Sermon for Proper 17, Year B September 2, 2018

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9                Psalm 15                  James 1:17-27                         Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Our Old Testament and Gospel readings today are about the Laws of Moses, the laws established by God, given to the people by Moses, and tradition.  To follow the laws and tradition of their ancestors is, it is believed, to remain faithful to God’s Covenant with Israel, the chosen people of God.

The entire book of Deuteronomy is considered the final words of Moses, told to the people of Israel just before they cross over into the promised land.  In it, he issues this warning, “take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your children’s children.”  It is much like the the warnings or advise parents might give to their children as they leave for college the first time.

You are going to be on your own, and I won’t be there will you to remind you to do things you need to do.  Have a good time, but don’t forget the reason you are there – attend your classes and STUDY.  These warning are issued because we have learned from our own mistakes and failures the importance of achieving balance in our lives.  Achieving balance is, for us, a goal which is difficult to achieve.

We often have trouble seeing beyond the moment and fail to budget our time, energy, and money and thus fall short of achieving balance.  We have either channelled our energy on doing what we enjoy doing and run out of time and energy to accomplish our long-term goals, or we became too focused on achieving our academic or professional goals and have found ourselves feeling alone and empty.

Balance is what helps us to achieve our goals and enjoy life.  Of course, it often requires to make difficult choices and sacrifices.  And sometimes, what needs to be sacrificed is our long-term goals. We have learned that is sometimes necessary to settle for a bit less than we wanted in one or more area of our lives – such as work, in order to accomplish what we want in other areas of life – such as time with our family.  Balance is not, however, as simple as moving something from one side of the scale to another.  Life is far more complicated than that.

To achieve balance in our lives is more often like trying to stand on a ball.  We must stand perfectly still and, in the center, or we will fall.  Family relationships are not the only relationships we have to balance.  There are co-workers, friends, and various other groups of people – including our church – who depend upon us for something.  When we consider all the people who are in our lives and all the people who need our help, the image of a juggler standing on that ball comes to my mind.  It is no wonder why we feel out of balance so much of the time.

Rules to live by, commandments, and tradition help us find balance.  They serve as an anchor to keep us from drifting too far off course.  They can provide structure and order for us in our hectic lives.  Therefore, Moses reminds the people that they need to “give heed to the statues and ordinance” and “keep the commandments of the Lord your God.”  He says doing so “will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!’’”

Rules, laws, commandment, and traditions are important because they do establish order and help us to achieve balance.  Bedtimes are good because they ensure we will get the rest we need.  Healthy eating and hygiene give us energy and keep us healthy.  Being rested, full of energy, and healthy helps us do what God wants – but straying from these rules is not the same as abandoning God.  In our gospel reading, the scribes and the Pharisees who observed the disciple not washing their hands before eating question Jesus for not ensuring that his followers adhere to tradition.  Jesus responses by quoting Isaiah who says:

‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;

in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’

He then says: “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

Our faith practice can become distractions and obstacles to us achieving balance.  Thus, Jesus teaches those gathered what is really important – that which is “within the human heart.”  When the focus of our heart is not on God, that is when we abandon God.  For it is from the heart that sin originates – not from the failure to follow the rituals of our faith.

In another scripture from Deuteronomy, we are told about God’s response to our sin.  “I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me (RSV 5:9).”  This belief was used to explain a great deal of the suffering experienced by people of faith.  A faithful person’s suffering may not have been God’s punishment for their own sin, but for a sin committed generations before.  People were motivated to remain faithful because they did not want their children, or their children’s children, to suffer the wrath of God.

This belief was widely held, even in New Testament times, despite the words of the prophet Jeremiah who said upon the peoples return from exile, “[You] shall no longer say: ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’  But every one shall die for his own sin; each man who eats sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge (RSV 31:29-30).” We are all accountable for our own actions, not for the “sins of our fathers,” Jeremiah teaches.  Still, like the teachings of Jesus, many were unable to accept such a radical departure from what they had grown up believing.

There is verse from Mark omitted in today’s reading that I think makes clear why Jesus says what he does.  Verse 9 says, “Then Jesus said to them, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!’”  Perhaps It isn’t so much that the scribes and the Pharisees are rejecting the commandments, as that they are choosing the commandments that suit their purposes.  Like those who favor the old understanding of being held accountable for our father’s sins in addition to our own, they are placing more importance on the ritual act of cleansing – and other traditions, than the needs of the people.  This is a perversion of God’s will for us.

Thus, Jesus is teaching us to focus more on what is our hearts than tradition.  All the sins he lists come from within us, from the heart, when we lose our focus on doing God’s will.  Tradition may be important, but only in so much as it motivates us to live in relationship with God.  This is why I quote the old adage, “All may, some should, none must” when I talk to people about our faith practices.

I use the examples of making the sign of the cross, bowing to the altar or bowing when the cross passes in the procession.  All may do these things, as act a form of physical prayer, some should, because they help them focus their attention on God, but none must, because if it doesn’t help – why do it?

Considering the scribes and the Pharisees in today’s passage, I might even go one step further and say that some should not.  Some people become obsessed with doing ritual the correct way, bowing and making the sign of the cross at the precise right times.  For  them, these rituals may actually distract them from what they came to do – worship.

Rituals can become an obsession, as they did for many of the scribes and the Pharisees, or as I noted earlier, they can be used as a tool for helping us achieve balance in our lives.  This elusive balance is achieved when we allow Christ to be at the center of our hearts, helping to set our priorities and respond to people and their needs as we are able, and resist the temptation to make ourselves the center of our lives – performing the rituals of our faith and living under the illusion that that is what makes us faithful.

Let us pray.

Loving and gracious God, fill us with your Spirit that we might willing place you at the center of our lives and experience the peace you offer us.  We offer our prayers in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.