Sermon from Saint Peter’s Lutheran Church – 14th Sunday after Pentecost – August 30, 2015
Gospel: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
I remember having a conversation with a group of ladies at the first church I served out in Western New York state. We were sitting at a table eating soup and we started talking about table etiquette. Many of the rules for table manners that were mentioned were familiar to me – like no elbows on the table and don’t reach across the table for something but rather ask for it to be passed to you. But others were things I hadn’t heard before – one lady talked about how she had been instructed that it was only appropriate to eat soup by spooning it up away from her in the bowl. She said her grandmother had even taught her a little saying to remind her – it went, “just like ships sailing out to sea, I spoon my soup away from me.” Have any of you heard that before? I had no idea there could be such specific rules about eating soup.
Well, our gospel for today centers around manners and rules. On the surface we might wonder how relevant this text actually is to us – I mean, here are some Pharisees and scribes and they are getting after the disciples because the disciples have ignored some of the traditions and etiquettes – they were eating without washing their hands! This may seem at most a little gross to us but not something worthy of much attention – except that to the Pharisees, this went against the traditions of the elders. They had many traditions that were important to them – some of them are listed in our reading – such as how cups and pots and kettles were washed – and apparently, it was very important that hands were kept clean, too.
So the Pharisees ask Jesus why the disciples don’t live up to the tradition of the elders but eat with defiled hands and Jesus talks about how there is nothing outside of a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out defile – defile means to be unclean or filthy.
Verses 16-20 aren’t printed in our insert – but in verse 17, even the disciples are questioning what Jesus means by this. They say, “we don’t get it, put this into plain language.”
And Verse 18 reads (one of my favorite verses of all time), “Jesus said to the disciples, are you being willfully stupid?” (MSG) I always thought that would be a funny verse to put on my tombstone. People would see Mark 7:18 inscribed on my tombstone and wonder what heartwarming verse I chose and then look it up and it would be that.
Anyway, he goes on to explain again about how these dietary laws don’t matter, we can spend all day quibbling about whether certain things are clean or unclean but none of that matters – what goes into our mouths doesn’t matter – what matters is what comes out of our mouths and our lives.
We show whether we are clean or unclean by what comes out of us – and he lists some of these things: is what is coming out of us things like obscenities, lusts, adulteries, arrogance, slander, envy, licentiousness (that means promiscuity), deceit, folly (that means foolishness), avarice (that means greed). He says it is these kinds of things that are the source of our defilement .
In contrast, the reading from James today shows us the flip side of this – we offer up things that are pure and good to this world when what is coming out of us is that we are slow to speak, slow to anger, quick to listen – and James uses this language about defilement again – he says – “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this – to care for the orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
Here we might do a lot of head-nodding because this all makes sense, right? We understand that we want less of those defiling things and more of what is pure and good. However, in our modern churches still – we are pretty good at being Pharisees. If we pause and observe ourselves for even a moment, we can see that while we may not have specific traditions passed down from the elders about how we wash the cups and plates and bronze kettles and no one gets in trouble if they happen to not wash their hands in a particular way, we still have our own traditions that we hold tight to. Traditions that have nothing to do with the Gospel of Jesus Christ – yet they become so important to us that if someone threatens them, it’s like they are threatening the very core of who we are.
If you think I’m exaggerating, you really need to serve a term on any church council or most any church committee. I can’t really count the amount of times in my life as a pastor that I have wondered what it would be like if people could get as fired up about feeding the hungry and helping the homeless and immigrants and visiting the sick and the prisoner as I have seen people get fired up about why in the world we chose a particular shade of color for the carpet or why in the world did we change the worship time or how dare we change how we have been doing something for the last 140 years – if it was good enough for our grandparents, it should be good enough for us.
And here I could joke about churches and our difficulty with change – ok – here, let’s do that for a second and get it out of our system. You’ve likely heard the one – How many Lutherans does it take to change a light bulb? Change? We can’t change that light bulb – my grandfather donated that lightbulb!
We like to joke about how hard it is for us to change. Garrison Keillor has made a good career out of poking fun at our steadfast ways. Our quirks sound charming as he spins the tales about Pastor Ingqvist at Lake Wobegon Lutheran Church – just down the street from Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility.
I am as prone as anyone to find sanctity in the many things that stay the same in the churches I have served – the lovely stained glass, the cherished hymns, the predictability about the seasonal colors of the paraments (the paraments are the decorative hangings beside the altar and on the altar and on the pulpit); all the beloved sameness we experience on Sunday mornings. If you grew up in the church you understand what I mean. When we sing Children of the Heavenly Father, we aren’t just singing it in this present time but I’m remembering being a five year old girl standing and singing next to my grandmother at Good Shepherd Lutheran in Henning. And I’d look up at her and see her dab at her eyes with the tissue she had retrieved from her sleeve or from the very top of her brassiere (she stashed tissues everywhere). Oh, how she loved that hymn. Or when we kneel at this altar rail, we kneel not just for this particular day with these people but we kneel along with all the saints of today and yesterday. Even stuff like going on hayrides with the youth group or having a church supper in the autumn or sitting in the same place every Sunday – all these things can take on an air of importance, of sanctity almost – yet none of these things are God. A treasured hymn – sure, it can point to God, but it isn’t God. A precious, old altar rail? Sure, it can be a place where we remember God, but it isn’t God. Any tradition or thing can be a part of our life together as the people of God, but it also can be slowly elevated in importance until it starts to be treated like a god itself.
A council president I worked with a long time ago at a church established in the mid 1800’s used to say that he thought the best thing that could happen to our church would be if a storm came and blew our whole building down. I was shocked when he said it – but I began to see his point. It probably would have probably been the best thing to drive us deep back into the gospel. The congregation had elevated their building to such a holy status – there were so many rules governing everything surrounding it – and seemingly EVERYTHING in the building had a little metal plate on it that said who it had been donated by so we could never get rid of anything. And I remember thinking that there’s just something seriously out of whack when the mission of Christ’s church on earth is to be about caring for the homeless and the poor and visiting the sick and the prisoner and make disciples of all nations – but instead you find yourself stuck in a room with five other people trying to decide if it’s okay to get rid of the stained and broken picture of the church that was donated by the confirmation class of 1949 because you just don’t want to offend anyone. And again, if you think I’m exaggerating, you really need to spend some time on a church council or any church committee.
What I hear Jesus saying in our gospel is so important for the church throughout the ages. Because we are human, and we like to have order – we establish certain ways to do things, we establish our church buildings, we establish certain rituals and niceties, we may come to expect things or people to look just so – but make no mistake that whenever we put more passion into anything other than caring for those in need, remembering the poor, sharing in baptism and communion and the Word of God and making sure all others are welcomed to do so as well – anything we elevate above those tasks is a false god. And we all have them.
Remembering this is both extremely liberating and terrifying. It means that there is nothing we need except God. There is nothing we need except to love and worship God and serve others in God’s name. We don’t need this church building to praise God – we could gather anywhere to do that. You don’t need me – each of you can read the Word and tell about God’s love, too. We don’t need a Sunday School or circle or ever have another potluck. The church council could pack it up and the treasurer could give away all our money to Lutheran Social services or the Refuge. Our gathering could look entirely different – we could meet on a Tuesday at Pit 611, share in a Bible study and then go out and do service work in our community. We could gather on a Saturday in the park, all ages, pray together and then go pick up garbage or go visit the homebound. We could sleep in on Sunday but covenant to spend an hour in the afternoon reading a book of the Bible in a quiet place.
Could we do this? Can we even imagine doing church differently? Stripping away all the stuff and traditions and the ways we are stuck and moving nimbly forward to just love and serve God? Is the thought of it exhilarating or horrible? Could we let go of our church building, our committees, our traditions, and just be okay to be God’s people – daily fulfilling our mission to love and serve God wherever we are, wherever we happen to gather?
Can we admit to ourselves that any terror we have about letting go of our buildings and our traditions is actually because we have turned these things into tiny but powerful false gods?
Now perhaps we don’t need to toss everything away and start over and I know beautiful things are done in Jesus’ name here – but the main thing I pray for in our life together is that Jesus would keep our vision clear. That we are granted grace to always worry less about being safe and given the bravery and tenacity it takes to keep our eyes fixed on what is good, what is faithful. To keep our eyes and our energy fixed on Jesus. It reminds me of C.S. Lewis when he wrote in the book, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” – “Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion.” “Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”…”Safe?” said Mr Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”