Preached August 30, 2015.
Jesus didn’t confront the Pharisees because he was against the traditions of his faith. His problem was with people who identified outward forms of religion with the life of faith itself. It’s easy to do that. It’s easier to keep to forms and practices than it is to look deep within ourselves. Maybe because when we look deep within ourselves, we need to be open and willing to change. That’s not for the faint of heart.
The best movie I saw this summer was Inside Out. It’s a Pixar film, and in true Pixar form, it’s imaginative and smart, appealing to adults and children alike. How many of you have seen it? It’s the only movie I’ve ever seen that is more about what’s going on inside the people in the story than their actions on the outside. The main character is an 11 year old girl named Riley. Inside Riley there are little people who live in the control center of Riley’s mind. These are her personified emotions: joy, fear, anger, disgust and sadness. There is an elaborate system for what become Riley’s core memories, what goes to her subconscious, how she deals with disappointment and hurt, and the way Riley’s emotions conflict when her world falls apart. One of the things the movie vividly demonstrates is how the most significant things that are going on in our lives are the things we can’t see. They’re what’s going on inside us.
We often make the life of faith all about what we’re doing on the outside. It’s an old, old problem for people of faith. In the Hebrew Scriptures there is an ongoing back and forth between God and God’s people. The people think God wants them to jump through hoops by proving their faithfulness through rituals and traditions. But that’s not what God wants at all. Jesus reminds them of this by quoting from Isaiah: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines. You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human traditions.”
This is the scriptural theme Jesus is addressing when he encounters the Pharisees and teachers of the law in today’s reading from Mark. The presenting issue is hand washing.
Now, these days we know that there are sound health reasons for washing your hands before you eat. It’s a good thing to do. So, I don’t want any of you kids to go home today and tell your parents Jesus says you don’t have to wash your hands before you eat. Jesus wasn’t against hand washing here. He was speaking about something bigger than that.
The basis for the tradition of handwashing originated way back in the book of Exodus when Aaron and his sons were instructed to wash their hands and feet before entering the holy tent. That tent eventually became the Temple, where the practice continued. But then the Temple was destroyed, and everything changed. Still, the rabbis didn’t want to lose the importance of hand washing, so they moved the practice to the dining room table, or the home “altar.” This was an attempt to bring the holy into everyday life. And it was a beautiful thing. But somewhere along the way, what was meant to be a life-giving practice became a way of separating the insiders from the outsiders. From what we hear Jesus saying in today’s text, it also had become an empty ritual that no longer brought people closer to God.
This always seems to be the danger in religious practice. Something is put in place for a very good reason and it’s meaningful to people. But after a while, they come to believe that there’s only one way of doing things because this is the way it’s always been done. It may be that the reason for it has long since gone by the wayside, but the tradition lives on.
A number of wedding traditions are like this. There is the tradition of the father giving the bride away. It comes from a time when the woman was considered the father’s property until he gave her to her husband, and then she became the husband’s property. But why do people want this to be a part of their wedding ceremony in 2015? Or not seeing each other before the wedding. This came from a time when marriages were arranged and there was the fear that, if the bride and groom actually saw each other before the wedding, they might not want to go through with it. Then there’s the idea of a bride covering herself under a veil. People in ancient Rome believed evil spirits would be attracted to the bride, so they covered her face with a veil to hide her from the evil spirits. Why are so many perfectly rational people of faith so attached to such things?
Of course, this isn’t only true of weddings. It’s true of lots of religious practices. What we’ve done so many times, for so long, can lose its meaning. And even worse, it can become a way of separating people. If you don’t do it our way, then you’re not one of us.
Many of us today equate our religious experience with particular outward expressions: particular types of prayers, a particular way of preaching, particular styles of music. You may revel in a Bach chorale, or a Gregorian Chant. You may connect with gospel music, or anything with a driving drum beat, or singing around a campfire with a guitar. We all have our own preferences, certain ways of practicing the faith that open us to experience worship in a meaningful way. And there are probably reasons for that. It’s good to understand why. But it’s also good to recognize that this stuff is all external. It’s part of the trappings of human tradition, and it’s not essential for faith. It’s certainly not a reason to judge the faithfulness of a person who doesn’t treasure the same practices you do.
There’s a theological word for stuff that is non-essential: adiaphora. I’m part of an ELCA Pastors group on Facebook that has been really helpful to me as a pastor, but I have to admit that sometimes it could be called, “Adventures in Adiaphora.”
I especially love it when we get into discussions about candles. “Do we extinguish the Christ candle on Transfiguration Sunday?” some newbie will innocently ask. And then she will have the benefit of ELCA pastors from all over the country pouncing on her. “It’s not a Christ candle, it’s a Paschal candle,” someone will say. “It shouldn’t be lit at all during the season of Epiphany,” another person adds. “You only light it at Easter.” Another poster writes: “A Christ candle is lit on Christmas Eve right after the reading of the Epistle.” Someone else says: “The candle should be made of beeswax, it should be located on the gospel side of the chancel.” Then someone will disagree, and there are almost as many ideas about candles as there are pastors. It will invariably devolve into the personal. Someone will ask one of the posters what liturgical book they are using, where they went to seminary and who their liturgics professor was. People who disagree belittle one another. It just goes on and on and on. Finally someone in the thread will say, “Light whatever candle you want, however you want, whenever you darn well please.” I suspect that person is speaking for Jesus.
Jesus says, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.”
In the ancient world, the heart was the location of the essence of who a person was. The heart was the source of personality, thought, emotion. Even God is given a heart in Biblical poetry. Today, the heart is still metaphorically considered the center of what makes up our human identity. We talk about the heart being the source of positive emotions like compassion and mercy. But Jesus talks here about the heart as the source of evil, as well. There’s a lot going on inside us.
We spend the bulk of our time and energy worrying about what’s going on outside us. We get all caught up in planning our next vacation, buying a new car, studying, taking music lessons, playing soccer, working morning, noon and night at our jobs, watching our favorite shows on TV, volunteering in the community, keeping busy with a bazillion things we just have to do. And all that stuff on the outside keeps us from spending time on the inside.
When we come to worship, we may expect that by going through the motions, somehow we’ve made up for the ways we’ve neglected what’s going on in hearts all during the week. But the purpose of our worship is not to serve as a substitute for examining our hearts. At its best, worship directs our attention inward.
Today’s gospel from Mark raises a number of questions that we might want to ponder. Here are a few, to get you started:
- Are there religious practices that have become so rote for you that they have lost their meaning?
- In what ways are your religious practices used to keep people who don’t value the same practices you do at a distance?
- How does the life you’re living on the outside keep you from looking at yourself on the inside? Why do you do this? Is there something you’re afraid of?
- How might you enter into worship with a greater awareness of how outward rituals and traditions can draw you into a deeper understanding of your inner life of faith?