PROPER 17, B
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
In other sermons I’ve talked about the purity code that was part of the religious life at the time of Jesus and beyond. I have explained how the commandment to keep the Sabbath holy was expanded by saying it meant not to do work and then going on in excruciating detail to pinpoint what was work and what was not. For example, peeling potatoes was work, but cooking them was not.
It’s easy to feel rather smug sitting here in the enlightened 21st Century, but the truth is that we do the same sort of thing all the time. It’s surprising to me how easy it is to fall into the sin of idolatry; that is, the sin of putting something else ahead of our loyalty to God. And also to slide into the sin of judging others, when their view of righteousness is not the same as ours.
When I hear the stories of Jesus’s encounters with the scribes and Pharisees, I always see myself as one of the disciples, cheering for Jesus to win the dispute. But I rail about the lack of manners and civility we’re seeing today. One time, when my son was grown, married, and the father of his own children, I stopped at his house for some reason. He was sitting at the kitchen table with his baseball cap on. I snatched it off his head, without even thinking, and hung it on the back of his chair.
I have to admit, that at that moment, I cared more about his lack of manners than his welfare, his kindness, or his troubles. Jesus would say that that is putting human tradition ahead of God’s commandments.
When I was growing up, back in the dark ages of the fifties, everyone wore dress clothes to church. Women wore dresses, heels and hose, a hat, and gloves. Women also wore very uncomfortable undergarments that held everything in place, even if they were skinny. The implication was that only loose women went around without such undergarments. You would not be criticized if you only had one nice dress, but you would be labeled “bad” or something worse if you didn’t wear a girdle.
Now is that really any different from what the scribes and Pharisees did? The problem with all the rules and regulations is that having them encourages us to judge others, which is also a sin, because that is God’s job. I’m not talking about the sort of discrimination that we use every day, but the kind of judgement that labels someone else as unrighteous, as a sinner, as unacceptable, so that we can exclude them from our society, or because it makes us feel good to put someone else down, or because we see ourselves as the arbiters of what is correct.
Isn’t that just a grown up version of bullying?
As we heard in the Old Testament reading this morning, Moses gave us the ten commandments, and warned us clearly about adding to them or taking anything away, but of course, that warning has long been ignored.
Jesus summarized the Ten Commandments into two simple rules: love God and love your neighbor as yourself. And still we find it hard to stick to the basics. Part of the trouble is that traditions are important to us; like ritual, they help to hold us together; they provide a framework for our shared hopes and dreams; they are necessary and useful, just like rules of the road are for drivers, or red and green markers for boaters. But sometimes we get so attached to them, that we loose sight of their actual importance in relationship to God’s law.
Think back for a moment to the time in this church when we got a new prayer book and when the liturgies of the church were updated. I went through that period at another Episcopal church, one that was near Seabury Seminary, so that we had speakers come to explain the changes being made and the reasons for it. We used all the trial liturgies and wrote comments to the national committee who were writing the new book. We sailed through the changes fairly easily.
My father and many of his friends had absolute snit fits about the new service. He even refused to pass the peace for some time. That one I couldn’t figure out because he always shook hands with everyone after church and he wasn’t hyper about germs. Maybe he just picked on that as a way of protesting the whole thing.
I’ve heard scary tales of the upset in many places when the altar was moved away from the wall. And I guess the basic truth is that none of us like change very well. And we’re all good at self-deception. I’ve promoted change in the church most of my life, but that doesn’t mean I accept it in other areas! Oh no. If I’ve made plans for today, don’t walk in and suggest that I change them!
One of the most extreme examples of holding to human tradition over God’s laws was portrayed in James Michner’s book, Hawaii. The missionaries, who went to Hawaii in the 19th Century from New England, still wore the clothes that were proper at home. The women wore corsets, long dresses and petticoats, the men wore their black coats over their shirts and pants and. . . . . they put on long underwear in November and wore it all “winter”. And they wanted the natives to do the same. This was the Christian way?????
As I listened to the Republican National Convention this week and as I will listen to the Democratic one next week, I’ll be thinking about what Jesus told us in today’s lesson. It’s a helpful tool for sorting out propaganda from fact. Jesus turned to the scribes and Pharisees and said, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘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.”
There’s more than enough hypocrisy on display at both conventions, in both parties. So who do we trust, and to whom can we go? Who is trying to convince you that some tradition is more important than the two rules of Jesus? Are their plans in line with loving our neighbors as ourselves or not? Who do you believe when they say they will work for the common good? You have to take a look past the rhetoric to what their plans actually will do.
Think also about your own biases and those traditions you hold dear. Could you let them go, if it was necessary to do so? Do they interfere with living out the rules Jesus gave us? Can you create other traditions that might work better?
In the Old Testament Micah asks, “And what does the Lord require of thee, but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”
In the New Testament, Jesus says, “The first commandment is this: Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is the only Lord. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.” AMEN