Sermon Text: Compassion Rules
Sometimes even atheists like Jesus.
Take Richard Dawkins. He's a famous English scientist, and also a vocal atheist. He really dislikes religion.
But he likes Jesus. I read a speech Dawkins once made. He talked about how Jesus rebelled against the nasty parts of religion in his day. (We hear about Jesus doing just that in today's Gospel story.) Dawkins says, "Jesus publicly advocated niceness, and was one of the first to do so."
He calls Jesus "a charismatic young preacher who advocated generous forgiveness." And Dawkins even thinks there should be t-shirts that say "Atheists for Jesus!" I find this both interesting and amusing.
Jesus does rebel against religion's darker side. He argues with religious leaders who make religion all about rules.
Some clergy, back then, and now, make religion rule-centered. For them, religion is something external: the rituals, the disciplines, the customs, the rules, the boundaries.
But Jesus was more interested in religion's internals: the transformed heart, the way of love, the soul of compassion.
Now, Jesus is certainly not rejecting the Jewish religion. It's not a question of "Jesus vs. Judaism." Jesus was always a faithful Jew.
But this argument runs through every religion. You can be a Jew, or a Christian, or a Muslim, or a Buddhist, or a Hindu, in one of two ways.
On the one hand, you could focus on the external rules: circumcision, baptism, sabbath observance, what to wear, when to fast, how many times to pray each day, what is okay to eat and what is not okay to eat.
On the other hand, you could focus on the internal: the transformation of the heart, the compassion of God, and the imitation of God's compassion.
Some religious people, back then and now, focus on the holiness of God. Jesus focuses on the compassion of God. And that's the argument behind today's story from Mark. The way of Jesus is the way of the Jewish prophets before him. It's the way of the transformed heart, and is a new way of seeing, a new way of being. It centers on the compassion of God.
Here's a story that I've always liked a lot.
Once upon a time, some people got mad at their church. They thought their preacher was too soft on holiness and sin. They thought the other people in church were not serious enough about being righteous. So they left. And they started their own new church.
They started meeting in their own homes. Eventually, they got their own church building.
They put up a sign out front. It was one of those church signs with the letters you can change, and you can post messages for those who past by to read. The first message on their sign was this: "JESUS ONLY!"
One night there was a big storm. And the wind blew three letters off that sign. The wind blew off the J, the E, and the S. Now that sign told the truth about that narrow, self-righteous group of people: "US ONLY!"
There are always religious people who are part of this argument. There are always people who draw boundaries between "us" and "them." There are always people who build walls between who is in and who is out.
They want everyone in their religion to be pure. They want their synagogue pure. They want their mosque pure. They want their church pure. But as along as a synagogue or mosque or church is made up of human beings, they will never be pure. Our faith communities can't be pure if we ourselves are part of them.
So the church of Jesus cannot be pure. But the church of Jesus can be loved. And the church of Jesus can be loving.
If you know me well, you know I have poor math skills. In music school, we only had to count to four. But I know the difference between two equations.
One equation says "Religion Equals Rules." The other equation says "Religion Equals a Compassionate Heart."
I may have poor math skills, but I know which one adds up.
Jesus teaches compassion over rules.
Jesus lives compassion over rules.
Jesus is compassion, and compassion rules.
It all adds up to that.