This past week, as I was reflecting on our gospel reading for this morning, I starting thinking about some words of wisdom that I have heard throughout my life. For, example, when we were children my parents used to say to us, “Think before you speak.” At some point this idea was expanded. “Think before you act.” These are good words of advice in today’s culture where many people are getting themselves into trouble by what they say and do, especially on social media.
Then there is the saying by Jesus, “You shall know a tree by its fruits,” a good metaphor that highlights how our actions will, more often than not, reveal who we truly are.
This past week, while I was in class, one of our teachers said, “You cannot do what you cannot imagine.” She was saying that whatever it is that you are trying to do in life, you need to be able to see yourself doing it, before you can actually do it.
There is a common thread that runs through all of these different words of wisdom, which is that there is an intimate connection between what goes on in here (heart) and what goes on out here (world). It is that connection between here (heart) and here (world) that is at the heart of what Jesus was saying as he confronted the criticisms of the Pharisees.
The Pharisees were very concerned about making sure that the people were obeying the law of God. To that end, a number of traditions and rituals were developed to help the people obey the law of God. And, some of those rituals had to do with things like washing your hands, as well as washing plates, cups, and other table ware. These were called purity rituals. The problem with the Pharisees is that by focusing on outward purity alone, they were avoiding the much deeper challenge of the gospel, the challenge to the human heart. These external rituals were not bad. There was nothing wrong in doing them. But, unless the heart was transformed through the doing of these rituals, then there really is no point. I see the same thing happening today.
I’ve mentioned before that every article that you read online, or on social media, has a comment section, for people to share their reactions to the story. And, though I know I shouldn’t, I read through some of these comments from time to time, especially if the story or article is about religion. What disturbs me the most is some of the toxic and caustic things that people write, all in the name of Jesus. These are people who would have no problem checking off of their to-do list that they pray every day, read their Bible every day, and worship every Sunday, but somewhere along the way, their heart missed out on all that they were doing, so that when they write, often times anonymously, about things they don’t like or understand, there is so much hate filled language in their words, despite the fact that the two greatest commandment that we are supposed to live by are all about love. Again, it is important to keep in mind that prayer, reading our Bibles, and worship are all wonderful rituals that we do, and I highly recommend them on a regular, if not, daily basis. But, unless the heart is being transformed through the doing of these rituals, then there really is no point.
Both in the time of the Pharisees and today, it is easier to have a checklist than a transformed heart. And yet, it is the transformed heart that Jesus wants for us and that is the point that he is trying to get across to those who will listen. Jesus knows that it all starts in here (heart). All that evil stuff that Jesus mentions, greed, malice, deceit, envy, slander, lewdness, and arrogance, that all starts in here (heart). But, here is the thing; evil is not the only thing that can come out of the human heart. The good stuff can come out as well, things like, love, kindness, forgiveness, humility, gentleness, peace, and self-control.
In his opening words to the church in Rome, the Apostle Paul makes an interesting statement. He writes, “I long to see you that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong.” Let me read that again, “I long to see you that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong.” Isn’t that a wonderful thing to consider, that we can impart spiritual gifts to other people through our actions and our words? When we allow that good stuff to come out of our hearts, love, kindness, forgiveness, humility, gentleness, peace, and self-control, we are bringing out spiritual gifts. That we can share with other people.
Awhile back, I said that for me, spirituality is that place where God’s Spirit and our spirits come together. And, that place where God’s Spirit and our spirit come together is right here in our hearts. Again, returning to the Apostle Paul, this time in his first letter to the Corinthians, he writes, “Your body is at Temple of the Holy Spirit.” We have two spirits at work within us. We have God’s Spirit and our spirit and they are meant to work together to bring out what is good.
Back in the seventeenth century there was a Carmelite monk by the name of Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection and his responsibility in the monastery was cooking the food for the other monks and then scrubbing the pots, pans, and dishes after they were finished. He did this for 30 years. When asked about how one could engage in such a daily ritual for 30 years, Brother Lawrence responded by saying, “We ought not to be weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.” What came forth from Brother Lawrence was a reflection of what was going in his heart. Brother Lawrence was known for Practicing the Presence of God, and the way that he did this was that, no matter what he was doing, he would pause for a few moments every so often, to remind himself of God’s presence. He wrote, “Practicing the presence of God is the application of our spirit to God; it is the vivid recollection that God is present with us. It can be accomplished either through the imagination or by the understanding.”
Recently I was talking with a friend about this idea of practicing the presence of God and she said, “It is not as if we are bringing God into the things that we do. God is already present whether we are worshiping in the sanctuary or we are scrubbing the dinner dishes. Practicing the Presence of God is recognizing that God is present with us in all that we do.” The more we recognize God’s presence, then more we discover, like Jacob, that the ground upon which we stand is Holy Ground.
We remember the story of Jacob. He was running away from his family. He had tricked his brother Esau and his father, Isaac. Jacob’s actions showed what was going on in his heart, which was not good. Yet, Jacob was the bearer of the promise. So, one night while Jacob was on the run, he had a dream in which he saw the angels of God ascending and descending on that ladder that connected heaven and earth. In this dream, God reminded Jacob that he was not alone, that God was with him. Jacob woke up from his dream and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” As Jacob began to recognize the presence of God in his life, he was able to bring forth some good from his heart. Sometimes the bad stuff was still there, but recognizing God’s continual presence allowed the good to come forth as well. It is the same with us as well. Practicing the presence of God, in other words, recognizing that the Holy Spirit is present with us in everything that we do, is what allows the good to come forth from our hearts.
Recognizing the presence of the Spirit in our hearts is just the first step. The second step is to listen. Benedict of Nursia, who lived back in the fifth century is considered the founder of the monastic movement. Benedict put together a manual for living life before God. It’s called a Rule, Benedict’s Rule, and the very first thing that Benedict taught in his rule was for us to, “Listen.” Benedict knew that the Spirit of God is here in our hearts, seeking to speak to us. We are invited to listen. So, as we seek to practice God’s presence, to recognize that Spirit of God present with our spirit here in our hearts, we can ask the question, “What is the Spirit saying in our hearts?”
The rituals that we do, like prayer, reading our Bibles, and worship, can have a profound effect on our ability to bring the good stuff out of our hearts. As we allow these rituals to cultivate that relationship between God’s Spirit and our spirit right here in our hearts, as we both recognize and listen to the Spirit’s presence within, then the good stuff naturally begins to come forth. We find, in the words of Paul, that we are able to impart spiritual gifts to others. After all, Jesus said that it is not what goes in that most reflects who we are, it is what comes out, and what he longs to come forth from all of our hearts is what is good.