Sermon for Pentecost 14B
Today’s Gospel is about traditions. Now, the argument that Jesus has with the Pharisees today sounds very obscure to our ears, and perhaps it is. The danger for us comes when we look in particular at verse 19, where Mark makes an editorial comment and says that Jesus, in this conversation, declared all foods clean. If we were to look at that statement without examining the background of this text, we would think ourselves superior: Oh, those Pharisees are at it again, we would say. We Christians got the right message: what matters is not those ceremonial laws that nitpick at everything, but what matters instead is the moral and ethical laws that Jesus taught. But, before we go down that road, let’s think about our own traditions, and the things that we hold dear. And in order to get us thinking that way, I’d like to play a clip from the musical The Fiddler on the Roof.
Which traditions do we have that we mindlessly follow and don’t even remember how they got started? How about the so-called Christmas tree? I know it’s a little early yet to be talking about Christmas, but if Christmas is about celebrating the birth of Jesus, then why do we bring a pine tree, real or artificial, into the house and decorate it? Yes, there are many legends that have sprung up trying to explain this tradition, but there were no evergreen trees in Bethlehem when Jesus was born, and Mary and Joseph did not decorate the stable in preparation for Jesus to be born. Yet, if I were to suggest that we not have a Christmas tree in the sanctuary this year, I would get horrified reactions from most of you, and perhaps some of you might suggest that I look for a new call. It’s tradition and it’s simply something that we do at Christmas. And as Tevye tells us in Fiddler on the Roof, these traditions help us keep our balance in life.
The problem, Jesus tells us today, is that we often rely on those human-made traditions to show others how good and pious we are, rather than attending to what is truly important. To pick on another one of our liturgical traditions: in Lent, we do not sing or say the word Hallelujah/Alleluia for six long weeks. This is another one of our Christian traditions that has obscure origins. But, if I completely fast from that word of praise for those six weeks during Lent and use that to show other people how religious I am, and yet do not attend to curbing those evil things that Jesus says come out of my heart, then I am honoring God with my lips and worshiping him in vain; I am teaching human precepts as doctrines.
So I hope that what we take from these two examples is that, human traditions, while important to give our life meaning and honor and balance, are not what’s important about our Christian faith. While we may feel that we are good, upstanding Christian folk who go to church every Sunday, what those on the outside of the Christian church may see is not always what we think we are presenting. A conservative Christian family with 19 children and counting may think they are witnessing to what they believe the Bible teaches. And then what the world sees is one of those adult children involved in sexual abuse and listed on a website connecting people who want to have an affair. And while we in the Christian world will say that they only represent one interpretation of Christianity, the world does not see that. Instead, the world names all Christians hypocrites because of that one bad witness. As another example, we want to be known as being one in Christ, witnessing to our faith to the world. Instead, the world sees us as squabbling among ourselves over traditions that make no sense to them, like apostolic succession, and being anything but unified. And the world names us insulated, concerned only with ourselves, and irrelevant, and wants nothing to do with us. This text from Mark today is not only condemning the Pharisees and scribes in 1st century Palestine, it is also condemning us.
But, while Jesus says that all of these evil things do come from the human heart, even from the human heart who believes in him, he does not say that only evil comes from the human heart. And that, I think, is where we find a glimmer of hope in this passage: we do have potential, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to do good things as well. Martin Luther says that when we are baptized, this baptism “indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new person should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.” And when Lutheran pastors talk about dipping your fingers in the water of the baptismal font and making the sign of the cross in order to remember your baptism, there is the meaning behind yet another tradition that we have in the church. This reminds us that, even though we are sinners, and even though all of these evil things come out of our hearts, we are simultaneously saints, our sins washed away by the love and forgiveness of Jesus, who died on the cross for us.
The question then becomes, what is this new person to do? What does religion look like for this new person that rises from baptismal water to worship God with more than his or her lips? The Gospel passage gives us an idea of what that looks like: follow the true commands of God, and don’t worry so much over human traditions. The portion of the letter of James that we have today spells it out much more explicitly: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” So then, what does this command from James look like in the 21st century?
I’d like to confess something to you: nursing homes depress me. Now, I want to be clear that I am not criticizing the Powell Valley Care Center. It is a bright and clean facility, and I know many people who work hard to make the Care Center a good place to be. The reason that nursing homes depress me is that, because of costs, seniors are placed two to a room. They have very little space to call their own, and not a lot of privacy. Their lives are often scheduled not according to what they might like to do, but according to what the nursing home dictates. And depending on the person’s relationship with their family and the person’s condition, they may not get to see members of their family as often as they would like. Is it any wonder that so many of us resist going to a nursing home when we get to that stage in our lives? Lately I’ve been hoping that the Lord will take me home before I get to the point of having to be put in a nursing home.
Again, I want to make clear what I am not saying. I am not saying that, should you have an elderly relative who can no longer live on her own, that you should allow her to live with you when you don’t have the ability to care for her. What I am saying is this: as well as worshiping the Lord in church on a Sunday morning, our Christian faith obligates us to care for people in need, such as widows and orphans, those who are poor and who are homeless, and those who are on the margins in our society. So if you have a family member who is in a nursing home, visit that family member as often as you can. Bring them some of their favorite things to cheer them up. Advocate for them to make sure they are getting the care they receive. And if you don’t have a family member in the nursing home, visit someone in the congregation, who is your extended family. Currently we have one member at the Care Center, one in the Heartland, one at the Manor, and one still living in her home, all of whom would enjoy receiving visits from anyone in the congregation. Talk to me or talk to anyone on the evangelism committee to find out more about visiting these lovely members.
What else does caring for orphans and widows, or anyone who is in need, look like? I saw a meme on Facebook a couple of days ago that said, “Instead of building megachurches, why don’t we build mega-shelters for the homeless?” Somehow, I think James would approve of that. Places to worship are important, yes. But what would it look like if, instead of building a new place of worship, we Christians would work with the space that we have and then use our funds to provide food and shelter for those in need. Wouldn’t this also be a form of worship? A better expression of our faith, say, than taking a stand on whether or not apostolic succession is a real thing? Providing for and caring for those in need is a visible expression of our faith in Jesus Christ, and is, in fact, the Christian witness that the world needs to see.
In the end, it’s not a question of either tradition or living out God’s commandments. Our lives need both the commandments and the tradition; both the worship of God in church and caring for those in need outside of the church building. Even though Mark tells us that Jesus declared all foods clean, Jesus himself, as a Jew, would have eaten only the foods allowed by Jewish law until the end of his earthly life. That tradition would have helped him to keep meaning and rhythm in his daily life. However, Jesus did not let tradition stand in the way of bringing life, full, whole, and meaningful life, to others. So, we can keep our Christmas tree up in the sanctuary. We just can’t let that Christmas tree stand in the way of living out our faith by caring for others. Let us pray that the Lord would help us to continually discern the difference between human-made traditions and his commands. Amen.