Getting at the Fire Within
Readings: Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
I love the synchronicity of God. As I was working on the readings this week, Graham told me about a Roman Catholic Benedictine monk, David Steindl-Rast. He is known amongst other things for his work on the interaction between spirituality and science, right up Graham’s alley. He says the following in an interview: “I compare mysticism to a volcano that gushes forth and then the magma flows down the sides of the mountain and cools off. And when it reaches the bottom, it is just rocks. You would never guess that there was fire in it.”
“So after a couple of hundred years, or two thousand years or more, what was once alive is dead rock. Doctrine becomes doctrinaire. Morals become moralistic. Ritual becomes ritualistic. What do we do with it? We have to push through this crust and go to the fire that is within it.”
That in a nutshell is what I want to say today. In his short and pithy way of presenting the gospel, Mark forces us to consider whether or not how we follow Jesus truly represents the faith in our hearts. What we say and what we do matter, for they reveal who we truly are. It is that simple. If we wish to get to the fire within, we have to push through the crust.
The reading focuses on ritual that simply becomes ritualistic and loses its meaning, loses its fire. It begins with a specific and cutting question. The Pharisees demand an explanation from Jesus about the behaviour of his disciples. “Why do your disciples eat with unclean hands?” They ask. It is not that they are being fastidious about cleanliness. It has to do with Jewish law, with conforming to Judaic tradition, with carrying out ritual acts in the prescribed manner. The disciples had not washed their hands in the way the Pharisees said people should. They had failed to follow the ritual practices of their religion. The purpose of such purifying was not to change outward appearance in any way. It was not to protect from disease. It was for outward show. Simply put, following the rules would make Jesus’ disciples more acceptable to the Pharisees.
I want to be clear here. Jesus did not regard the laws as bizarre or outlandish. He is not saying that it is wrong. Elsewhere and at another time Jesus would criticize a host for not giving him water to cleanse himself. He is not questioning the action. He is concerned about how an external act has become an end in itself. Jesus understands the rituals in Jewish law and tradition. But at the same time he knows that it is the shema, loving God with heart and soul and strength that is the essence of Judaism as it is for us as Christians. He knows perfectly well that following every cleansing ritual prescribed by Jewish law will not make an iota of difference to society. He knows that it is about more than simply following the old traditions. He knows that they need to put their faith into action if it is going to be effective, if it is going to bring them closer to God, if they are going to live out their faith. He knows that what is needed to identify the people as God’s people, is an authentic faith and a sense of justice and love. He knows that it is far more about people choosing to do the right things, not because they are following the rules, but because they want to do the right thing. They want to do things because they are convinced that it is the right thing to do.
Jesus wants more than lip service from his disciples. He wants to see the true marks of discipleship in their lives. The essential mark of discipleship surely is to know yourself. Otherwise there is a deep disconnect between what we do and what we say. What we say and what we do are not separate from who we are.
James says the same thing. “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” It is rather like the expression, “Don’t believe your own press releases!” James knows that religion is not merely listening, speaking, discussing, arguing and analyzing. It is acted out. It is lived. The ultimate test of what we profess is our actions. Spirituality is never disembodied. Faith must emerge in the world as service. Otherwise it is simply rhetoric. (I am tempted at this point to get into our current political scene, but I will refrain!)
The fact is, if we expect to follow Jesus, live as Jesus lived, do as Jesus would do, keep the fire in our faith, then it requires examination of ourselves. What are our true intentions? What do we believe? What does it matter? Does it change anything because I am a Christian? It requires not only taking stock of whom we are, but also accepting responsibility for our actions.
Again and again we hear Jesus take moral issues out of the realm of mere action and into the deeper realm of motivation. How many times must we forgive? It doesn’t matter. What matters is that we are forgiving people. Do we say grace day after day, praying for the needs of others, but never contribute to help change their plight? Do we bring names of the sick and suffering to the altar Sunday after Sunday but never go out to minister to them? Do we have a rich liturgical life but do none of the real work of the church? Do we think that we serve God by going to church on Sunday, or by spending time in private prayer, or through our financial support of the church? These may indeed be signs of a Christian living a Christian life. But they do not change the fundamental question. “How is my heart towards God?”
Well, so far all that I have spoken is bad news. Where is the good news of the Gospel? The good news is there in Jesus’ words. “There is nothing,” Jesus says, “that goes into a person from the outside which can make that person unclean. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that makes one unclean.” Jesus is affirming the holiness, the sacred nature of all creation. God continues to call all of creation back into harmony.
The good news is there as well in the words of the prophets of our time. In listening to them, they can lead us to understand the disconnect between who we are and what we say and do. It is difficult to live what we believe, to speak our truth, to show in our actions what is in our hearts. After all, we are broken people. But we have a loving God. Just as our words and actions reveal the heart of who we are, so God’s words and actions reveal God’s own self. In opening up our lives to God’s forgiving grace, in taking responsibility for our actions, we rekindle the fire in our hearts. That is good news indeed! Amen
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