I can’t speak for you, but I am heartily tired of hearing about our current political crises and scandals. I am sick to death of expert opinions, projections about the future, and opinion polls. Instead of feeling satiated by media coverage, I feel deprived of help in sifting through and understanding the world and even national events. Decency has fled at all levels. Most of the time I feel I am just a pawn of whatever arrogant agenda was being pursued by the speaker; A world in which ratings drive the amount of coverage I get, the spin it will be given, and a government that has given in to the lust for personal power over public service. Whatever our political stance or our moral viewpoint, we have only to look around to see people are upset, angry, confused. There is a sense of powerlessness as events unfold.
Then I turned to today’s Propers. We have Ecclesiasticus proclaiming, “Arrogance is hateful to the Lord and to mortals, and injustice outrageous to both.” Hebrews reminding us, “Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled.” And Luke commenting that all the Pharisees “were watching him.” For one horrible moment I thought I was reading Time magazine.
And, of course, in a way I am. The Word of God is pertinent. The Lord is very well acquainted with human sin. God has had several million years of experience of dealing with us. We should expect to find ourselves written up, large and clear, on the page! In this scripture, we hear the Word that speaks to the very heart of our anger, confusion, and powerlessness in the face of a nation cloaked in scandal, beset by power struggles, and manipulated by the media.
We prayed this morning in the Collect, “Graft in our hearts the love of your Name, increase in us true religion, and bring forth in us the fruit of good works.” What steadying words. Words that have God at the center, words that speak of the Lord of power and might in the same breath that turns us to love of that Lord. Words that grasp that God is at the heart of all worthy things – is, in fact, the source of all that is good. What a long way from Washington that sounds. Washington bunches up our neck muscles. This prayer makes us exhale. To let down our shoulders and lay aside our anxiety. We don’t have to be in charge of this mess. God already is.
So where does that leave us? It leaves us with the pursuit and practice of true religion.
Washington expresses on a big scale what we experience on a small scale every day. A member of this congregation shared that as she participated in a feeding program, it had felt very good and significant. She felt she could at least be sure that feeding the poor was something God wanted her to do. We began to talk of the puzzle of the fact that when we engage in helping others we feel centered and whole and yet we struggle all the time to resist such experiences. It is the conflict between our sense that we need to look out for ourselves first and put all others second and our instinct that looking out for others is looking out for ourselves.
We try to hide this conflict. We choose not to see our ambition, back stabbing, gossiping, possession accumulating ways as a problem. We justify our attitudes and behaviors very smoothly – ‘everyone else does it’, ‘I need to know this,’ ‘I have a right to know,’ ‘I can’t solve the world’s problems,’ ‘we need to help our own first,’ ‘it’s the proper way to do things,’ ‘I need to get ahead.’ The list is long.
You can feel those Pharisees at it in this morning’s Gospel. “On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, they were watching him closely.” And you can be sure it wasn’t so they could imitate his lifestyle. They had identified Jesus as a man of authority and, in their power hungry, self protecting world view, he was a threat. Fear lay behind that Sabbath gaze – fear of being down graded, of losing power, of losing status. They were not looking on so that they could learn. They sought to destroy any threat to the status quo. No love was being lost here. No true religion
This is what Ecclesiasticus refers to as the “beginning of human pride.” Pride simply being the forsaking of the Lord. Nothing good can come from anything that pits us against each other. Nothing good can happen when love, connection, is absent.
Jesus, on the other hand, doesn’t spend all his time looking at the Pharisees. He looks around.
Have you ever stood back at a party, looked around, and then thought about it? Seen the guests standing in groups, greeting their friends, enjoying the event. Then those who stand quietly, looking a little less at home, who often leave quickly. Or, if its a big party, the bar tenders and caterers working hard and largely unnoticed by the guests. Jesus saw all that and thought about it. He gave his heart to it. Stood alongside each person and felt what they felt. For when Jesus speaks it is to condemn the self-aggrandizement of the guests and to point to the uninvited. The ones standing outside the door or at the edges of the party.
“Increase in us true religion.” True religion is the love that notices those on the outside and invites them in. The author of Hebrews invokes us to show hospitality to strangers, to feel with (not for ) those who suffer, those in prison, those who are tortured, to become free from the love of possessions. When we risk inviting others we become free from anxiety. It’s when we can stop gritting out teeth to get through another day, lower our shoulders, and exhale.
We are able to exhale.
And suddenly your sight will improve. You will have less need to join in the group condemnation of a colleague, less need to point out how someone you love didn’t quite get it right, less worried about what that beggar will do with the dollar you gave him, less desirous of controlling the behavior of others. There will be energy for life itself; for loving, laughing, sharing,companionship, inclusion even in times of pain – and no one will leave the party early. We cannot do it on our own. We need God to graft it in our hearts and we need this community to strengthen us in our commitment. We are not being asked to be perfect. Instead we are being invited to become whole.