Unmarked Graves

For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without realizing it.

I grew up on a country road in a little New England town.  There weren't many houses out where we lived, but there were a lot of fields and woods to explore, and that's how my brother and I spent our days.  We knew every inch of pasture and every forest trail for a mile in any direction.  We knew secret places no adult would ever find, because they would never bother to notice.  And one of those was the old abandoned graveyard at the edge of the meadow, down the road.

That graveyard was the oddest thing.  It wasn't attached to any church, at least none that we could find.  It was just a tiny plot of maybe twenty headstones, out in the middle of nowhere.  You wouldn't even notice it from your car if you drove by, because the hedgerows had grown up around it, and the wildflowers were thick.  But the little graveyard itself was neat and orderly, and obviously tended by someone; we didn't know who.  The stones stood upright, there were always tiny flags every Memorial Day, and someone cut the grass back every year.  It was actually a friendly little place, if you can say that about an old graveyard.  With the sun shining on the meadow and the birds singing in the hedgerows, it didn't look in the least like it was spooky or haunted; it looked more like a secret garden, with stories that were waiting for someone to stop and notice them.  So my brother and I did.  We read the stories on those stones, deciphering the letters in their faint, loopy script, and we tried to imagine who these people were.  Eliza Foote, wife of James Foote, one stone said.  Born 1816, died 1849.  Right next to it was James Foote's stone, Eliza's husband, but we noticed that apparently he lived a lot longer.  And nearby, a small stone, which read, Lucy 1849.  Was Lucy their baby?  That was sad.  But there were other stones which told us there had been other children who lived to an old age, except for one who might have been a soldier in the Civil War because he died in 1864.  We wondered about that.  Did he die down South somewhere?  Had he been born in a house on this road, where we lived now?  Had he played in this meadow, too?  Who could know?  Who could tell us the rest of the story that the stones only hinted at?  Could the person who tended the graveyard tell us, and who was that, anyway?  Old graveyards are secret gardens for a child, places to ponder what it is to be sacred ground.

As my brother and I grew older, the land on our country road was sold off, piece by piece.  Woods were cleared for subdivisions.  Every field sprouted three or four houses.  Eventually the meadow behind the old graveyard was sold, too, and one day we saw bulldozers cutting roads through the hedgerows.  The roads became driveways that led to houses.  They didn't bulldoze the graveyard, but they surrounded it on three sides, and they stopped tending it.  A year or two later, it was so neglected that there was nothing left to see but a tiny little thicket of overgrown bushes.  You'd have to push through the leaves to even find the stones and the stories they told.  Maybe the people who lived in the new houses liked it better that way.  Maybe they preferred to have a thicket in their front yard rather than a sunlit meadow with a secret garden.  One thing's for sure: that graveyard is more haunted than it is sacred now.  The stories it once held are lost in a thicket of leaves. 

Woe to you Pharisees!  For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without realizing it.

This is not a story you will find in the lectionary.  It isn't what we might call one of the gospel's greatest hits.  There aren't any miracles, and there aren't any healings, and Jesus isn't inviting anyone to sit down on the green grass and listen.  No, in this story, his teachable moment looks more like a tirade. 

It's a simple plot, really.  A Pharisee invites Jesus home for dinner, and when they sit down at the table, the man is a little surprised that Jesus hasn't washed his hands.  After all, it's sort of basic, right?--before you eat, you wash your hands.  That's how we were raised.  That's how we don't get sick.  That's why your mother made it a rule, and long before her, it's why Moses did, too.  So this Pharisee is amazed, frankly, to find Jesus so lacking in manners.  And that sets Jesus off.

Whenever I read a story about Jesus yelling at the Pharisees, my first instinct is to run the other way.  The Pharisees are not my favorite characters in the gospels, and they aren't the first place I look for role models.  In fact, you could say they are negative role models; I look at them as examples of what I don't want to be.  So it is always a bit of a shock to find out that actually, whether I like it or not, I am a Pharisee, and it's a role I play really well.  It's a role the church plays really well, too, which means we had better pay close attention to what Jesus says here, because it might be for us. 

Woe to you Pharisees!  For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without realizing it.

An unmarked grave is one of the saddest things I can imagine.  Remember some years ago, when The New York Times reported that a burial ground for African slaves had been discovered in lower Manhattan?  Some skyscraper on Wall Street was being torn down and rebuilt, and archeologists digging at the site came upon bones and artifacts that confirmed that this was the final resting place for some of our nation's first slaves and freed black Americans.  People had been walking over this site for years, without realizing that there were unmarked graves right beneath their feet.  That knowledge did something to us.  Because now we had to decide: are we going to mark and honor this site as sacred ground, or are we going to build another skyscraper on the same spot?  What does an unmarked grave require of us, and what does it mean?

Graves can be unmarked for all kinds of reasons.  Sometimes, it's a question of money: the people who have buried their loved ones simply can't afford to put up a marker.  That happens in poor families all the time.  Sometimes, it's a matter of convenience: the graveyard stands in the way of progress, a highway, or a housing development, or a skyscraper in lower Manhattan.  That happens with Indian burial grounds and little country graveyards all the time, too.  It's not fair, and it's not right, and it tells us something about power and priorities, when the ground we share is limited and contested.

But graves can go unmarked for another reason, and that is simply the passage of time.  Years go by, people forget, the stones fall back into the earth, and no one remembers what used to be there.  The ground turns into a field and the field into a forest.  One day you walk onto a heath like Stonehenge and you see these enormous rocks standing in formation, and they're beautiful, all right, but no one knows exactly what they are or why they are there.  No one remembers.  You can make something up, create rituals and reasons, but if those things aren't grounded in our own sacred story, we're going to look pretty silly, like grown-ups dancing around a golden calf.

The Pharisees had a lot of rituals, and most of them were pretty good ones; they made sense.  It makes sense to wash your hands before you eat, doesn't it?  Of course it does.  Let's make a ritual out of it.  It is good to treat your guests with honor, isn't it?  Yes.  Let's make a ritual out of it.  The Pharisees did that all day long.  They kept track of the rules and the manners that structure our lives and keep things running smoothly.  They reminded everyone how important those rules and manners were.  I think they would make good Presbyterians, which is the church I know best, but feel free to substitute your own.  In my church, we like to do things "decently and in order."  That's how we talk about it: "decently and in order."  For us, it's something to be proud of.  Our Book of Order is a lot like the Pharisees' book of laws, and it's something to be proud of too: it has rules that make sense, rituals that reflect our faith and our sacred story.  Read about those rituals, and you understand who we are and what we believe.

But rituals can also outlive their usefulness.  They can lose their grounding in that place of deep faith and turn into rules that we follow for no good reason, at least, no reason that anyone remembers.  They can turn into rules that we follow just so we can say that we did.

One of my colleagues at Columbia Seminary, Professor Paul Huh, tells this story.  There was once a rabbi, he says, who had a cat.  The cat loved the sound of the rabbi's voice; and when the rabbi got up to preach, the cat would wander around the sanctuary and distract the listeners.  The elders decided that before worship began, they would tie the cat to a chair, then it couldn't wander.  So every Sabbath they did this.  Worship started, the rabbi would climb into the pulpit to preach, and an elder would tie the cat to a chair.  Time passed.  Some years later the rabbi died.  A new rabbi came.  He got up to preach and was surprised to see an elder get up and tie a cat to a chair.  "What is this?" he said.  "Why are you tying this cat to a chair?"  "We always do that," the elder replied.  "Before the sermon, we tie up the cat."  The new rabbi shrugged and let it go, and to this day whenever a rabbi begins his sermon in that synagogue, there is an elder tying a cat to a chair, for a reason that no one remembers. 

Rituals can outlive their usefulness.  They can lose their grounding in that place of deep faith and turn into rules that we follow for no good reason--at least no reason anyone remembers. 

Sessions and groups of elders have to deal with this all the time.  The Book of Order, the church laws, say one thing, but the situation at hand is a little more complicated, and there aren't clear guidelines about what to do.  Before you start arguing, you have to stop and remember that the rules and the rituals always have to reflect who we are as Christians.  What does the Lord require of us, but to do justice, and love mercy, and walk humbly with our God?  Who can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus?  The rules need to reflect that.  The rituals do, too.  So go ahead and wash your hands before you eat, but remember that the point isn't to show how clean you are and how dirty someone else is.  The point is to create a clean heart.  Cleanse me, O God, from all unrighteousness.  That's the marker we remember, with that ritual.  Then it has depth, and it makes sense, too.

Jesus didn't wash his hands before dinner, and the Pharisees were shocked.  Jesus decided this was a teachable moment.  "What, do you think it's the act of washing hands that's so important?" he asked them.  It's not the ritual itself that matters.  That's just a cat tied to a chair.  It's the cleanness of your heart you ought to worry about, the state of your soul.  You know what it takes to have a clean heart.  Do justice.  Love mercy.  Walk humbly with your God.  Don't strut through the marketplace, and expect everyone to bow and scrape.  Don't fuss about your title and all those external things.  They don't mean anything.  They don't mark anything.  All your rituals are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without realizing it.  There isn't anything sacred there anymore; no stories that anyone remembers.  No honoring of what's truly important.  Just a lot of overgrown thickets, a lot of skyscrapers and houses built for no reason but greed.  A lot of unmarked graves, and you trying to scare us with ghost stories. 

Woe to you Pharisees, for you are like unmarked graves.

I was reading this passage with a friend of mine, and she said, "What a strange little story and what an unusual choice for a radio program."  I told her she was right.  But you know what?  Those of us who love God and preaching and music and the church and its liturgies-we are the Pharisees of church today, and I mean that in the best sense of the word.  We try so hard to honor the tradition, and mark it well.  We try so hard to keep the stories alive and the rituals meaningful.  And much of the time, we do a pretty good job.  We gather around the table and we worship God and we invite Jesus to come.  And we say to him, "It's your party."  And we hope he'll like it and that he'll feel we've honored him properly. 

But, sometimes, it doesn't go that way.  Sometimes, there is this peculiar little text, and Jesus turns into the guest from--well, from somewhere way south of south.  He won't behave and he won't sit down, and he says offensive things about our rules and our rituals.  He says, "That's an unmarked grave, for you!"  He says, "That's a big thicket in your front yard!"  He says, "Tell me again.  Why the cat?"  And so we have to go back and rethink things.  We have to ask, what happened here?  And how did this ritual turn into something empty?  How did we forget who we are?  Because unless you can tell from our rules and our worship that we are people who do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God, unless you can tell, something is out of whack.  Something needs to change.  It's probably time to invite him for dinner, again.

Let us pray.  O God, you have marked us with the sign of Jesus Christ.  You have marked us and claimed us as your beloved children, walking in this world to do justice and love kindness and to be humble before you.  Show us the places where we need to remember again why we are marked and for whom we are marked.  In the name of your Son, Jesus Christ, we pray.  Amen.