September 2, 2012: The Heart is the Matter

The Rev. Dr. C. Steven Teague, Rector
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Computerese is a foreign language to me. I know a few words and phrases – “Boot,” “Delete.” A red line under a word is my laptop’s way of saying: “Misspell, you dummy!” If I enter bad data, I get a bad result. So I know the phrase, “Garbage in, Garbage Out.” And if I am shown how to correct a problem I’ll soon forget what I learned. I excel at “Garble in, Garble out.”

In thinking about Jesus’ confrontation with the Pharisees and scribes, GIGO in Computerese comes to mind – “Garbage In, Garbage Out.” If you don’t wash, dirt goes in – sickness comes out. Hygiene – is that what the Pharisees are, hygiene police – forerunner to “mom police:” “Go wash your hands before dinner.” It’s not hygiene. The issue is purity before God, not just washing hands, utensils, fruits and vegies, or eating approved meats. Priests washed hands and feet before ministering at the altar to purify themselves for God’s service. They did the same before eating holy meat offered as sacrifices. Pharisees adopted the position – what’s good for the priest, is what’s good for us, and it’s what good for you. Everyone wash to keep from being defiled. Jesus never condemns them their theology. They simply turn meaningful rituals into empty acts. The result: they ultimately separate from, judge and condemn people who don’t keep the washing rule. Unclean, unwashed people – “those kind” must be avoided. They think by enforcing these rules Israel sets themselves apart from other groups, remains distinct, preserves religious identity, and sets them apart from the prevailing culture. The way they apply these purification rituals no longer serves God, according to Jesus. Washing hands is deceptively easier than having a clean heart for God.

Jesus clarifies what is important to God, namely, people honor God with behaviors, not simply words. People can speak nicely to God and about God, yet act ugly and mean to neighbors. We’ve met some of these people. How we treat others reveals what’s in our hearts. Hearts closed to God lead us away from God and the cleanliness that matters most to God. Closed hearts soon lead to arrogance, pride, excluding others, judging those who are different or we don’t like, thinking one knows exactly what God wants others to do, speaking for God as if one knows God’s exact thoughts – those behaviors defile us.

How do we know we are living close to God and not deceiving ourselves? That’s a question Fr. Adrian van Kaam asks. After Morning Prayer once, he felt spiritually alive, proud how his spiritual life was growing. Later that morning he barked at his secretary, and didn’t apologize when he learned he’d been wrong. He writes: “If I were growing closer to God in prayer, wouldn’t I manifest the power of this growth more regularly in daily life?”[i] That’s Jesus’ point. Rituals or doctrines give order to faith. They are useful. Just by diligently keeping them, doesn’t change our hearts.  From what goes into our hearts, not our stomachs comes our words, attitudes and behaviors – our presence in the world.

Is living a Christian lifestyle better than attending church? It could be – though be not discouraged from church attendance. It’s what we do here that matters. If hearts are closed to God – if we are not engaged with words, prayers, (hymns), God’s gift of love in bread and wine, if we are not stirred with great thanksgiving and joy, we may be shut off from God.

What we put into our hearts does matter. When someone offends you, what goes into your heart? Do you see yourself as a victim? Do we need to get even? Do we write people off – tell them and others how rotten they are? That could be our first thoughts, but we don’t have to react from these thoughts. Cultivating heart habits for God remind us we all are God’s beloved. Then sowing love where there has been hatred comes more naturally. Do you regularly examine what your words or behaviors do to others? Do we act in love, as best we can, toward others? Truly the thought becomes parent to the deed. Outcomes of violence, physical or emotional, and unkind behaviors, intended or not, begin in thoughts that become words that become actions. Love, healing, reconciliation, forgiveness and hope begin in thoughts that become words that become actions. Rituals connect us into God. I know you are here to be transformed; otherwise you’d be somewhere else this morning or find some excuse to stay home. In our thoughts, words and behaviors we show forth God’s love. If all others get is words, but no action to back them up, I am sure they wonder if God is for real, or if we truly live close to God.

Like the Pharisees we, too can sometimes lose sight of the God we want to serve. Keeping rules and rituals, yet staying apart from God in mind and heart, won’t transform us. And just for the record, I believe Jesus would endorse careful food preparation, dish washers, sanitizers, and washing hands before we eat today. What we put into ourselves, our hearts and minds, matters – for what comes out in our lives, reveals what we have put in. “God’s love in; God’s love out.”

[i] Susan Muto and Adrian van Kaam, Am I Living a Spiritual Life? Sophia Institute Press, 2006, pg. 5.


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