Tripping on the Details

"Jesus among the doctors of the church," Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Giotto.

“Jesus among the doctors of the church,” Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Giotto.

A sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 30, 2015. The lectionary readings are Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9, Psalm 15, James 1:17-27, and Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

There’s a great cooking story about a couple who have just gotten together and one person notices his spouse carefully cutting both ends of a ham before putting in the roaster and placing the ham in the oven. “Why do you cut the ends off?” asks the husband. “Because that’s the way mom always did it,” replies the other. At the next holiday, there’s a family gathering and the mom is in the kitchen. They notice she cuts both ends off the ham, puts it in the pan, and the pan in the oven. “Mom,” they ask, “Why did we always cut the ends off the ham before cooking it?” The mother looks at them and explains, because that’s the way you grandmother did it. Why don’t you ask her? She’s on the back porch. And so out the couple go, and they ask grandma about cutting both ends of the ham. Grandma bursts out laughing, and says, “Forty years ago, I did cut off both ends of the ham. I only had one roasting pan, and it was never big enough. That’s the only reason I did it and stopped doing that years ago!”

Sometimes practices, rules, and regulations begin for very good reasons. But then sometimes, they’ve lost all connection to reality. And sometimes, those rules become the most important thing. Sometimes the rules might be in the kitchen. Sometimes around work, and sometimes around church and the way we worship.

In today’s Gospel Jesus speaks to any who would be tempted to place a higher value on rule-following than community.

Jesus is dealing with the dedicated religious of his day, the Pharisees and the scribes. The scribes preserve the Law of God. Form is their business, and had it not been for the scribes, much of the tradition would have been lost. The scribes are the memory, the archives, and the tradition of the Jewish faith.

The Pharisees were the seriously religious of Jesus’ day. Though they are harshly criticized for often failing to see what God was doing in their midst, they were nonetheless the people who cared, the people who were most concerned with God, the people who most tried to follow God.

The Pharisees and scribes see Jesus and his followers and they don’t approve. From their point of view, those who follow Jesus are taking religious shortcuts. They don’t seem to value the tradition, or even to be acquainted with the tradition in some cases. And the particular point in today’s Gospel revolves around these religious people noticing that Jesus’ followers don’t wash their hands properly before eating.

Mark, the Gospel-writer, gives us a little more background of these folks. He says “The Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.”

But when the Pharisees ask Jesus about this, Jesus sees to the very heart of the matter. Jesus quotes Isaiah to them, suggesting that they’ve strayed from the commandments of God (which are really very simple) and they’ve gotten all clouded up with rules and traditions made by humans. And then Jesus delivers his zinger: “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come ….” and then Jesus goes on to list the whole host of evil things that might come out of us.

Are there ways in which our rules, our order, our ritual, our procedures ever create barriers between people and God? That’s the real question that Jesus puts to us. Are there things we need to be free of, in order to follow God more closely, more directly? Are there ways in which we may be called to “loosen up” spiritually, so that we might see or hear or know God, as God is trying to meet us?

It’s not what we put into our bodies that gets us into trouble: it’s not what we eat and drink, or how we say our prayers, or whether we kneel or stand. It’s what comes out. Our words—our words to strangers, our words to family, our words to other people of faith. Our actions matter, as the epistle from James made clear earlier: “…[B]e doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves…. 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.”

But it’s easy to get caught up in the outward form of religion and forget the substance.

Some years ago, after I was first ordained, I was set to celebrate the Holy Eucharist at a weekday service at my church. Ten or fifteen people, at most, would usually be at that service. But I also knew that the Rev. Dr. Louis Weil, probably the preeminent liturgical (or worship) scholar in the Episcopal Church, was visiting. When I came out to begin the service, there he was: second row on the right. I was self-conscious about everything. I worried about how I stood, was my voice right? My pacing? Was my orans (the use of my arms in prayer) too narrow like a field goal post, or too wide like a group hug? On and on, I went, worrying about the details. It’s a testimony to a loving God that I was able to get through the service and the bottom line was reached: everyone fed, and no one got hurt.

After the service, I greeted the handful of people and then I went over to Father Weil. I asked him if he noticed anything about my celebration that stood out or was wrong. Did I forget anything? Was I too fast or too slow, too deadpan or too dramatic? Did I do anything annoying or distracting? Father Weil looked at me with the most incredulous expression. “Oh John,” he said, “I have no idea. I wasn’t paying any attention. I was here to worship.”

Whether he was telling me the absolute truth or not (and he probably was), I got the point.  When our faith only follows forms and rules and conventions, we’re like those cutout figures—less than our reality, less than our potential, shadows of the people God has created us to be.

I have a colleague who simply cannot worship in a church that is not his own, usually with him at the altar. I used to sit with him at diocesan events or at some special occasion at another church. As he fidgeted and muttered under his breath, wrote notes to himself, and shook his head, I used to get angry—frustrated at trying to fix the uneasy situation. But these days I simply avoid sitting near him. It doesn’t make me angry, but it does make me sad. He’s missing so much. Of course people do silly things in worship, but that’s not the point, is it? So often when we read about Jesus criticizing others, we can read it as anger. Sometimes it is, but more often than not, I think we’re reading Jesus’s sadness. He’s sad that we don’t get is so often. He’s sad that we limit God’s love and grace. Christ is sad whenever we miss the opportunity to receive all the good and love God would give us.

It’s easy to get caught up in all the details—for the Pharisees it might have been the washing of hands in just the right way, at just the right time. For us, who knows what it is. I know that newcomers are sometimes frustrated when they see people kneeling and crossing themselves and bowing at the name of Jesus, and they aren’t sure what the code is, or how they gain access to this seemingly secret language of gesture. And while most of us have some reason for what we do—we were taught it, we’ve developed it as a helpful reminder of an embodied faith, we’ve read about it—all sorts of reasons—- I hope newcomers and old-timers alike will know in their hearts that such things are the least important.

It is from within that bad things can come. And it is from within that all the mercy, grace, forgiveness, insight, wisdom, and love of God-working-through-us can come.

There’s an ancient prayer from Salisbury, England that has been used for centuries to ask for God’s help, for God to integrate us in the fullness of his image:

May God be in our head, and in our understanding.
God be in our eyes, and in our looking.
God be in our mouth, and in our speaking.
God be in our heart, and in our thinking.
God be at our end, and at our departing.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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