Old Testament Lesson: Isaiah 29:13-14
New Testament Lesson: James 1:17-27
Gospel Lesson: Mark 7:1-28
This is a letter Ben Haden received in 2006.
He shared it with me and I used parts of it in a sermon illustration on September 2, 2006.
The woman writes:
‘My husband of 25 years is abusive to me.
He was abusive to our children. They are all grown and gone from home now so it is just the two of us.
His abuse has never been physical, and not really psychological. I am sure he would never see himself as abusive. In fact, he would be appalled at such a suggestion and would have his feelings hurt.
His abuse is religious.
He is a very religious person. Having endured 25 years of it I am finally able to articulate how he has hurt me and the children.
He is religious. But he has no compassion.
He has no recognition that his exercise of religion is harsh and cold – almost mechanical, because he is so good at it.
He would never miss church – never neglect to say the blessing at meals.
But I have never known him to have been truly touched by a moment of new recognition of a spiritual truth. It’s as if he already knows all he wants or needs to know about God and the Christian Faith. He is an expert in his mind about this and has drawn a veil around his heart.
He can quote the Bible fluently but he seems to use it as a weapon.
He sees Church as necessary but I do not think he sees it as sanctuary.
He is so structured – it’s like Jesus has never influenced a single one of his strongly-held opinions.
He is religious. But he has drained the Spirit from my life – and caused our kids to flee the church as soon as they were able.
He, of course faults them.
Oh Ben, as I see my life over the next 25 years, I am so sad at what he will miss, and for what I will have to endure.’
I had wanted to preach today’s sermon two weeks ago as it would have coincided with the 104th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, which happened on April 10, 1012. However, the lectionary grabbed my spirit and held me to the sermon about Paul’s appropriate surrender to Jesus and his impact upon the emerging Church.
The Titanic was the largest ship afloat in 1912.
It departed Southampton England on its maiden voyage. Destination New York City. It was the flagship vessel of the White Star Line.
A legend even before she set-sail, her passengers included a mixture of the world’s wealthiest, basking in the elegance and bon homie of first class accommodations – and of some of the world’s poorest; immigrants packed hip-to-thigh in steerage.
In a departure from rendered drawings, the lifeboat count was reduced from the naval architect’s recommendation of 65, to only 20.
This for 2200 passengers.
Of what need are lifeboats? The Titanic is unsinkable. The 20 lifeboats which were approved were grudgingly accepted under the premise that their only use would be to pick up survivors of other shipwrecks.
Meanwhile meticulous and precise attention was paid to every detail of the ship’s décor and accouterments.
It was indeed a floating palace.
On April 14, at 11:40pm, the Titanic struck an iceberg and quickly sank in 28 degree water. Loss of life was 1522.
You probably have read of – or seen a documentary about – this tragic event.
If you have, you will remember the chief steward.
He was consumed with the need to maintain to the end the proper atmosphere. His manic activity sought at great exertion to retain order of the ship’s décor, as it tilted to 70 degrees before sliding under the North Atlantic.
One of his last acts witnessed by a survivor was a frantic attempt (by this steward) to rearrange the deck chairs such that they remained in proper alignment as the ship sank.
Just a quick word about the Ostrich.
A huge bird which cannot fly, and assumes it is invisible when hiding its head in the sand.
Absurd to all but the Ostrich.
The lectionary this week continues in Mark.
Last week we read where Jesus fed 5000 men plus women and children, with 5 loaves and 2 fish.
He had recently left His hometown where His friends had taken offense at His teaching and demeanor.
He walked to the boat on water.
He and the disciples journeyed to Genesaret where he healed many.
As always, Jewish leaders followed Him – maintaining an incessant hounding and hectoring by way of constant effort to entrap Him into some act of apostasy or statement of heresy; anything they could use to undermine Him among the rif raf who hung on His every word and followed Him everywhere.
Trying to find some opening through which to accuse Him and erode His hold on the people.
You know what had happened to the Hebrew religion.
What started as a Covenant God made with Abraham and renewed with Moses – codified by the 10 Commandments – The Law – on Mount Sinai at the outset of the wilderness wanderings after God redeemed and rescued the Children of Israel from Egyptian bondage – these 10 great Laws of life had become over the centuries 614 laws.
614 items on a list – with literally thousands of pages of scholarly opinion and pontification upon these 614 becoming Levitical Laws and religious requirements.
Even the ‘traditions of the Elders’ had become equal to God’s Law.
Some Christian denominations today put so much emphasis on their doctrinal statements or their Books of Order, as to make then Canon; equal to Holy Scripture.
As was true of the super orthodox Jews of Jesus’ day, present day denominations which do this will vociferously deny it – all the while cementing the practice into rules and regulations; codicils and conjecture.
Indeed, religious underpinnings had become so cumbersome and convoluted, Jews of Jesus day were realistically without hope of complete obedience. Such religious frustration led to a coalescing of Jews around an effort at ‘super orthodoxy’ wherein believers lives were mired in a works-righteousness labyrinth with harsher and harsher adherents voicing ever-more shrill calls for fidelity to what no one could achieve. These were the Scribes and Pharisees, and they held theocratic authority over the ordinary Jew.
Or, (this frustration) led at the other extreme to an almost arrogant ignoring of Hebrew traditions. These were the rif-raf; cultural Jews for whom their religion was little more than a nationality.
Jesus alluded to the former when He spoke about the religious leaders laying on ‘heavy burdens, hard to bear’ –and contrasted His teaching as ‘My yolk is easy and my burden is light’.
Of the latter, he called them ‘sheep without a shepherd’.
Into this cauldron and quagmire, we pick up today’s Gospel lesson.
Our Gospel text today opens during the second year of Jesus’ ministry and every move He made was now shadowed by large crowds and always there were these Jewish leaders seeking to entrap Him.
They were appalled – indignant – that Jesus’ disciples were lax in their observance of the ‘Traditions of the Elders’.
“Why do Your disciples not live according to the Tradition of the Elders?”
Jesus quotes Isaiah:
“You honor Me with your lips but your heart is far from Me. In vain do you worship Me, teaching for doctrine the commandments of men.”
‘You abandon God’s commandment and (instead) hold to human tradition.’
Is it not an interesting human characteristic: when we are unsure or uncomfortable or afraid, we tend to lock onto manageable tasks – even if (they are) trivial or absurd.
We rearrange the deck chairs.
In areas of authority, human tendency is to prove our opinions valid by other people’s adherence.
Look how many people apparently agree with me – with my interpretation – with my method of implementation. I must be right.
We read opinion polls as much for validation of our own positions as for enlightenment on societal or cultural dynamics.
Tradition often becomes the surrogate for true religion.
James teaches us true religion is to care for widows and orphans, and to keep ourselves unstained by the world.
We are to do Jesus’ work among those who will never be able to repay – and who may never even acknowledge.
Jesus and His disciples healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, fed crowds, spoke gracious words of love, forgiveness, and rebirth.
And, He offered this to whosoever would ‘hear’; whosoever would ‘see’; whosoever would come to Him with a willing heart, an open mind, a seeking Spirit.
This frightened those for whom religion was all tradition, all ecclesiastical effort, and to no real benefit to the world.
You may have read a human-interest story a few years ago about 2 churches in Jacksonville which were proximate to each other.
One held traditional Wednesday evening prayer and Bible-study meetings. The other had a hot-dog stand open in their parking lot every Wednesday evening. Anyone who was hungry was welcomed.
The reporter interviewed leaders from both congregations.
From the traditional Wednesday evening service, the elder spoke eloquently of how enriching it was to be able to sit among friends and study and quote Scripture.
The elder from the other church told of seeing Scripture in action as people who likely would have never darkened the door of the sanctuary were engaged over a hot dog supper in the parking lot, in gentle conversations about Jesus.
What does all this tell us today?
As we remind ourselves here often, Jesus clarified the 614 Hebrew Laws and Tradition into 2, upon which ‘hang ALL the Law and the prophets’.
He said: ‘Love God with all you heart, your mind, your soul, and your strength; and love your neighbor as yourself’.
The MPC paraphrase of this – which is our only ‘list’ of requirements is:
Love Jesus. Live like you mean it.
Jesus also said “seek first the Kingdom of God”
“God so loved the world.”
“Come unto Me all who labor and Are heavy laden and I will give you rest.”
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
How is it that Western Christianity has become preoccupied with arranging deck chairs, and pays scant heed to a culture literally sinking for want of Grace?
How is it we have elevated certain doctrinal positions to preeminence, as if anything could match Grace in importance?
How is it the Church congratulates itself for doctrinal and traditional purity while millions flee our doors and membership rolls?
How is it we feel better about quoting Scripture to each other than fixing hot dogs every week for the rif raf?
How is it the Church hides its heads from the iceberg of secular culture which has gashed its effectiveness as it offers temporal answers to eternal questions; and as millions flee Church membership?
Given that we have been entrusted with the greatest news in all creation – the Gospel – how is it this wonderful news sounds so harsh and cold and uninviting in so many sanctuaries?
How is it we do not see all this?
How is it we are content with generalities about Grace, yet adamant about the specifics of Tradition?
The answer to all these ‘how is it’ questions is (that) in many churches, Jesus is the nominal center, but strict adherence to Traditions de jour is the real price of admission.
I do not think MPC is victimized by this, and we are not because here:
-It’s about Jesus. He told us how to please God. We are to seek Him and we are to love Him. In seeking, we remain centered on what is important, and we avoid substituting tradition for true worship. As we experience and reflect upon God’s love, we gain a ‘Jesus perspective’ on how we should pursue our faith, our religion.
-It’s about Grace. It is not about being conservative or liberal, reformed or evangelical; it is not even about being good. It’s about being forgiven.
Jesus cares more about WHO are than WHAT we do, because He knows that if the WHO is ‘ we are His’, the WHAT will grow more and more into His likeness.
One more ‘how is it’ question.
(You can guess what it is.)
How is it with you?
Tradition in faith is fine. But it is not Grace.
It is a side dish, not the main course.
Grace is of ultimate value and here, it is our only agenda.
Have you been abused by religion?
Have you abused people by your practice of your faith?
The invitation is open today. If you have been abused, come to the Table of the Lord and be met with His healing Grace.
If you are one who may have abused others in your religion, come to the same table and be met with His redeeming Grace.
Let us not be wandering generalities about our faith. We are a people redeemed by the Grace of Christ, and called to do His work in the world.
And, let us not spend our energy and opportunity in arranging deck chairs as the institutional church sinks into irrelevance.
Let us not hide our heads in the sand of self-righteousness while people are in need of a hot dog supper.
Let us instead be people of the Kingdom; people of Grace; people of compassion, with tradition as our side dish and with the Gospel as our main dish.