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St Paul's ChurchSermon preached by the Reverend Louise Kalemkerian
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, Connecticut
The Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost – August 30, 2009

In the name of the God whose love for us is without limit, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. AMEN.

There are a number of passages in the Gospels that scholars and preachers have identified as “hard sayings of Jesus,” that is passages that are challenging to live into. Always included in such lists are Jesus’ words about selling possessions and giving the money away, forgiving one’s enemies, turning the other cheek, and from last Sunday’s Gospel, eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood. I looked through several such lists and didn’t find today’s words to us in any list, but for me, today’s lesson falls in that category. Hard sayings. Because I think that there’s much for us 21st century disciples in Jesus’ words today to the Pharisees.

Jesus’ commandment to all of his followers in every generation is that we love one another. I think that always we need to read the Gospel in the context of this commandment and of his life, poured out in love for us all. So his words today to the Pharisees are to be understood in that light.

In today’s Gospel, the Pharisees are infuriated because the disciples are not following the required ritual hand-washing, and complain to Jesus. He calls them hypocrites and quotes Isaiah 29 back to them. “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” Jesus is much more concerned about what is going into and out of the human heart than the observance of religious rituals. Like so many of us, he was very aware of the failings and struggle of the religious institutions of his day.

Like all the biblical prophets before him, Jesus called into question all those rules and practices of secondary importance that got in the way of following God’s will. In other Gospel passages, the religious authorities also criticize Jesus and the disciples for healing people on the Sabbath, for dining with those who were not keeping the purity codes and for feeding the poor on the Sabbath. As in many of our “church wars” today, Jesus turned to Scripture to know how to respond to those questioning why his disciples were breaking the Sabbath rules.

Jesus wasn’t dissing the rules of ritual cleanliness that the Pharisees were trying to uphold; after all, he had learned those same rules and rituals that observant Jews were taught. But what he was trying to teach them, and us, is that there’s something more important than the religious rituals at stake. He pointed out that the scribes and Pharisees were so concerned about the rules that they were missing the central point of what God’s laws teach. He was clearly troubled that under the crushing burden of the many rules the Temple authorities imposed, only a small portion of the people could afford to follow them scrupulously enough to avoid being considered unclean, while the core, the elements of God’s law of compassion that were to be “written on the hearts” of the believers, were being ignored.

A colleague tells the story of the Episcopal priest who was on an airplane and his seatmate was a pastor from a very conservative denomination. When the flight attendant came to take drink orders, the Episcopal priest ordered a gin and tonic. The pastor ordered orange juice, and the priest could see that the pastor was disturbed by his ordering alcohol. The priest asked “Does my ordering a drink upset you?” The pastor responded, “You better believe it does. This is an awful model to set for people to see a man with a collar on ordering alcohol.” The priest responded, “But the first miracle Jesus performed was to turn the water into wine at the wedding feast, in Cana of Galilee.” The pastor sniffed and responded, “Yes, and I think less of him for it too!”

A silly story, but it illustrates the point that Jesus did not feel that the Pharisees and scribes were catching on. Jesus was very clear what was at the heart of the Law. “The summary of the law is this. Love God. Love your neighbor.” Keep that straight and you’ll be alright.

And that’s where Jesus was coming from, all the time. That acting from love was the most important thing to do. That working to see that people had food to eat was more important than whether they washed their hands before eating. That including the poor, the sick, women, and others who were on the fringes of society was what the Kingdom of God was about. That God’s love is for all persons. That what’s important to God is not our piety or religious traditions but how we love one another.

I have thought a lot about this during this week of Ted Kennedy’s death. He was a man grounded in his Roman Catholic faith, whose life was shaped by his family and the Church. I find it very significant that the Gospel read at his funeral yesterday was the Last Judgment text from Matthew, about how Jesus expects us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and take care of the sick, the imprisoned, the homeless and those in any need. That those are the actions Jesus expects from each and every one of us, all the time, that this is what we’ll all be accountable for. That each time we show compassion, it’s as if we’re serving Jesus himself.

And in one of the interviews I heard this week, Tom Oliphant, a former columnist for the Washington Post noted that he once asked Ted Kennedy why he championed the causes that he fought for. Kennedy’s answer was, “Haven’t you read the New Testament?” That what drove him to stand for the needs of the poor and children and the disabled and disenfranchised were Jesus’ own words. That’s what drove him to read to children every week for years in one of the local Washington schools. And another time Kennedy said “I believe that the Jesus’ prophecy, ‘The poor you have always with you’ is an indictment, not a commandment.” And he worked to reduce poverty and promote education and children’s issues throughout his career.

I also found it interesting that the Archdiocese of Boston received a number of calls this week protesting Kennedy’s funeral and claiming he had violated his status as a Catholic because of his positions on women’s right to choose, gay rights and other issues, and therefore should not be buried from the Church. I wonder if we’re all reading the same Gospel.

Following Jesus is difficult in every generation, because he calls us to put others first, to forgive those who hurt us, to share our wealth sacrificially, to bring reconciliation and comfort to all whom we meet. These are Jesus’ hard sayings.

Nowhere in Scripture that I can recall does Jesus seem impressed with any person’s righteousness, their cleverness, their status, wealth or ritual cleanliness. Jesus wants our hearts, wants us to show compassion and concern for all whom we encounter. He wants us to be his hands and feet wherever we find ourselves. Today’s epistle from the first chapter of the letter of James – you can read it when you go home – makes it clear that what is pleasing to God is our care for widows and orphans and those who cannot care for themselves.

And this includes healthcare. How can we continue to have 50 million people in this country who do not have access to good health care and say it’s not our responsibility? How can we read the stories and statistics about the growing homeless population in tent cities across our country and say it’s not my concern? Can we read Jesus’ words this morning and not be challenged to look at our own lives and wonder if we’re following the spirit of Jesus?

Jesus came to bring us into relationship with God and with one another. He teaches us and shows us through Scripture and community that God loves each of us boundlessly and desires us to express and model that same love and mercy in our relationships with others. This is God’s hope for each of us, that what we hear and read will be written on our hearts. And that we will live out that love and mercy in our lives.

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