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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

by Kristin Berkey-Abbott

The readings for Sunday, August 30, 2009:

First Reading: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Song of Solomon 2:8-13

Psalm: Psalm 15

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 45:1-2, 6-10 (Psalm 45:1-2, 6-9 NRSV)

Second Reading: James 1:17-27

Gospel: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

You don't need me to tell you that humans are a rule-bound people. I've often wondered why this would be. I suspect people get to Heaven and try to create new rules. Many of us are committed to rules that make us unhappy. I have a friend who irons rather obsessively, for example. She complains bitterly about her family's ironing expectations. Why doesn't she just buy clothes that don't need such care? Why doesn't she pull clothes out of the dryer after about 10 minutes and hang them up? Why doesn't she accept wrinkles?

My favorite science fiction writer, Octavia Butler, had a theory that humans are both excessively intelligent and excessively hierarchical, and these two traits are often in opposition. It is our tendency towards hierarchy that so often gets us into trouble. We divide the world into the pressed and the wrinkled, between the vegetarians and the meat eaters, the drinkers and the A.A. folks: essentially between the people who live right (which means according to the rules we accept) and those who don't.

We often think that the Pharisees in Jesus' time were rule-bound people who couldn't see that God walked among them, even as Jesus was right there before them. While that is true, it's also important to realize that the Pharisees thought that following the rules to the letter was the trait that would save the Jews. We must not forget that the Jews of Jesus' time were under threat from many sides. We forget that Rome was a brutal dictatorship in so many ways, and that the peace that the Jews had found could have been (and eventually was) easily overturned.

We fail to realize how similar we are to the Pharisees. How much time do we consume wondering why people live the lives they do? I'm driven to mad frustration by the actions (and inactions) of some of my colleagues. What I'm really saying is "Why won't they act right? If they'd just act the way we all should act, life would be so much easier!" Of course, they probably say the same thing about me.

We look back to past periods of humanity, and we shake our heads over the things with which they were obsessed. We can't imagine the ritual purity laws that were in place in Jesus' time. We can't imagine the rigidly stratified societies that most humans have created. We can't imagine a time when women couldn't get credit in their own name or a time when blacks and whites had separate bathrooms, but those days aren't that far away from our own.

What will future generations think when they look at our time period? Will they shake their heads over our obsession with people's sexuality? Will they wonder why we devoted so much time at our national assemblies to the issue of homosexuality, while the gap between rich and poor got ever wider? Will they wonder why we tore ourselves into tiny pieces over homosexual clergy in committed relationships, while the continent of Africa suffered so much from malaria, HIV/AIDS, poverty, and brutal military regimes who condone rape of anyone who can't run fast enough to escape?

Jesus reminds us that so many of our rules come from humans, not from God. We think that God ordained the rules that we embrace, rules which so often tell us what not to do, but Jesus reminds us that there's one essential rule: love each other. God will judge us on the quality of our relationships. I've seen all sorts of relationships. I suspect that God would prefer the lesbian couple who still genuinely loves each other to the heterosexual relationship where the couple is cold and condescending to each other.

But more to the point, I suspect God is baffled by our constant desire to rank these things. God probably wonders why we can't just get it together and help each other to become more loving people. God probably wonders why we are so judgmental, even as we engage in all sorts of harmful behaviors.

God probably wakes up at 3 a.m. saying, "After all this time, after the example of Jesus, my cherished humans still don't understand how to behave; they still engage in toxic behaviors, thinking that will please me, and they can't even manage the most basic, loving behavior."

It's been a tough week for many Lutherans as we've watched our church vote on various issues. It's been a tough few years for Episcopalians, as various churches decide to align themselves with churches in Africa. We're people who long to be in communion with each other, even as we have trouble reconciling ourselves with the decisions that other humans make.

Jesus reminds us again and again that love is our highest nature and that the actions that move us towards being loving humans are the ones that we should take. We can operate from a place of love or we can act from a place of fear. As we act out of love, we will find ourselves in company with God.

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