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September 3, 2006 (Sunday 22 • Time after Pentecost)—“Inside vs. Outside Faith”

Interim Pastor Steve Jensen

Mark 7:1–8, 14–15, 21–23
“All of you praise me with your words,
but you never really think of me.
It is useless for you to worship me,
When you teach rules made up by humans.” Isaiah 29:13 (CEV)

(Webmaster’s Note: Here Pastor Jensen took a long pause and looked at the congregation over his reading glasses.)

How is that for a dramatic pause? Should I have added the theme music to Jaws? Did I wait long enough for some stomachs to churn in anticipation of a harangue on religious practices and traditions at Lutheran Church of Honolulu?

You are aware, I trust, that LCH is not the only church in the past two millennia that has developed rather elaborate rituals and practices, written and unwritten rules and regulations.

Perhaps today’s Gospel is an opportunity to ask ourselves about not only our practices at church, but our religious practices as individuals, as Christians, and as the people of God.

A friend is fond of saying, “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian anymore than going to a garage makes you a car.” Would that not also apply to reading The Lutheran does not make one a Lutheran?

Hopefully the outward expressions of our faith are connected to our interior relationship with the One in whom we place our faith. When there is a disconnect, however, and the outward expressions become more important than the inner relationship, they can become a problem.

I have lost count of those I have visited in mental institutions whose crisis arose from the judgment of leaders of their faith or religious judgment by significant others in their lives. The spotlight was on what they did or did not do, not who they were. Those who judged claimed to do it in the name and with the authority of God. And a soul was then lost.

Those who count themselves among the “friends of Bill W.” or are familiar with the AA community have likely heard at one time, “Religion is for those who are afraid of going to hell. Spirituality is for those who have been there.” They suggest that the trappings, the rules, the adiaphora of religion can sometimes be the primary focus and the emphasis on one’s relationship with God can become lost.

Jesus’ frustration with the scribes and Pharisees was because of their criticism and judgment of others over outward displays of religion and of their own desire to impress God by being so observant of the ancient traditions of purity. The original command by God in Exodus 30 was for the house of Levi, the priests of the Jewish faith (Ex 30:17-21). It was a clear command with dire consequences for those who did not heed it and entered the holy place of Yahweh.

But the Pharisees took the Levitical laws for the cleanliness and purification for priests and attempted to apply them to everyone, in a sense believing in the priesthood of all believers. So how can Lutherans argue with that?

We can and should argue with that, as Jesus does, because the leaders of the faith turned the concern for ritual cleansing into an issue of purity and of what it means to be Jewish—and thus into what determines who is “in” and who is “out.”

We certainly have written regulations in the Lutheran church and most other faiths about what behaviors are required for continued active membership—attend worship, receive communion, contribute of one’s treasure. But hopefully none of those criteria for formal membership gets in the way of people being invited to join us in our faith journey as fellow seekers and believers.

Haven’t you at least visited congregations that have tacit rules and regulations, expectations rarely stated, until someone breaks them? In some churches, for example, everyone knows where everyone sits at worship. Woe be unto the visitor who does not know this unspoken rule and sits in someone’s pew! They may then have to endure glares and furrowed brows, pointing and whispers, until they can make their escape. Those same congregations then wonder why visitors rarely return.

The problem Jesus addresses is pretend actions of faith versus proper actions—proper actions being having hearts close to God and teaching the commandments of God. Jesus does not say that keeping the traditions of the elders is bad. He qualifies the practice by telling us our hearts and teaching about religious or faith traditions must be centered in God.

The Pharisees were so busy spying on others and judging them, they had no time or heart for caring for people or lifting them up. They looked only at people’s outward actions, not their inner selves. How could such judgment and scorn ever invite anyone to be interested in a relationship with God? We’re quite practiced in judging ourselves, thank you. We don’t need the judgment of others, much less a God who only judges and punishes. If that’s the God you worship, they might say, keep him!

That is not, however, the God who sent Jesus. Jesus tells us and shows us that the Father of us all is a loving, forgiving God. Hearts close to this God hear the two great commandments: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.

Judging suggests we are superior to another despite Jesus telling us he loves us equally. It seems I have heard once or twice Jesus’ admonition to take the log out of our own eyes before we attempt to take the speck out of another’s.

The retreat ministry to which I have referred often heard participants comment that this was the first group of people who had accepted them exactly as they were and did not judge them. They felt encouraged, valued, and loved. People were encouraged to look for the best in each other, to practice hospitality, to connect with each other on their spiritual journeys. People thus no longer felt condemned by God or alienated from him because the children of God reminded each other of His love for them.

So much wasted energy goes into judging! Does it not actually take more heart, more intellect, more skill to look for the child God created behind any façade? Do we not accomplish more when we expend the necessary energy and compassion to communicate to others that we are sisters and brothers in Christ?

We know in our heart of hearts, the place where we tell ourselves the truth, that judging and denigrating others often is our attempt at elevating our own self image, compensating for our own sense of inferiority. Was the need of the scribes and Pharisees to “puff themselves up” in the sight of God so great that others had to pay the price?

Unfortunately that need to feel superior was not exclusive to the religious leaders of Jesus’ day. Clergy, like everyone else, can be susceptible when we forget Who it is that calls us and what it is we are called to do.

Consider the following illustration from A Treasury of Jewish Folklore: Stories, Traditions, Legends, Humor, Wisdom and Folk Songs of the Jewish People (Edited by Nathan Ausubel Copyright, 1948, Crown Publishers, Inc., New York):

A young man once came to a great rabbi and asked him to make him a rabbi.
It was winter time then. The rabbi stood at the window looking out upon the yard while the rabbinical candidate was droning into his ears a glowing account of his piety and learning.
The young man said, “You see, Rabbi, I always go dressed in spotless white like the sages of old. I never drink any alcoholic beverages; only water ever passes my lips. Also, I live a plain and simple life. I have sharp-edged nails inside my shoes to mortify me. Even in the coldest weather, I lie naked in the snow to torment my flesh. Also daily, I receive forty lashes on my bare back to complete my perpetual penance.”
And as the young man spoke, a white horse was led into the yard and to the water trough. It drank, and then it rolled in the snow, as horses sometimes do.
“Just look!” cried the rabbi. “That animal, too, is dressed in white. It also drinks nothing but water, has nails in its shoes and rolls naked in the snow. Also, rest assured, it gets its daily ration of 40 lashes on the rump from its master. Now, I ask you, is it a saint or is it a horse?” (p. 109)

Jesus’ challenge to the Pharisees was not about which laws to obey or how strictly to interpret them. It was about doing a self-assessment about their religious and faith practices and reminding themselves that whatever we do should be to glorify God and to bring others closer to him—not be the cause of another’s distance from God.

Scripture states, “Where your heart is, there will your treasure be also.” When we are in constant communication with our Creator, the God of love, our outward actions will more likely reflect our relationship with God. When we remind ourselves that we are, as Luther puts it, “simultaneously saints and sinners,” we acknowledge the great gift of forgiveness and the One who paid the price for our new lives. As advanced as we think we are among all God’s creatures, we cannot find a cure for our sin from the source of our sin. That cure must come from outside us—from the only power that can change us.

Come to the Table of the Lord once again today, humbly acknowledging your sin, repenting of it, and accepting the grace of Christ. Be born anew today and leave this place of worship to live lives that invite others to become acquainted with the only One who can and does bring life.

Amen.


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