Rituals (an Easter Message)

I’ve been thinking a lot about rituals these last days especially. Probably because Holy Week is always full of them. Palm Sunday we process in with the palms and say “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” Maundy Thursday we have holy communion and the stripping of the altar. Good Friday we hear those last words of Christ and then leave in silence to wait for Easter morning. The Easter egg hunts, the cross outside with the flowers, the “alleluias” – all of these are traditions we love.

But of course, the church has many rituals that extend well beyond holy week. We have particular colors adorning the walls and the lectern at certain times of the year – white and purple and green and red – all these colors telling ecclesiastical time for us. We have our certain hymns that are appropriate for this occasion but not that. Even words we use at certain times of the year – you’ll hear “Emmanuel”during advent, and now we can finally say “Alleluia” again after putting away that word for the season of lent. There are creeds and prayers and responses spoken at just the right time. The Lord be with you….See what I mean? We know how to do these things. They are part of our life together. And there are rituals we don’t even think of as rituals – the men who take off their hats and place them on the rack by the door before they enter the sanctuary, the way we teach our children how to treat this space with respect. We have rituals about so many things in the church.

In fact, some might even say that we have too many rituals. That nothing ever really changes in the church and so you don’t really miss much if you happen to miss a Sunday or two or five or more.

Yet, I like to think of these things as more a rhythm than ritual.  Just as with music – there are intricacies we miss if we only hear parts and not the whole piece. We need the crescendo of the lights and carols of Christmas Eve but we also need the diminuendo and hush of sparse Ash Wednesday, the steady beat of those Sundays in the middle of the summer where there are no big church holidays but the story is still being told of Jesus’ life and ministry. And it’s when we join in the dance where we sway from Pentecost to Holy Trinity to Christ the King Sunday to Advent to Epiphany, where we move in time to the music of Reformation Sunday and Transfiguration and Ascension and hear every note, and feel every beat in our chests – when we give ourselves the gift of not only hearing the whole story of the Gospel but to be swept up into it to be part of it day after day, week after week, season after season, year after year that’s when we begin to recognize the nuances, the special things. Think about it – your favorite song – how there’s that part where it speeds up or slows down or changes keys in a way that just takes your breath away and you want to sing along and you say, “I love this part.” That’s how it gets to be, doesn’t it, with certain readings as we hear them again and again. Oh there’s Mary letting down her hair again to dry Jesus’ feet – I love this part. Or there’s that father who brings his boy to Jesus to be healed and he cries out words we could have cried out a million times ourselves, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!” I love this part. Or what about when the psalm is read that was spoken at your mom’s funeral or at your brother’s grave, a million emotions stirred to the surface as you hear those words you could speak by heart, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.” I love this part. As we hear these scriptures over and over we come to see ourselves and our own stories reflected in them. They become part of us and we become a part of them. To hear these stories and sing these hymns is to tell the truth of who we are – our beauty and our brokenness.

No, our life together is about more than simply participating vacantly in rituals – it’s about the fullness of the rhythm of faith. Truthfully, we can forget this, though. Oh, I know it. I live it sometimes. Not every text is one I’m just so excited to preach on. I know you have lived this, too. Oh, I can tell when you’ve spaced out and are probably thinking about lunch or if you can fit in a nap this afternoon instead of listening intently to the Gospel reading. Sometimes the rhythm of faith can seem monotonous, predictable, it can even become difficult to hear.

Which is why I am so thankful for Easter. Sure, we have made Easter a ritual, too – because that’s what we do – but it is a ritual like no other. Because the truth of Easter is that we remember that all the rules were broken. Suddenly everything was turned upside down and the impossible was possible. The thing that seemed to have the final word, death, no longer had the last say at all. With a stone rolled away and some women spotting the empty grave clothes – everything changed. And not just for then, but for ever.

Do you know what this means? Yes, it means that our slate is wiped clean. Praise God, Alleluia – we are the recipients of grace and forgiveness we never deserved because Jesus accepted the punishment for us. Yes. Because of this day. Because of our dear Lord. Alleluia!

Do you know what else this means? It means that the worst things are never the last things. Not anymore. Because of this day. Because of our dear Lord. It means that when I stood by my mother’s grave on a November day in 2012, I could weep and feel so desperately sad, yet hovering in the cold air there was not only grief but the whisper of a promise. A promise that Jesus went to prepare a place for all of us – a home, our real home, beyond this one. It means the ones you have loved and lost are just waiting for you, a heartbeat away. Easter is the promise that there are no final goodbyes for those who trust in a resurrected Lord.  Thanks be to God.

Do you know what else this means? It means that those things that are broken and dead ends in your life, that those things that chain you or cause you misery or heartache, those things don’t have the last word either. Because of this day. Because of our dear Lord. Jesus teaches us that he is the God of new beginnings and new life and great hope – and we celebrate Easter every year because we need so desperately to be reminded of that. This faith we share in the love of God is eternally optimistic – in the words of Paul, “It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things.” You were fearfully and wonderfully made – you have no reason to accept anything other than being treated with respect and care and kindness by others and by yourself. Good Friday is over, the darkness of night has given way to Easter morning, folks. Whatever is causing you hurt or harm, sleepless nights, anxiety or frustration – if there was ever a time to let it go and move toward life and joy – it’s this day. May you do it with boldness and bravery and certainty that God accompanies you on your journey.

He is risen! He is risen Indeed!  Alleluia!

Of Course He Isn’t Safe. But He’s Good.

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.”