“Yes”—From the Heart

Jennifer Ireland

Jennifer IrelandSeptember 2, 2012

Texts: 

Mark 7:1-23.
James 1:17-27
Psalm15:1-3 

The artist Georgia O’Keefe once wrote that ‘it takes time to see a flower, like having a friend takes time.’1 I love this perception of hers for its suggestive coupling of the ability to see and the ability to have a friend--to love—and thetime requiredto take in the being of the ‘other’, whether flower or friend. This wisdom from O’Keefe will serve as the touchstone for my comments today, which also circle around the theme of truth and love.

I must say I’m grateful for this opportunity, for some selfish reasons.  As soon as I was confirmed as teacher for today, then the clock was ticking for the preparation of a teaching, and meeting a certain deadline for this commitment then required me to enter into a deeper dialogue with myself, and, in fact, with you—my soon-to-be listeners.

And, it has prompted me to wrestle with the lectionary readings much more deeply than I ordinarily would. My focus today will especially be on the reading in Mark’s gospel [Chapter 7:1-23], from which I hope at least to begin to engage some questions about the unique times we’re living in.  I hope the outcome will be fruitful—but give thanks in any case for you as my partners in this process.

I want to say at the outset, that I am trying to keep to what I truly believe and to what my own experience confirms, to be real—for my own sake and yours, hoping that by putting forward my perspective as honestly as I can, you may feel drawn into conversation to share your own perspective. Dialogue, or conversation at its best, connotes a willingness to listen to, and possibly be changed by, the other.It recognizes that the perspective of each of us is necessarily limited and partial.As such, it is a surer path to understanding each other, and as we are more honest and more real—we have a greater chance of approaching, together, the truth of anything.  In contrast, if we only want to debate, or to advance arguments with “right” and “wrong” already carved in stone, rather like the polemics of today’s politics, we squander precious time.

I recognize that even as we attempt dialogue,our differing perspectives, derived from our passionate apprehension of ‘the way things really are’, in conjunction with our personal brokenness within a world carved up by racism, sexism, classism, and all possible modes of violence—Sin--sometimes we do falter. It feels like there are ruptures that we cannot heal—within ourselves, our own families, among friends, within community, not to mention the larger destructive forces unleashed upon the planet.  Is there really a balm for this pain and brokenness?

Out of my own life, which has seen its share of suffering, the answer I find is that there has been healing,not of my own making, but experienced as grace. Some woundedness remains, but there is a wellspring of hope that has not run dry.My experience of guidance and help from God through critical passages includes, but is not limited to, the New Testament’s witness of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. An experience of Christ’s presence in my late 20’swas later to be given further depth of understanding when I discovered the emphatic affirmation of God’s love and our belovedness in the New Testament. The centrality of the experience of God’s healing love in my life leads me to try to respond in love and to answer “Yes” to God; to be open to God’s Holy Spirit. I am not unwavering in my “Yes”—but God’s help keeps coming, so that my assent to life’s goodness, given by God, is renewed again and again.

You may share with me the experience ofhaving someone speak to you exactly the words that are needed at that moment, or that soon will be needed. I had this experience with words from Sue Ferguson Johnson, who in spiritual direction spoke to me about saying “Yes” from the start, a willing assent to God not contingent on anything.  Soon after our meeting I had the experience of being caught outside at night as the derecho struck—there was a tremendous burst of wind which was bending trees over, ripping off branches and pushing up dirt from the ground in my face. As I ran several blocks for cover, I kept praying, “Yes”, come what may,and this affirmation kept me from sheer panic. I made it home.

The “Yes” is about the most basic trust in God’s love and goodness.  I would share a few lines from a song called “Liberacion”, written in Spanish by a priest, that in the simplicity of its full affirmation of trust in the Lord—speaks this “Yes” so profoundly:

In your eyes freedom has more light

On your lips every truth is more true

Your heart is always love

Your heart is always love

 

Our friend, our brother and savior

Jesus of Nazareth...

 

[The Spanish original:]

En sus ojos la libertad tiene mas luz

En sus labios toda verdad es mas verdad

Su corazon es siempre amor

Su corazon es siempre amor

 

Nuestro amigo, nuestro hermano y salvador

Jesus de Nazaret...

 

These words from the song underscore the indissoluble link between truth and love—in Jesus, who is always love, “every truth is more true.”  As the ApostlePaul wrote in thefirst letter to the Corinthians [13:1],anything uttered without love is empty and worthless, ”like a clanging cymbal.”  From Jesus’ lips springs the “truer truth” which comes from the pure heart of love.

And the song confidently asserts our relation to Jesus as brother, friend and savior. The basis for this intimate relation to Jesusis given in a story found in the gospels of Mathew, Mark and Luke.  It is the story about the arrival of Jesus’ mother and brothers and sisters, who want to speak with him.  But when told of their desire Jesus asks, “Who are my mother, and brothers? And looking around at those who sat about him he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of God are my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:34-35). And there is this parallel from the Gospel of John, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” (15:14).  Our “Yes” to God, assenting to God’s will—this then is what brings us into the family and friendship of Jesus.

This is the perspective that is key for my understanding of today’s lectionary reading from Mark, the exchange with the Pharisees in which they question Jesusabout why some of his disciples are eating with unwashed hands (7:1-23).  If we look at the larger context within which the story is placed at some of the arguments between Jesus and the Pharisees that have led up to this point, we see that their relentless challenging of him and his ministry is based not upon a desire to understand the truth of what he is saying and doing. Rather, at some level they must see that this would require too radical a confrontation with their own hypocrisy—so they determine instead, to try to take Jesus down.

Let me touch on a few of the stories, all treated by the Synoptic writers, of these interactions with the religious authorities, which show us what it looks like to resist entry into Jesus’ family.  I do want to say at the outset that I do not think Pharisees are to be demonized—they play a particular role in the gospel accounts for a variety of reasons I won’t consider now. If we are honest perhaps we can on occasionsee ourselves in them… furthermore, at times the crowds of people, and those of Jesus’ hometown, are also shown as unreceptive or hostile—even his own disciples often seem clueless. In highlighting these interactions, my point is not about casting blame on “the Pharisees.” 

So, let us begin with the storyof the paralytic man lowered through the hole in the roof by his friends.  The scribes of the Pharisees believe that Jesus blasphemes in saying the man’s sins are forgiven.  The scribes “question in their hearts” [Mark 2:6] and their questions Jesus “perceives in his spirit.” [2:8].Jesus knows them all too well—their thoughts are plain, without their even speaking.  Again, in the story of the Jesus’ disciples being questioned by the scribes concerning why he eats with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus “knew in his spirit” what they were “thinking in their hearts”, and responds: “I came to call sinners--those who are well have no need of a Physician but those who are sick.”[Mark 2:17] What would it take for them to recognize that they too, are in need of a Physician? But truth seeking is not their motivation, and they do not want to understand. What about us—where are we in this story?

Consider the story told in all 3 synoptic gospels of the Pharisees confronting Jesus, claiming that his disciples are profaning the Sabbath by picking and eating some grain as they are passing through fields and are hungry. This is Jesus’ reply: “The Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”[Mark 2:27].  His meaning concerning the purpose of religiously-based ritual—that it is made for man--is further underscored in the gospel of Matthew when Jesus continues by saying, “If you had known what “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” means, you would not have condemned the guiltless.” (Matthew 12:7)

One last example of Jesus’ interaction with the Pharisees is the story of his teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath and a man with a withered hand is there. The Pharisees wait to see if Jesus will heal the man so they can accuse him of profaning the Sabbath.  Jesus asks, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?But they were silent.” [Mark 3:4] In Mark’s gospel Jesus is said to look at them with anger and to be grieved by their hardness of heart; then he heals the man’s hand. For this act of healing by Jesus the Pharisees are spurred to go out and make plans to destroy him.

There are additional examples that reveal the mindset and motivation of the Pharisees, including their claim that Jesus is possessed of the devil and casts out demons by the devil,but hopefully this brief overview that leads up to Mark’s Chapter 7 will help in its understanding. Simply stated, we see there is no question that they have set themselves against Jesus, and everything he says and does only increases their desire to destroy him. 

{read Mark 7:1-23}

In thinking about Mark’s account in Chapter 7, what does the writerassert here about the basis for the Jewish practice of hand washing? According to this text, it is based on tradition of the elders and not God’s law.  The criticism Jesusmakes is that the Pharisees elevate traditions above the commandments received from God, and at times even ‘make void the word of God.’ [7:13] However, Jesus’ point in this exchange isnotthat thetradition about handwashing must necessarily be completely abandoned, rather, he is pointing to their hypocrisy.

And, even subsequently as he calls the crowd to hear him, his concern is not the law’s requirements about abstinence from eating unclean foods. Although the writer of Mark parenthetically concludes by saying that Jesus has here declared that all foods are acceptable or “clean”, Jesus’ real concern is the origin of evil “within the heart.”  As Jesus explains, it is the disposition of one’s heart toward evil that truly defiles.Had the Pharisees grasped the significance of the meaning of evil and had their commitment to purity of heart been expressed through the elders’ traditions—perhaps they would have felt no compulsion to challenge Jesus on the issue of his disciples’ hand washing, and they would not have ‘condemned the guiltless.’  But their concern with outward propriety has overridden the concern for embodying a right relationship to God.

In contrast, in the picture of Jesus that all writings of the New Testament point to, despite their various differences in emphasis and apparent contradictions, we see one in whom there is no disjunction between words and action, Spirit and letter, inner and outer self—so there could be no equivocating or compromise with the powers of his day. It was inevitable that he would offend many, especially those who professed to be religious leaders but whose enterprise fell far short of seeking after God’s truth.

In reflecting on this passage in Mark’s gospel, I found myself wondering about the typical practices of Jewish peasants in Jesus’ day and how widespread and scrupulous the following of the rules concerning purity and the requirements of Sabbath observance would have been for those living at subsistence level.  Mark does assert that the Pharisees and “all the Jews” wash before eating, but the gospels aren’t really concerned to address such practices in depth.  What is clear, however, is that eating is viewed as a religious and ethical matter. 

In all the gospel accounts we see Jesus’ consistent practice of prayer and blessing of the food before eating; his inclusive table fellowship; and his insistence that the observance of Sabbath must take into account the needs of humankind—such as eating when hungry—for whom it was made. Further, in the story of the feeding of the 5,000, found in all four gospels, we have Jesus taking it upon himself and his disciples to see that the multitudes are fed; they are not to be abandoned. Even in his last mealhe does not abandon but provides a way to celebrate his continuing presence in the sharing of bread and wine together.  These practices surely embody the way of love he saw as God’s way; the self-emptying nature of that love revealed in life and through death.

                My questions for the community today begin with this: do we see eating as a religious practice? What about how we obtain our food? I have only begun to understand how incredibly broken our food system is, and I will spare you—for now—statistics which show just how dysfunctional indeed destructive for all life, it truly is.  In a nutshell, what we have in our industrial agricultural system is an approach to farming that is akin to strip mining, as Wendell Berry describes it. He has spent a lifetime as a farmer and his writings testify to the depth of his knowledge about and love for the land.

I will give you one image, a glimpse of the truth of Berry’s words. Picture a field that has been freshly tilled; it is back in the 1970’s and there are birds that completely cover this field because the soil is teeming with life. Now, decades later, following destructive plowing practice, monoculture crops, pumping pesticides into the soil, the picture of this same field freshly tilled shows no birds…the once healthy soil is now lifeless.

Recently Jeff Kursonis preached about the common ground beneath us that literally sustains us, and shared a vision of a sustainable farm at Dayspring. Is this vision and/or evolving ones that may flow in and alongside and out of Jeff’s --of a connection to a farm at Dayspring—and deeper connection to the land-- in the future for Church of the Saviour community? Let me end simply by asking whether we can move more deeply into conversation which engages forms of faithful response around eating practices and farming. What we do to the land--what we do to creation--we do to the people; and so many are suffering greatly, already.  What is our response?

Let us pray togetherthe words based on the song, “Espiritu de Dios”:

Dear Spirit of God,

Fill our lives

Fill our souls

With your power.

And fill us, fill us with your presence

Fill us with your truth.

Amen

1Georgia O’Keefe quote: “Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small. We haven’t time and to see takes time -- like to have a friend takes time.”