Monday, September 3, 2018

Be Doers of the Word

Mark 7: 1-8
September 2, 2018

So, obviously,
Jesus is telling us not to wash our hands before we eat.
I guess someone could read this and understand that.
But this is not about washing hands necessarily,
is about traditions -- like washing hands and others.

We love traditions and rituals,
The Sermon on the Mount
Karoly Ferenczy
In our families and in our churches.

We have traditions at home 
that remind us that
we’re part of the family 
or a group of friends:
Eating together, praying together,
watching certain TV shows, 
vacation spots, games,
even greetings we use when 
we see each other

And we have traditions that we have in church.
Confession, Communion, Baptism, and worshiping itself are
religious traditions -- human practices that bring God into our lives.
Those remind us that we’re part of a community too.
Almost anything we repeat often can become a tradition.

Church and home traditions can ground us.
They give us stability and something to return to.

Confessions help us remember that we
are all sinful and need forgiveness.
Baptism reminds us that we are children of God.
Communion helps us remember a score of things:
God’s love, presence, sacrifice, abundance, forgiveness …
Too many things that to say, but the tradition says it for us.

 Traditions and shared practices can be beautiful.
Traditions bind people together. They bind generations together.
They are a wonderful way to worship and remember God.
They help us to touch the sacred.

But they are human practices and with everything human,
there can be problems.

Sometimes you can do traditions so often,
that you can do them without thinking,
or ever knowing the point behind them.
Sometimes we even forget the meaning behind the tradition,
and then we only remember the tradition
and not what it was supposed to teach us.

There’s a story we were taught in seminary called the guru’s cat:
Whenever the community would sit down to meditate,
the guru’s cat would come in and bother everyone.
So every night before worship, someone would tie up the guru’s cat.
After the guru died, the cat continued to be tied up before worship.
Then the cat died, and another cat was brought into the monastery
so that it could be tied up before worship.
Centuries later, papers were being written by the guru’s disciples
about the significance of having a cat tied up before worship.

And sometimes, the tradition becomes more important
than what the tradition was trying to help us remember.
So then the question becomes  “are we doing the traditions right?” rather than “are we living the life that God wants us to live”.

The Pharisees did this with the rules of the Torah.
The hand washing, the processes with
food and with cleanliness and all the rest.
Now washing before eating is probably a good idea hygienically,
but that wasn’t actually the main idea of it.
It was a ritual. It was an imitation of the priest who would wash his
hands and feet before going into the temple.

It was there signify our uncleanliness
it stressed our humility and our humanity
before the awesome otherness of God.

But not everyone who did the human tradition
of washing hands remembered their own humility and uncleanliness.
Some people thought they were actually better for doing
the ritual the right way.
And they started to look down on others who didn’t do the
tradition the same as them.

Eventually, these rules and traditions
overshadowed God’s will.
And to the people, they became God’s will.
Eventually, the religious leaders only took account of
whether these rules and traditions were being followed correctly.

Christians can understand that.
Do we cover our heads in worship?
Do we immerse or not in baptism? Infants or only adults?
Do we serve bread or wafers, or grape juice or wine,
or do we have communion at all? Do we have the right napkins?
Do we light the candles or not light the candle?
Do we pray for the dead or just their families?
Did you pray before the meal? Did you worship the right way?
A lot of these have been litmus tests of the faith for Christians.
Those who didn’t do the “right things” or do things
the “right way” have been looked down on.
Like Jesus was when he didn’t do the ritual hand washing.

Another problem that can happen with traditions
is that traditions can be confused with discipleship.
Many people throughout history have done the
Hand washing, praying, fasting, chanting, and worshipping
have felt that they were done with their business of being
Christian for the week.
Sometimes rituals can be substitutions for living
our lives as God wants us to live our lives.
Like doing the traditions is God’s objective and end goal.

Do we really think is God primarily interested in
having more hand-washers, prayers, fasters,
chanters, and worshippers? 
Or is God interested in something more from us?

Jesus is saying to the crowds and Pharisees and the disciples
that God wants more.
God wants all those traditions and practices and reminders
to change us and make us different, to help us make choices,
to motivate us to do wonderful things in this world.

In essence, God wants us to do good works. (gasp)
Now sometimes Lutherans get uncomfortable with “good works”.
And whenever you talk about it with a good-old Lutheran,
you get a cacophony of confusing Luther quotes and
mentions of how he didn’t like the book of James.
We’re not going to get into that now.

But I can assure you that, in the end,
Luther was on the same page as Jesus here.
And he was on the same page as James and Amos
and Isaiah and all of the other prophets.
In the end, God doesn’t just want  more traditions from us
God doesn’t want us to make sure that they’re done
perfectly and correctly and that no one slips up on them.
In the end, God doesn’t want full churches of people
just doing all the right traditions in the right way.

God wants churches full of people living their lives differently.
God wants those traditions to change our actions.
God wants disciples who do not defile this world with
avarice, theft, and murder and adultery.
But who overcome those things in the world with
generosity, giving, bringing life, and honest relationships.

God hopes for this, Jesus hopes for it,
and I have to tell you, the world wants it from us too.
Even people who are outside the church
who aren’t Christians or aren’t practicing,
would love to see us do God’s will here.

Whenever you hear from people about
why they’ve become disillusioned with the church
or why they’ve left the church,
the answer is almost always the same: hypocrisy.
People don’t do as they preach and teach.
Now sometimes I respond to that and say,
“what do you expect, we’re all still humans.”

But you have to admit what it looks like:
we have the traditions, we have the rituals, the doctrine,
and the scripture and the songs, but many times the church
as a whole has not lived a life that has agreed with those things.

We see pastors who get millions of dollars from preaching
and their churches not sharing it with anyone in need,
We see words of hate coming from the mouths of people of faith,
We see Christians with no care for the poor,
We see Christian parents withdrawing their love from
their own children because of their sexuality.
We see a lack of forgiveness coming from people to whom
forgiveness is central to their beliefs.

And that is why this scandal of the clergy sex-abuse
cases in the Catholic church is so horrible.
Not only have the clergy destroyed people’s
lives and harmed children, and done it systematically for years,
They have done it while holding the keys of the church
in their hands the whole time.
These are people who have been steeped in these traditions.
These prayers and practices.
These things that are supposed to teach us and change us
and renew our lives, and show us God and God’s love
but if this is the result, what has it done for them?
All that tradition done right for so long, and where are they?

I’m thankful that these things haven’t manifested 
in our denomination in quite the same way.
But their problem is still our problem.
It’s a problem of Christians and a problem of religion itself.
We are called to be different.
To be in the world, but not of the world.
Like James writes, we are asked to be doers of the word
and not just hearers of the word.

Living a life worthy of Christ is difficult.
There are a million draws and temptations
that pull us from God’s way every day.
Society is not formed to help us be generous,
to help us give, to help us to forgive, and love
and be honest in our relationships.
It’s actually easier not to in most cases.
It is hard to live what we believe and teach and desire.

The good news is that God has come into this world
in Jesus, to be with us, to struggle with us,
to suffer with us, to hear us, to teach us,
and to love us.

We need these traditions that speak to us of that love.
We need the water of baptism, the grace of forgiveness,
the bread and the wine. We need the prayers, the candles, the music,
We need these moments of God breaking into our regular world
and reminding us that God is there and we are loved
and that we are all in this venture together.
We need the promises of God to get through this life.

The ones that tell us that God loves us no matter what,
whether we’ve done the tradition right or at all,
whether we’ve done good works or bad –
God will be there.

We need to know that we can wash our hands
or not wash our hands,
And either way, God will make us clean.

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