Proper 17 The Rev. Christy Laborda Harris
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 August 29, 2021
In a reflection published this past week, the Lutheran pastor of public witness, Nadia Bolz-Webber compares our current state of overwhelm to the circuit breaker of an old apartment she lived in.
Were I to audaciously assume my hair drier could run while my stereo was on, I would once again find myself opening the grey metal fuse box next to the refrigerator and flipping the breaker. My apartment had been built at a time when there were no electric hair driers, and the system shut down when modernity asked too much of it.
“I think of that fuse box often these days, because friends, I just do not think our psyches were developed to hold, feel and respond to everything coming at them right now; every tragedy, injustice, sorrow and natural disaster happening to every human across the entire planet, in real time every minute of every day. The human heart and spirit were developed to be able to hold, feel and respond to any tragedy, injustice, sorrow or natural disaster that was happening IN OUR VILLAGE.
So my emotional circuit breaker keeps overloading because the hardware was built for an older time.”
I find this comparison helpful. It’s not that I am failing to keep up with all the tragedies and injustices and heartbreaks. It is not a question of reaching deeper, of pushing myself to care more about each and every thing, of feeling guilty when I just have to close the article or turn off the radio and put that particular situation out of my mind. The issue is that my circuits are all taken, there are no available circuits left. My heart and mind were not built to bear the load we are exposed to via worldwide news and social media.
Since I last preached on grief three weeks ago, I continue to have widespread conversations with folks about their grief, their depression, hopelessness, and fear. I believe the silver lining is a new level of honesty. We no longer feel quite as much pressure to keep it all in and answer automatically that everything is fine. And when we ask people how they are, we do so more cautiously, expecting a complicated answer. The hard part is hearing that most of us are struggling in one way or another. That it’s all just too much, more than our circuit board is capable of handling.
For parents, this school year is shaping up to potentially be more challenging than the last one… which I honestly didn’t think possible. Exposures in the classroom are sending kids home, runny noses mean days of lost work and kids and home and more and more testing. In other parts of the country, parents are fighting to have schools enforce mask wearing. In this wave, more children are getting sick. And it’s scary and everything feels so uncertain.
Our presiding bishop, Michael Curry, published an opinion piece in USA Today titled “Bless the children: What Jesus would say about getting a COVID-19 vaccination.” In it he declared,
“Jesus was furious when he saw the needs of children being pushed aside and ignored. For him, the way of unselfish, sacrificial love that seeks the good and wellbeing of others is at the heart of God’s law for human life and society. That way of love demanded attention to the most vulnerable and helpless – in this case, children.”
I have heard many folks express anger and frustration at those in our country who are choosing not to receive the vaccine—again, not those medically unable to receive it, those choosing. I have heard the pain, of those who’s grown children or who’s parents have not received it—the fissures created in families, sometimes the inability to even broach the topic. I have seen the tears of friends having to draw hard boundaries with friends who have chosen not to, the sorrow at separation between neighbors who care for each other but must do all they can to distance themselves from increased risk of infection by exposure to unvaccinated folks. COVID is separating us, dividing us from one another in yet another way. First it was shelter in place and needing to flatten the curve by staying home and apart. And now it is the division of deep and difficult differences and beliefs and values around the vaccine and the heartbreak and anger that accompanies those differences.
Into all this, our lectionary drops today’s passage from Mark’s Gospel. The Pharisees and the scribes are asking Jesus why his disciples do not follow the tradition of the elders and wash their hands before eating. Jesus responds, teaching the crowd,
“Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
Impurity is a matter of the heart, it is a matter of what comes out of us, and, therefore, of what is going on inside us.
I am hearing from clergy across the country, that they are experiencing folks in their congregation or in their diocese acting out, behaving in inappropriate and raw ways, attacking others, and generally creating issues and seeding discontent. And I hear this not just from clergy. This week I had a conversation with someone on our land, not a parishioner, who made this same comment about seeing folks acting out. She despaired and wondered if this is what we’ve come to as humanity.
I cannot help but thinking of young children. When they’re tired. When they’re hungry. When they’re overwhelmed. When every single circuit is taken up. They do not yet have the resources or ability to figure out what they need to recover themselves—sleep or food or quiet or whatever. Instead, they melt down, they throw a tantrum. There is kicking, and screaming, and crying, and there is no reasoning with them what.so.ever!
I fear a lot of us are treading dreadfully close to such a tantrum, to acting out in ways that are truthful to how we’re feeling, but far from our best selves. I hear that many of our hearts and souls are swirling with anger and resentment and fear and sadness… and that mixture, under pressure, is bubbling up and bursting forth out of us.
In another recent piece, Nadia Bolz-Webber begins that it is 6am and she’s about to drive off on a road trip to St. Louis to work on a project about forgiveness—of others and of one’s self—about transformation and about what happens in our brains when we let go of things. Before she leaves she opens an email and learns of the death of a loved one. She opens another email to see photos of the baptism of a new baby in her congregation.
“I am driving to St Louis now, because I want people to help me understand forgiveness. I think we are going to need that wisdom more than ever, because people are horrible, and I can’t let go of something, and my heart is filled with RAGE about the fact that people are dying preventable deaths, and the planet is on fire and there are no mornings in which it is not possible to wake up to news of someone dying who you assumed you’d see again.
I am driving to St Louis now, because I am greedy for wisdom, and my broken and healed heart is more capable of love than I ever knew it could be, and I am going to need to know how to forgive all the people I blame for shit – not because they aren’t as bad as all that, but because I want my heart to busy itself with work other than having to oxygenate toxicity I won’t let go of, and because there are no mornings in which it is not possible to wake up to the news of love and new babies.”
The grief is real. The despair is real. The anger is real—and perhaps even justified. But at the end of the day, it’s about what is going on in our own hearts. What do we want our hearts to be busy doing? Oxygenating the toxicity? Raging? Tantruming uncontrollably while blaming someone else for the state of our own heart?
In our passage today, the concept of defilement meant that the body was put in a state where it was not fit to encounter God. Jesus responds, “All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” These things that come from within, that look to find a corner to roost inside our hearts, they are what can prevent us from encountering God, from experiencing joy and hope and light in the midst of darkness and challenge. But our work to deal with them, to address our grief and rage and despair, can also draw us closer to God.
As Bolz-Webber says, her broken and healed heart, our broken and healed hearts, are more capable of love than we ever knew they could be. We’re going to need to learn again, or more deeply, or for the first time, how to forgive people. We’re going to need to learn how to forgive ourselves when we need to close the article or turn off the radio because it’s too much. We’re going to need to practice caring for our hearts, finding those things that bring us out of our tantrums—whether it is literal food, water and sleep or other types of rest, nourishment, play, and connection.
Caring for our hearts is like putting on our own oxygen mask first, before helping those near us put theirs on. If we don’t put it on first, we might pass out before we can help others.
In her closing prayer, Bolz-Webber prays,
“And when all I can do is stop during the day and place my hand on my heart and hold all these heavy realities up to you, may it count as prayer…
I guess what I am saying Lord, is: please show us some mercy, and help us to show this same mercy to ourselves and others. Amen.”