Proper 17, Year B
The Rev. Joshua Rodriguez-Hobbs
Why are you here this morning? I really mean that. Why are you here this morning? Coming to church is not a default assumption in our culture today. Most Americans won’t be in church this morning. So why are you here? While we’re at it, why an Episcopal church? Why Good Shepherd?
I’m here because of The Book of Common Prayer. The first time I walked into an Episcopal church, I fell in love with its stately, measured language. I like the order and predictability it provides. I like knowing that I can walk into any parish, anywhere in the country, and know basically what I will be doing and saying before the service even begins. I like the fact that, no matter how I feel, the Prayer Book is always there, and so worship doesn’t depend on a certain emotional state. I’ll bet that at least some of you feel similarly. This book of ours is comforting. Our patterns of worship are familiar. We Episcopalians are a people of tradition.
Did today’s Gospel reading make you nervous? Jesus doesn’t sound like he’d approve of the BCP, does he?
Now, I don’t know if you noticed this, but there are two fairly large gaps in our Gospel reading this morning. Whenever you notice that any of our readings has a gap in it, you should wonder why. Honestly, it’s hard to explain why the people who put the Lectionary together cut out some of these portions. Sometimes, they’re really boring and technical bits: the lists of who begat whom or the precise dimensions of Solomon’s temple. Sometimes, they’re the juicy bits, the parts that if they were in a movie today would get an R-rating or are otherwise “inappropriate” for church. I’m pretty sure that’s why our reading skips verses 17-20. Jesus has a discussion with his disciples about bathroom activities there, and really, who wants to hear about that in church? And sometimes, the parts that get skipped are really important, and it makes no sense that we skip them, like Mark 7:9-13. In these verses, Jesus actually discusses what laws the Pharisees actually disregard. He’s not actually mad about hand washing. (Sorry kids, this isn’t the proof-text you hoped you were getting.)
These skipped verses say:
Then he said to them, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, “Honor your father and your mother”; and, “Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.” But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, “Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban” (that is, an offering to God)— then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.’ (Mark 7:9-13)Now, perhaps the reason why we were supposed to skip these verses this morning is because we’re not actually sure what Jesus and the Pharisees are arguing about. We never hear about this practice of Corban anywhere else. It’s unclear why someone would want to take money that was going to go to their parents and turn around and give it to the Temple as an offering. It doesn’t seem like you’re getting anything out of it. It doesn’t help you keep your money. The only possible motivation I can think of is spite. But the point seems to be that the Pharisees have found a way to game the system. And by upholding this tradition, they’ve managed to nullify the fifth commandment: “Honor your father and mother.”
This would be the point where it would be really easy to make this a sermon about how awful the Pharisees were. But that isn’t good news. The truth is, the Pharisees were fairly well-liked and respected in Jesus’ day. They were a populist movement, whose emphasis was finding ways for the average person to practice holiness in their daily life. That’s the desire that stands behind all their traditions and washings and gifts to God. All of these traditions were supposed to draw people into the love of God, and, through doing that, also draw them into the love of their neighbor. The truth is, when you take away “I am the Son of God parts” from the Gospels, what’s left of Jesus’ teachings sound a lot like what we know of the Pharisees’ teachings. Besides all that, this is the one morning where we Episcopalians should feel sympathetic to the Pharisees, because we also like tradition. Sometimes we value it too much. Like this: How many Episcopalians does it take to change a light bulb? Ten. One to change the light bulb and nine to form a Society for the Preservation of the 1928 Light Bulb. That’s a little too close to home, isn’t it? But it’s true. How many of you still refer to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer as “the new prayer book?”
At their best, our traditions are vehicles that help us live into the commandment of God. And what is that commandment? What Jesus says to his disciples: Love one another as I have loved you. But we can misuse traditions, can’t we? We can get focused on the means, rather than the end. That’s, I think, why Jesus is arguing with the Pharisees. It isn’t about hand washing. It’s about that all-too-human desire to look for loopholes and ways to game the system. Love is hard. Love makes us vulnerable. It would be so much easier if there was a shortcut, wouldn’t it?
If at this point, I have been thoroughly depressing, and you’re wondering if I’m about to suggest that we get rid of the BCP and form up a praise band, here’s the good news. God doesn’t care about our traditions. We’re each called as individuals and as a community to guard against making our traditions into idols. But when that happens, when we give into this temptation, we can always update or replace them. And that’s okay. What matters, what Jesus cares about, is whether we are growing day by day in the love of God and love of neighbor. And, thank God, we don’t have to do that alone. We were never asked to do that. We were asked to do it, with God’s help. And thank God, God does help, even when we’re too busy focusing on tradition.