Rev. Danielle K Bartz August 29, 2021
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 “Rituals and Traditions”
Before I begin, I want to make it clear: this scripture is NOT teaching us that we don’t need to wash our hands before we eat. Please wash your hands before you eat, in fact – wash your hands often. I feel like, in the midst of a pandemic, it is important that I make it clear that the point of this scripture is not actually about hand washing at all. Hand washing is ALWAYS a good idea. Okay – that taken care of – let’s explore this scripture a bit.
I want you to think back to those first few months of the pandemic. During the stay-at-home order, we all stayed home – including Sandy and I. I led worship from my basement. Many of your joined me over Facebook. Some of you watched the pre-recorded service on the church website. And some of you read the liturgy and sermon that were mailed to you. During that time, what was the one tradition or ritual of worship that you found yourself missing the most? For me, I found myself missing the chimes that we open and close worship with. Though I am not sure I realized it right away, but I do know, when Sandy and I eventually came back into the sanctuary to livestream worship from here, and she was able to play the chimes again to open and close the service, I realized how much had I had missed them. In fact, when we were worshipping outside, or when the organ wasn’t working well, and Sandy had to use the piano to create a chime effect – it didn’t feel quite right to me. The chimes, a tradition of this congregation, have become crucial for me to settle into worship. What is a tradition or ritual of our congregation that helps you to settle into worship? What did you miss, or do you continue to miss, as our worshipping life has experienced upheaval?
But, an equally important question – what new ways did you experience God and worship? Did you surprise yourself when you realized prayer could happen over a computer screen? Did you notice God in more places in your life? Did you find yourself making more time for worship? In the midst of everything you missed about our communal life together, what did you also gain? What have we gained? I don’t think in January of 2020, I would have expected we would have invested in a professional camera system for the sanctuary in order to provide a more robust online ministry presence. I wouldn’t have thought that Bible study conducted over Zoom would actually turn out to be more fruitful, drawing in more people who are eager to explore the scriptures. We have missed a lot of things, and we continue to – but we have also gained so much. Our rituals and traditions provide a grounding, and are vitally important – but they are not the point of church.
Humanity has created so many beautiful things as an act of devotion to God. Glorious sanctuaries, music that stirs the soul, artwork that impacts the mind, poetry that convicts the spirit, traditions that create community, rituals that open hearts to worship, programs that create justice in the world. Humanity has created so many beautiful things as an act of devotion to God. And humanity has also created great harm in the name of God – exclusion, judgement, rules for the sake of rules, rituals as a way of separating community, violence and war. While I believe more good has come out of humanities eager devotion to God, the harm that has also been created is powerful. Our task then is to work to understand what helps us and those around us experience God in unique ways, but to not also assume one experience is better than the other. And even more importantly, not to create rules assuming one experience or tradition or ritual is better, thereby cutting off the possibility of full worship.
That is what Jesus is trying to each us in this lesson today. The pharisees had noticed that Jesus and his followers had not practiced the ritual cleansing of their hands before they ate. They pointed this out to Jesus, challenging him, saying that his followers were not practicing a true devotion to God because they did not engage in a ritual in the proper way. This was probably the greatest argument most people had about Jesus and his teaching. He emphasized God’s grace, the importance of loving neighbors, and an open Spirit to listen for God’s voice. He taught devotion to and love for God was not dependent upon ritual and tradition. He quotes the prophet Isaiah, ‘in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
Think of it this way: there is an old story, likely not true but containing great truth that says there was once a monastery full of monks who devoted their days to quiet prayer. Once, while they were gathered in their sanctuary praying, a young kitten found its way in. The kitten would crawl over the monks, play with their robes, distracting them from prayer. Each day the kitten would return, and each day the monks found it harder and harder to practice their devotion to God. They needed to distract the kitten during prayer, so they put a bowl of milk in the corner. Each day they began prayer by putting a bowl of milk in the corner of the sanctuary, and each day the kitten, growing into a cat, would come to drink the milk while the monks prayed. For years this tradition took place. And eventually the cat died of old age. But, by then the tradition had become important. The monks found they could not pray if there wasn’t a cat drinking milk in the corner of the sanctuary. So, they got a new one, and a ritual was created. Their prayer, their devotion to God, became dependent on a human precept that became doctrine.
This is what Jesus is warning the people against. He feared that people could not truly see God through the fog of ancient rituals and traditions. He urged his followers, not to let go of what grounded them and created community, but to place those things after God. Jesus urged his followers, and reminds us today, that God’s favor does not depend on whatever humanity has created, but rather God’s favor rests with each of us simply because we are. And our devotion to God, Jesus teaches, is not reflected in the rituals, but rather in how we choose to serve those around us with as an act of devotion.
The church, history has taught, has never really learned this lesson. The letters written by Paul that make up the majority of the New Testament are filled with reminders of this lesson, admonishing the earliest communities of Jesus followers that they need to stop fighting amongst themselves about what is the right way and the wrong way to worship, but rather to live their full lives as worship, each unique, though drawn together in community by a common belief and purpose.
There is a quote from theologian Walter Bruggemann that I love. He says, “The prophetic tasks of the church are to tell the truth in a society that lives in illusion, grieve in a society that practices denial, and express hope in a society that lives in despair.” To tell the truth, to grieve publicly, and to express hope – that is the task of the church. The task of the church is not to declare one way of worship to be better than another. The task of the church is not to create barriers to experiencing God. Worship is so much more than what any one person can do. Worship is a never-ending possibility, a vast well of life-giving water to quench the thirstiest soul.
There are rituals and traditions that we love, that I love. And we sometimes get cranky when they change or go away. But worship is still worship without those traditions. The monks didn’t need a kitten in the corner to pray. I don’t need the chimes to worship. God does not require that of us. God requires that we love God, love our neighbors, and love ourselves. That is what God requires. Our traditions and rituals are beautiful and one act of devotion if they create community and an open Spirit. But if they exclude, if they become the whole point, then the devotion they have created is not for God. Worship should draw us out of ourselves, worship can break down human barriers and assumptions, worship can lead us to experiences of God that we never thought possible. That is the Good News Jesus is teaching, that is the gift God has given. Let us always strive to accept it. Amen.
God, we come into Your presence with praise and thanksgiving for Your faithful love. Your love never fails—not even we turn away from You: when we ignore Your invitation, or desert You for gods of our own making. Even then You do not abandon us, but reach out—again and again— inviting us back into relationship once more.
As You welcome us, so You welcome our prayers. We bring them to You with confidence, knowing that You will hear and answer.
We pray for the world You created, and the people who share it with us:
– for countries caught up in war or violent conflict,
– for regions of the world struggling with increased cases of COVID-19,
– for those whose homes and lives are threatened by natural disaster;
For these and all the other areas in our world where there is need and despair,
Lord, hear our prayer.
We pray for our neighbors:
– for those who are unemployed,
– for those in prison,
– for those who are hungry,
– for those who are alone and afraid,
For all our neighbors, both known and unknown to us,
Lord, hear our prayer.
We pray for this congregation—our siblings in Christ,
– for those who are ill. or whose loved ones are ill,
– for those who are anxious about the future,
– for those struggling with their faith,
– for those who minister among us,
For all Your people in this place,
Lord, hear our prayer.
Pour out Your Spirit on us!
Fix our hearts and minds on what is true and honorable and right.
Give us the joy and peace that comes from knowing and doing Your will.
Keep us faithful to the call we have received in Christ Jesus, our Lord,
extending Your loving invitation to the world around us. It is in his name we pray and together lift our voices as he taught…Our Father…