< back to Sermon archive

Sermon for Sunday 26 August 2018

FIRST READING Isaiah 29:11-19

11The vision of all this has become to you like the words of a book that is sealed. When men give it to one who can read, saying, “Read this,” he says, “I cannot, for it is sealed.” 12And when they give the book to one who cannot read, saying, “Read this,” he says, “I cannot read.” 13And the Lord said: “Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men, 14therefore, behold, I will again do wonderful things with this people, with wonder upon wonder; and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hidden.” 15Ah, you who hide deep from the Lord your counsel, whose deeds are in the dark, and who say, “Who sees us? Who knows us?” 16You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay, that the thing made should say of its maker, “He did not make me”; or the thing formed say of him who formed it, “He has no understanding”? 17Is it not yet a very little while until Lebanon shall be turned into a fruitful field, and the fruitful field shall be regarded as a forest? 18In that day the deaf shall hear the words of a book, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see. 19The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord, and the poor among mankind shall exult in the Holy One of Israel.


PSALM Psalm 14

1The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.” All are corrupt and commit abominable acts; there is none who does any good. 2The Lord looks down from heaven upon us all, to see if there is any who is wise, if there is one who seeks after God. 3Everyone has proved faithless; all alike have turned bad; there is none who does good; no, not one. 4Have they no knowledge, all those evildoers who eat up my people like bread and do not call upon the Lord? 5See how they tremble with fear, because God is in the company of the righteous. 6Their aim is to confound the plans of the afflicted, but the Lord is their refuge. 7Oh, that Israel’s deliverance would come out of Zion! when the Lord restores the fortunes of his people, Jacob will rejoice and Israel be glad.

SECOND READING Ephesians 5:22-33

22Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. 24Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. 25Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. 28In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 30because we are members of his body. 31“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. 33However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.


GOSPEL Mark 7:1-13

1Now when the Pharisees gathered to {Jesus}, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, 2they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. 3(For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, 4and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) 5And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; 7in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ 8You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” 9And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! 10For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ 11But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”’ (that is, given to God) — 12then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, 13thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.”



Dr. William Henry Cosby Jr., better known as the comedian Bill Cosby is, for all his faults, a very funny man. Now I in no way want to excuse his behavior; he has been found guilty of sexual assault. He should be punished. I hold him up as an example of someone who gave into tradition. Hollywood had, and probably still has, a tradition of abusing power and success. Those who have achieved stardom, are seen as people of power and influence. Because of this, those who have this perceived power, will as history has shown, oftentimes abuse it for their own satisfaction. There are far too many examples both in Hollywood and in our Government who have fallen into this trap. But these types of traditions aren’t limited to the secular world; the religious community has seen it’s fair share of those who have abused their position and power in order to satisfy their own need for fulfillment.
Currently, the Roman Catholic Church has been in the news because of priests who have used their position to abuse, mostly children, who were in their pastoral care. The Catholic church in Pennsylvania has admitted, that over the past 70 years, 300 priests are known to have committed sexual abuse. These priests, like Bill Cosby, gave into a tradition that allowed power and influence to help them cover up their crimes and sins. Now, of course, this is all coming to light because at least one person decided to stand up and speak out against the dangers that can come with certain traditions.
Now before we condemn all traditions, not everything we repeat is a bad thing. Each year, for example, we celebrate Homecoming. Homecoming is a time to remember our rich history and tradition, enjoy the company of family members, share a meal and give thanks to God for the work He continues to do through us in this community. However, we must admit, that doing things because “we’ve always done it that way” isn’t always good. Someone once said, “Traditionalism is the living religion of the dead, or the dead religion of the living. Some traditions imagine that nothing worthwhile will ever again be done for the first time, because everything worth doing has already been done. Therefore, traditionalism repeats what it imagined always was and what it imagines always will be.” The person who said this went further to say this about some traditions in the church, “the problem with tradition for tradition’s sake is a terminal case of spiritual heart disease.”
In our gospel lesson for this morning, a delegation of religious leaders makes their way, for the second time, from Jerusalem, to investigate Jesus. The last time they came, (Mark 3:22) they called Jesus an instrument of the devil. This time, they observe some of Jesus’ disciples eating food without first washing their hands. Mark, whose initial target audience was the Romans, explains the pharisaical tradition. To help us gain an understanding of what’s going on, this isn’t a pre-surgical scrub that the Pharisees practice, they simply pour a little water over their hands and dry them with a cloth. The focus is on the ritual, not on the washing.
What seems to be of most importance to the religious leaders here is, being seen going through the motions; a ritual which has been passed down orally from one generation to the next for perhaps thousands years. Their concern, as I said, wasn’t on cleanliness but about enforcing the tradition itself. Originally, this tradition of washing began back the time of the Exodus (Ch. 17-21) when God instructed the priests to wash their hands and feet before going into The Tent of Meeting and before the altar to offer a sacrifice, or they would die. Apparently, this instruction for the priests eventually ended up becoming a tradition that made its way into the Mishna as a law that required everyone to wash before eating.
For many, including the religious leaders, the cultural tradition had become the master. For a good many people, tradition is the only reason they keep repeating some things. They practice their traditions even when they can’t explain why, like cutting the ends off the ham, (I mean that’s the way grandma and mom always did it) and those traditions can hold people back from becoming what they’re intended to be and what they can be. Life, as they know it with all its traditions, is leaving them behind. The same was true for the Pharisees.
Again, before we become too critical of the Jews for their traditions, we need to remember that there are people in the Christian church who are also trapped in tradition’s snares. Ask them, and when forced to admit it, they don’t always know why they do the things they do, except that they inherited their practices and believe things have always been done that way. We need to take a hard look at all our traditions and ask ourselves, who do they benefit? What is the purpose of repeating the practice?
For example, in a certain midwestern church, a new pastor followed one who, prior to retirement, had served that congregation faithfully for nearly forty years. The previous pastor had been greatly loved and the new pastor took up his charge with a zeal for doing everything well. He wasn’t long in his new call before he had a sense that many of his congregants weren’t especially happy with him. Concerned, he sought the counsel of a supportive lay leader he believed he could trust.
“I’m not sure why,” the new pastor confessed, “but I have a feeling not everyone is happy with me.” “Pastor,” the layman replied, “it’s how you conduct the communion service.” “What am I doing wrong?” the pastor asked. “It’s not so much what you’re doing wrong, but what you’re not doing.” Now, the young newcomer really was puzzled. “I follow the liturgy exactly the way I was taught in seminary and as is prescribed in the Manual on the Liturgy,” he said. “Well,” said the kindly lay leader, “that may be. However, your predecessor always went over and laid his hands on the radiator before he gave the wine chalice to the people.” “Lay hands on the radiator!” the young minister exclaimed, “I’ve never heard of that before, but I’ll check it out.”
He went immediately to his study and reread various liturgical orders. There was nothing in any of them about laying hands on the radiator. Puzzled, he called his predecessor and said, “I’ve been here just one month, and I’m in trouble. Please help me.” “In trouble?” his predecessor replied, “How are you in trouble so soon?” “It has something to do with the way you laid hands on the radiator before you served the communion chalice to the people,” replied the young man. The older man laughed. “I did that,” he said, “because my old polyester cassock created so much static electricity that I feared giving an electric shock to one of the people. So, I always touched the radiator to discharge that static electricity!” I guess they need to rename the church the Church of the Holy Radiator!
The people were so caught up in a meaningless action by their former pastor that they assumed it to be a primary part of their religious heritage. So it was with the Pharisees who came to keep an eye on Jesus. Jesus, however, is more than a match for them. Jesus tells them that their quasi-religious rituals have replaced their relationship with God. Like far too many in our churches, they are slaves to tradition. Jesus further explains that the problem isn’t in their actions, but in their hearts, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (v. 6).
Rob Smitty’s seemingly noble and generous sacrifice impressed a lot of people. On an internet site, Smitty learned about someone in his town who needed a kidney. Rob told a reporter that he wanted to do something that would impress his children. Even though the needy person was a complete stranger, Rob Smitty offered to give her one of his kidneys. The newspapers hailed him a hero. Smitty’s daughter, Amber, however was not at all impressed by her father’s seeming generosity.
You see, Amber knew that he had abandoned her and her mother twelve years before when Amber was a tiny baby. Although Smitty lived just a few miles away, he never came to visit his daughter, never called her, never remembered her birthday, nor sent her a Christmas gift. In fact, in twelve years, although he earned a good salary and enjoyed many of the “toys” of adulthood, he never once paid the child support for Amber that a court ordered him to pay. As Rob Smitty’s gift of a kidney to a stranger didn’t impress his daughter, so God isn’t impressed with any sacrifice not born of a heart that honors Him.
The biggest heart problem in the church in our generation cannot be made better by any cardiologist’s prescription. The heart’s biggest problem is that it doesn’t always follow what God says in His word and so it cheats itself and those with whom it comes into contact. This is the problem that Jesus sees in the Pharisees. No one knows better than Jesus that the Pharisees took the Ten Commandments and so intertwined them with their own cultural rituals that the ten laws of God had become some 4,000 religious ordinances, many designed to trap the people. Hence, they robbed the people of a right relationship with God.
The Pharisees passed these edicts from one generation to the next for thousands of years and nobody could know for sure where each law came from. Among them was a notion that whatever touched the hands was unclean and was eventually absorbed into the skin to corrupt the whole body. Therefore, when Jesus’ disciples ate without observing the ceremonial hand washing ritual, the Pharisees consider them heinous lawbreakers.
It’s interesting that in making His response, Jesus doesn’t try to explain or justify the disciples’ failure to wash their hands. Instead, as He did once before when He was tempted by Satan in the desert (see Matthew 4:1-10), Jesus speaks about the only source of true authority: the written word of God. This time, Jesus applies Isaiah’s inspired record. “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.” You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men (vs. 6-8).
The human heart has always had a capacity to extend and twist God’s word and rearrange it. We see it first in the Garden of Eden when Eve exaggerates God’s direction to the first couple. ‘The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die'” (Genesis 3:2-3.) God had said nothing about touching the tree, only that they must not eat of it (see Genesis 2:17). The unredeemed heart, left to its own devices, will inevitably twist God’s word into a noose for its own neck and cheat its owner of God’s best for life. The only way to avoid a cheating heart is to know God’s word and live it out in our personal practices inside and outside the church.
The second problem these Pharisees had is the same problem that Pharisees have had in every generation, even this one. They imagine themselves to be something they aren’t. Jesus uses a very powerful name to expose them: “You hypocrites!” The Greek word for hypocrite means to act a part or to pretend. In short, Jesus calls the Pharisees great pretenders. No matter how sincere they and their religious rituals seem to be on the surface, they were merely posers, Jesus tells them. From this encounter we can learn two lessons.
First, we must see that simply saying the right words doesn’t constitute true spiritual worship. Jesus, quoting Isaiah, says, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (v. 6). We can attend all the services of the church, sing the songs of the faith, recite the Creeds, partake of the sacraments, listen to the sermons, and yet still not belong to Christ. The Bible even gives us examples of what I’m talking about. Remember Nicodemus and Saul of Tarsus? Both were regarded as religious leaders before their own people. Yet, both were spiritually disconnected from what God was about in Jesus.
It’s an old saying, yet it’s still true: Being in the church doesn’t make someone a Christian, any more than being in a garage makes someone a car! Only the redemptive work of Christ on Calvary’s cross can make us true followers of Jesus. Jesus used these words to to answer Nicodemus, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3:3). The second truth brought home in Jesus’ reply is found in verse 7. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men. You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men (vs. 7-8.) That’s the difference between theism and me-ism.
We either worship God for God’s sake or worship God for our sake. The fact that we attend a certain church and leave feeling good doesn’t necessarily guarantee us that worship in that church pleases God. Real worship isn’t measured by how it pleases us, but by how it measures up to God’s word.
Today many churches, Lutheran included, use the terms “Contemporary” or “Traditional” to define certain styles of worship. In most cases, these terms help worshipers to know the “style” of service they will be participating in. As a concept, this isn’t a bad thing. It lets people in the community know, to a certain extent, what to expect when they come. However, these approaches to worship can become a trap for two reasons. First, we must be careful to remember that our primary focus is not on the type of service, the music, or the people leading the music and worship, but on our Lord and Savior, the Head of the church. We must never dilute the scriptural elements of worship just to please a crowd. True worship always centers on God. To promote a type of service, a music group or a speaker over God is idolatry, a direct violation of the first commandment (Exodus 20:3).
Second, we must never allow the worship to become rote. It’s wonderful that church tradition has passed down such wonderful liturgy, hymns and Creeds. But the danger we face is that we become so used to the words that we fail to pray them. The Confession and Absolution, the Creeds, the Lord’s Prayer and many of the older hymns are ones we’ve memorized from our youth. But how often do we actually think about the words as we say them? How often do we actually pray the Confession and Lord’s Prayer? Do we really mean what we say when we say “I believe” as we recite the Apostles Creed? These gifts of the church have been handed down to help us in our worship. But if we don’t really use these gifts, what good are they? How do they help us become better followers? How do they assist us in our worship of God?
The only way to be a child of God is to become God’s in God’s own way. Because, as the profit Jeremiah reminds us, “the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure” (Jeremiah 17:9), it’s possible, as the Pharisees often demonstrated, to believe in our heart that we’re serving God and be dead wrong. But there is hope!
As Jeremiah also reminds us, God promises, “I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind, to reward a man according to his conduct, according to what his deeds deserve” (17:10). When we genuinely come to God to honor Him with all we are and have, God meets us and cleanses our concealing heart. Through St. Mark, Jesus also reminds us that, it’s “from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man “unclean” (7:21-23.)
Two thousand years before Hank Williams sang, “Your cheating heart will tell on you,” Jesus said it. If only the Pharisees could have seen what Blaise Pascal saw and recorded in his Lettres Provinciales, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” If the religious leaders had realized this, it might have made a big change to their attitude and actions!
Finally, it’s the difference between religion and relationship that Christ addresses with the Pharisees. The word religion is from a Latin root meaning to keep on repeating the same ritual. The Pharisees had religion, they practiced it fervently. There’s nothing wrong with styles, patterns for worship and liturgy. They are great gifts from the church of the past. They assist us in worship and in giving thanks to God. The danger comes in when we begin to simply go through the motions; when we repeatedly and thoughtlessly say the words and sing the hymns with little if any thought given. Everything about worship is intended to invite us into a relationship with our heavenly Father and Jesus; a relationship that connects or binds us as though we are one. Jesus invites us to bind our heart to His heart, that we may be one for the Father’s glory.
God still answers those who echo David’s prayer, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10). For everyone who makes that their prayer, God promises, “I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh” (Ez. 11:19).

Comments are closed, but trackbacks and pingbacks are open.

< back to Sermon archive