When Lisa and I were members of Central Presbyterian Church in downtown Atlanta, we heard a wonderful story about their renovation several years ago. The church building there is quite old, having had its first worship service in 1860. When they began the work, the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, a beautiful Roman Catholic Church next door, invited them there to use that space to worship and pray.
The Roman Church tucked the Presbyterians between two other services, letting them use the entire space for their own. It was an incredible embodiment of hospitality and grace. One day, the Presbyterians decided to have Communion. Now, they didn’t have it every Sunday like we and the Romans do, and they wanted to mark the year in a special way. As soon as they were finished, the Presbyterians wanted to make sure they left the space immaculate (keeping with the name, right? Hahaha). They had used a whole loaf of bread for Communion, which we often did still when we were members there.
Someone slipped back into a storage room and grabbed a small Dust Buster. They rushed back, plugged it in, and began vacuuming up all the excess crumbs that had fallen on the floor around the altar and in front of the chancel. At that moment, someone from the Roman staff came in to discover the Presbyterians—innocently—cleaning up the space as a way to honor their hosts (haha..funny, right?). Rather than initially being grateful for their mindfulness around honoring the space, the Romans were aghast.
You see, they walked in to see the Presbyterians sucking up the Body of Christ into the Dust Buster!
Needless to say, it was a perfect opportunity for a wonderful ecumenical conversation on the difference in a Reformed theology of Communion and a Roman Catholic theology of Transubstantiation! What do we do when the way we understand things ought to be clashes with what we might need to do?
“There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.”
Jesus has bumped up against an age-old tension in religious practice: how to maintain the rituals, the traditions, the ethos of one’s religious practice and also understand that grace cannot be contained. How to recognize those moments when we are called to pay close attention to the things we do, the way we act, the things we believe and hold dear, even, and wonder about what it means when we are challenged to maybe step outside of the “norm” in order to have a more expansive experience of God’s love.
Here was this woman who had struggled for eighteen years, stooped over and unable to enjoy life. And, Jesus walks into the synagogue on that Sabbath day. As he sees her he calls her over and heals her: “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” You are free! You have freedom! You are released!
Yet Jesus broke the rules, you see. Jesus didn’t place the strict Sabbath code against any kind of work above the existential dilemma of this child of God. He didn’t give the woman his office hours and ask her to come back once the sun had gone down. He didn’t give her his card and ask her to make an appointment when the clinic was open. He did what needed to be done at that moment.
“There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day,” the leaders tell Jesus and the woman.
And Jesus didn’t even try to be polite. “You’re telling me that you can untie your donkey on the Sabbath and take it to get water but I can’t touch and heal this woman who has struggled for eighteen years to find freedom?”
It is an age-old tension that we all experience in our religious practice. Everyone experiences this gravity of “this is how we do things.” Or, “this is the dignified way to do things.” Or, “We don’t do that because that’s not who we are.”
You know the root of the word Religion is ligio, as in ligament. It refers to a set of practices and prayers, traditions and customs, patterns of belief that bind together the pieces of our lives, like the way ligaments tie and bind together bones, enabling us to walk and journey through our lives. It’s a beautiful image.
But what do we do when the binding gets a little too tight? What do we do when, rather than having a thread of prayers and practices that give us life and empower us to grow closer to God’s dream for our lives, we have a rope that binds our hands and feet, preventing us from reaching out to help those who are in need or walking to where we are called to show Christ’s love?
What Jesus bumped into—and what we all bump into—is that space where the holy honoring of the richness of a religious tradition slides over to the rigid maintenance of only the outward forms, resulting in traditionalism. This is what St. Paul wrote about all the time: it’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles but what comes out, the tension between law and grace, and so on.
The truth is that everyone experiences this. Every single person in every single religious tradition.
I remember going to my favorite Thai place in Smyrna when I was at St. Benedict’s and talking to the owner who was Thai Buddhist. We were talking about the richness of interfaith dialogue, and I mentioned to him that I had just seen the Dalai Lama when he was in town. He smirked and said, “He’s not even really even Buddhist. He eats meat sometimes.”
“Well, have you told him that he’s not Buddhist?” I asked.
And I had remembered reading about how Tibetan Buddhists do eat meat occasionally, to keep their strength up when they are ill and living in the harsh conditions of their homeland.
I can’t help but hear St. Paul’s voice echoing through the room when I think of that encounter… “It’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles but what comes out.”
Maybe what we’re called to do—maybe what Jesus is always inviting us to see—is that we can reflect more deeply on how our religious practices are supposed to lead us to a deeper experience of God’s grace in our lives—and how we’re called to embody that compassion and grace in the world around us. Maybe Jesus is asking us, “Is it enough that you do what you feel you’re supposed to do as a good religious person, as a Christian, as an Episcopalian, and you don’t see how your religious practice calls you to embody God’s love in the world?” “Are you willing and able to risk upsetting the way things have been?”
I look around here at Grace and see this willingness, and it makes my heart swell. Each day I see folks when they come by to visit—and I visit with folks as I walk around town—who “get it.” You are a community who “gets it.” You are a community who sees the connection between how we pray on Sunday and at other times and how we are called to live in this world. You see a direct line between the way the smell of incense focuses your attention, the way the choir’s voices stirs your hearts, the way walking up the aisle to taste a bit of bread and a sip of wine reminds you of Christ’s love, and the way walking over and shaking the hand a someone new during the peace leads directly to the embodiment of love in the world around us. Our practice changes us for the better when we put one foot in front of another and step out and reach out…
So, as we share in this time of wondering and praying, of listening and visioning, looking for how the Spirit is guiding us in our bicentennial season, I wonder…where are we being led? How are we being led? How are we being invited to risk even more? Where are our resistances? What are our fears and concerns? What do we value?
Fr. Stuart Higginbotham
Proper 16, Year C
Jeremiah 1:4-10; St. Luke 13:10-17
August 21, 2016