External Threats

Monday, November 11, 2013 — Week of Proper 27, Year One

[Go to Mission St Clare for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office:

Psalms 80 (morning) // 77, (79) (evening)

Nehemiah 9:1-15(16-25)

Revelation 18:1-8

Matthew 15:1-20

Last year, the number of suicides in the U.S. military exceeded the number of combat deaths among Americans in Afghanistan. Three-hundred and forty-nine active duty and reserve members of the military took their own lives in 2012. I have these numbers on my mind today because it is Veterans Day. But they also came to mind because, like today’s gospel reading, these numbers completely reversed my assumptions about what we have to fear.

The Pharisees and scribes in today’s reading only perceive threats as coming from the outside. They ask Jesus why his disciples do not wash their hands before they eat. But Jesus tells them, “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” He turns their world inside out by explaining where the real threats to human goodness might originate—not from the outside world, but from within the human heart.

When his disciples need more explanation, Jesus spells things out even more clearly. He says that whatever goes into the mouth has a clear exit strategy: it enters the stomach and then makes its way to the sewer. What comes out of the mouth, however, might be more troubling because its source is still lodged within us. Whatever comes out of the mouth has its source in the heart, which can contain destructive forces.

I don’t have much personal exposure to military life, and I can’t imagine the fears that come with living in a combat zone. (In fact, “fears” may not be the right word.) But in my efforts to learn about veterans and to listen to their stories, I keep hearing that factors like isolation, alienation, trauma, and personal and financial struggles are as life-threatening to military personnel as their “official” enemies.

Today’s gospel points out that we may be looking in the wrong places when we try to protect ourselves from threats and defilements. Instead of looking merely on the surface at external threats, we should be looking to the heart where all of these threats originate. Perhaps today we can take time to listen to one another’s hearts, and to show one another our hearts, and to pray for those who most deeply need healing where we cannot see the wounds.

Lora Walsh blogs about taking risks and seeking grace at A Daily Scandal. She serves as curate of Grace Episcopal Church in Siloam Springs and as director of the Ark Fellows, an Episcopal Service Corps program sponsored by St. Paul’s in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

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