Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23.
Do you know the story of the waterbugs and dragonflies? It’s a children’s book, written to explain the concept of death. It is beautiful, and it is powerful, and I find it incredibly helpful for adults as well as children. I find it incredibly helpful, personally. It goes like this:
Once upon a time there was a community of waterbugs, that lived, well, under the water. They were happy and loving, and very much enjoyed being together. The only difficult thing about their lives was that above them was this mysterious dark that they couldn’t figure out. They couldn’t see beyond it and didn’t understand it (it was the water line, but they didn’t know that), but they did know that sometimes one of their waterbug friends or family would go up up up to the water line, pop past it, and the waterbugs would never see their friend or family member again. They didn’t know why this happened, but they did know it made them sad.
There were three waterbug cousins in this community who were particularly close as family and friends. They LOVED being together and they made a promise to one another:. They would never, and I mean never, go above the black line. But if, just if, they ever did go above the line, they promised their best promise that they would come back, and let the others know why they left, and what was up there.
The waterbugs went about their happy live – living and laughing and enjoying being waterbug friends. Until one day, one of them felt this urge... He didn’t know what was going on, and he didn’t know why, but he knew he was going to go up, up, up, above the black line. And so he did.
As he zoomed above the black line, this waterbug looked about in amazement. As he gazed around this new world, suddenly POP! out came a wing on one side of his body. And then POP! out came another. This was all quite incredible, and the waterbug was smiling a HUGE smile as he looked around this new world. There were flowers and trees and sky and clouds. There were birds singing and leaves rustling. The water was sparkling underneath the most amazing, bright, warm, light high above him. And oh! the colors!! Things he had never even been able to imagine before. As he sat, soaking it all in, a gentle breeze came, and lifted the waterbug by his new wings into the air. He soared and danced in the air and felt a lightness he had never known.
And then he remembered his promise. “I need to go back to my friends!” he thought. I need to tell them about this incredible place. He turned to go back into the water, but.. he couldn’t. His wings wouldn’t allow him back in. He wasn’t a waterbug any longer, but a dragonfly now, and he belonged above the dark line.
“It’s ok”, the waterbug thought. “I know my friends will come above the dark line one day – I’ll meet them here, and we’ll delight in our new home together.”
I tell you this story today in part because our community has been touched by death a lot over the last few weeks, and it’s been difficult.
And I tell you this story today in part because as I had my Bible out this week, preparing for our Gospel story today, I sat there and thought about how I wished the Gospel this week were one that might more clearly, more directly give us some guidance in light of the loss in our community lately. I thought about how I wanted God to appear before me and say, “Here’s how it is. And it’s all ok!”
I sat outside as I studied and pondered and prayed, and in that moment – this is the truth – a dragonfly appeared right in front of me. And I mean, right in front of me. It hovered in front of my face. And then it landed on my Bible, on this reading for today. My eyes got teary, but in the most beautiful way, and I said, “Well hello there, friend. It’s nice to see you.” My dragonfly friend – our dragonfly friend - stayed there for what seemed like a full minute before flying away.
Do I believe that dragonfly was a sign, a message from our loved ones on the other side? I do, 100%. I believe it even if it sounds odd to others. I believe it even if there are no stories about dragonflies in the Bible. I believe it with my whole heart – because I felt it with my whole heart.
Our Gospel story this week finds Jesus telling the people that it's ok to do thing "another way". The traditions are fine, the way earlier generations have interpreted church and religion and how to live it all out, is fine. And, Jesus says, what really matters is what's in your heart. Who you are. How you live. Sometimes that includes living into the old traditions, and sometimes it does not. But what's in your heart? That's where God is.
Jesus quotes his favorite prophet, Isaiah, here, saying:
‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition’.
It’s important we understand that Jesus was not putting down traditional religious teachings, or cultural traditions, or “the way it’s always been done.” This is where we can get into the dangerous waters of “Jesus said the Jewish way to do things was wrong and we are now right.”
Quite the opposite, as Jesus was Jewish, after all, and he taught from Scripture.
But what Jesus was trying to say, and honestly, I think it’s as hard for us to wrap our minds around it as it was for people than to fully take in, is that GOD is bigger than our religious practices can ever encompass.
Bigger, even, than the Book of Common Prayer! I know, I know...
It’s not that our religious practices are wrong or bad or off the mark. It’s not that they aren’t important and valuable and deep and meaningful. They are all of those things. I would not be standing here if I didn’t believe that. It’s just that our religious practices are human-made traditions, and God is more than we can imagine.
But! Jesus says, our hearts know what our minds can’t quite comprehend. And when you have your heart turned toward God, you can trust that. You can listen to your heart.
If we want any proof of God showing up in our hearts, and through the actions directed by our hearts, all we need to do is look at what’s happened in this community over the last few weeks. Yes, we’ve had loss and shock and grief. Yes, it’s been emotional and difficult. AND, there has been so much love.
The Book of Common Prayer directs our deeply beautiful and meaningful funeral service. The rhythm of this service, the words in speaks, and the rituals it guides us through are central and core to who we are. The BCP offers us this gift, and this connection to one another, to thousands who came before us, and to all who will come after us.
And yet, the BCP does not tell us to reach out to one another with cards and phone calls and visits that speak our love. The BCP does not direct us to join as a community in setting up the parish hall after a Sunday service, to put out our most beautiful linens and to lovingly put fresh flowers on every table. Our religious traditions do not cause us to show up early and to stay late, and to volunteer to read or serve or arrange chairs in the sanctuary.
Our hearts guide us to do that. The love of God speaks through our hearts in this way.
Trust that, Jesus says. Trust that when you feel compelled to reach out to someone in need, whether or not it is written into our prayer book, whether or not it’s what we’ve always done, whether or not it fits into someone else’s idea of “religion”. When you act from your heart, you are answering God’s call. When you offer to share your gifts of time and energy and presence for the good of the whole, you are living into God’s dream for us.
It also means we’re asked to push ourselves a little bit. As we’re about to go back to two services next week, one more traditional and one more “progressive”, I’ll ask you to consider whether you feel a tension, or do you see a tension in others, between 'tradition' and 'progressive' thinking when it comes to your understanding of church. And if you do, to consider where you can step outside of your comfort zone a bit. If you always go to the 8:30 service, consider coming to the 10:30 service a few times this year, with an eye to finding something beautiful in the richness of its tradition. If you always go to the 10:30 service, consider going to the 8:30 a few times this year, and try to experience it with your heart rather than you head.
Our diversity is richness. And all of it is designed to pull us closer together as community. Closer to God. Closer to being one people; the Body of Christ. Jesus’ teachings today means that we can live into our traditions, and yet not hold our traditions above what our hearts tell us.
It means that when we see a dragonfly – or a rainbow, or a hummingbird, or a feather, or any other “sign” that makes us think, “Yes, our loved one is here”, we can trust it.
So yes, I began this week with my Bible in my hand, wishing for some more guidance from today’s reading. And what do you know, once I opened my heart, there it was after all: “You’ve come from Love, you’re surrounded by Love, you’re always moving toward Love. Trust that, no matter what.”
Guidance, indeed. As it was in the beginning, so it shall be evermore. Thanks be to God.
Source for the story of the waterbugs and dragonflies: Waterbugs and Dragonflies: Explaining Death to Young Children, by Doris Stickney.