Archive for September, 2012

Gap Menders

Sunday, September 30th, 2012

Esther 7:1-10, 9:24-25
September 30, 2012
Mary Hammond

A couple weeks ago, I preached on two healing stories from the Gospel of Mark–that of a woman’s daughter tormented by affliction and a man facing the silent world of a deaf/mute. We spoke together about the oft-unnoticed and unrecognized roles of the caregivers in each story—the child’s determined mother and the man’s unnamed family or friends.

Today, we meet another person who “stands in the gap” on behalf of the vulnerable, but this story’s plot is much different than those in the Gospel of Mark. Esther’s legacy is steeped in political intrigue, both potent and dangerous. Neither a desperate mom nor a weary friend, this heroine is royalty, a closeted Jew married to the powerful Gentile King Xerxes, who rules an ancient vast kingdom.

The plot of the story unfolds carefully, tumbling toward a cataclysmic ethnic cleansing launched by Haman, one of the king’s trusted advisors. Haman convinces the king to order the extermination of the minority Jewish population. Queen Esther faces two dire choices: to continue to protect her own identity, or to come “out of the closet” as a Jew and risk her life for the sake of her people.

Esther is human, just like you and me. Initially, her silence protects her from the impact of the king’s policies on the Jews. Her solidarity with her people grows gradually, and not without struggle. The Queen begins her journey toward self-disclosure uncertain and undecided, carefully weighing the consequences of silence or action. As her decision to expose her identity solidifies, she chooses both her words and tactics of engagement carefully, requesting a private dinner with Haman and the king. There she makes her case.

Haman’s plot is revealed in new light as Esther exposes her Jewish identity. The king acts swiftly and without mercy, ordering the execution of Haman. The Jews are given the opportunity to defend themselves against attack, as the king’s former edict is considered irreversible. Esther’s people are victorious and forever recall this experience of deliverance with a celebration named “purim.”

There are few, if any, ways that the plot of Esther’s story remotely resembles the plots of any of our lives. Yet we, like Queen Esther, “stand in the gap” for those who lack the power to fight their battles alone. All of us need others to stand by us at one time or another.

How many times throughout history have others taken similar risks? Two weeks ago we looked at intensely personal narratives of “standing in the gap.” Esther’s story is an intensely political narrative, yet also a story with profound individual and social consequences.

“Standing in the gap” requires a lot of us. Sometimes it calls forth simple acts of everyday compassion or tenacious acts of relentless engagement. We may be called to “come out of the closet” in support of issues which matter deeply to us, but which we have been publicly reticent to disclose for fear of rejection by significant others in our lives. Amid social crises of a global magnitude, “standing in the gap” requires massive, persistent mobilization.

People often tell Steve and me what an amazing church this is, and they are absolutely right. I never cease to be touched by the deep, enduring love that this congregation pours out on the world, whether next door or across the planet. During our August Church Retreat, our final Reflection Question was this: “What faith issues and questions are rumbling around your own soul?”

Some identified their struggle with discovering and focusing on their own particular calling amid the vast sea of human need without feeling guilty and torn about not trying to do everything. Others wanted help learning to say “no” to old commitments in order to say “yes” to new opportunities. Several had questions about how to practice healthy self-care amid all the passionate, visionary activity we tend to unleash as we live in community together. A college student remarked to me after Church Retreat, Part II: “I didn’t expect to learn that people in their 60’s and 70’s are asking the same questions that I am asking. I guess we keep struggling with these issues all our lives.”

Without the advice and encouragement of Queen Esther’s uncle, Mordecai, Esther might not have taken the stand that she did. She needed Mordecai. Sheltered amid her palace life, Esther needed his report and analysis “from the ground.” She listened to him, and ultimately she acted. How I wish this kind of listening would happen more often in our own political milieu!

We all need Mordecais in our lives who help us see what we may not be able to see by ourselves. We all need encouragement to do “the right thing” when our hearts are wavering and the risks are real. We all need Esthers in our 21st century world, people who risk themselves for the sake of a stronger, better good; who speak truth to power; who practice self-disclosure when it can make a difference in the lives of others.

We need Mordecais and Esthers. We need to be Mordecais and Esthers in our own unique, individual ways. Like these personalities of ancient times, we can “stand in the gap” in our own day, mending the spaces between us rather than extending them.

May God give us grace to continue this journey we are already taking. We are on the way! Amen.

Question the Answers

Sunday, September 23rd, 2012

Mark 9:30-37 James 3:13-18
September 23, 2012
Steve Hammond

Jesus asked a lot of questions. Remember last week we talked about that story a chapter earlier in Mark’s gospel where Jesus asked the disciples who the people were saying he was and then this question “But who do you say that I am?”

He had another question for the disciples in today’s story. “So what were you all talking about just as we were walking along?” And nobody wanted to answer that question because they had gotten into this big argument about which one of them was the greatest.

Maybe they wouldn’t have found themselves arguing like that if they had asked some questions themselves. Remember how this story starts off? Jesus has just told them, again, that he was going to be handed over to the authorities, be killed, and then rise again. But, as the story says, “They didn’t know what he was talking about, but were afraid to ask him about it?”

Why do you think they were afraid to ask?

What do you think they would have liked to ask if they weren’t so afraid?

I do think it is interesting that Jesus took that little child into his arms and commended her and all children to the disciples. Children ask a lot of questions. So maybe following Jesus has a lot to do with questions, or having enough trust to ask questions. One of the things we like to say around here, sometimes the questions are more important than the answers. Or another way of saying it is that sometimes it is more important to question the answers than answer the questions.

The disciples thought they had all the answers about what God was doing in this world. If this guy Jesus was the real deal then it was time for them to position themselves in the most powerful places in the revolution he was surely about to launch.

Here was Jesus, though, questioning their answers. It turns out, that this is not all about power.. That was a quite useless argument the disciples were having as they traveled along. And believe me, Jesus heard them. He didn’t have to ask. But he did because the questions are important.

We don’t have to spend a lot of time this morning, do we, talking about how Jesus turned the notion of power upside down? We have plenty of examples of Jesus doing things like empowering women and children. He talked about the last being first, and the first being last. He totally rejected the kind of power he was so often tempted to seize for himself. He wasn’t born to a powerful family, and he let himself be dragged before the powerful and condemned by them when he had other violent options.

I don’t think we have to prove the point that Jesus was looking to a force more powerful. The issue is that we, like the disciples, still have a hard time believing he was right.

The God Jesus told us about doesn’t seem to be a God who in on a power trip. We have all those hymns and notions about God being the king, the ruler of the universe, the one who must be obeyed because God has all the power. But the God Jesus talks about is more into mercy and compassion, kindness and love, forgiveness and reconciliation than power. We just keep feeling the need for God to be this all powerful king and ruler because we understand power better than love.

And there is no place in this world that has a hard time with what Jesus said about power than the country that claims to be the most Christian nation in the world, the United States of America. We haven’t learned you can’t be the most powerful nation in the world and the most Christian, unless you are willing to change your definition of power or Christian. We’ve done the latter rather than the former.

You would think that in a country that claims the trademark on democracy that a presidential election would bring out the best in us. But look at us? Is there anything about politics going on today that makes you want to paint your face red, white, and blue and start chanting USA, USA?

Those of you who were around then may remember the 1992 Presidential election where the incumbent, George Herbert Walker Bush, talked about a gentler, kinder United States. What happened with that? By the time his son became President in 2000 all pretense of kinder and gentler had not only been forgotten, but derided and ridiculed. And since 9-11 it seems to me that very few of us are talking about a kinder and gentler United States today, including a lot of churchfolk.

What did we read from James? “Real wisdom, God’s wisdom, begins with a holy life and is characterized by getting along with others. It is gentle and reasonable, overflowing with mercy and blessings, not hot one day and cold the next, not two-faced. You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God and enjoy its results only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honor.” That works in our own lives and in foreign policy. If the disciples had been willing to question the answers about power instead of arguing about who got the most power they would have had a much different conversation that day, something that would have left them much wiser.

Could you imagine what this country would be like if we accepted what Jesus and James had to say about power and wisdom? What if we treated each other with dignity and honor? What if we were reasonable and gentle with each other? What if our political life in this nation was marked with humility and kindness rather than mean-spiritedness?

That may be too much to ask of our nation, but it’s surely not too much to ask of the church. But we have to be willing to question the answers that have been given us, and start asking some new questions. Or maybe ask some old questions we’ve been told not to ask.

What are the questions you have that you have been afraid ask? Or what answers have you been unable to question? It’s like the journey to Capernaum. Jesus knows the questions are there as much as he knew what the disciples were fussing and bickering with one another. Asking helps.

And whatever answers come, you will know you are on to something if they are reasonable, kind and gentle, overflowing with mercy and blessings, that help us get along with each other and build robust communities. Are we wise enough to understand the power in answers like those?

If you don’t do the talking, who will?

Sunday, September 16th, 2012

Mark 8:27-38
September 16, 2012
Steve Hammond

If Jesus wanted to know what people were saying about him back then, I think he would be amazed at what people are saying now. I have no idea about how many books have been written about Jesus and all the different things they say about him, many quite contradictory. There have been church councils, college classes, Sunday School lessons by the thousands, who knows how many sermons and even whole publishing houses set up to say stuff about Jesus. And it keeps going. Here are the titles of some of the books people suggested for reading groups this year at PCC.
The Future of Faith
Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus
The Evolution of Faith: How God is Creating a Better Christianity
The First Christmas
Christianity after Religion
Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World

The two books we did last year were A New Kind of Christianity, and, Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope.

You could find thousands of more titles by typing the word Jesus into the search bar at Or just type Jesus into a google search and see all the things people are saying about Jesus.
Obviously, though, Jesus’ main interest that day wasn’t what the people were saying about him, but what the disciples were saying. “And you—what are you saying about me? Who am I?”

You would think that with all this talk going on about Jesus, that plenty has been already said. But I don’t think that’s the case. We need to be talking more about Jesus, but not about what other people are saying about Jesus. People need to know what we think. What do we have to say about Jesus?

That kind of sounds like evangelism doesn’t it? But that’s not what I’m really talking about, or, at least, what we seem to understand about evangelism where we get people to start believing and saying what we believe and say about Jesus. I think Jesus wants us to be talking about him. But he is also aware that like Peter, we will probably get it wrong.

I don’t remember ever reading anything in the Gospels where Jesus tells us what he wants us to say about him. All he says is “follow me.” The stories, the talking comes from the following. What we say about Jesus isn’t something the stuff we figured out at the start of the journey, but what we are learning about him along the way.

I have to talk about the church creeds here, though, I hope not to dwell on that topic for as long as I can tend to. Jesus was content to not tell us what we were supposed to say about him. The church not so much. So we have these creeds that tell us what to say about Jesus. And church creeds don’t have to be formal ones like the Apostles Creed or the Nicean Creed. Creeds can also be the more informal ones like “Jesus is my personal Lord and Savior” or “Jesus is one of many great spiritual teachers.” Jesus is a lot of things, I would argue, including personal Lord and Savior and spiritual teacher. But creeds, in my opinion, tend to cut off the conversation about Jesus rather than deepen it. And that is especially true about the more formal creeds, which were designed to legislate what we could say and believe about Jesus, what was orthodox and what was heretical.

Actually, it seems to me, those informal creeds do much the same thing. There are plenty of conservative churches where what you say about Jesus better have something to do with him being your personal Lord and Savior, and plenty of liberal churches where what you say about Jesus better have something to do with him being a great man and example for humanity, but not much beyond that.

When Jesus looked at Peter and asked what do you say about me? he may well have been asking the whole group. What are you all saying about me? What are you learning about me from each other? This is another reason all of us need to be talking about Jesus. We’ve got things we can learn from each other. I think the idea is not to have what I say about Jesus be the only thing that people are allowed to say about Jesus, but to try to figure out some things about Jesus together. Then I might have something to say the people really need to hear.

What I say about Jesus now is different than what I used to say. Some of it has been a real change, really different than what I used to say. But some of it has been just adding more to what I used to say. That’s happened because other folk have been talking about Jesus, and they have given me lots to think about.

There are lots of things that have been and will be said about Jesus. There are plenty of books to still be written even after all these years. But Jesus knew that whatever this thing was about, whatever we ended up saying about him, we’d have to be talking about the cross. And not just his. At its heart, the cross is about scandal. It’s about taking God so seriously that it puts us into conflict with the ruling powers of this world, political, economic, cultural, and religious.

I don’t think Jesus understood the cross so much as a destiny preordained for him, but the logical conclusion to what happens when we set out on the pathway of God’s Realm. The rulers of this world don’t want that rule challenged. And they meet those challenges harshly. Sometimes with physical violence. But other times with seduction and manipulation and assimilation. They will let us be Christians as long as we endorse their schemes. But as soon as we start saying things about Jesus that suggest there is something going on in this world that is more powerful than they are, something more worthy of our allegiance than they are, something that calls their legitimacy into question, then they do whatever it takes to try to keep us from talking about Jesus.

Jesus says don’t be ashamed of me, or more accurately, don’t be scandalized by me. Don’t let them silence you, or determine what you can say about me in order to keep your standing with them.

Jesus didn’t ask Peter what they were saying about God, or religion, or spirituality, or institutions. He wanted to know what people were saying about him. At it heart, this thing we call Christianity, obviously, is very specific. It’s about Jesus.

We may think we are not qualified to talk about Jesus. But that’s not true. In fact, it may be just about the opposite. It’s the folk who are most the most assured that they are the only ones qualified to talk about Jesus who may have most led the church in this country to the sorry state it too often finds itself in.

Peter probably wished he hadn’t said anything at all given the reaction he got from Jesus. But it may well be that Jesus got so upset with Peter that day not because Peter was wrong, but because Peter was so convinced he was right.

Don’t hold your light under a bushel. You’ve got things to say about Jesus that others need to hear. And as long as you don’t imagine that all you have to say is all that needs to be said, whatever you say is worth hearing, even if you go on to say something different later.

And looked what happened to Peter. He went from Jesus calling him Satan to being one of the key leaders of the early church. Peter did end up picking up his own cross, just like Jesus said. And we wouldn’t be here today if he had stopped talking about Jesus.

“And who do you say I am?” That wasn’t a test. It was a call by Jesus to spend a life time, just like Peter did, trying to figure that out for ourselves.

Reading Faces

Sunday, September 9th, 2012

Mark 7:24-37
September 9, 2012
Mary Hammond

When I was 19, a group of friends and I traveled to Chicago to attend a Kathryn Kuhlman healing service. Known at the time as a famous evangelist and faith healer, she–like some TV preachers of today– ministered in crowded convention halls and stadiums. Thousands brought their sick and infirm loved ones to these events. As Kuhlman proclaimed healings from the stage, people ran from their seats, threw away their crutches, and leapt out of their wheelchairs. Only history can judge the veracity of these healings.

Most poignant for me, however, was leaving that stadium, watching hundreds upon hundreds pour out with their loved ones still just as sick and infirm. I’ll never forget passing by a young child frozen into contorted positions, strapped in a wheelchair, her mother pushing the chair along, creases like canyons etched across her weary and loving face.

The healing stories of the Gospels evoke enormous responses in me, having walked 34 years with our daughter Sarah as she struggled with mental illness and ended that struggle in suicide last Thanksgiving Day. These texts raise in me all my unanswerable questions about prayer, faith, perseverance, miracles, the power of God, and the problem of suffering. At times these accounts evoke gratitude for grace extended, which has been truly abundant. Steve and I have seen more than our share of slow miracles within our family and throughout our ministry. Even our dog has enjoyed a second lease on life! Yet, there are other times when these same texts elicit heartache over yearnings unrequited and frustration about how easy and instantaneous these healings seem.

The first of today’s stories is an account of a desperate, determined mother and an exhausted, trying-to-get-away-from-it-all Jesus. I love this strange story. It is the only mother/daughter story in all of scripture.* As a mother of three daughters myself, that fact alone puts it near the top of my “favorites” list.

This is a challenging text as well. Initially, the mother’s response seems more courageous than that of Jesus. She–a woman, an outsider from Syrophoenicia, a Gentile–intrudes on this male Jewish teacher’s time of respite. Jesus rebuffs her at first, obliquely referring to her as a “dog,” the Jewish slang word for “Gentile.”

Christians have gone to great lengths over the centuries to explain his reaction and rehabilitate Jesus’ image here. Just this week, I was reading one of my favorite worship resources which contained a dramatic interpretive reading of this story. In that reading, Jesus winked at the woman when he talked about the “dogs eating the crumbs,” as if it was a private joke between them!

Personally, I find the text most powerful just as it is. A struggling Jesus is helpful to me in my own humanity. Jesus seems truly exhausted, seeking a quiet place to regroup. He was hardly looking for an opportunity to expend more energy on others. How many times have each of us been in situations when, just as we were about to finally take care of our own needs, another demand came up, and we were less than enthusiastic about this intrusion? We’ve all experienced this!

Jesus struggles and comes out on the other side, recognizing the woman’s faith while extending healing and grace to her daughter. His action shatters the boundaries of race, gender, and religion, creating no small stir among those whose prejudices remain unmoved.

I also love this story because I’ve known this Syrophoenician mother for decades. During the darkest nights of Sarah’s journey, this plucky, insistent woman has been among my traveling companions. Furthermore, I have been this mother, begging to pick up any crumbs Jesus might offer, if only my brilliant, beautiful daughter could find relief from her torment.

The stories of our daughters ended differently. Some people are healed and some are not; some are healed for a season, but not indefinitely. “Why?” we ask. We long to know, but there are no clear answers. Sometimes we theorize and create answers, just to make ourselves feel better, but they are so incomplete. Yet in the midst of the “Why’s?”, we need to remain open to the wisdom that hard times chisel into our souls.

The second healing story involves a deaf-mute, brought to Jesus by nameless others–most likely friends or family. One of our beloved congregants, Bonnie, is mostly deaf. A cheerful extrovert by nature, she is outgoing and engaging. Bonnie can read lips and hear a little if I am sitting in a chair right in front of her, speaking loudly. “I’ve been through a lot of hard things in my life,” Bonnie admits, “but being deaf is one of the hardest.”

One day Bonnie and I were conversing about family gatherings. “It’s hard, because I can’t hear anything, and I can’t expect my family members to repeat everything for me, so I just read faces,” she said. “When someone’s face is particularly happy or sad, I ask what is being shared.”

Jesus reads the face of a deaf/mute imprisoned in double silence. Welcoming the man, Jesus takes him away from the crowd, offering his personal attention. Imagine how important touch is for a person who cannot speak or hear! Picture Jesus and this man, reading each other’s hearts with their eyes. Jesus touches the man’s ears, then places some of his own spittle on the man’s tongue, calling forth healing. To us this may seem strange, but a beautiful intimacy surrounds this image, the more I ponder it.

There is a deep commonality between the stories of the tormented daughter and the deaf/mute. Both depend on loved ones who “stand in the gap.” There would be no encounter with Jesus on behalf of the daughter in the first story, save the stubborn, relentless advocacy of her determined mother. There would be no encounter with Jesus on behalf of the deaf/mute man, save the compassionate commitment of those who bring him to Jesus.

I have been thinking this week about how many people here at Peace Community Church “stand in the gap” for others. Some of those folks can’t even be here today because they are “standing in the gap.” Each one of us who “stands in the gap” is indispensable, and our life narratives are just as significant as those of the deaf-mute and the tormented child. How many years has that Gentile mother sheltered her daughter, seeing her child through crisis after crisis? How many decades have friends and family cared for the deaf/mute, whose only employment option was begging?

You and I are invited into this ongoing story of coming to Jesus with our beloved “vulnerable ones” and those who need us whom we have yet to meet. Every day, opportunities arise to “stand in the gap” on behalf of others. Times come when we need others to “stand in the gap” for us. Do we control the outcome of these stories? We wish we did, but we do not. Yet, we can be present, holding one another in the Light that is greater than the darkness.

When I came to terms with the fact that Sarah would be hounded by mental illness until the day she died, my prayers for her profoundly changed. Sarah was an adolescent at the time. That’s another whole story, but out of it I stopped waiting for Sarah to be healed. Instead, I prayed for her strength to carry what our daughter Grace calls Sarah’s “torch of suffering.” I prayed for our family’s love to mirror and reflect the love of God as we carried Sarah’s “torch of suffering” with her. I longed for Sarah to find a measure of relief from her struggles in this life. I asked God every day for that. Any mother would. At times she did, and at times she did not.

Oberlin College alum, Allie Lundblad, accompanied us deeply through these past nine months since Sarah’s death. Allie visited Oberlin in July, and we predictably had many deep theological conversations which generally ended in three observations: first, our mutual affirmation of trust in God; second, our grief over the profound and inexplicable suffering of the world; and third, our repeated refrain (which almost became a mantra), “It just doesn’t make sense.”

I invited Allie to Spiritual Direction with me, to meet my Director, Carol, and for her to meet Allie. During that session, Carol mentioned in passing that the color pink symbolizes “universal love.” As soon as we left, I completely forgot this statement.

Allie and I are given to sunrise walks, and we often try to discern the message and metaphor the sky evokes. It’s the kind of thing contemplatives do. One morning, deep gray clouds hovered low over the horizon as we headed west. They seemed mysterious and brooding. We agreed–it was a “Cloud of Unknowing” sky, a phrase borrowed from St. John of the Cross’ reflections on the Dark Night of the Soul.

A half hour later, we walked east into the sunrise. The clouds were still heavy and dark, but they had risen further up into the sky. The horizon beneath them was absolutely ablaze in pink. “Remember what Carol said, Mary?” Allie remarked. “Pink is the symbol of Universal Love.”

Tears ran down my cheeks. “Ah!” I exclaimed. “The Cloud of Unknowing meets Universal Love.”

Allie and I looked at each other. I continued, “The sky has given us an answer to our theological conundrum this week. The Cloud of Unknowing meets Universal Love. It is the only answer I think we will receive.”

And that, my friends, is enough.


*After church, Sarah Lockard (a preacher’s kid about my age) said, “That can’t be the only mother/daughter story in the bible!” I told Sarah that I had spent years challenging people to find another, to no avail (Ruth and Naomi do not count, because they are daughter/mother-in-law). Sarah finally exuberantly exclaimed, “Herodias and Salome! There is another mother/daughter story!” (See Matthew 14:1-12). Exulting at her success in ‘stump the preacher,’ Sarah grinned from ear to ear and I stood humbly (or embarrassingly) corrected. To my knowledge, there are two mother/daughter stories in the Bible, very different from each other, I might add! Gotta’ love that congregation! They’ll keep a pastor on her feet!

Does it Get us to the Garden?

Sunday, September 2nd, 2012

Song of Solomon 2, Mark 7
September 2, 2012
Steve Hammond

[When we read the passage from the Song of Solomon, it was preceded by this warning/observation…]

We had to wait for the kids to leave before we could read this passage from the Song of Solomon. This is not normal biblical fare. It’s about sex, and passion, and love. Over the centuries, people haven’t known what to do with the Song. I guess there are still a few monasteries and Catholic seminaries where the Song of Solomon has been razor bladed out of the Bibles. Many Jewish and Christian theologians and preachers have pushed the idea that this is an allegory about God’s love for Israel and/or the church. But even if you are trying to read it allegorically there will be some snickering going on.

As you hear this part of the song, though, I want you to listen for images of Paradise, the garden, the garden of Eden. I think they are there. We’ve surely got our Adam and Eve characters. But there is also lushness, abundance, beauty, security. And there is even innocence in the midst of the passion. There’s the sense of what the world could be if we gave ourselves over to love and trust, and didn’t hide behind our fears, our rules and regulations and traditions that we use to deflect God and others. What if nobody had ever told us we were naked? Imagine Paradise where we can pursue love and building relationships with each other and even our world somewhat recklessly and take some risks to allow ourselves and others to become more human. I hear all of that here, but maybe I’m getting too allegorical. Maybe all it is about is passion, but we will be talking about the garden, about Paradise, a bit more this morning. Now a bit of the Song.

[Sermon begins here]

Jesus really gave it to the Pharisees and the religious leaders that day didn’t he? Imagine Jesus and the gang after some long, hard days on the road sitting down for a picnic and some quiet rest and relaxation.

Along comes the Jerusalem crowd and they see their opportunity to lay into Jesus again. “Some of your folk didn’t even wash their hands.” These people weren’t somebody’s mother calling the kids in for supper. Their concern was ritual purity. You were supposed to wash you hands because you might have touched an unclean animal, or a woman, a gentile, or touched something that had been touched by one of those things. Without washing their hands first, the disciples were in danger of ritually defiling themselves. And the Pharisees were glad to point that out to Jesus and all the folk who were, by now, standing around and ruining Jesus’ lunch.

So Jesus just let them have it, letting the words God spoke to Isaiah do the talking for him. “These people make a big show of saying the right thing, but their heart isn’t in it. They act like they are worshiping me, but they don’t mean it.”

As so often happened, the Pharisees walked into their own trap. They should have never gathered a crowd thinking they could humiliate Jesus in front of them. That kind of thing never worked. Instead, Jesus turned to the crowd, and while looking at the Pharisees, no doubt, said this, “Listen now, all of you— take this to heart. It’s not what you swallow that pollutes your life; it’s what you vomit—that’s the real pollution.”

I don’t think we get how radical a statement that was because when they got back home some of the disciples started asking Jesus about all of this. “You can’t surely have just said what we think you said. This whole thing is built on those rules and regulations. Even if we don’t follow them, we’re still supposed to aren’t we?” Jesus initial response was something like “Are you stuck on stupid or what? It’s not what enters your stomach that matters, but what leaves your heart.”

Then there is a bit of commentary from the writer of the gospel that says “That took care of dietary quibbling; Jesus was saying that all foods are fit to eat.” Not really. Not the quibbling part anyway. All you have to do is read the book of Acts and some of the epistles to see the folk were arguing about the dietary laws long into the early days of the church.

By the end of this story, though, it’s no longer the Pharisees that Jesus is talking to here. He’s talking to his own folk, pointing out the problem we all have of thinking the stuff that is really, really wrong can be dealt with by washing our hands, or saying the right words, or performing the right rituals. We can put sin somewhere else rather than acknowledge that it is lurking on the inside. And it’s not a very long step until we miss the awful stuff we are spewing from the inside, while we think we are accomplishing something by keeping what we perceive to be the bad stuff out.

That’s why we can’t look at a passage like this and say this is all about the difference between Christianity and Judaism. They are all about rules and regulations, and we are about the real stuff, the heart stuff. That’s not quite the case, however. Christianity has found itself hung up on our own version of the religious codes and regulations while, all along, missing the point. And Jesus was not the first person to come along and try to help his own tradition to recover some things it had lost. The prophets were pretty good at that. And, thankfully, we have our own prophets who call followers of Jesus to the place we need to be.

This gets us back to the Song of Solomon and the garden. When we develop rules and regulations, and observances and rites, we have to be sure they are things that lead us toward the garden and not away. What looks like Paradise? What feels like Paradise? What gets us to that place that God has created for us and this world? “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth’ the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts for its figs, and the blooms are in blossom.” I think Jesus is telling us If we live by the rules instead of singing the songs of love we don’t need an angel with a flaming sword to block our re-entry into the garden.

That man and woman in the Song of Solomon kept listening for each other’s voices. They kept watching for each other. When religion goes bad it’s often because we have stopped listening and stopped watching. Instead, we do all the talking and there is nothing we anticipate, no lover we are watching for to come bounding over the hills and take our breath away.

The garden is beautiful. We are loved there. And we are fed there. If you look at the images of Paradise in the early church, there is luscious fruit that fills the vines and trees it grows on to where you think the trees are going to fall over. The woman talks about her loving preparing a banquet for her. They do a lot of eating in that story. Some of that is metaphorical (which we don’t need to explore right now), but some of it is just about food. Paradise is about food for all, food that nourishes the body, and the things that nourish the soul. It’s about plenty, about abundance, it’s about, as Jesus once said, a fountain bubbling up into eternal life.

Obviously, the Lord’s Supper is built on the Passover tradition. But Jesus often had another meal in mind, too, the banquet of the realm of God. And I think that is something he wants us to be remembering when we gather to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. It’s a call to Paradise, to a faith about abundance, about plenty, that place of love and passion and commitment where we throw ourselves into the arms of Jesus and this world that holds Paradise.