Blameless lives and Clean Hearts
Perhaps you watched one, or both, or some of the two national funerals this week – Aretha Franklin and John McCain. Two very different funerals, but both rich with traditions. Traditions are an important, necessary part of the grieving process – and the celebration process, too. All our ceremonies and rituals grow from traditions – tradition are good! In times of tragedy and grief, traditions provide a ground for us to walk on, a structure to hold us so we can move through painful emotions. Traditions locate us in time – reminding us what has come before and what will come after us. Traditions are a good thing.
We have a tradition in the Christian church when we start our season of “heart-opening.” The season of Lent, repentance, begins on Ash Wednesday. We remember our mortality by marking our foreheads with ashes to remind us we are dust, and to dust we shall return. And then, the tradition has been for two centuries for all the assembly to recite Psalm 51. A psalm of repentance that asks God’s forgiveness. And a tradition that grew out of that for the last two centuries is that the priest prays the last three verses to themselves before consecrating the bread and wine at the Eucharist:
Create in me a clean heart O God; and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
Give me the joy of your saving help again and sustain me, with your bountiful spirit.
What is a clean heart? What does that mean to you? We hear a lot of words this morning that I think are dangerous in our tradition. In our opening collect we prayed that God would give us “true religion.” What does that mean? We hear words like, defiled and undefiled. We hear one of the most dangerous words – in the English translation – that I think is in our gospels “perfect.” We prayed with the psalmist: “Who can dwell on your holy hill or live in your tabernacle? Those who lead a blameless life.” Has anyone here led a blameless life? Not me!
Why are there so many words that point to unachievable expectations in our faith? And if traditions are supposed to help us become “better” if they strengthen values we hold as good and true – why does Jesus get so mad at the Pharisees and the disciples when they point out he is disrespecting the traditions of their elders?
If you find a question in a gospel story, chances are you have to go back to the gospel stories for the answer. There is another time Jesus is having dinner with the Pharisees (Luke 7:40ff) and there is a woman there who is sitting at his feet, weeping. She is anointing his feet with her tears and drying them with her hair. Definitely not appropriate dinner party behavior! And Peter and the Pharisees don’t like it.
BTW, the Pharisees are not the bad guys. I think we sometimes just assume they are bad and against Jesus. No. They are the most like you and me in the gospels – the religious participants and leaders of the traditions and institutions of their time. When we hear Jesus engage with the Pharisees – our ears should perk up, we’re being spoken to!
Anyway, Peter criticizes the woman to Jesus. And Jesus turns to him with a simple and profound question (whenever people judge in front of Jesus, he tends to ask a “look in the mirror” question) – he asks, “Do you see this woman?”
Peter doesn’t. And all Jesus does is try to get us to see, like he sees – like God sees. With the eyes of our heart enlightened (Ephesians 3). Peter doesn’t see the woman, he sees difference. He sees vulnerability. He sees what makes him unsettled and uncomfortable. Same is happening with the Pharisees in our gospel this morning. Jesus is doing something different and they don’t like it! The disciples don’t like it either. They want to have “special” pious practices that make them feel set apart as disciples. But that’s not the point of piety!
The Pharisees, the disciples, sometimes us – we make the mistake of believing the pious practices, the respectful traditions – earn our worth before God. Instead of seeing the practices are intended to grow out of seeing with the eyes of our heart, strengthening our relationships with each other and helping us bring that sight into our world. God doesn’t need our piety – we need our piety to open our hearts to God.
So – one question we have before us then is – how about you? Does your piety, do your faith-practices open your heart – or make you feel “better than” someone, or another group? Because if that’s the case then – as Jesus said, we are “making human precepts into doctrine.” We are taking what we think is right, and good, and true and using it as a dividing line or a measuring bar so that we can determine who is worthy and who isn’t. Its important for us to always assess and question the motivations behind our traditions and piety.
But traditions are in more than just our religious life (and God really cares about “life” not compartments of it!) We have family traditions, traditions of culture, traditions learning, at work, etc. There are plenty of things all of us do “religiously.” How about those practices? Are they enriching our relationships and understanding of the world? Do they help us respect the dignity of all people? Or, are they separating us? Dividing us? Are they isolating us? We are called to be ambassadors of Christ, always bringing peace to those who are far off and to those who are near (Eph 2). It’s important for us to continuously examine our traditions in all areas of our life – do we need to let some go? Do we need to learn some new ones?
And finally, I think this self-examination is a major part of our church’s life when it comes to outreach ministry. You know, when we hosted Camp Imagination this summer – that was an incredible thing. A good use of our space and our building – a true ministry of hospitality. But its more than that. I think its safe to say that there has never been a poetry-slam in the walls of this space where 20+ African-American kids from the city of Baltimore have opened our hearts with words of their strength.
Outreach isn’t charity. It isn’t our saying “we have this and we are giving it to you because you need it.” That’s a power differential that has nothing to do with opening the heart. Outreach is when we intentionally welcome and go out to communities that are different than ours because we need to. We need to be made aware of God’s work in traditions different than our own. It’s mutual transformation through sharing all of God’s gifts.
None of us leads a blameless life. A clean heart is the process of a lifetime. This morning we hear Jesus remind us that everything we do, and the intentions behind our words and actions all derive from our heart. So if God is good, all the time and all the time God is good – that means our hearts – created by God in the image of God – are also good. May we trust that God is always holding our hearts – so we have the courage to come clean when we need to – and the faith to allow our hearts to be led to places and people that will transform us in life-giving and saving ways. Amen.