Today’s Gospel reading seems to be the familiar Jesus against the Pharisees story. And if you read the story quickly and at face value, it seems the Pharisees are the instigators. But, I think we tend to make the Pharisees the villains more than we should.
The Pharisees and Scribes were the leaders of the Jewish faith community. They are the ones who tried to enforce Jewish law, maintain order, the ones who took seriously the do’s and don’ts. They saw Jesus as the leader of his disciples, and questioned why they were not following the purity laws, specifically why they were eating without first washing their hands properly.
I imagine, washing ones hands before eating in ancient times was as much about being sanitary as it is today, although I also imagine people handled their food with their hands more than we do today. But today’s Gospel reading isn’t really about washing hands, or obeying rules or customs, or eating the proper foods. Jesus tells his crowd, and us, that what defiles a person, what makes a person unclean, is not what the person eats, but what comes out of their mouths.
I want to share a story I recently read in Presbyterians Today Magazine. The story or article is called: Owning our story How I came to believe that church wasn’t the place for a broken person like me
by Rev. Derrick L. Weston
This is his story:
I am divorced.
I am divorced largely because I had an affair.
My divorce and its causes have altered the trajectory of my personal and professional life over the last few years. My ideal family was torn apart. I had to step away from my ministry. It took me a long time to find meaningful work that helped me pay the bills. When I did find it, I had to leave my home city of Pittsburgh and come to Baltimore. I see my kids as often as I can. I often feel like a horrible father. My own biological father was absent from my life, and I wonder if I'm any better.
That year, 2014, was a disaster for me. In the wake of my separation, I looked for anything, anyone who would hold the pain of my broken life for me. I made self-destructive decisions that often hurt others as well. I wanted to numb my pain but all I did was become toxic to those around me.
Early in the year I went to an installation service for a friend who was becoming the pastor of a neighborhood church in Pittsburgh. I felt small. I felt out of place. I felt shame. Sure, very few people knew me there, and even fewer knew about my transgressions, but I knew, and I felt like I didn't belong in this sacred place with these sacred people.
Now, keep in mind, I'm a pastor. I know all of the things that we say about grace. I know that church is exactly where people should feel welcomed to lay bare their wounded souls and receive the free gift of God. I know that I wasn't the only sinner in that room, but in that moment, I felt like I was. None of the theology to which I had given my intellectual assent made a difference in that moment. I didn't feel worthy of forgiveness, or love, or community. Church was the last place that I wanted to be.
I share this part of my story here because the truth of the matter is that I'm not alone. Our churches are filled with people who have deep hurts, failures, disappointments, and griefs that they dare not share in our faith communities. We are held captive by the belief that church people are the ones who have it all together (or at least are falling apart in socially acceptable ways). And if we’re not one of those people, we become convinced either that church isn’t for us or that we must pretend and hide our hurt.
I own that my circumstance was unique. I wasn't the average person in the pews. I was a pastor. I had betrayed numerous sacred trusts on my way down. I knew the lines not to cross, and I crossed them. I failed my wife. I failed my kids. I failed the church. I failed God. Church had been the center of my life since before I can remember. Now it is a place where I feel the sting of judgment and the burden of failure.
When I proposed the name "Recovering Reverend" for my column on this blog, it was intended to be a play on the numerous recovery programs that we have in our culture. "Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic" is what they say in Alcoholics Anonymous. And so it is true with the pastorate. Yet the name has taken on new life for me. We have an AA meeting at the community center where I work, and I overhear, without eavesdropping, some of the conversations. You will never hear more love and acceptance offered than in an AA meeting. You'll never find a place where guilt and shame are in shorter supply. People hold each other's stories with compassion. They laugh, cry, mourn, and celebrate together. There's no hierarchy, just fellow travelers on the journey. Sounds like church to me. Or what I imagine church can be . . .
As I've walked the road to recovery, I have been joined by other hurting, broken, sinful people. They show me that I am not alone. I am joined by people who tell me I am still their friend. They remind me that I still have worth. And I am joined by those who are determined that I not fall again in the same ways. They remind me that I have a future.
The ending of my story has yet to be written, but I—not my shame—will write the ending. It will be a story of grace and redemption. It will be a story of repentance and boundless compassion for myself and others. It's a story that may lead me back to a pastorate. Only God knows. It will be a story likely to have a few more failures, but hopefully it will be a story that will include the love of faith-filled people who will pick me up when I fall. And I will do the same for them. That, friends, is Church.
As I read this for the first time, It brought back memories. It reminded me of a dear friend of mine who religiously attends AA meetings, and although he also attends Church, he shared with me that the AA meetings often feel more like Church than Church does, a sentiment shared by Rev. Weston. It also reminded me of myself several years ago when I was going through an especially difficult time in my life. Many people in my Church family knew what was going on, and they loved me and supported me, and helped me get through those times.
What they did not do was to look down on me. They did not act like they felt superior to me. This is the lesson we can learn from our Gospel reading. It is easy to criticize the Pharisees and Scribes. It is easy to take the words Jesus spoke and put our own accents, our own emphases on them. We can take the words from verse 8 “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’ And make it a judgment. Or we can make it a teaching moment.
Rev. Weston felt judged when he went to Church. He felt he was unworthy of being in Church, unworthy of being part of a community. He felt like he had failed God, his children, his wife, his congregation, and perhaps mostly himself. Perhaps his perception of being judged was all internal, him judging himself, but he still felt unsafe in Church.
Church should be a safe place, a place where people can share their joys, their concerns, and maybe most of all, their failures and weaknesses. We all have failures, we all have weaknesses, we all have those buttons that when pushed hurt us or anger us, and there are going to be times when someone pushes those buttons. There will also be times when we will push someone else’s buttons, often unintentionally.
As a Christian denomination that would like to grow again, I think it is very important that we not only welcome strangers, but that we make them feel safe in our Churches. Rev. Weston was hurting and Church was the last place he wanted to be. That is so sad. People who most need support, most need community love, and most need to experience God’s love in other people are afraid to come to Church, to the very communities that are called to love their neighbors as themselves.
As I said in the beginning, I think we make the Pharisees and Scribes out to be villains more than we should. They were trying to protect the purity of their faith, and they saw Jesus and his disciples as a threat to that purity, for the disciples did not follow the elder’s customs. Perhaps they were too focused on rules and customs to hear what Jesus was teaching them. The tension came with their judgmental attitudes, their “I am holier than thou because I obey the elder’s customs” attitude. Sometimes we experience that same attitude when we talk to fellow Christians who believe differently than we do. Perhaps they see things as threatening and are trying to preserve the purity of the Christian faith.
But James told us a religion or faith that is pure and undefiled before God, is this: to care for the orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
Many people in today’s society are living with hurt, deep hurt. It is not just orphans and widows, but homeless and hungry people, people struggling with addictions, people with disabilities or stigmatized diseases, people who have a criminal record, and many others. Perhaps their hurt has come because of poor decisions on their part. Perhaps it has come because they are struggling with things beyond their control and not accepted by some people. Perhaps it is pain that has been caused by others, maybe even loved ones in their lives. Church is where they should feel safe to share their pain, and experience the love of God from Christians.
The endings to people’s stories have not been written yet. But hopefully they will be stories that will include the love of faith-filled people who will pick them up when they fall, faith filled people who will love them as themselves and not judge them. That friends, is Church. That friends is us.
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!