Sermon from Sunday 29 August

A sermon about traditions


Reading(s): Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23. This sermon was given by Victoria at St John's.

We all have certain core traditions and beliefs that are important to us. They make us who we are, they define our own behaviours and the way we think other people should behave. That is what lies behind the Gospel passage from Mark 7.

In this text, Jesus addresses three different audiences: a group of Pharisees and scribes who raise the question of defilement, the crowd that is perpetually present, and the disciples who, true to character in Mark's Gospel, don't understand.

The message is delivered differently to each of these groups, but its essence is the same: our very selves are defiled, made unholy, not by what we take in, but by the corrosion of the human heart. Jesus' three different versions of this message build on one another, thus enabling a fuller understanding of what is at stake: we must prepare our hearts, and thereby ourselves, for the kingdom of God. This requires not worrying over what we "eat," but how.

As usual, the Pharisees and Jesus were having a difference of opinion. The Pharisees were upset because Jesus and his disciples did not take part in the Jewish hand-washing ritual before they ate. To the Pharisees, Jesus and his disciples committed a “sin”.

The Pharisees were not the only people who get upset when traditions are not followed. We get upset when people do not follow our “traditions”. We sometimes have to part with our traditions, and that is not always easy for us to accept. That is usually one reason why some congregation members leave the Church when someone new comes to lead. They were not able to accept changes. To them, the status quo is the only way to go even though society changes rapidly. Perhaps Covid has brought an opportunity to start new things or new traditions?

I remember a Priest friend telling us about one of his new churches. Excuse me if I’ve told the story before…. People seemed very unhappy and uncomfortable with him, he heard a few mutterings, then after a few weeks he decided to ask the Churchwarden what the problem was. ‘You lead from the wrong place’ said the Churchwarden ‘Father John always stood in the chancel in a particular place and led the service from there, it makes us uncomfortable when you move around’. Well our friend thought about it and wondered if he was doing something theologically incorrect by not standing in this one position, it began to really worry him, he looked up all the old books, but couldn’t find anything, he even thought to ring his old theological college for advice. In the end he had a brainwave – ring Father John himself and admit to his error!

So the next morning he anxiously waits until a good time to ring his retired colleague. He explains the situation and the fact that he’s making people feel uncomfortable but that he himself feels uncomfortable in that one particular position. There is silence at the other end. Oh no what has he done! Then suddenly there is a burst of laughter ‘I always stood there in that freezing little church, as that’s where the radiator is!’

Traditions, they come from all sorts of sources!

We must not think that the Pharisees are completely bad. They were dedicated to obeying and pleasing God, and that desire led to distinctive practices such as kosher food and circumcision. These practices helped them to keep their identity as God’s chosen people in a pagan world. Their traditions grew out of a need to keep their identity.

Even though the Jewish law was quite detailed, it left room for interpretation in many cases. The Pharisees used their desire to obey God to create rules to clarify the law in these situations. Over time these rules became so hard and fast that they became a surrogate law that the Jewish leaders regarded as being equal to Scripture. They lost sight of the difference between God’s law and their opinion. Jesus said that this was their sin. Jesus did not condemn all tradition. He only condemned those traditions that were elevated to sacred status. The church is responsible for preserving tradition, but it must make a clear distinction between essential scriptural teachings and non-essential traditions.

When he responded to the Pharisees' question, Jesus went right to the heart of the issue. The Pharisees wanted to hold on to human tradition at all costs when they should have been more concerned with teaching God’s deeper requirements of love, compassion and justice. God is more concerned with a spiritual cleansing and purifying. If our hearts have been purified, our prayer and behaviour will be in line with what God wants. If we act out of good hearts we will know how to behave even if we don’t know the exact rule for a particular situation.

What we eat and drink can’t hurt and defile us or corrode our hearts. Only what comes out of us-ungodly words and actions-can do this. Jesus wants us and his disciples to see that the core issue always comes down to what is in the heart. Ritual external purity is not necessarily the same as genuine interior piety. We are being hypocrites if we vainly honour God with our lips while our hearts are estranged from him and our mouths secretly spout gossip - isn’t it lovely to be the one with some inside knowledge, even if that so called knowledge is unfounded – we should be building each other up, never trying to get one better or to bring another down. Isn’t it lovely to have lots of nice things, comfortable homes, a little bit of luxury, maybe a few designer clothes? Nothing wrong with that as long as we are open to sharing our wealth, and never look down on those who don’t have such opportunities.

The source of defilement is more internal than external. It is more about who we are than foods or filth we avoid. Jesus defined true piety as a commitment from the heart totally dedicated to loving service of God and for others. A wonderful phrase from the wedding service says ‘God knows all the secrets of our hearts’. Think on this the next time someone speaks out of turn or considers themselves more deserving than say – the migrant or refugee who has just turned up on our shores after a harrowing journey. Guard your heart from people like that.

When God looks at us, the first thing he sees is the state of our heart. God doesn’t care about what we look like on the outside. He’s more concerned about what’s on the inside. He has more sympathy and compassion for a poor beggar in rags who has true faith than he does for rich rulers who wear fine clothes but have rotten hearts and souls. If we don’t take time to have our hearts purified by God once in a while, we won’t be able to receive his blessings.

Jesus argued that the observance of purity was not needed because the kingdom of God is for everyone- Jews, Gentiles, those who would observe the purity laws and those who could not keep them. Everyone is equal before God.

It’s easy enough to take in the good stuff; we come to church, we read our Bibles, we pray, we listen to fabulous sermons(!?) serve coffee and even play Christian music in our car on the way home. But somehow, over the hours that follow, the good stuff gets changed as it passes through our innards.

The going to church and serving becomes a self-righteous ‘I’m better than him’.
The reading our Bibles becomes an exercise in head-knowledge without it applying to our hearts and lives.
The praying becomes a shopping list to a vending-machine God who must do our will or suffer our doubts of his power or benevolence.
Sermons are forgotten or not even heard in the first place….. they’re not just for the 8 minutes here in church, they’re for discussing, disagreeing with, arguing over coffee or lunch, praying over - re-read the passage, tell me what you think!

If all we do when we pray, read and listen – is just do them, not live them – then we’re missing the whole point of the doing.

We don’t do the right things so that we become right with God, It’s the other way around. We become right with God because out of right-being grows the right-doing. If it’s clean on the inside, then the outside will be clean too. (OK, I know we’re all works-in-progress  – perfection takes time!)

There’s no point just going through the motions of being a Christian if you don’t know Christ. We can all look fine on the outside, that’s easy. Keeping the inside uncoroded is so much harder.

But if our hearts belong to God, nothing else matters.