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.