A Lutheran Says What?

Sermons and random thoughts on God, the world and the intersection of the two

Too Much of a Good Thing? Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23 Pentecost 14B August 30, 2015 August 31, 2015

Many of you know that I was a teacher before I went to seminary. I loved (still do!) teaching the younger children-mostly preschool up to third grade. One issue with younger children is that they are literal little people. You tell them a rule and they apply it to everything. If you tell them on a field trip that they need to hold hands with their “buddy” they will think that they need to do that every single second of the field trip-including snack time and going to the bathroom. There is no such thing as nuance with young children and it can get in the way of learning. For example, we didn’t let the children play with rocks on the playground for reasons you can deduce. If a little boy picks up a rock, it will get thrown, it’s just how little boys are. So we had a pretty strict no picking up rocks or the ground bark rule.
But one fall day we were going to make a nature collage in art and do some nature science projects. So we took the preschoolers on a nature walk around the church, gave them each a paper lunch sack and told them to pick up objects from nature that they would like to use in their art project or just explore. We got back to the classroom and one little boy had nothing in his sack. We asked him why and he said, “because you always tell us not to pick up rocks or bark and that was the only thing I wanted!” This particular little boy had a penchant for throwing things, so he did hear the words “put the rock down please” a lot. Perhaps that rule for him was too much of a good thing as it impeded in his ability to understand the different context of the nature walk. Rules gone astray.
Rules most definitely have their time and place but often they can also become barriers to common sense. Rules are necessary to shape us, to keep us in check, from hurting other people, and to hold us to some standard of behavior. While rules affect us individually, they are in reality, more about how we live together, how we interact with each other and the well-being of the whole community. But when we adhere to certain rules in an individualistic strict sense , that can also harm others. Whether we like it or not, we tend to never out grow the right/wrong paradigm of rules and don’t quite ever grasp the concept of nuance.
The Pharisees are struggling with context and the nuance of the religious purity rules or laws in Mark 7. Some of Jesus’ disciples were eating without washing their hands. Now that is considered just gross in our culture, but the Pharisees were taking a purity law regarding how the priests in the temple had to wash their hands before handling ritual food and applying it to everyone who considered themselves Jewish. No nuance, only that there is a rule about washing and everyone should therefore do it or be unclean and thus far from God. The Pharisees were completely befuddled as to why Jesus, who claimed to be teaching about God, had followers not adhering to what they considered basic rules for relationship with God.
Jesus calls them out-actually calling them hypocrites. Is it hand washing that’s really all that important when it comes to being close to God and showing God to other people? Does demanding that other people follow some arbitrary rules reveal God’s love to them? Or is it something else?
As human beings who love rules, we often use rules to draw boundaries between ourselves and other people. Some of these rules still perpetuate systems of racism, gender and LBGT bias and denigration of anyone who is not culturally normative. Who falls inside the rules (some of which can be unspoken) and who doesn’t can be a dividing line between who is welcome in our community and who is not. While we like to think that we offer rules for the sake of being healthy community together, I sometimes wonder if our rules are too much of a good thing. Real people get hurt with these kinds of rules or traditions. It’s not just culture that has rules that can be harmful. In the ELCA, we have rules regarding when and who receives holy communion, we have rules regarding membership, we have rules regarding budget, etc. It can seem that we have a rule for everything and for everything a rule. Jesus asks the Pharisees and us, what then becomes our guiding principle? Our rules or God? Do we focus on ourselves and what we think keeps us close to God or do we recognize the diverse needs of our neighbor? What’s in our hearts? Are we more concerned with being safe and comfortable than proclaiming the Gospel?
The list of evil intentions that Jesus offers at the end of the reading, is not exhaustive, unfortunately, but is a lens through which to understand the purpose of rules or the law. The list all are ways that we use creation and other people for our own building up and gratification and not the building up and health of other people and the community. Laws and traditions that don’t build up your neighbor and show them God’s love but exclude them and denigrate them are not part of God’s law. The problem is that we can take a perfectly fine law and turn it into a source of pride or piety for ourselves. I talked with a woman this week who told me as a younger woman how hurtful it was that she was excluded from Holy Communion at a Catholic Church because she wasn’t baptized Catholic, actually she wasn’t baptized at all. The law of only certain people participating in the body and blood of Christ did not reveal God’s love to this woman, but only showed the pride and exclusiveness of the law. To be clear, this could have just as easily been a Lutheran or any mainline church. Jesus is clear that God’s boundaries are wider than we can ever imagine and God’s law is that of pure love and inclusivity.
Many of our rules, laws or traditions go unexamined. They become simply what we do without question or deeper thought into why or what the consequences of our traditions might be-such as communion, confirmation, worship, or even how I preach. A quote I love from theologian Jaroslav Pelikan is “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.” Traditions are not bad in and of themselves and Jesus is not suggesting that we live willy-nilly with no compass or grounding principles. Jesus is holding a mirror to why we do what we do and does it reveal and point to the work and love of God in the world for the whole world.
How do we reveal God’s love here at LOTH? How do we examine what we’re doing or what we’ve always done to ensure that we are pointing to God’s work and love in the world and not our own need for rules and boundaries for our own sense of order? Our mission statement is a great lens through which we can examine all of our ministries and traditions. Do you know it? By heart? It is a little long-I’ll grant you but do you know the thrust of it? “Lord of the Hills is a welcoming home rooted in Jesus Christ. We honor the past, meet the present and change for the future. Young and old, we have joined together in mission to: proclaim the Gospel, serve the needs of the community, grow in faith, experience God’s grace through worship, welcome the visitor, and celebrate our diversity.” This is truly a Christ centered mission statement. And one that doesn’t allow us to become stuck in unhelpful or excluding traditions but admits that change might be necessary.
What I also love about this statement is that it’s clear that God is the focus of our lives together. We fully believe, just as we heard in our Deuteronomy text, that we have a God who is always near to us and hears us when we call. This good news of a closer than close God, orients us toward how we do live together, how we do ensure that the gospel-the good news that God with us all always- is proclaimed in our community and in our homes. This statement reminds us that diversity and nuance is needed, too much of a good thing can be life denying, when the gospel is all about offering life and offering it abundantly. This statement focuses our hearts on other people, all of God’s people, and not ourselves and what we want or think we need. It reminds us that God crosses boundaries to come to us in Jesus Christ and so we too cross boundaries to reveal Christ to the world.
Sometimes as humans we can have too much of a good thing in the rules, traditions and laws that we impose and can deny life and freedom to people. But Jesus proclaims that we can never have too much of the good thing of God’s love for us. In God’s good thing of love and grace, there is an overwhelming abundance that flows out from Jesus for the inclusion and reorientation of our hearts to the only rule that matters: God’s love. Thanks be to God.

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