A couple of weeks ago, I traveled to Alabama to attend the Celebration of Life for a mentor, colleague, and dear friend that recently died. To cut the cost of this last-minute trip, I chose not to pay for any amenities on my flight, including selecting my seat. As luck would have it, I was assigned a window seat, sitting next to a young mother with a toddler in her lap. To put it mildly, the first hour of the trip was utter chaos as the toddler spiraled into a complete meltdown. The kicking, screaming, and crying were epic and I couldn’t help but feeling trapped. I became aware of two emotions coursing through my heart and mind. First, gratitude for my noise-canceling headphones. Second, compassion for this mom, who tried numerous strategies to soothe her child’s distress, all of which proved to be futile.
When we reached cruising altitude, the seatbelt lights were turned off, and passengers were free to move about the cabin, this mom took her child to the mid-plane lavatory, where they disappeared for what seemed like another hour. Fellow passengers were irritated, not only because of the earlier screaming and crying, but also because they now had to use lavatories at the extremities of the plane. When the mother and child finally reemerged for the last half hour of the flight, the toddler was calm, pleasant, and delightful. While taxiing to the gate after landing, the mother looked at her precious child and announced, “When we get to grandma’s house, mommy is going to have a big glass of wine!” I leaned over and said sympathetically, “I think mommy deserves two big glasses of wine.”
Religious art is fascinating, not simply because of what it depicts, but how the artist portrays the subject matter. Art, in whatever form, is about interpretation, and the arts acts as the interpreter, using a particular medium or form to do so, with each interpretation radically different than the next. It is fascinating to see how different artists interpret and portray the same subject.
One such piece of art that fascinates me, and I’ve seen it several times, is a small porcelain figurine that depicts this encounter between Jesus, and the Samaritan woman. 
Jesus sits on one side of the well. He is tall, handsome, masculine, with lots of shoulder length hair. He is deep in conversation with the woman. She stands, leaning over with her elbow resting on the wellhead. She looks directly at Jesus. Her hair is loose and flowing, and her dress is falling off one shoulder. Her hand is under her chin, just so. She is enticing, alluring, and attractive.
If you are like me, the word love initially conjures a notion of sentimentality—of being enraptured with feelings of affection, attraction, and wistful longing particularly for another person. For instance, a couple entering into a romantic relationship might be said to be “falling in love,” and might say to one another, “I love you.” You might be familiar with the Song of Solomon in scripture which poetically expresses the inebriation associated with such love. Listen to these beautiful words: As an apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among young men. With great delight I sat in his shadow, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.He brought me to the banqueting house, and his intention towards me was love. And a reply: You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride, you have ravished my heart with a glance of your eyes, with one jewel of your necklace. How sweet is your love, my sister, my bride![i]
But, eros, or romantic love, is not the only form of love that we are capable of feeling and expressing. We also express love filially. Filial love is not a romantic love, but a love that we express for our children, or for a favorite grandparent, aunt or uncle—those whom we nurture or have been nurtured. We love certain friends with which we have established a bond: perhaps someone we got to know in school, or worked closely with in our career, or even someone we have grown close to through a particular experience which created intense feelings of identification. Last weekend I enjoyed a visit from five of my closest friends whom I have not seen in a long time. What is striking about that experience is that no matter how long we are away from each other, when we do have an occasion to reunite, it is as if we were never separated—in a sense, we just pick up where we left off, sharing our experiences since we were last together while simultaneously enjoying each other in the present moment.
Most of us, most of the time, do not need anyone else’s help for us to judge ourselves poorly. We are well apprised of how we have missed the mark, perjured ourselves, once more done or said those things we have ought not to have done or said, and not done or said those things we should have. Momentarily we will be invited to make a personal, corporate confession of our sin. We will just plough ahead with this. What is so pathetic is we need not be asked for a show of hands, whether time for confession would be helpful. The ancient liturgy of the church – without benefit of having personally surveyed either you or me – presumes the state of things in our soul, and that, yet again, our personal confession of sin would be both helpful and necessary for most all of us. The distinctive quality of confessions, in my experience, is that they are so tedious and boring.
Jesus judges this woman about whom we hear in today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus judges her. Jesus puts a face to God’s judgment, and it is a judgment of love. It is not a judgment of ridicule, or rejection, or hopelessness, or boredom, or eternal condemnation, but rather a judgment of love.
This woman is a known person. It’s her again. We can presume that Jesus is also a known person. It’s him again. She did not pick Jesus at random. She knows something about him, most likely has heard him teaching, seen him healing before. What she is doing, down on her knees, is making her confession with alabaster oil and tears. It’s an extravagant confession, as is her known sin. No words from her are recorded. What’s to say? It’s her again. Most significant in this Gospel story is not whether Jesus bears God’s love, nor whether Jesus bears God’s love for this woman. Jesus has said that before, and she has heard it. The question – her question – is whether Jesus still loves her? Yes, he still loves her. He still loves us.
Welcome everyone to this act of worship. Whether you are here in person or joining us on line, we are all drawn to this place to worship God. It is good to be here. What is it that is so powerful, so compelling, about worship? What draws us, from far and wide, to be here today?
I was reflecting on this question as I prayed with this evening’s reading from the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus is comparing our outward acts with the secret thoughts of our hearts. And I would say that for me, worship is so compelling because it is the one place I can come and be completely open and honest, before God. Here we do not need to pretend. Here, at worship, before God, I can be who I most truly AM. As we pray at the start of every Eucharist, ‘To you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid.’ At worship there’s no need to pretend, no need to keep up appearances. You may know that British comedy series, ‘Keeping Up Appearances’. There is Hyacinth, played brilliantly by Patricia Routledge, who insists that her surname ‘Bucket’ be pronounced ‘Bouquet.’ She is a rather eccentric, social climbing snob, in constant fear of being embarrassed by her relatives, Onslow, Daisy and Rose.
It’s all very silly, but there’s enough truth in it to make us laugh, because we all know a little of how we too like to keep up appearances! Little distortions of the truth, little embellishments of the facts, to show ourselves in more positive light. Ways we try to impress, name-dropping, ways we try to enhance our image. You could say that the reading from Mark’s Gospel today is all about ‘keeping up appearances!’ The Pharisees and scribes were complaining that Jesus’ disciples were not observing some of the external traditions of the elders regarding the ritual washing of hands, cups, pots and bronze kettles. Jesus actually became very angry with them. They were more concerned with the externals, the appearance of things, than with what is actually going on within their hearts. Unclean hands, pots and pans do not matter. What defiles, what damages a person, is an ‘unclean heart’.
Pretending to be who you are not. Living a lie. This draws from Jesus a terrible rebuke. ‘You hypocrites’, he says. Hypocrisy is right at the top of those things which make Jesus angry. I think, because he knows how very destructive it can be to a person. Keeping up appearances can be gently amusing and pretty harmless. But it can also grow into something corrosive to the soul. When we get used to living a lie, we can slowly become alienated from our true selves. We can allow others to make us into the person that we are not. And one of the greatest challenges of living in relationship, in marriage, partnership, or community, is to allow the other person room to blossom and become the person they truly are. For if we try to live a life of pretense, in order to be accepted or praised, we run the risk of losing our souls.
In Dante’s ‘Inferno’, the hypocrites (and the Greek word literally means ‘actors’) are clothed in huge choir robes, made of solid lead, gilded on the outside with gold. Marc Foley writes about these hypocrites in his book, ‘The Love that keeps us Sane.’ He says, ‘These huge choir robes are so heavy that the hypocrites can hardly move. That’s a graphic image of the desperate need to be recognized by others, and the bone-weary insanity of trying to keep up appearances! Dante describes the garb of the hypocrites as, “O cloak of everlasting weariness!”’
But here, in this place, where the Lord is present, we can shed our heavy cloaks of pretension and appearance. We can stand before the Lord and unburden our souls. We can stand before the One who truly knows us and loves us – ‘just as I am’. But not only does God see us as we truly are, when we worship, not only does he love us and accept us as we are, but he also challenges us to grow, and become more fully that unique person God created us to be. The community of Taizé in France puts it like this in its Rule: ‘In worship we can stop hiding from God, and the light of God can heal and transform even what we are ashamed of.’
So welcome, one and all. Come and worship God, the One to whom all hearts are open, the One who longs to remove our heavy vesture and reclothe us in raiments dazzling white.
In the year 2006, author John Koenig began a writing project based on his observation that there were no words to describe certain common existential feelings and emotions. These holes in the language inspired him to research etymologies, prefixes, suffixes and root words which resulted in a weblog of neologisms and their definitions (a neologism being a newly coined word or expression that has not quite found its way into common use). John defines the word lutalica as: the part of your identity that doesn’t fit into categories. Koenig posits that when we are born, we immediately get labeled, categorized, and put into box for the convenience of never having to go to the trouble of looking inside. In this way, we lose a sense of who we are and begin searching elsewhere for our identity. In regards to this dissonance, he writes: “We all want to belong to something. But part of you is still rattling around inside these categories and labels that could never do you justice.”[i]
In our reading from the Letter of James, the author has given us an admonition about distinctions. It is not about the eradication of distinctions. Distinction in the basic sense is simply the quality or state of being distinguishable. If we take a good look at the world around us we can see the rich diversity of God’s creation, and we show forth that same diversity. In Genesis we read that on the sixth day of creation, God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” That word ‘our,’ points to the complex creation of a God whose very nature is diverse.
I remember, nearly a decade ago, watching a video on YouTube. In the video, the hosts of the show, consistent with their political leanings, filmed their infiltration of an environmentalist rally. There, they spoke with attendees and asked for signatures on their petition to ban a purportedly dangerous chemical. This chemical was largely unregulated, had been detected in our water supply along with countless food items, and could cause death within minutes if inhaled in sufficient quantities. The chemical in question was described with the scary-sounding name, “dihydrogen monoxide.” You might know it better by its chemical formula: H2O. Largely unregulated, in our food and water, it can cause death if inhaled in sufficient quantities, it was water.
The issue that Jesus and his disciples did not wash their hands was not the Pharisees’ concern about the spread of germs. This is about ritual purity. The Mosaic Law defined certain kinds of uncleanness which required a kind of ritual washing to make oneself again worthy. The Pharisees believed that Moses received other commandments from God communicated privately to the Pharisees down through the generations.
Many, many people were labeled unclean – because of their birthright (being a Samaritan, for example); because of their vocation (being a shepherd or a tax collector, for example); because of their poverty (because they could not afford to purchase a clean animal or bird for temple sacrifice to atone for their sins); because of their sickness (because they could not afford to see a doctor); or simply because of their humanity (for example, a woman who had given birth to a child). All these people, and many other types, were unclean. Whenever a Pharisee came from the marketplace or public gathering, hand-washing was required to ritually cleanse oneself, if only because of having accidentally touched an unclean person. Before and after every meal, a ritual hand-washing was required according to certain ceremonial practices. All cups, pots, brazen vessels, and sitting places also had to be ritually cleansed.
Two things we hear from Jesus in this Gospel lesson are eye opening. For one, Jesus relentlessly shares meals with notorious “sinners.” Sitting at table with someone, sharing a meal, is a “socially intimate” experience. There’s a sameness between everyone at the table: the same setting, at the same time, eating the same food, feeding the same needs we all have. Jesus sits at table with “sinners and tax collectors,” which is code language for the dregs of society, with whom Jesus is very glad to share a meal and to share life. (If you are sometimes a member of the dregs, welcome home.) And then Jesus alludes to his like a physician: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” Jesus presumes we are unwell. We are not fine and dandy, thank you. We are unwell, Jesus presumes. There’s something about our own life that is significantly damaged, broken, unmanageable, scarred, fearful, or traumatized that needs healing. We’ll need the healing care of Jesus, the physician, for the rest of our life. Our need is that great. Jesus presumes this.
Secondly, Jesus’ taking on the role of physician tells us about the nature of God’s judgment. We are unwell. We cannot heal ourselves. We go to a physician, first to receive a diagnosis. A diagnosis is a judgment. A diagnosis is a physician’s judgment based on what we report and what the physician sees, and hears, and feels in his or her examination of us. The physician draws on their training and experience to determine that this is what is wrong with you, in their judgment. And then you would want your physician to prescribe some treatment that will enable your healing and wholeness. In their judgment, this remedy will save you. This remedy will be a salve to your woundedness. And you would also have every hope – given that you are sick and therefore quite vulnerable, perhaps even fearful or ashamed – that your physician would treat you in a kind and merciful way. Jesus is the Great Physician, a great one indeed.
Saint John of the Cross, the 16th-century Spanish friar, said that, in the end, we will be judged by God. And God’s judgment will be a judgment of love.[i]
[i]Saint John of the Cross, OCarm (1542-1591), was a Spanish mystic, and Carmelite friar and a priest.
There was a time before the web of language was woven
before the rope of words
before symbols, those fine, strong threads, were spun –
it was long, long ago, but you remember.
Arouse your ancient memory and inward beholding,
You Homo Sapiens, You Wise One, to behold:
Before the web of language, the rope of words or the thread of symbols, fine and
strong, there simply was the bare Thingness of the Thing that bears the name “Fire.”
Stoke the embers of recognition, burning deep in our primordial night.
Unforgettably, in our bones, the barest imagination of it
warms fingertips, summons blood, quiets the mind, enfolds the gaze…
or prepares the legs to flee.
But now, You Child of God, search deeper, touch the bedrock of being, and
recollect another Fire:
Before smoke or ash or kindling
Before the first hearth or altar
Before the first offering
Before pure and impure
there was a Fire you cannot see or touch but that you are made to long for.
Before wrath or fear –
Before mercy or love –
Before death or judgment or heaven or hell –
Before the beginning and after the end: there was this Fire,
The Unquenchable Fire in the Heart of God,
a God Who is Love.