The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 30, 2009
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
St. Francis, Norris
I am happy we are now returning to lessons from Mark. I like the Gospel of John okay. I would probably like it more if I understood it. Not that I understand any of the gospels completely. After all, it seems as though I understand each portion of them differently, every time I read them. But that is sort of exciting, in itself. I can’t think of any other book I might read over and over again and continue to come away with something new, each and every time.
This passage today reminds me of conversations in our own parish hall, before and after the services. People are talking about the way it should be, the way it always has been or the way it is becoming. Just like in the gospel reading, they are speaking about the past, present and future.
Jesus is once again arguing with the Pharisees and their stubborn ways. Like so many good Christians, today, these Jews, of yesterday, are stuck in the way it has always been attitudes. I always love to hear someone answer the question, “why can’t we do it this way instead?” with the standard, “Because, we have never done it that way!” I still remember talking to one of my supervisors, as I tried to convince him to try something new, that I had seen in another factory and him telling me that it would not work in our plant. Of course he told me, it had already been tried and didn’t work, as if the geographical location had something to do with it. To no ones surprise, when we tried it we found every reason imaginable to cause the new way to fail but as we corrected the stumbling blocks, one by one, as they occurred, it became obvious that this new way would in fact be a better way. After a short time we were all wondering why we hadn’t thought of it ourselves, a long time ago. Everybody has a similar story from their own lives. We often fail to remember that we were the very ones resistant to the change that brought about the newest and best “way we have always done it.”
That is what happens. The new adopted ways are new “way we have always done it”. The Jews were concerned that Jesus’ followers did not wash their hands before they ate. This custom, no doubt, came about from the realization that hand washing helped to prevent the spread of germs and sickness. The Jews had turned it into a ritualistic, religious act that really had nothing to do with germs.
We Episcopalians are guilty of the same thing in some of our ritual. For example the brocade cloth that is covering the cup right now…many will tell you is there as a symbol of the pall covering Christ. That is what it is called…a Pall, like what covers a casket at funerals. Now the truth of the matter is that this covering was to keep the falling debris out of the cup. You see, it used to be that most churches were ancient stone structures and grit and dirt were constantly falling from the ceiling and landing in the cup, so someone covered it with a cloth. Viola, instant ritual was created!
Now, I love the ritual in our church very much. It is often with chagrin that the use of incense is met, but I love it. Scott and I have talked about his becoming a verger some day. I would like to see us have a deacon serving here. The bigger the procession the better as far as I am concerned. In that way, I guess I am like a Pharisee. But where I am not like a Pharisee is in that I do not let the lack of these rituals interfere with my worship experience. The vision of smoke wafting through the church reminds me to think about the Holy Spirit coming into the worship space. In other word it is a visual and olfactory aid. What is not, is the Holy Spirit itself.
That is what Jesus is telling us in this passage. It is not what you see. It is not what you smell. It is what your response is that is important.
As Christians and Americans we have become like the new Pharisee’s. We all feel our way of worship is the best way and I think that is proper and good. It only becomes a problem when we start to feel it is the only way to worship, that we start to have difficulties. I watch these mega church services on TV sometimes and it really bothers me. My opinion is that they are going after the entertainment value rather than spirituality. However, as I watch them with their arms in the air swinging and swaying and singing the same verse over and over I can see that they are feeling the spirit of that moment. I have to put away my prejudices and accept that my way is not the only way of worship. For me, it is the best way though.
The crux of this story is that we sometimes spend more time figuring out how we should worship than we do actually worshiping. We find flaws in the way others worship and the problem is, that these flaws are actually not flaws but differences. That is what the Pharisees were on Jesus about. You are allowing them to do it wrong, the Pharisees proclaimed. Jesus said, no, I am allowing them to do it differently.
Jesus is telling them that the results are of much greater importance than are the methods. Being pious and acting out holiness are the things that we put into our beings or our bodies and of far less importance than those things that come forth from our beings.
There are a couple of verses omitted in this lectionary reading that is a bit more graphic but also somewhat clearer in describing what Jesus is telling us. Verses 18 and 19 add: He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, 19 since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.)
Jesus is saying that the way we worship is not as important as what we do with our worship afterwards. Only that which comes forth from us can defile. Only that which we do is wholly or unholy. Are we actually honoring the Sabbath when we ourselves do no labor, but we go to the mall and shop, thereby supporting the owners who force their labor to work on Sunday? Or are we defiling the commandment by doing so?
Our actions are much more important than what we say about our Christianity…no matter how we go about our proclaiming the Lord. My Dad told me a story about the mega-church in his town. The food bank was running dangerously low so when the thousand or so worshipers showed up on a Sunday the preacher stood up and said: “I am not going to talk today. I want all of you to leave, now, and go straight to the grocery and buy canned goods for the food pantry. Amen.” And they left. And the food pantry had more food than from any other drive in their history. All the hand raising and praising and swaying was eliminated for that Sunday. They had shown forth not only with their lips but in their lives, with their actions.
They may not have worshipped the way we do but their worship results were exactly right. You can’t argue with that. So, we can and will continue our worship “the way we have always done it.” I still think it is the best way and I always will. But our worship is for naught if there is no action to it. It is what comes from our worship that Jesus is most concerned with. It is how we show forth with our hearts, not what we take in through our mouths that defines our Christianity. No matter what the method of worship.
 The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. Nashville : Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989, S. Mk 7:18-19