From the Law or From the Heart?

Pentecost X – August 17, 2014

Isaiah 56: 1, 6-8

Psalm 67

Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32

Matthew 15: (!0-20), 21-28)


From the Law or From the Heart?


A sermon preached by Joe Nuber at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, WA

I grew up in a Roman Catholic family. We all went to the parish grade school through eighth grade. I remember a time when I was in seventh or eighth grade that we were in line going over to church for Mass. We didn’t go every day, this was a First Friday. In the Catholic tradition of that time if you received communion for nine consecutive first Fridays you received a special grace from God. So in order to make sure that we all could go to communion, the day before we were marched over to the church to go to confession.

While in line on Friday a friend of mine was clearly upset. He said to me, quietly, of course, that he didn’t know what to do. He had eaten some candy on the way to school that morning. A church rule at that time was that you had to fast from eating anything for at least three hours before receiving communion. He said since we went to confession yesterday, if he didn’t go to communion today sister would think he had committed a sin since then, and also he wouldn’t make his nine first Fridays.

I don’t know where it came from, because I was not aware of the gospel reading we had today, but I responded to him by saying that I thought God would much rather have him go to communion than worry about a piece of candy he had eaten. Shortly after that the church changed the rule to one hour. So, retroactively he and I were both safe. But, thus began my life of questioning rules that kept people away from God rather than bringing them closer to God.

This morning we have several examples of how Jesus was challenging the accepted rules of the day. It is quite clear that Jesus, being a Jew, was well aware of all of the dietary and cleanliness rules that were expected of all Jews. The Pharisees that his apostles referred to would have in deed been shocked by Jesus’ dismissal of these laws as unimportant. However, what Jesus was trying to point out is that what is important is what comes from the heart, whether good or not good. What comes from the heart is either of love or not of love. This is more important than whether or not you have washed your hands before eating. Even if this is a good practice, it is not what either strengthens or weakens our relationship with God or with each other. As I have said in the past, it isn’t about me deciding what is good or bad for others. It is about me deciding what draws me closer to God and what gets in my way. What brings me closer to others and what gets in my way?

In the second part of the Gospel this morning, Jesus shows us that he too is learning more about having an expansive approach to God’s message. Again, Jesus was a Jew, and the Jews looked down upon the Canaanites, and especially a Canaanite woman who approached him openly. The apostles wanted Jesus to send her away, but he didn’t do this. He had a conversation with her instead, a conversation which did not start out positively. And yet, in that conversation Jesus learns that this woman has a deep conviction, she believes Jesus can heal her daughter. So Jesus sets aside the beliefs of his own people and helps this woman and her daughter. Jesus shares God’s love with this outsider. He didn’t ask her if she washed her hands before eating. He didn’t ask her to convert to Judaism, or Christianity, which, of course, didn’t exist. He didn’t ask if she had been baptized or confirmed. He didn’t ask if she had been received into the Episcopal Church. Jesus accepted this woman’s faith as it was. He realized that his message of love went beyond what were the accepted boundaries of the times. We see elsewhere in the Gospels his acknowledgement of faith in other outsiders.

Every week Dianne says in our behalf that all are welcome at this table. Like other phrases in the liturgy, are they just words. Are all truly welcome? Not just for communion, but to be a part of our family? Are they my words as well? Is it from my heart, or is it something I hear spoken each week? Are all welcome in my life whether they make me uncomfortable, or whether I agree with their way of life, or whether they have done something in the past which I don’t agree with? Once again, this is something we each have to ask in our heart.

All these questions have to go beyond the rules and traditions. I cannot hide behind church formulas; I must ask the questions in my heart.