Jesus and the Big Picture
When I was in the final stages of becoming a priest I spent a lot of time worrying over the different technical aspects of the service. I have never been very good at getting the details down so I was sensitive to doing everything in the right way. I wanted to make sure I washed my hands at the right time in the service. I needed to place the corporal (cloth) just so, so that the creases went the right way. I worried about all kinds of things. There are resources that will go into great detail about how it is to be done. I even bought a book titled, The Priests Handbook. It had all kinds of particulars about what was to be done and when.
Then, I read somewhere (maybe the handbook) that there is no big right or wrong when doing the service. Sure, there are general guidelines to follow but really the main thing to keep in mind is that whatever you do, you do with reverence. What an A-HA moment for me. God does not get upset if the cloth is creased in the wrong direction. God doesn't care if the congregation stands or kneels during certain times of the service. God cares about what is going on in your head and your heart.
I believe that is the message Jesus is giving us in today's gospel. Jesus told the Pharisees and scribes that they had gotten so caught up in the minutia of rules and procedures that they had lost the message. Jesus reminded them that there was a bigger picture that they were missing. Washing your hands is a good idea but it is what is inside of you that really matters. The real uncleanness is the evil intentions that fester inside of us that need washed away.
As I am writing this sermon I am reminded of a story I heard years ago. Here it is.
St. Athanasius boarded a ship and set out to sea, for he knew that there was a small island on which three elderly monastics were making their spiritual life. His ship arrived at the island and he was greeted, by these three elderly men, with great love. “Dear fathers,” the bishop said, “Tell me. How do you pray?”
The three monks replied to him, “Dear Bishop, we pray like this: O Lord, we are three and thou are three. Have mercy on us.” Perhaps understandably, St. Athanasius was appalled. “My fathers,” he said, “This is not how we are to pray. This is not a right doctrine of God as Trinity.” And with great humility and enthusiasm, the monks asked their new bishop to teach them, to correct them, to give them the right words for prayer, and a right understanding of the Church’s doctrines.
St. Athanasius began by teaching them the The Lord’s Prayer, the prayer of Christ. And he spent some days in their midst, instructing them on God as Trinity, the definition of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and how one is to acknowledge them in prayer and in the way they live their lives. After the course of several days, the bishop was convinced that they had learned what he had to teach and he could depart from their midst.
He then boarded his ship in the evening and set sail. As night fell and darkness descended over the sea, Athanasius noticed a light in the distance in the direction from which he had come. And to his wonder and amazement as he stared over his side of the ship, the light drew closer and he was eventually able to discern that it was actually coming from these three monks, walking towards him on the surface of the sea.
In utter amazement, St. Athanasius stared as they approached the ship, and standing on the surface of the water they said to their bishop, “Your Grace, forgive us! Forgive us! We have forgotten the words of the prayer you taught us. Teach us again what we are to pray.” And to this St. Athanasius is said to have responded, “No, dear Fathers. It is you who must pray for me. Now go in peace.”
May we never lose sight of our mission to Love God and all that God represents. It is still a good idea to wash your hands at times during the day but it is also so important that we keep our hearts clean as well. At the beginning of the service I recite this prayer:
Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you and worthily magnify your Holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen