Monday, March 5, 2018

Lent 3B

Readings can be found here

To Know By Heart

What do you know by heart?

1x1=1; 1x2=2; 1x3=3…so on and so forth.

A bit of Blake, “Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright, in the forests of the night…”

The “Our Father who art in heaven…”

What do you know by heart?

The muscle memory of a pirouette.

The smell of camellia flowers.

The colors of the rainbow.

What do you know by heart?

Psalm 23.

The Sound of Music

The love that endures all things.

What do you know by heart?

What verses have been committed to memory?

What graces, roll of the tongue?

What prayers are given breath without thinking?

What do you know by heart? Consider this for a moment…


I will never forget one of the first pastoral visits I ever made, standing alongside a clergy friend and mentor, at the bedside of a dying man.

His breath was shallow, his eyes closed.
And, as we prayed the Our Father, he took his breath and formed the words.

He knew them by heart.

They defined who he was in a way that gave him strength and assurance in his final days.

And, it struck me, how important it is to know some things by heart.

And this, this is one of the principal reasons I bring my children to church.

I want them to know these things by heart. To know the standing up and the sitting down, the words we say together, and what silence feels like when we pray.

I want them to know prayers that will anchor them to God and to each other, and to me. So that long after I am gone, the things they know by heart will hold them close and help them to remember.

To remember.

To remember God. To remember that they are beloved. To remember that they are part of something beyond themselves.

So, today, as we gather with prayer and with silence, I give thanks for the many things this community called the church will teach my children by heart.

Now the idea of learning “by heart” is not new and could even be considered foundational to our faith. In the early Rabbinic tradition, the act of memorizing the text was likened to housing the text in the “belly, bones or rooms of the heart”.  A memorized text became part of the body, part of a person’s intrinsic identity, and instruction in the oral Torah commonly began in early childhood.

Jesus himself, an observant Jew, would have been subject to this teaching. In fact, he is known to have spoken with authority amongst the Jewish religious authorities, which indicates his command of what is called the “oral Torah”.

One of the earliest pieces of the tradition that would have been conveyed to him was the transmission of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai—an event which marks the beginning of the authoritative oral tradition in Judaism. God spoke to Moses, who spoke to the people, who were instructed to teach their children…so on and so forth.

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…”

And, as the words were spoken, again and again and again, they accrued power and authority that helped to shape the communities understanding of what it meant to actually be Jewish.

As a child, Jesus would have been expected to learn these commandments by heart. Because, to be an observant Jew required adherence to the law—the law which told the Jewish people who they were and to whom they belonged.

They were the people who had been freed.

And belonged to God, the God who had liberated them.

But, God did not liberate the people in order to set them adrift in the wilderness without any guidance—and the Commandments continue to outline a structure by which the people can be supported in community and in faith. A structure in which the people of God cannot just survive, but thrive.

A structure in which respect, compassion, and dignity are given precedence. A structure in which exploitation of others is condemned. A structure in which all of creation is given the opportunity for rest. A structure grounded in God’s care for God’s people.

And, in this love becomes law.

To deepen our understanding of the love conveyed by the law, I look to today’s psalm which describes the law of the Lord as perfect and notes that it has the ability to revive the soul.  

And, in considering this, I wonder if our souls are revived when we commit the words of God to heart? I wonder if the internalization of the liberating law allows us to differentiate between laws which liberate and laws which oppress…

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…”

Jesus knew these words…he knew them by heart.

And so, as he entered the temple grounds, he did so as an observant Jew well versed in the Torah and all of its teachings.

The temple was the center of religious life in Jerusalem. It was a place where religious authorities were charged with upholding the doctrine and discipline of their faith—a doctrine and discipline that included not just the ten commandments but 100s of laws intended to serve as guidelines for how to live an observant religious life. The temple authorities provided an essential service to those seeking to follow the law as they understood it.

Because, according to these laws, you NEEDED unblemished animals for sacrifice and the Roman coinage with images of Caesar couldn’t be offered in the temple because those coins represented worship of Caesar and not God.  So, if you were going to worship in the Temple and live out the precepts of your faith you NEEDED these services—adherents couldn’t participate in worship without these services. 

Jesus would have known this, but he would have also known the law as writ upon his heart. And, so what he saw with the law writ upon his heart, was a system that cloaked exploitation with the veil of religious purity.

The law that liberates. The law that oppresses. The law that gives life. The law that takes life.

To know by heart can allow us to know the difference.

To know by heart can empower us to stand firm when confronted with systems that destroy.

To know by heart is to know God—it is to integrate into our very bones the law that is love.

So now, a challenge.

What will you learn by heart?

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