Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 17B/Lectionary 22] - August 30, 2015 (Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23)

I received contact this week from a former Epiphany member who moved away not long ago and is now attending a congregation with her family in her new town. She emailed me because she is trying to begin an acolyte ministry there and she wanted to know whether we had any kind of paperwork or documentation about an acolyte’s duties: when do the candles get lit and extinguished and in what order, when do you face the altar…things like that. We already knew that our Epiphany acolytes were pretty good, but what this says to me, of course, is that now we have the chance to set the standard for acolytes everywhere! Our routines will be copied, our middle school worship leaders will be famous. Pretty soon, people may be asking for their autographs! I can see it now…

In the end, I contacted our acolyte coordinator and trainer, and she sent me a brief one-page list of duties that I passed on, but it not before I had a chance to share what I had learned once as a young acolyte, myself. I remember Clarence Dixon drilling the rules and regulations into our heads: Never extinguish the candle on the left without first putting on the candle on the right. (They are symbolic of Christ’s divinity and humanity). Always step down off the altar stair before turning around to find your seat. There were a few more guidelines, too.

This was not our altar. It is a Google image. But still...could you imagine?
My buddy Adam and I thought we were acolyte experts. On festival Sundays we would acolyte together because there were so many candles and I promise you we made it look like synchronized diving. But on the Sundays where we worshiped in the pews, we were constantly grading the others, and if we noticed a deviation from the established laws of acolyting, well, we’d make sure ol’ Clarence Dixon would put them in their place. But ol’ Clarence Dixon was the nicest guy ever.  He wasn’t going to say anything to anyone.

The reality, of course, there are no real rules to acolyting, and there is no official theology behind the order of lighting the candles. Symbolism and guidelines may vary from church to church, and I made sure I explained that to the woman this week who emailed. But my own strict adherence to the “tradition of the elders,” back in the day is an example of what puts off so many people to religion, isn’t it? The fixation with following certain ways and certain rituals—many of which feel secret and unexplained—is so alienating and unfriendly to most people.

It seems there is plenty of this kind of stuff in the headlines nowadays, and about things far more serious than wearing robes and lighting candles. We’ve had a couple of high-profile individuals and groups who champion their faith as a strict set of rules and regulations that must be followed at all costs. In some cases, it turns out that the rules and regulations haven’t even fully been followed by the people who were championing them.

I’m no expert on religious groups, but the existence of organizations like Westboro Baptist Church, Al-Qaeda, and the self-proclaimed Islamic State reveal that there is something about rigid rule-following that resonates with human beings. I wonder what kind of impression these manifestations of religious tradition give people about faith and, by extension, God, especially in our society. While those in bleak, impoverished surroundings may be comforted by the structure provided by a set of traditions and rules, those who live in more diverse, affluent societies probably aren’t. I wonder if the disproportionate voice of these groups and other people like them—and I’m sure even us at times—is the reason for the rise in society of those who now claim “no religious affiliation.”

And yet, at the same time so many are claiming “no religious affiliation,” we look around and notice will be so doggedly religious about so many other things: what kinds of things we eat or won’t, how much we work out and train our bodies, the devotion and attention we give to sports teams and other hobbies, the way we craft our high school transcript or resumé. It would seem that people are, in fact, so less “religiously affiliated” than we always have been. We’re just starting to be religious about different things.

This kind of shift in religion—or perceived shift—is what Jesus is confronted with this morning when the Pharisees start asking him about the rules and religious values of his followers. You see, they notice that his disciples aren’t extinguishing the altar candles in the right order. More specifically, they aren’t following the ritual cleanliness laws that some Jewish groups had done for so long.

According to the Pharisees’ traditions, one was supposed to wash hands in a very visible, particularly thorough way before eating. This custom had little to do with disinfecting hands from germs; it had to do with a system of living that saw everything having a particular spot in the world. There was a strict hierarchy—from things that were unclean at the bottom to things that were holy at the very top—and ritual cleanliness laws were designed to keep things in those proper places. The act of washing hands in a certain way that most likely involved cupping the hands and letting the water rush all the way up to the elbows was enough, taught the law-following Pharisees, to return the dirt and dust of the world back to their proper place so that one may eat, which was a holy event. It was all designed to give order to a chaotic existence, which isn’t such a bad thing, perhaps, but over time the Pharisees had more or less turned their relationship with God into an elaborate system of these types of cleanliness laws.

Jesus the whole time has been steadily shifting the understanding of religion to something different, something that Isaiah and other prophets before him had also tried to do. Rather than being so focused on this outward order of the world, assigning things and objects like bronze kettles and market produce to certain categories of cleanliness, Jesus is concerned about what lies within each of us. Rather than giving so much attention to what might affect us from outside, Jesus repeatedly points out how we’re influenced by our hearts and desires. 

I don’t know if the disciples were put off by the Pharisees’ religious hypocrisy, since the Pharisees often decided which cleanliness laws they wanted to follow and which ones weren’t convenient in any given moment. I don’t know if Jesus’ followers were able to fully grasp this dramatic new teaching whereby he basically gets rid of basically all the purification rituals and old food restrictions that the Pharisees loved, but they certainly are drawn to Jesus’ new understanding of what makes a person unclean because they do stop washing their hands, even when it draws criticism.

How about us? Do we hear that Jesus has invited us into this renewed relationship with God where we become aware of the things that defile us not from the world, but from within? Are we aware that Christ has called us not into a life of rituals and rule-following (although sometimes rituals and rules will be a part of it), but into a living faith where God forgives us and renews us? Do we recognize that this forgiveness and renewal comes not through the washing of hands, the labeling and ordering of the outside world, or the order and style in which we do worship or light the candles, but through the word of grace in Jesus?

The other day I was playing a geography game with one of my daughters and a question about the Blarney Stone in Ireland came up.

my aunt kissing the Blarney Stone
“What’s the Blarney Stone?” she asked, intrigued. I explained how it was a big rock in a castle in Ireland that people kiss in order to receive good luck or the gift of gab.

I told her that her mother and her great aunt, among other people, had once kissed the Blarney Stone on a trip to Ireland.

Disgusted, she declared, “Well, if I were to kiss it, I’d wipe it with a Handi-wipe first.”

While that may good advice on some level, such a response illustrates the true danger that Jesus sees in the way that the Pharisees are living out their religion. He knows the world is searching for a people who love God and God’s commandments…but one who invites others into the life with Jesus without presenting it with a Handi-wipe first. The world is longing watching to see not how many times this people washes its hands, but how it deals honestly with the sin that lies within.

For, you see, the world—that is, those who perceive themselves to be outside this people—knows there is always a temptation among all people of faith to look upon the world with some level of contempt. That contempt can still get the best of us, and we reach for the Handi-wipe. We distrust the world, we blame it for all that we see that’s wrong and corrupting. We keep it at bay…we erect walls in our hearts to keep it out…we label it and organize it into good and bad. To be honest, some wariness of the world and caution through life is helpful and good, but if we’re not careful, wariness of the world will turn into hatred of the world, and Jesus, my friends, never hates the world. Jesus never condescendingly approaches the world. Jesus loves the world. Jesus eats with the sinners for the sake of the world. Jesus touches lepers in order to heal the world.

You know, he’s actually been on this religion-shifting kick for a while, patiently demonstrating for his disciples how to love God’s commandments for real. We should take our cues from him about how to engage the world. And let us also take from Jesus cues about that fact which we forget all-too-easily in our suspicion of everything else: that the unclean parts we really need to worry about are within us.

Jesus shifts the ground on that, too, and far beyond reforming or updating any system of purification and cleanliness, he chooses to go to the cross and die for our sins and make us clean. He chooses to identify himself with the most unclean, most distant from God in order to make us clean. This cleansed life—this life wiped-clean by the blood of his cross—is what he invites us to live. This cleansed life, we might say, is probably what Clarence Dixon was driving at, if I had been listening. It’s more about making sure that the light of Christ is shining for others to see than it is about making sure we have lit the candle in the proper way.

I ran across a hymn this week that had just been written for today’s lessons by Presbyterian pastor Carolyn Gillette who serves a congregation in Delaware. Sung to the tune of a well-known hymn melody, today I offer two of its last stanzas as a prayer:

Forgive us, Lord Jesus, for caring too much
For rules and traditions and standards and such.
For while they are useful and good in their place,
In keeping them, sometimes we overlook grace.

O Lord, may appearances match what’s inside.
Take all our hypocrisy, hatred and pride.
Lord, fill us with good things from heaven above,
Till old ways and new ways are bursting with love.


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] Carolyn Gillette, 2015, used with permission

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