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15th Sunday after Pentecost                      __Mark  7:1-8,14-15,21-23            __             September 2, 2018


I want to draw your attention to the pencil drawing printed in your bulletin.
As you can see it depicts a bunch of people equipped with pencils drawing neat and tidy boxes.
It also depicts a fellow wearing a crown of thorns who we can assume is Jesus.
And what is he doing?
He is also equipped with a pencil, but rather than drawing lines and forming neat and tidy boxes, he is erasing the very lines the others are creating.
I was reminded of this simple, yet profound cartoon when I read today’s gospel and let me explain why.
The story opens with the scribes and Pharisees giving Jesus a hard time because they don’t like the disciples’ table manners.
These high muckety-mucks of religious authority are ticked off claiming that the disciples are not ritually-washing their hands prior to eating and this is an affront to the Law of Moses and the tradition of the elders.
To our modern ears, the accusation might sound ridiculous and trivial.
But in fact, the Pharisees are asking a legitimate question, a question that still has relevance for us today.
Consider the context: the first century Jews among whom Jesus ministered were often an oppressed minority living in an occupied land or exiled to other lands.
And the question they faced daily was one of how were they supposed to keep their faith pure and vibrant against the backdrop of colonization?
In the Book of Ezra, the prophet calls the faithful Jewish men to avoid intermarriage with their pagan female neighbors so as to avoid the watering down of their faith and traditions.
In the midst of profound religious and cultural diversity, how were they to maintain their identity?
Their integrity?
Their heritage?
For the Jews, this was an ongoing challenge as they were often living under the authority and threat of a larger and more powerful nation.
Living among people whose pagan practices often offered an easier and more attractive alternative to the challenges of living out the Jewish faith.
So in order to maintain their identity and their faith, they established rituals and practices, many of which had been handed down by the elders.
One such ritual was the ceremonial washing of one’s hands prior to sitting down to eat a meal.
Keep in mind, these rituals, these practices initially had very little to do with hygiene as things like E. coli or salmonella were not on their radar and would not come to their attention until some centuries later.
The washing of hands was established primarily for the purpose of distinguishing the Jewish community from the Romans, the Egyptians, the Babylonians, or whoever it was that ruled over them at that time.
In a similar vein, it was the teaching of the elders that a faithful Jew did not share table fellowship with tax collectors, prostitutes, foreigners or gentiles as well as any other morally compromised sinners.
And it was the teaching of the elders that this is but one way for faithful Jews to set themselves apart in everyday life as God’s righteous and holy people and that often included anyone who did not adhere to the letter of the Law.
On the surface this might sound like a reasonable idea.
Maintaining one’s identity is a good thing.
Maintaining one’s faith is a good thing.
Celebrating one’s heritage is a good thing.
And I say that because we are not unfamiliar with this sort of thing.
This sort of behavior is not and was not only practiced by first century Jews.
How many of you remember the days when a nice Lutheran boy knew better than to try to date a nice Catholic girl?
Or, the days when Swedes were supposed to only worship at the Swedish church and the Norwegians were only to worship with other Norwegians and the same went for the Germans, Danes and Finns.
Each had their own cultural ghettos, hanging on their languages for as long as possible and celebrating their beloved traditions:
Meatballs, and Santa Lucia for the Swedes;
Lutefisk and Syttende Mai for the Norskies,
and St. Uhro’s Day for the Finns.
Once again, these cultural practices and traditions are not bad things, more often than not they are a lot of fun and they now serve as opportunities to invite the rest of the community to join us for the festivities and fellowship.
But that was not always the case, they were meant to solidify who’s in and who’s out.
Can you see or imagine how a reasonable practices and even rules can get out of whack and do more harm than good?
In our gospel reading, Jesus confronts people who focus on obeying the rules and traditions while ignoring the relationships for which they existed.
This is sometimes true of us as well.
We have made religious rules that were intended to help us live together as people of God.
Then, over time, we forget that the rules are there to help us, not to hurt us; to bring us together, not push us apart.
What really matters are our relationships with each other as a sacred community, as the body of Christ—not strict adherence to rules, traditions and practices.
In this regard, this is where the cartoon comes into play.
The traditions and rituals established by the elders for the purpose of maintaining Jewish identity and faithfulness got side tracked and high jacked into establishing boundaries designed to determine who was in and who was out,
who was faithful and who was not,
Who was loyal and who sold out,
who was pure and who was compromised.
And Jesus will have none of it,
hence the giant eraser to erase the lines we have so neatly drawn to keep others out.
Or as someone once noted, “Every time we draw a line between us and others, Jesus is always on the other side.”
It is important to note that Jesus doesn’t condemn ritual hand washing in his response to the Pharisees.
He doesn’t argue that all religious traditions are evil.
What he indicates is the legalism, self-righteousness, and exclusivism that keeps the Pharisees from freely loving God and loving their neighbors in ways that are relevant to their time and place.
What he challenges is their unwillingness to evolve, to mature, and to change for the sake of God’s kingdom.
What he grieves is the Pharisee’ compulsive need to police the boundaries—to decide who is “in” and who is “out”, based on their own narrow definition of purity and piety.
Before we start rolling our modern eyes and look down on the Pharisees and their moral rigidity, we need to take a bit of a spiritual inventory and be honest and ask ourselves, are we really so different?
Don’t we sometimes behave as if we’re finished products, with nothing new to discover.
Have we discounted the presence of the Holy Spirit in the world to rattle our cages and stir things up?
Is it possible God is not done with us, that God has yet another wild idea for us and our congregation to take on?
Don’t we cling like deer ticks to spiritual and cultural traditions and practices that long ago ceased to be life-giving, simply because we can’t bear to change “the ways we’ve always done things?”
Don’t we set up religious litmus tests for each other, and decide who’s in and who’s out based on conditions that have nothing to do with Jesus’ open-hearted love and hospitality?
It doesn’t matter what specific forms our legalism takes.
In some churches, it comes down to deifying one worship style over another.
In still others, it means policing the political affiliations and allegiances of parishioners.
In some faith communities, the lines in the sand have to do with women clergy, or gay marriage, or racial justice, or economic equality.
The guises vary, but in the end, legalism in any guise deadens us towards God and towards our neighbors.
It freezes us in time, making us irrelevant to the generations that come after us.
It makes us stingy and small-minded, cowardly and anxious.
It strips away our joy and robs us of peace.
It causes us, in Jesus’ chilling words, to “honor God with our lips” but to “worship him in vain.”
And it is here that we need to remind ourselves that the gospel always compels us to look inside our hearts.
So what can we do?
How can we honor God with our whole selves?
How can we discern whether a tradition is life-giving or not?
How can we join Jesus in the ministry of erasing the lines in the sand that divide us from one another?
Jesus gives his listeners this advice: Notice what comes out of you.
Notice what fruit your adherence to tradition bears.
Does your version of holiness lead to hospitality?
To inclusion? To freedom?
Does it cause your heart to open wide with compassion?
Does it ready your mind and body for a God who is always doing something fresh and new?
Does it facilitate another step forward in your spiritual evolution?
Does it lead other people to feel loved and welcomed at God’s table?
Do we believe the sentiment of Whoever you are, Wherever you are, However you are, You Are Welcome here at Christ’s table—or are we just giving this lip service?
Like everything else Jesus offers us, his confrontation with the Pharisees is an invitation.
It’s an invitation to consider what is really sacred and inviolable in our spiritual lives.
It’s an invitation to go deeper — past lip service, past tradition, past piety, past neat and tidy boxes that only separate us from others.
It’s an invitation to practice what this week’s epistle (James) calls “pure religion.”
A religion of love for the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the outcast.
A religion of faith in a surprising, innovating, and ever-creating God.
It's not a "safe" religion. Or an easy one.
But it's a religion of the whole heart.
So, here’s the Good News—we have the gospel and through it, the judgment of Jesus brings us to repentance, changes our attitudes, and frees us from the bondage of our sin.
And for this we can say—Amen! Thanks be to God!

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