of Christmas for themselves. 

Before I proceed, please know that I’m not one of those religious types who are down on Santa Claus. You know, the ones who won’t allow Santa Claus to have any part in their Christmas celebration. These are the same kind of people who insist that Halloween is akin to devil worship. Nope, I’m not one of them. Santa Claus is okay in my book. So is Peter Cottontail. And the Tooth Fairy. I would never deny children the fun these colorful characters bring. But… 

I also would never be a part of the adult conspiracy that passes these fictional characters off to children as real. It’s deceptive. It’s wrong. And it’s damaging to the faith of children.

Adults often go to great lengths to make sure their children believe in Santa Claus. Should a child dare to question the logic of it all, the adult will resort to piling the bullshit on even deeper. All this seems to come from some perverse need to protect the child from the harsh reality of a world without mythical characters who see everything you do and keep track of it all so you can be rewarded or punished for your deeds. 

Just think about that for a moment. Does it not teach a twisted world-view to children? At best, it’s bribery. At its worse, it teaches children that love is, in fact, quite conditional and, whether or not you receive cool stuff, all depends upon how good you are. (You might also want to consider the implications this way of thinking has for children of poverty.) In recent years, many have added the creepy Elf on the Shelf to the myth, and the deception has only multiplied.  

What may seem like harmless play to adults is not so harmless from a child’s perspective. I remember well the angst I went through as a child when I started detecting holes in the Santa Claus story. It just didn’t make sense that a guy could carry enough presents on his sleigh to bring presents to all the kids in the world. The number of presents under my family’s Christmas tree alone would fill one very large sleigh. And how could he possibly deliver all those presents to everyone in the entire world in one night? I wasn’t very old when I realized that it was a preposterous premise. 

This happened to be right around the time my father died, and it created a real crisis of faith for me. I remember feeling deceived by adults. I had no idea what a conspiracy was, but that’s clearly what was going on. I felt betrayed by people I thought I could trust. They were all in on it together, and I wondered what else they had lied to me about. 

Perhaps God, too, was something adults made up to get us kids to be good. After all, grown-ups seemed to go to similar lengths to convince children that their far-fetched stories about God were true. And then there were the threats that if I dared question the existence of Santa, I wouldn’t get any presents on Christmas morning, so I’d better play along and keep my doubts to myself. Yes, the God stories seemed to follow the same pattern. 

When my kids were born, I vowed that I would never lie to them, especially about matters of faith. (Yes, to a child, for the above reasons, the existence of the Santa Claus is a matter of faith.) So, I was always up front with them about Santa, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy. 

From the get-go, I told Gretchen and Ben, “Santa is pretend." And it didn’t ruin a darn thing for them. Of course, in their earliest years they had no idea what pretend meant, nor did they care. The line between pretend and real to a four-year-old is non-existent. 

All these pretend characters still visited our house, and we’d play along, because it was fun. During December we visited Santa and they told him what they wanted for Christmas. On Christmas Eve, we put out cookies and milk for him, and then, as they got older, on Christmas morning, the kids would ask their father and me, “Which one of you ate the cookies?” (wink wink)

As they grew, they came to understand the difference between what’s real and what’s pretend, and it just wasn’t a big deal. They never had to face the harsh truth about Santa Claus because it had never been hidden from them. Best of all, they never had to wonder why their mother had lied to them. 

I wasn’t a perfect parent, by any means. I messed up a lot. But to this day, I feel especially good about the way I handled this, and I encourage new parents to consider taking a similar approach with their kids. You don’t have to banish Santa Claus from your home. Just be up front about him with your children. Let them know that Santa is pretend. At the very least, when they start to question the veracity of Santa, come clean with them. Then, when it comes to matters of faith, they’ll be able to trust you.

(As a footnote, to parents. Be assured that I will not be exposing the Santa Claus conspiracy to your children. If they believe in Santa, I will respect that. But please know that I will not reinforce it.)

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

"My life of education hasn't hurt me none"... but has it helped me?

In his song, "Kodachrome", Paul Simon sings, " life of education hasn't hurt me none." I’m thinking back on my formal education this morning and wondering if that's true. I suspect it hasn't hurt me. But has it helped me? I have to wonder, what was the point?

After high school, I spent over 14 additional years in school. For the past 26 years I’ve been able to put Ph.D. after my name, although I rarely do. It’s not necessary for my job, or my life either, for that matter. When I went for it, I thought I would one day teach in a college or a seminary, but my timing was off and life got in the way, so it didn’t happen. Now I don’t feel any calling whatsoever to the academic life. What was the point?

Honestly, after I successfully defended my dissertation, and my advisor told me I was officially in the club, I felt a let-down. It seemed to prove little. I knew better than to believe it was a sign of my superior intelligence. If anything, a doctorate is a reward for perseverance after jumping through what seem to be a never-ending series of hoops. When it was all over, if I had any pride over what I had accomplished, it was that I had hung in there and finished what I started. I made it all the way through the last hoop! 

My Ph.D. does not leave me feeling better than less schooled people. Not only is the sheepskin missing from my office wall, I couldn’t even tell you where it is. I actually am a little embarrassed by it because it seems so pretentious to me. Yes, for a short while, I knew a whole lot about a little. But now I am only too aware of the fact that I know very little about a whole lot.
Through the years, I have had this recurring dream where, for one reason or another, it’s discovered that I never actually fulfilled the requirements to graduate from high school. So, they take all my degrees away from me and I have to go back to finish. The problem is, I can’t pass any of the tests in order to graduate. This isn’t far from the truth. I suspect that I really wouldn’t be able to pass the standardized tests to graduate from high school these days. Especially the math. Oy! Knowing that leaves me feeling like such a fraud. Yes, I’ve spent more years in school after high school than it takes most people to get to high school graduation. And, what was the point?

There is much about our educational process, in general, that leaves me asking this same question. In our culture, we encourage kids to go to college so they can get a good job someday; many recent college graduates are still waiting. But then, even when it happens according to plan, even when you find yourself in a position where you get paid more because you have a college degree, how much of what you learned while working toward that college degree do you actually use in your job? The percentage has to be miniscule. I sometimes wonder if we just reward people for playing the game and going along with the system.
What do I know? I took Latin in high school, and what was the point of that? At the time, the draw was that it would help you on your SAT because it’s such a great vocabulary-builder. What a crock! Since English borrows heavily from the Germanic and Romance languages, any one of those is a great vocabulary-builder. And the thing about German or Spanish is that you can actually go someplace where people speak the language! I can see absolutely no point in learning Latin or Klingon or any other language that no living person on earth speaks.

Maybe I’m just a slacker. Back when I was in seminary we had to learn Greek so that we could read the New Testament in its original language. (By the way, it’s also a language that no one speaks anymore as modern Greek is only remotely akin to biblical Greek.) I went to classes and crammed it all in so I could meet the requirements. But that was forty years ago. I have colleagues who turn to their Greek text every week as they prepare their sermons, but not me. It’s been decades since I’ve cracked open my Greek New Testament. So, what was the point?

Was it all a waste of time? Although I’m sure I must have gained something from my schooling, I have trouble pinpointing what that something is. It certainly wasn’t about accumulating information, because that seems to leave my head as quickly as it enters, which is why my best friend these days is someone named Google. If anything, I learned how to learn. I learned a way of thinking critically, with my mind open to new possibilities. And I learned a way of organizing and processing stuff that I might not have figured out otherwise. Or maybe I would have. I’ll never know, because I can’t go back and un-school myself.
Perhaps the best I can say is that my formal education hasn’t hurt me. Maybe it’s even made me a better person. I'm not sure. But it seems that the most important things I’ve learned have had little to do with school. Things like forgiveness, and compassion, and joy. And I've learned about them in a multitude of ways: through my relationships with other people, through losses, by making mistakes, by venturing outside my comfort zone. Of course, that’s learning that continues to this day. There are no hoops to jump through, no papers to write, no exams to take at the end. Instead, this learning simply leads me into a deeper, fuller understanding of myself and the One who is Love. And that, I know, is really the point.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Rejoice in the Lord... always?

Preached for Ascension on Harvest Home Sunday, November 18,2018.

In today’s second lesson we hear Paul admonishing the Philippians to "Rejoice in the Lord always."  

It’s easy to rejoice when you get that job promotion. Or you pass your final exam. Or you find out that lump that was biopsied isn’t cancer. Yes, rejoice! 

But what happens when you lose your job? Or you fail you exam? Or you find out that the lump is cancer? Rejoice in the Lord, always? Seriously? 

Is this just some Pollyanna advice that encourages us to bury our head in the sand and ignore reality when our lives are ready to be flushed down the toilet? Or does it mean that we have good reason to rejoice in the Lord, even when it looks like our lives are ready to be flushed down the toilet?

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. For several reasons. First of all, there’s the opportunity to be with people I care about. And then, there’s the food. I love the turkey and the stuffing and the gravy. 

But the older I get, the more uncomfortable I feel when I sit down to a huge feast surrounded with people I love. Although, it’s easy to give thanks for blessings like that, I’m increasingly aware of the fact that life isn’t all about me. And it’s hard for me not to think about people who aren’t sitting down to a huge feast surrounded with people they love. Where is the blessing for them

I came across a Thanksgiving message from another Lutheran pastor that listed some of the reasons we may have to be thankful. It goes like this…
·        If you woke up this morning with more health than illness, you are more blessed than the million who will not survive the week.

·        If you have never experienced the danger of battle, the loneliness of imprisonment, the  

·        agony of torture or the pangs of starvation, you are ahead of 500 million people around the world.

·        If you have food in your refrigerator, clothes on your back, a roof over your head and a place to sleep, you are richer than 75% of this world.

·        If you have money in the bank, in your wallet, and spare change in a dish someplace, you are among the top 8% of the world’s wealthy.

And the list goes on…

Is this the way God blesses us, by giving us stuff that other people don’t have? Do we thank God because we don’t have to live the wretched lives some people do? That sort of list doesn’t make it for me. God isn’t just my God. God doesn’t exist to give me all the stuff I want at the expense of others. How can I give thanks that I’ve been spared when others suffer?

In the play, Angels in America, Prior, a character living with AIDS, tells a story on his sickbed about one of his ancestors, a ship captain who made his living bringing whale oil to the Old World and immigrants to the New World.

When his ship sank off the coast of Nova Scotia in a winter storm, Prior’s ancestor, the captain, went down with the ship. But the crew escaped and took 70 women and children with them in a big, open rowboat. As the weather got rougher, the crew started to look around at the overcrowded boat. In an effort to stay afloat, they picked up survivors and tossed them into the icy sea. The boat was leaking, and as it sank lower, more people were sacrificed. By the time the crew arrived in Halifax, only nine people remained on board. 

As Prior tells the story, he’s a throwaway person suffering from AIDS and, of course, he identifies with those being thrown into the sea.

But, I’m not a throwaway person. And my mind goes to those nine people who are in the boat and make it to shore. I wonder… did those nine survivors give thanks to God for delivering them? 

Sometimes, when I look at the way I live as a middle-class American, and I consider the way other people live, I feel a lot like the nine men who made it to shore in that boat. And that’s nothing for me to celebrate. 

And yet, the story from Angels in America reminds me that I do have reason to rejoice in the Lord always because it brings to mind another story that I heard.

It’s about a man named Michael Plant, who set off on a solo crossing of the Atlantic in 1992. He was an expert yachtsman and had made the trip several times before. His brand-new sailboat, The Coyote, was very high tech; there were few like it in the world.

Plant’s support team monitored his trip by satellite and radio. Everything was smooth sailing. Even when a storm disrupted the communications, no one worried about it. After all, this guy was one of the best sailors in the world. His boat was equipped with state-of-the-art navigational equipment. They figured Plant would resume radio contact when everything settled down. 

When they didn’t hear from him, they tried repeatedly to reach him by radio. Still nothing. So they sent out Coast Guard helicopters to search for him. 

They found The Coyote floating upside down. Its captain and sole passenger was never found. 

People wondered how this could have happened. Everyone knows that sailboats are very hard to turn over. Their deep keels and massive rudders right themselves. But as the boat was examined, the cause of the tragedy became clear. 

For all its beauty and technological advances, The Coyote didn’t have enough weight beneath the surface to outweigh the fancy gadgetry above. And so, it flipped over as it lost its ability to balance in the water.

The more fancy stuff we have in our lives and the better they look on the surface, the more we believe we’ve been blessed. But God’s blessing is found beneath the surface. The relationship we have with God is what blesses us. 

We’d do well in our lives to work at developing that so more weight is given to our lives below the surface and less above the surface. For when we find ourselves in a time when we’re struggling to stay afloat in a storm, it will become apparent to us how blessed we are. We’ll understand that being blessed is not about having everything go our way, but being blessed is experiencing and knowing that no matter what happens in this life, God will see us through it. 

Our blessings are not measured by the piles of food we display on our tables, or by the number of friends who surround us for the feasting. Our blessings are measured by the depth and weight of the relationship we have with God. 

There’s an old Celtic fisherman’s prayer that says: “Dear God, be good to me; the sea is so wide and my boat is so small.” It’s so true. The sea is so wide and our boats are so small. And our boats are blessed, not because of what they carry inside them or how they look above the surface, compared to other people’s boats. They’re blessed because of what’s happening below the surface, the part no one can see. It’s the relationship we have with our God that blesses us. And so, yes. We can rejoice in the Lord… always.  


Monday, November 5, 2018

Unbind him!

Preached at Ascension on November 4, 2018 (All Saints Sunday). The text is John 11:32-44, the raising of Lazarus.

When I speak of the family I grew up in, I often tell people about my father, who died from ALS when I was in the 1st grade. He was well-known and admired in the community where I grew up. And as a child so often sees a parent who has died, he was a hero to me.

Now, I rarely share this part of my story, mainly because it’s hard to tell. A few years after my father died, my mother remarried. She married a man named Jim. He lived a tragic life. As a kid, he spent a lot of time in an orphanage. When he was in his twenties, a man hired Jim to drive a truck for him, and the man had no intention of paying him. Jim came across the guy at a grocery store, and he was so angry that he punched him, and the man died. As a result, Jim spent the next 20 years in prison. (laws were different back then)

As a child, I was afraid of Jim, and as a teenager, I grew to despise him. I don’t want to get into the details, but let me summarize by saying that he was inappropriate with me on many levels, and I was traumatized and damaged in ways I couldn’t begin to face until much later in my life.

I was a seminarian on my intern year in Michigan, when I got a phone call telling me that Jim was in the hospital dying. He had a hole in his heart and wasn’t expected to last much longer. It was nearly a six-hour drive to get home, so I figured Jim would be long gone before I got to him.

Well, he wasn’t. When I arrived, I found my exhausted family gathered in the hospital waiting room. They all had spent time with Jim, and for some reason, he was holding on and couldn’t let go.

Now it was my turn to see him. I went into Jim’s hospital room, sat beside his bed and spoke to him. Shortly after that, I returned to the waiting room to tell the rest of the family that he was gone. They had been with him for hours and he couldn’t let go. I spent about two minutes with him and, just like that, he died. “What did you say to him?” they asked.

Jesus hears that Lazarus is on his last leg and he takes his time going to see him. By the time he gets there, it’s too late. Lazarus is already in the tomb, the mourners are wailing, and Martha and Mary are wondering if Jesus might not have been able to save their brother had he come right away. Jesus joins them in their grief.

And then he offers a word of hope. “Lazarus will rise again.”

Jesus makes his way to the tomb. “Roll the stone away,” he says.

“That’s not such a good idea, Jesus,” they say. “He’s been dead for three days already, and by now the body really stinks.” But they do as he asks. They roll the stone away.

Jesus, standing at the entrance to the tomb, commands, “Lazarus, come out!” Lazarus stumbles to his feet and slowly emerges from the tomb. He’s wrapped up in strips of cloth, like a mummy.

The new life for Lazarus can’t begin yet. There’s one more thing that needs to be done. And it isn’t Jesus who will do it. Instead, he calls upon the community to finish it for him. “Unbind him, and let him go.”

There are deep truths in this story for all of us. When we cry out from the depths, God hears. When Jesus seems slow in coming, he is coming nonetheless. And if we lament that it’s too late, Jesus shows that it’s never too late. After we’ve become convinced that all is lost, when we’re ready to concede to death, and we’re seeking only to contain the damage or bury it, Jesus shows us that there’s no loss, no death, no tragedy, no power that can place a person, a situation, or a world beyond God's reach of infinite love and abundant life.

This is a story about the power of Jesus. And then, at the very end, it becomes a story about the power of Jesus working in us. Jesus literally tells the community gathered, “Destroy what holds him down. Free him.” It’s the work of Jesus to bring life. And it’s the work of the community to unbind people from the trappings of death.

My family wanted to know what I said to my stepfather Jim when I sat beside his hospital bed. I told him, “I forgive you.” And then I said, “We all love you.” It was all I could do to say either of things because on a very human level, I didn’t really feel them. But in the me that belongs to Jesus, in the saint me, I did forgive him, I did love him. These were words that he needed to hear from me, words to unbind him. After I told him that I forgave him and we all loved him, he took his last breath, and he was free.

When we’re all tangled up in burial clothes, when we bear the coverings of death binding us like bands of cloth wrapped around a mummy, new life, resurrection life, comes to us through community.

God calls us to resurrected life, not just at the moment of our death, but more importantly, while we continue our journey on this earth. We can never experience the new life Jesus calls us to be a part of without being freed from all that binds us to the old life. Perhaps you’re someone who lives with regret or shame. There are things you wish you could change or erase. Maybe you struggle to love or be loved. Or you cling to resentment. Or sorrow follows you wherever you go. You’re in bondage to sin and cannot free yourself.

Death is the ultimate unbinding for us. We’re released from all the sin and sorrow and struggle of this life and we’re finally truly free. All the saints who surround us today know that in a way that we can only imagine. I’m thankful that they surround us and cheer us on as we make our way through this life.

Because while we’re on our life’s journey, we don’t have to long for death as the only way to be free. Thanks be to God, we can bring life and freedom to one another through words like: You are forgiven. You are loved. There is no greater gift we can offer one another than that.

There is nothing you have ever done that God can’t forgive. Because you have always been and will always be loved by God. You are forgiven. You are loved. We need to hear that from one another. We need to experience that with one another. That’s what happens in community when we respond to Jesus’ command, “Unbind him and let him go.”

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Something seriously wrong

I don’t know if any time is an easy time for a person who is clinically depressed. As one of those people who has bouts with depression, over the long-haul, I’m in and out. Not just one day depressed and the next not. It creeps up on me and engulfs my life for months at a time before gradually loosening its grip and releasing me. And for someone like me, this is a scary time.  

I am physically struggling with a condition that affects my stamina. It finally has a name, after many years of referring to it as my mystery disease. That name is fibromyalgia. Often, I find that my spirit is willing, but my flesh is weak. It’s important that I function, because people depend upon me, and I manage to do that, but there are times when I worry that they need more than I have to give. And it takes everything I’ve got to keep moving. After I spend all my energy on my work as a pastor, my spare time is devoted to recuperating. As a result, my pastor life is the only life I have these days, and as much as I love my work, I need to have a life. My lack of a life is starting to feel oppressive to me.

Then I’ve got life-sucking stuff going on that any pastor of a mainline church can probably relate to in 2018. I am surrounded by people who are grieving loss. And I’m not just talking about the loved ones who grieve at the funerals I’m doing these days, which is far greater than I have ever experienced in my life. I’m talking about people who are grieving and don’t even realize it—grieving the loss of a way of life within an institution that, in the way they have always known it, is slipping through their fingers. I have faith that new life will arise from the corpse, but the actual dying part is brutal. It’s hard to stay afloat above the grief that is constantly sucking me under. Sometimes I feel like I can’t breathe.

If I’m honest, I have to mention my getting-old struggles… something I don’t like to talk about it. As I approach the age my mother was when she died, I keep wondering how it’s all going to go down for me. Lately, I find myself waking up in the morning obsessed with some past wrong I have endured or inflicted upon others. Do I need to do an archeological dig of my life, knowing there are a lot of layers of sorrow and shame and anger I will be sure to uncover? Ugh. Part of me feels compelled to go there, and part of me wants to leave the dirt undisturbed and in place. It’s who I am, and I feel a need to be okay with that, if not for me, then for the people who relate to me. Am I the only older person who feels this way? I wonder if the joy-filled old people I spend time with are just putting on an act so that the rest of us can stand to be around them. (Come to think of it, that may be true for a lot of us, not just old people.)

The greatest joy in my life is my two grandsons, Nick and Justin. But even that joy is tinged with sorrow for me. When I watch the preschool children file past me in the hallways at church, it’s all I can do to keep from weeping. Students everywhere, including preschoolers, are spending time learning how to avoid being shot when an intruder with a gun comes into their school. The clock on climate change is ticking more rapidly every day, while those who could make a significant difference scoff at science. Fear-of the-other is used as a weapon to bolster the power of the already-powerful on a global scale. Ignorance, cruelty and immorality seem to be in fashion. It’s too much. And all I can think about are my two dear grandsons and all the other children who had the misfortune of being born into this screwed-up mess-of-a-world. 

If you follow my blog, you may have noticed that I haven’t been writing a lot lately. That’s because I have suspected that what I have to say right now, no one else wants to hear. If you’re still reading, you may agree. With the little I have shared with you, many of you will want to fix me and tell me that everything is going to be all right. Please don’t. I understand your need to do that, but it doesn’t help me to hear it. 

I will confess that I’ve always been a glass-half-empty kind of person. But lately the glass seems to be less than half-empty, and I can’t help but think that anyone who insists otherwise isn’t paying attention. 

If I couldn’t trust that God is loving and good, and somehow God is at work in the world, usually through us and sometimes despite us, I don’t know how I could get through these days. I suspect I’m not alone and I share this with you because, if you find yourself in a similar place, I want you to know that you’re not alone, either. There’s not something seriously wrong with you if you are disturbed by the fact that there’s something seriously wrong.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Leave them alone!

Did you see the wife and family of John McCain front and center on your T.V. screen throughout his funeral on Saturday? By the end of the funeral, I was screaming at my T.V., “Leave them alone!” Of course, it was nothing new. I remember seeing the same thing with the Kennedys when I was a little girl. Why do we do this? 

No doubt Cindy McCain knew that we were watching her every move during the most vulnerable time of her life. Can you imagine enduring such a thing at the funeral of your spouse, your parent, your child? Why is it necessary that the grief of a family be paraded in front of an entire nation? 

Commentators dissected the day, noting again and again how strong she was. When she finally shed a tear, during “Danny Boy”, I cried with her. But now that I’m thinking back, the whole thing leaves me feeling more angry than sad. 

I recall a tragic time in my own history when, being a somewhat public figure, I realized that my life was on display. I appeared to be a tower of strength. Everyone around me kept talking about how amazing I was, until I started to believe it myself. And it wasn't good. I was so concerned about portraying my superwoman façade that I didn’t allow myself to feel the grief; I just kept stuffing it inside. To say this was not healthy for me is an understatement, and it came with consequences. 
There is no right or wrong way to grieve. We’re all different in that respect, and it’s not fair to expect people to grieve in a certain way. Nor is it helpful to praise people for being strong for the sake of those who are watching. It’s harmful to both the performers and the audience they are performing for, as it continues to perpetuate the idea that when tragedy strikes, we all need to keep a stiff upper lip. 
What we need to be is authentic. That can be messy, I know. But when I see people fall apart at a funeral, I never consider it a sign of weakness. Instead, I am honored and comforted by their authenticity. 
I really wish we would stop praising people for their stoicism in times of grief. This is no more to be admired than the person who displays their sorrow for all to see. We simply need to give people the space to be who they are. And, to my way of thinking, that means privacy. In the name of human decency, can we stop shining the spotlight on those who mourn? And can someone with an ounce of compassion pass a law forbidding cameras to show us grieving families at televised funerals?

Sunday, September 2, 2018

The Tell-Tale Heart

Preached at Ascension, Towson - September 2, 2018

The text is From the 7th chapter of Mark.
1Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around [Jesus], 2they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3(For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 5So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
 ‘This people honors me with their lips,
  but their hearts are far from me;
 7in vain do they worship me,
  teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
  14Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
  21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

Villains! Dissemble no more! I admit the deed! Tear up the planks! Here, here! It is the beating of his hideous heart! 

You may recognize that as the conclusion of Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, "The Tell-Tale Heart." It’s narrated from the viewpoint of a madman who kills a guy just because he doesn’t like the way he looks. He dismembers the corpse and buries the heart under the floorboards. When the police arrive and question him, he begins to hear the heart beating. The beating becomes more and more intense, until finally the madman can’t take it any longer, and he confesses. 

Is it really the heart of the murdered man that he hears? Or is it his own heart pounding in his ears? 

The heart is complicated. Both as an organ of the body, and as the metaphorical location we usually associate with the core of who we are as human beings.

“It is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.” That’s the punch to the gut Jesus delivers in today’s text. Let’s rewind a bit and see how he got there…

Some big-wig religious types from Jerusalem have come to check Jesus out. And they’re not there to give him a rousing endorsement. Their mission is to find fault with Jesus and his motley crew. Of course, they find exactly what they’re looking for: Aha! Jesus and his disciples don’t wash their hands before they eat. For shame! For shame!

From our 21st century perspective, that’s just plain unsanitary. We know how important it is to wash our hands. Especially before we eat. But back in Jesus’ time they didn’t have any awareness of germs. Washing hands didn’t have a health significance. It had a religious significance.

It all started back in the Temple when the priests had a ritual of washing their hands. Then, when the center of religious life moved from the temple to the home, hand-washing became the practice there. Ritual hand washing was a part of the purity laws. By following these laws, people were setting themselves apart, making themselves holy for God. It was a ritual that united them with God.

Well, these big-wigs from Jerusalem are appalled when they see that some of Jesus’ disciples aren’t washing up before eating. By this time, the purity laws are no longer a way to get closer to God; they've become a way to separate oneself from other people, to determine who’s in and who’s out, And, and as far as they’re concerned, Jesus and his followers are OUT.

Now, the thing we need to know about Jesus is that he has a different view of these purity laws that guide the culture of his time. You can see this clearly whenever he sits down to eat with people at a table that’s open and inclusive. He challenges the dominant purity system by breaking bread with impure people. Within his context, this is the most radical thing Jesus does. He allows himself to become contaminated. And he isn’t just doing it to be a nice guy to the poor outcasts and sinners. He’s living out what he believes about God.

For Jesus, what makes us holy before God, what unites us with God, isn’t shown in ritual, but in relationship. For Jesus, the law of God that matters above all else is the law of compassion.

Whenever people practice religious traditions at the expense of compassion, Jesus pushes back. Today’s text is just one of many examples we can find in the gospels. Compassion over purity is central to what Jesus comes to teach and who he is as a person.

It’s central to who we are today, as well, because whether we realize it or not, the purity laws are still very much with us. There’s never been a time when the intent of the purity laws in Jesus’ day hasn’t been present in the world. We heard a lot of that talk blatantly coming from the Nazis in World War II. And we hear it from Neo-Nazis, the KKK and other hate groups today. But we don’t have to be Nazis to have a spoken or unspoken aversion to people we see as other --- people we want to separate ourselves from because they threaten us in some way. It seems to be the way we’re wired. And when we examine our hearts, we know it’s true.

Last month was an Ascension month to provide needed items for ACTC’s food pantry. Along with the food items we were asked to contribute in August, they requested Walmart gift cards. These can be useful for the hungry, the homeless and people recently released from jail who show up at ACTC for help.

So, I decided to pick up a Walmart gift card for ACTC. When I went to do that, I realized that I hadn’t been in a Walmart since I moved to Maryland, over two years ago. So, I got out my phone and learned that there’s a Walmart on Putty Hill in Towson, not far from the church.

As I entered the store, I immediately remembered how unique the culture is inside a Walmart. I saw a woman shopping in her nightgown and slippers. I saw a family with 6 kids under the age of 5. I saw a woman wearing the sort of outfit you might wear to a Halloween party… if you’re dressing up like a hooker. I heard parents yelling at their kids, and I saw one smack a child in the face for crying. I heard a man having an extremely loud conversation on his phone, dropping the f-bomb more in one sentence than I ever imagined possible. Was I having a bad dream where I was trapped inside an episode of The Jerry Springer Show?

In the check-out line, the person in front of me had his cart packed with Budweiser beer, pork rinds, Doritos and jars of salsa. He also was picking up a couple bottles of antacid. All the while I had a subliminal message running through my brain --- these are not my people, I don’t belong here, and I gotta get out of here as soon as possible. I wanted to rush home and take a shower.

And remember why I was there? As a good Christian woman, I was doing something nice to help poor people. I wanted to help them while remaining insulated from them. It’s hard for me to admit that, but when I examine my heart, I know it’s true.

There’s an idiom people like me use for people who shop at Walmart. It goes back to the Victorian era, but I still hear people use it from time to time. We call them The Great Unwashed. It’s a revealing descriptor for the lower class, isn’t it? The Great Unwashed. Which, of course, is another way of saying unclean. The need for purity is ever with us.

Jesus says a life lived in connection with God has nothing to do with the things we do to look acceptable in the eyes of the world. It’s a matter of the heart. When we focus on what we’re doing to look loving and good, instead of being loving and good, something is wrong. You can be squeaky clean on the outside and a total mess on the inside. If there’s anything that needs washing, it’s not our hands but our hearts.

Jesus challenges us to stop propping up all the external stuff that we use to present a façade of who we really are to the world, and start looking inside. That’s where that long list of sins that Jesus names comes from. Stuff like murder, avarice, deceit and pride. And it’s also where acts of love and compassion come from. We’re all capable of all that. No one is completely good or completely bad. We are all moral messes. Moral messes loved by God.

The call in this passage is to sort through that mess and examine our hearts.

You may choose to bury your heart beneath the floorboards in your living room. You may cover it with a rug and scurry over it day after day while you’re working long hours at a job, taking care of aging parents, shuffling kids to soccer practice, writing a twenty-page term paper, or volunteering in the community… But underneath all our busy-ness and struggles to survive from day to day, when we roll back the rug and tear up the planks, we find a heart.

It is the heart that connects us to God and one another and our very selves. Ignore it at your own peril.