A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on August 30, 2015 (Proper 17, Year B)
When I was a kid my parents often dragged me and my brother to museums. It wasn’t just that they were trying to ram some culture down our throats; they were genuinely inspired by art and wanted to share that passion with their children. Much of which was lost on the two of us who whined and complained our way through centuries of magnificent works of art until we reached the great pinnacle of the museum experience: the gift shop.
But I remember being fascinated with one particular style of painting known as pointillism. That’s the medium in which small distinct dots are placed in patterns that make up images. When you stand up close all you see is a bunch of dots. But as you back up, the figures and background begin to emerge. At a certain distance you can no longer even tell that there are any dots at all. They blend together to form what looks like a typical painting.
Perhaps the most famous example of pointillism is the late-19th century Georges Seurat painting titled “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” It hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago, a place I went to (of my own accord!) a few times when I was attending seminary in Chicago. Great gift shop, by the way.
In a sense, Jesus is talking about pointillism this morning. The Pharisees and scribes provocatively ask him why some of his disciples don’t wash their hands thoroughly before eating, in accordance with the ancient ritual purity laws. And Jesus basically tells them they’re focusing on the dots and missing the big picture.
Though if you listen to him, Jesus isn’t speaking in the hushed tones of a museum guard when he makes this point. He comes out with both barrels blazing, accusing them of hypocrisy and abandoning God’s commandments in favor of human rituals and tradition. This isn’t some sweet paint-by-numbers Jesus; this is the Jesus who is passionate about bringing God’s message to the world and isn’t going to let the risk of offending someone stand in his way.
The thing is, it’s easy for us to get hung up on details while missing the broader point or the bigger picture. We do this in all sorts of ways, like constantly nagging our children to finish their summer reading and get off the Xbox rather than reveling in the gift of their very existence. You know, just for example.
It’s also easy to turn our human traditions into idols. Perhaps when we pray “lead us not into temptation” that’s one to be aware of. Because while it may not be ritual washing before meals — and this wasn’t some simple ‘don’t forget to wash your hands before dinner;’ these were elaborate ceremonial washings that went well beyond basic cleanliness — it may well be something else we hold dear. Like focusing on our own comfort at the expense of those in need or being resistant to inevitable change just because it’s something new and different.
This happens in churches all the time. People leave parishes or denominations when there’s a change in the wording of certain prayers or they don’t agree with the latest landscaping plan (that hasn’t happened here, mind you) or they disagree with the leadership’s stance on a particular issue of the day. But it shows that “the way we’ve always done things” can be a very powerful and sometimes toxic human idol, as ritual washing before meals had become for the Pharisees. They had lost all perspective and the detailed preparation became more important than the fellowship opportunities of the meal itself. And we’re reminded again and again that the church is not a museum but a vibrant place of encounter with the living God.
The big picture here, when we take a step back and stop focusing on the dots, is that we often neglect God’s core message of mercy and forgiveness by focusing on human tradition. We worry about doing the right things in the right order so that we can be part of the “in group” rather than looking at the all-inclusive, all-encompassing nature of God’s love for all. And that’s a problem for anyone seeking to serve God in word and deed.
One of the common themes in our readings this morning relates to the heart. The Psalmist declares that the one with whom God abides is the one who speaks truth from his heart. James writes that the religion of those whose hearts are full of deception is worthless. And Jesus, quoting the prophet Isaiah, says about those more concerned with washing their hands than following God that while they honor God with their lips their hearts are far from God.
Jesus also tells us that it is from the human heart that evil intentions come, not from those things that enter the body. And then we get that stunning list of human sin: “fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.”
We may not be able to relate to the seemingly archaic example of ritual washings before meals but we can certainly relate to the evil that can reside in our own hearts. Much of sin, which is something we often shy away from talking about for fear of offending, is about consumption. Our desires often revolve around owning or seizing or devouring and that does affect our hearts. We can become insatiable consumers — of things, of pleasure, of others.
Yet as the baptismal rite makes very clear, there is sin and evil in the world and there is sin and evil in our hearts. Much of this is simply part of the human condition. And yet there is another way — a way that leaves room for God. That’s the triumph of faith in Jesus Christ, a faith that begins at baptism.
Because Jesus encourages us to desire not as we desire but as God desires. To desire with our whole heart, not the list of sins but the fruit of the spirit that the kids in our summer church school program have been learning about; the same fruits of the spirit we pray will take hold in the newly baptized: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” That’s the list we strive for; the list we pray will take hold of our own hearts.
So the life of faith isn’t, and has never been, about the dots. It’s about the big picture of relationship with Jesus Christ. We are drawn in, perhaps, because we are fascinated by a certain aspect of faith. There may be something that we are particularly drawn to — a devotional practice or a way of reading and interpreting Scripture or something that inspires us in a unique way. Yet Jesus always pulls us back, he always helps us to see the bigger picture, he always makes us focus on that which really matters.
Let Jesus be the docent of your life. Allow him to share with you his passion for justice and his heart for forgiveness. And you will never see life again in quite the same way.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck