Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
When you look into the mirror, what do you see? We wake up in the morning and stumble into the bathroom. We go to wash our hands and look up. I have to say, I am often surprised. We don’t see our own faces that often. Sometimes I wonder how that could be me. Sometimes I see someone tired. Sometimes I see someone happy. Sometimes I see someone whose been working all day. Sometimes I see my mom. She and I have a very similar haircut right now and it is a true contest who has the most gray hair. When I went to visit my brother, his youngest called me “Grandma” for the whole first day, because I look so much like my mom and he hadn’t met me before. There are worse things to be called! Sometimes when I look in the mirror, I see my dad. I see my thin upper lip, I see my bony collarbone, and I am reminded of where I came from. When I think of my parents, I think about their best characteristics that I want to emulate, and I think of their traits that I don’t want to pass on.
I expected Sterling to resemble his dad more, and he probably will once he’s all grown up, but for now, he looks more like me. He spends a lot of time with me, so he is taking on some of my mannerisms and speech patterns. He’s my little reflection of all within myself that I am proud of and not so proud of.
We are all children of God, made in God’s image. In the same way that we look at our kids and see good, God sees good. In the same way that we want to shape our kids so that they reflect their best, so God wants the best from us and for us. I have to admit that when I look in the mirror at home, I don’t expect to see traits that resemble God, but when I come to the time of confession in church, and when I am in the car reflecting on my day, I am holding up a mirror to honestly see myself for what I have learned, what I could do better, and what I am pleased about. Sometimes I am sorting out what are God’s expectations of me and what are other people’s expectations of me and what are my expectations for myself. I am figuring out what is realistic, what is valuable, what my goals are, and how to forgive myself.
Today, God is laying out God’s purpose, and that is loving, life-giving relationship. This is God’s perfect gift and generous act. Everything else God does is to support that purpose. God created and all creation for that purpose. God gives the people commandments for that purpose, not only the 10 commandments, but hundreds of commandments about how we treat the poor and the foreigner and what to eat in order to be healthy, and how to treat diseases, and on and on. All these commandments are for loving, life-giving relationship.
So when they are used as weapons to say that one person is better than another, or to shame or blame, Jesus gets very upset and names the sin, hypocrisy. He knows how easy it is to judge someone by outward appearance, to look at surface issues, like hand washing or dish washing, and judge them. Sterling had a friend spend the night the other day, and when the boys finished eating, I reminded them to put their plates in the sink. The little friend of Sterling’s said, “Wow, you sure keep your house nice!” Everyone has a different standard of cleanliness and I would not consider my house tidy by any means, however, it seems very basic to expect a child to do something as simple as take their plate to the sink. It is becoming a ritual for us, a habit, a tradition, for the life of the household. But as soon as we use that tradition to judge how someone else does it, we are not promoting loving, life-giving relationship. We are not leaving room for other ways of doing it, other life-giving traditions. Someday we will probably come to the point where one person sets the table and another cooks and another clears the table, if that’s what is life-giving for us. Or maybe we’ll hire someone to do our dishes, if that is what is life-giving. If we worship our rules or our traditions, we miss the point of loving, life-giving relationship.
Sometimes as Lutherans we worship the tradition. We get so used to one way of doing things, that we don’t leave room to discuss what is loving and life-giving. We don’t leave ourselves open to discussion. We are blind to how our automatic rituals are received by others. I love the rich tradition of the Lutheran Church. I have recited the Lord’s Prayer in my sleep. I had “Lead Me, Guide Me” in my head all week. I regularly use phrases like “Simultaneously saint and sinner.” I am a Christian and a very Lutheran one. Traditions, especially ones based in rich history, and with such deep roots in good Biblical scholarship, can be so meaningful. They can be a mirror reminding us of who we are, where we’ve come from, who our father is, and who has come before us to hand on this way of worship.
And traditions can be damaging, exclusive, and harmful. When do we know it is time to retire a tradition? How much harm can we let a tradition cause before we throw it out? How many times have our traditions and their hidden meanings driven away someone in need of loving, life-giving community? Can we trust that that person has the resources to find a worshipping community that will suit their needs better? How can we help translate our tradition so that outsiders can get a glimpse of the larger reality that our traditions are pointing to? How can we allow God to speak to us through the current context of this world, to make our faith practices relevant to the needs and language of everyday people who are seeking God’s love? I don’t have the answers, but I think Jesus is asking us to consider these questions. We’re so used to our patterns, that we don’t even notice the discomfort they cause to other people. We expect them to conform to us. But maybe God is bringing us people to teach us something new, to hold up a mirror to see are we really faithful to God? Or are we mostly faithful to our tradition because it is comforting and makes us feel good? I know it is some of both. As uncomfortable as it is to hold up that mirror, we have to keep holding it up to make sure our actions are faithful, and not just our words.
In my family, we did things because we had always done them that way. There was no discussion. There was no relationship, no room for the creativity and gifts of each person in the family. I want things to be different in the family I have with Sterling and Nick. We have rules for loving, life-giving relationship, for the safety and well-being of each member, and for interaction with the world. And we have a curious, growing, intelligent child who wants to know why and all the possibilities of other ways of interacting. So our commandments are examined as a family to see if they are life-giving, and how they could be more life-giving. We hold some boundaries absolutely for the health and safety of all. And we hold some flexibility to make room for new ideas and other ways of doing things. I have to say it would be easier to just lay down the law. However, that’s not going to develop a kid who can think for himself. Of course, I see myself in God’s image, so I think God wants us to think for ourselves and to work out the fulfillment of the law and the traditions together so they make sense for these times and these people.
God’s purpose in creation is to establish and maintain loving, life-giving relationship. As God’s children, we are invited to see in ourselves the traits and values God is working to pass on to us, slow to anger, quick to listen, slow to speak. Our actions begin to reflect our values. But there is one more pitfall, and that is pride. As soon as we are arrogant enough to think that we have the answers or can lay down the law for another person, we are back to square one, because we’ve forgotten that the point is loving, life-giving relationship.
In the pursuit of loving, life-giving relationship, God created us, gave us commandments, led us through the desert, and into new life. God gave us Jesus to be in loving, life-giving relationship with us, and show us what that looks like. Through Jesus’ gift, we have forgiveness, the chance to try again to live the values of our Father and brother, and because of eternal life, there is no end to this relationship.