Hearing and Doing
(Deut. 4: 1-2,6-9; James 1: 17-27; Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23)
29 Aug 2021
- As I intimated in my introductory comments, the readings today can be a homilist’s worst nightmare. Not only are they really different, they also seem to contradict each other. Did you notice?
- The author of Deuteronomy tells us: You’ve got to follow tradition!
- “give heed to these statutes and ordinances…neither add to or subtract from them…observe them diligently…don’t let them slip from your mind…make them known to your children and your children’s children.”
- But Jesus in Mark’s Gospel makes clear that Tradition is dangerous, even silly.
- We don’t know just who Mark was, but we do know that he was a Gentile, perhaps a Roman, writing for a community of Gentile Jesus followers who were citizens of Rome and who didn’t know much about Jewish customs.
- But Mark and these Roman Jesus followers were aware of the need to show that they, as new Gentile followers of Jesus, were just as good as the older, earlier Jewish communities of Jesus-followers. So there’s a tinge of ridicule in Mark’s unexpectedly detailed mentioning of “the washing of cups, and pots and bronze kettles.” How silly those Jews.
- And then Mark has Jesus warning that these traditions, what Deuteronomy calls “statutes and ordinances,” can be dangerous. They can become “human traditions” more important than “God’s commandments.” People can think they are honoring God with their lips and with all the right words, but “their hearts are far from me.”
- So here’s the tension: Deuteronomy telling us to faithfully observe the tradition, and Jesus and Mark warning that tradition can lead our hearts away from God.
- This is where the second reading from James can help. I think it solves, or clarifies, the contradiction.
- Echoing Deuteronomy, James speaks of the necessity of tradition, of doctrine, of words.
- “God gives us birth by the word of truth”… “the implanted word has power to save your souls.” Words have power to transform us.
- This matches what Deuteronomy tells us — that believing, affirming, and practicing the “statues and ordinances” will give us “wisdom and discernment” and it will enable the Jewish people to experience that “our God is near whenever we call.”
- Words – the Law or Torah — enable the Jews to experience what they call the Shekinah – the abiding presence of the Divine.
- But James also makes clear that words, or tradition, become problematic when the words don’t go anywhere – when they do not lead to action, to doing – when we are “hearers of the word” but not “doers of the word.”
- But why is it that so many people are hearers of the word but not doers? That, for me, is the key question in this homily. To try answer that question, I think it’s helpful to understand the relationship between words and religious experience.
- The heart of our identity as Christians is a religious experience – a sharing in the experience of Jesus and Jewish prophets that God, or Holy Mystery, is a loving presence that is always surrounding us, holding us, and enabling us to love as we are loved. That’s a deeply personal experience. That’s what faith really is – a trusting in the reality of this loving Presence.
- But that personal experience needs words, even though the experience is always more than words can ever express. Words are meant to stir this experience and to call it forth. And words are what we need to share this experience and to form a community. We could not be a community of believers here at Holy Wisdom if we didn’t have words that try to express what we stand for and what animates us.
- So personal experience of God’s loving presence and words to foster that experience — they’re different, but they need each other. You can’t have one without the other. The words we use in our liturgy and prayers invite us to feel and to trust the Holy Mystery of Love and then what we feel needs words to express itself and to be shared in the community called church.
- But when do the words become dangerous or a problem? Why do we so often hear them, but not do them?
- I suggest it’s when the words are not able to stir our hearts; when they don’t stimulate in us a feeling of Holy Mystery, of the Love that Jesus called Abba.
- And they’re not able to do that, I think, when they no longer make sense for us. When they might even sound silly to us.
- And this happens, I further suggest, when we think we always have to take these words literally – when we forget, or have not learned, that all our words, all our doctrines, all our creeds are basically poetry.
- All religious language, Christian mystics and contemporary theologians remind us, is poetic, symbolic — fingers pointing to the moon but never the moon itself. When we take religious language literally, we run the risk of misusing it.
- An example of such misuse is the verse in Deuteronomy when God tells the Jews to “enter and occupy the land that the Lord God is giving you.” Those who take that verse literally and absolutely are at the root of the violence in Israel and Palestine today.
- So how can we take the words of our tradition poetically, seriously but not literally? How can we open up its symbolic meaning? This is a task for each of us adults, one that we want to share with our children.
- But we need help –the help of religious pastors and preachers, or of theologians and spiritual guides such as Richard Rohr, Joan Chittister, Henri Nouwen, Cynthia Bourgeault – or the help of a spiritual companion /friend with whom we can talk through our difficulties with our beliefs.
- So as James in the second reading reminds us, it is not enough to be hearers of the word; we must also be doers. But in order to be doers, we must also be hearers. If we truly hear the word – if, as the Epistle of James puts it, “God gives us birth by the word of truth” and stirs our hearts, then we will be doers.
- Knowing we are held in a Mystery of Love, we will necessarily and spontaneously reach out in love to others and, in James’ words, “care for orphans and widows in their distress” and so practice “religion pure and undefiled.” Real hearing calls forth doing. And doing will clarify hearing. We need both.
- I would like to close with an example of the power of words to stir our hearts to know that, in the words of Deuteronomy, “our God is near whenever we call.” These are words of our tradition as translated by Henri Nouwen. This is from his daily meditation of this past April 6. These poetic words touched my heart. I hope they may touch yours too. Hear them. Let their poetry touch your heart and stir your feeling. And then trust what you feel.
Come Home to Where Love Dwells
The first love says: “You are loved long before other people can love you or you can love others.
You are accepted long before you can accept others or receive their acceptance.
You are safe long before you can offer or receive safety”
Home is the place where that first love dwells and speaks gently to us.
It requires discipline to come home and listen, especially when our fears are so noisy that they keep driving us outside ourselves.
But when we [really hear and] grasp the truth that we already have a home, we may at last have the strength to unmask the illusions created by our fears and continue to return home again and again and again.