September 5, 2012
Gospel: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
1st Reading: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
2nd Reading: James 1:17-27
When I was growing up, we were fortunate to live only 20 minutes away from both sets of grandparents. Four kids meant a lot of mouths to feed and gas prices were low, so almost once a week we went to one grandparents or the other for dinner. At Grandma Nana’s (named so because I couldn’t say grandma as a baby, but only nana) I remember she would call, “Go wash your hands for dinner!” That meant everyone lining up at the one bathroom in the house and washing our hands before we could find our place at the kids’ table to eat. At Grandma V’s house, (so named because no one wanted to have to say Grandma Vorderstrasse, even though it was all our last names) the ritual was praying before our meals, “Come Lord Jesus, be our guest, and let thy gifts to us be blessed.” It sounded a little to me like, “give us more gifts,” but that was the prayer we said. At home, we didn’t do either of these two things, but we did have our own rituals such as where we sat at the table and having to take three bites and having the timer set for 5 minutes if we were not taking our bites. These rules and rituals were to help us know what to expect. They helped prepare us to eat together in community, in family, not to waste food, to get along with each other, to have good health in our bodies, and to remember our food comes from God who we remember and thank.
At our house, now, our routines are changing due to a child in our midst. We still haven’t got our family meal ritual together—we eat at different times. But we are getting the bedtime ritual down pat. It helps our son know what to expect. It helps prepare him for healthy sleep. When he sleeps, we all sleep, which is good and very good.
So the Israelites, too, needed rules and rituals to help them interact together in community, to be healthy and get along and respect each other, and to know what to expect. So God gave them the commandments. And we, too, in society and in church need rules and traditions to help us on our spiritual path and to progress in our relationships. In church, we have many of these rituals. We are so attuned to say “And also with you” when the pastor says, “The Lord be with you” that we even say it when someone says, “May the force be with you.” We are ready to say the Lord’s Prayer, when the pastor says, “God remember us in your Kingdom and teach us to pray.” Or we are ready to respond, “Thanks be to God” when the reader says, “Word of God, word of life.” We are ready to hear the scriptures having sung a hymn in praise to God. We are ready to go to communion, having heard a word of hope. We are ready to go and be the good news to someone in need having gathered in community to worship God.
Our way of worshipping is helpful to us in many ways. Like dinner or bedtime rituals there is no one right way of doing it. We use words from scripture in our worship and we use a formula that makes sense to many of us. And there are other, completely legitimate and wonderful ways to worship God, different words we could use and different order to the elements of worship. And our way of Lutheran worship allows for much flexibility and openness to different options in worship. What matters most is not the words we say, but where our heart is and what our motivations are. What is behind the actions we do and the words we say. Do we worship this way to serve ourselves? Are we flexible enough to be relevant to the world we live in? Do we try to help others understand why we do what we do? Do we leave room for the Holy Spirit in, with, and under our rules and traditions so She can teach us new ways to interact with God that help us grow spiritually?
And one of the biggest questions of all is this: Do we worship the rules so that they cannot be questioned? Or are we willing to examine our traditions to make sure they are still doing what they were intended to do, which is to help us move along a spiritual path toward greater love?
Jesus cautioned us toward worshiping the rules. He said the rule and the tradition is not the thing. They are meant to point to God. He was constantly breaking rules. He picked grain and healed people on the Sabbath. He touched lepers. He talked to prostitutes. And he didn’t wash his hands before dinner, which would have been ok with grandma V., as long as he prayed, but not ok with grandma nana and not ok with the Jewish people and probably not ok with many of us here today. And of course don’t forget that God’s rules were used against him at his trial and because he didn’t deny saying he was God’s Son, he was crucified.
We all know the rules aren’t perfect. Innocent people get sent to jail. People find loopholes in the rules and exploit them, like with the Adjustable Rate Mortgages. The banks were following the rules, but that didn’t mean they were doing the right thing. We often interpret the rules in ways that benefit us. We use the rules to get more power for ourselves or our group and to take that power away from everyone else. Is anyone else as glad as I am that this election will be over soon? Is anyone else as disgusted as I am that both parties are using and misusing power so blatantly? What a waste of time!
In the midst of all this vying for power, the apostle James asks us to hold up a mirror. He asks us to reflect on ourselves and to stop and take a good long look at ourselves and the rules and traditions we use. It is a good thing to do individually. It is a good thing to do as a congregation. Rather than just go through the motions of our laws and traditions, we should look at them. We should assess whether they are accomplishing the work of God. Are they spreading God’s love? Are they helping people on their spiritual journey? Do we do them just because that’s what we’re used to? Do these laws and traditions draw people together into deeper relationship with each other and with God? Do they drive a wedge between people and show who is in and who is out and become ways of excluding people who aren’t like us?
When we look in the mirror, the world tells us not to like who we see. They tell us that we need something to make us likeable-whether it is a new truck or a certain brand of paper towel or a certain food. They promote the tradition of “Buy more stuff until you feel better” because it benefits them. They sell more stuff because of our fear that we aren’t good enough without this that or the other.
God tells us that we are created good and that we are beloved. When we look in the mirror we should see a beloved child of God. We start from a place of love and hope. God also gives us an honest assessment that we are afraid, that we are self serving, that we bend the rules to benefit ourselves, that we compare ourselves to other people. God doesn’t want that for us because it isn’t good for us and it isn’t good for others. So God offers us a better way. It is a way that we can reach for but never fully attain. It is our spiritual path to do God’s word and not just pay it lip service. We all sin and fall short of the glory of God meaning that we are unable to follow God’s commandments. But that doesn’t mean we give up. We want to serve. We want to try to follow God’s rules and commandments so that we can live long in the land and so that we and others can have enough, life abundant. Widows and orphans are still relying on us to be God’s hands and feet helping them. The world is hungry for justice and compassion and hope that God brings through us living that word. God’s rules help us to act justly so that people are fed and clothed and relationships are built.
When we look in the mirror God asks us to see Jesus within us. God wants us to treat that person we see in the mirror as we would treat Jesus. God wants us to have love and compassion for ourselves. God asks us to see the holy within us. God asks us to see Jesus in the eyes of all we meet—all our brothers and sisters, too. When we see Jesus there, we don’t see a rival to compete with. We see a brother who we love and who loves us. We see someone we want to empower rather than to take advantage of. We aren’t to judge that person, but to have a relationship with them.
When we see Jesus in that mirror, we see ourselves like God sees us. We get credit for Jesus’ perfection. God sees the family resemblance. And when we see Jesus reflected back in our neighbor’s eye, in our enemy’s eye, our hearts soften in love.
Jesus takes our place in that mirror and instead of our failures that we would normally see when we look at ourselves, we see what can happen when God works through our hands and feet to help others. Instead of judgment of our shortcomings, we find forgiveness from God and from ourselves. Instead of hatred for ourselves or others, we see our divisions going away. Instead of despair at our inability to do anything about our shortcomings, we get a picture of what could be. Instead of being stuck and hopeless, we get imagination to build a more just and loving future. Instead of seeing rules and traditions to cling to, we see the life and hope the rules point to. When we look in that mirror and truly self-reflect, we find hope, not just for ourselves, but for others. When we become doers of the word, we share that hope with others.