Sermons That Work

Obedience, Not Ritual, Proper 17 (B) – 2012

September 02, 2012

Ritual is essential in life. National, religious or familial, rituals offer us the comfort of repetition and familiarity as they lend beauty to occurrences that otherwise might be considered mundane. Observe a little child who asks for the same story night after night – this is her ritual – or your own delight in keeping the Christmas rituals as you remember them from childhood. Look at the warm smiles on the faces of parishioners when a familiar old gospel song is chosen on a Sunday, even in some of our more staid Episcopal congregations. Remember the Thanksgiving dinners and the disappointment of family members if mother or grandmother veers away from the traditional turkey to beef roast. All of us have rituals that we remember and cherish. Some are simple habits; others are beloved and precious because they are tied to memories of love and affection from our earliest years; a few, like the Eucharist, are holy. Those that are mere habits may easily be forgotten or ignored, but those that are indeed enveloped in memories of love or sacredness are indispensable.

Our lessons today are centered around ritual, but with strings attached.

We are so used to hearing about God’s promises to ancient Israel – promises that are repeated these days even in the political arena without understanding and oftentimes with a meanness that ignores the suffering of other people. In Deuteronomy, as in the major prophets, the promises given by God, as reported in the Bible, always carry a condition and often a warning. Simply put it is this: I will give you the land, or a child, or a kingdom, if you are obedient to my commandments. As our reading today says, “So now, Israel, give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe so that you may enter and occupy the land.” The promise is conditioned upon the action of obedience. Today’s lesson makes it clear: Pay attention to my teachings so that you may be given the land. And the opposite is true: If you don’t pay attention to my teachings, if you are not obedient, I will not give you the land. This last part is conveniently forgotten. God’s love is unconditional, but God’s promises are not.

As the years pass and the new church in the first century is learning the words and actions of Jesus, habits and rituals are being established. St. Paul introduces or interprets many of them. Later on, the church will make ritual so paramount that even salvation will be bought through supposed good words and indulgences while the poor people starve. The Protestant churches, attempting to correct this, focused on passages that glorify faith, or what came to be called justification by faith, and found ways to misinterpret Paul so that slavery was justified, the denigration of women and children into a lower status was perpetuated, and many wrongs and injustices toward the poor were ignored and, sadly, continue to this day.

Instead of religious rituals, rituals of injustice were established in the church and in the marketplace to the detriment of us all. And that lone voice of the epistle writer James was totally ignored: “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” The word we translate as “doers” has depths in the Greek that remain untapped. The verb “to do” in this verse is the same as “to create”; and to take it a little further, it is the same word used in creating a poem, being a poet. So to do the word after hearing it has profound implications: the idea of being co-creators with God as we obey and then as we do the word.

Jesus, in this passage from Mark, puts ritual in its place. As he always did, he looked beyond the obvious, beyond the religious habit, to zero in on what lies in the heart. He quotes Isaiah to them. They really should know better. Isaiah has been with them for centuries.

“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 tradition.”

On this occasion Jesus is asking the people to think of what is more important – the ritual of washing or the feeding of those who are hungry. Is compassion more important than ritual? What matters to us? The arguments we have among us as we interpret certain passages in scripture or the love that should undergird us as we discuss our differences? What matters to us in this crazy season of politics? The earning of votes or having integrity? What matters to us? Doing the will of the Father or holding on to traditions?

At the time of Jesus, the religious people were arguing about the cleanliness of their hands and of the food they bought in the marketplace and were criticizing the disciples for not doing the same. What they ate and when they ate it was of paramount importance to the religious people of the day. At a time when there were no chemical interventions, Jesus declares all food as clean and then tells them that what goes inside the mouth, inside the body from the outside is not what harms their souls. It is what emerges from the heart to find utterance in the mouth that truly harms them.

The world has changed drastically since then. But we have changed very little. The difference is that now we have too much to eat and worry about the pounds that are added instead of the unkindness that emerges from the mouth. In church, we too hide behind ritual and find it all too easy to ignore that which is difficult to obey. Our rituals in the Episcopal Church are so beautiful, so full of meaning. Our Book of Common Prayer is filled with exquisite prayers. And then we leave church and go back to our mundane lives. How can we become doers of the word as we hold on to the words we heard or uttered? Jesus surrounded himself with the poor and the disreputable perhaps because he saw in their hearts a true longing to love God and obey God’s commandments. He reserved his most acerbic comments for those who were respectable, who performed the religious rituals, but who had no compassion left in their hearts for everyone who was different from themselves. He said to them, in pain, “You abandoned the commandments of God to hold on to human traditions.”

Let this never be said of us.

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Christopher Sikkema


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