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.

 

OS 2.0 God’s Operating System Mark 1: 21-28 February 1, 2015

I always am amused when the newest iPhone or iPad or gadget de jour is released; everyone waits in line for hours or days, with excitement that rivals that of Christmas or their birthday, and the confidence that THIS newest version of technology will be awesome, exactly what they want it to be and will change their lives for the better. And then it’s released and people have a day or two learning their new gadget and then the complaints start rolling in. “Why doesn’t my iTunes sync like before? Where is the weather app? Oh I really don’t like the new keyboard layout. I have no idea how to actually answer a phone call. The map app drove me into a lake!” While many features of the new technology are wonderful, what people inevitably focus on is the newness of the operating system that causes them to have to do something different from before. Some will complain, but learn from someone else (like a grandchild) and adapt, some will go back to their old technology and operating system and some will keep the new technology but ignore whatever it is they don’t understand about the new system.
This is the human cycle around something new in our lives. We are bombarded with “new” at an ever increasing rate in our 21st century world. Something “new” is discovered, revealed, and integrated nearly daily thanks to social media, the inter-webs, television, and our global networking. It can be exhausting, even for this Gen Xer. Luckily, I have teenagers all around me who will coax (ok, harass) me into learning, growing and embracing the newness when I think I’ve reached my capacity for change.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, this cycle of how we adapt to new isn’t new. In the educational psychology realm it’s referred to as “disequilibrium” and it’s actually necessary for learning. Our brains have to be a little thrown off, if you will, in order to absorb and integrate (that’s key in education) new information or experiences. Alongside disequilibrium is the necessity of group think. If you experience disequilibrium in a vacuum all by yourself, odds are you won’t integrate as much information, reject more of it and frankly, have better odds of becoming stagnate and resistant to new information. Our brains are actually wired for community. So upsetting whole systems of people is the quickest way to integrate new ideas. Apple and Facebook are the reigning champions of this in our culture. They keep pushing new ways of thinking on us and we keep accepting it-albeit sometimes begrudgingly.
The gospel of Mark heralds what change can do to a large group of people quickly. I love the gospel of Mark. Pastor Rob asked me if it was my favorite gospel and I realized, yes, yes it is. Couple of reasons: 1) it’s the Reader’s Digest version of Jesus-16 chapters-neat and tidy. 2) Things happen quickly! Jesus gets stuff done! Hallelujah! 3) Status quo is so blatantly ignored and challenged that it makes your head spin. Yes, this is the gospel for me. And this episode from Mark 1 highlights all of these things-eight verses and the whole world changes for a group of people in a synagogue.
Jesus, fresh from baptism and gathering a few companions for the journey, decides to go to synagogue on the Sabbath. Status quo enough, right? But the second Jesus opened his mouth to talk and teach; status quo was disrupted. The system was altered. His teaching was different, new, astounding, and de-centering. It was so new that an unclean spirit in a man took notice and was immediately aware that it’s time was up. Jesus teaching was so different that people began to talk amongst themselves and wondering what to do not just with the teaching that they had heard with their ears, but the teaching that they had seen with their eyes. The people were used to coming to synagogue and hearing about God and being taught, but for the words of God’s presence to be made into actions right in front of them? No real framework for that! This was not a magic trick or an illusion of a demon being exorcised-Jesus’ commanding word made healing, freeing and life-giving stuff-happen. What is this, they kept asking each other? What do we do with this new information? Who is this? Is Jesus the Holy One of God as the unclean spirit said? Can you hear the den of conversation in that synagogue on a Saturday as they grappled with this new operating system? The man who was freed from the demon was changed forever, right there in everyone’s presence. Abundant life was offered him freely, the man didn’t participate or promise to do anything to be freed from his demon. Jesus simply did it, revealing that something new in the earthly system was happening and everyone was confused.
Jesus’ very presence on earth, God dwelling among us, sets the whole world into disequilibrium. Jesus reveals that the world’s system of what separates us from God: the demons of fear, scarcity, consumerism, ego, self-preservation, materialism, (what are other demons you deal with?) are no longer the dominate system that we live in. God proclaims that the system of love, abundance, wholeness, community, and joy is now being revealed and available to all. But this system will change us, we will have to do things differently. God’s system is one of transformation, being made new every day, constant integration of our identity in God’s system as a beloved child of God above and before anything else. God’s system isn’t afraid of change and confronting what demons need to go, in order for this new way of being the people of God to be not just heard, but seen, lived, and experienced by all.
God’s system will and does transform us-it throw us into disequilibrium here at LCM in Lakewood, CO in 2015. Each and every day we are invited into the newness of God’s operating system through the love and mercy of Jesus Christ to be amazed at what God is up to and we wrestle as a community with the questions “what is this? Did you see what Jesus did?” We might be swept up into this system and try to ignore what we don’t understand, try to adapt and realize that we need all the voices of all the generations and demographics around the table to reveal to one another how astounding God’s new system is compared to the world’s operating system.
We might be tired and unsure if we have the capacity for much more to be new. But Jesus assures us that he is leading the way in this new operating system and has done the hard work of removing the demons of fear and death that keep us from God’s offer of abundant life. Instead of being pushed along as the world tries to, the Holy Spirit accompanies us and walks with us so that as we live our lives we are participating in God’s work of loving our neighbors, feeding those who are hungry, being with the lonely, standing with those who others ignore, and all of the ways that our very lives are a new way of operating in the world. Jesus’ new teaching promises that God’s system of love, mercy and forgiveness can be accessed, experienced, and lived into by all and will make us different. Jesus teaches us that God is transforming us and the whole of creation right here, right now and each and every day; revealing who God is and who we are as God’s people for the sake of the whole world. Thanks be to God!