Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost - September 3, 2006

   The year was 1971, the end of my freshman year in college.  I was driving to NY City with my brother in his old 51 Plymouth that Aunt Ruth had given to him because she didn’t dare drive it anymore.  We were going to the Fillmore East to see either Emerson, Lake and Palmer or Alice Cooper; there were two such trips.  This was the first trip though and we were going to stay with Joe, a friend of mine from college who lived in Brooklyn and who was going to the concert with us.  The tickets were for the late show, 11 o’clock I think, so before we went we would have dinner with Joe and his parents, one set of grandparents and his brother. 

Now Joe’s family were kind of old school Italian, so it wasn’t exactly the same as eating at the Geier house.  For one thing there was wine on the table for everyone; that was different.  Then Joe’s mother came out with a big plate of lasagna.  Now I love Italian food and this was good.  I ate quite a bit because I figured that was it; I’d better fill up; my brother was doing the same.  But after 5 or ten minutes out came plates of pork chops, potatoes, vegetables the whole works.  At our house if we had spaghetti or lasagna that was the meal.  I didn’t know that for Italians the pasta is just kind of the warm up course.

Different customs, different traditions regarding meals…it’s something you start to figure out when you’re a little kid and you eat over someone else’s house.  You realize that everybody doesn’t eat the same way your family does.  It doesn’t make one right and one wrong, just different, although such customs can tell you things about a particular household, things that are acceptable and unacceptable there.  I guess there are cultures where a good hearty belch after a meal is seen as a compliment to the cook.  You’d better make sure you’re in such a culture before you try that though. 

Such differences apply to a multitude of other things as well, not just meals.  Churches all have written and unwritten customs and traditions about how things are done.  There are differences in how we celebrate our common liturgical meal of Holy Communion.  When you visit another church you never want to be the first one to go up for communion because while there is great similarity in what happens from church to church, it’s never exactly the same.  So it’s best to watch what other people do so you can just go with the flow and avoid embarrassment.   With this and other such things though, you learn to respect differences.   You don’t say “You’ve got it all wrong.  This is the way you should be doing it,” because that would be disrespectful.

Jesus was sometimes criticized for his meal practices because he didn’t always observe what was accepted.  Sometimes it was because of who he ate with; in today’s lesson it’s because his disciples were seen eating without first washing their hands.  The Pharisees criticized Jesus for this and it wasn’t concern about hygiene; not exactly anyway although the truth of it is that many of the ritual laws of the Old Testament ultimately did have to do with good health and hygiene.  But the criticism Jesus faced had more to do with respect for the law and respect for tradition.

The tendency is usually to see the Pharisees as nit-picking legalists, people so hung up on observing the letter of the law that compassion and kindness which are seen as higher virtues get left by the wayside.  A more positive way to look at it though is to say that the Pharisees were concerned with their tradition, concerned with making every aspect of life holy, being mindful of the presence of God in everything that they did.  In other words, the intent of the Pharisees was not to reduce the commands of God to mindless, trivial observances, but to apply the laws and commands to every facet of life so that God was always involved.  That’s not a bad thing.

Some of their observance had to do with identity.  Observing the ritual laws was a constant reminder of their identity as the people of Israel, the descendents of Moses, and that was important to them.  Some of it had to do with order.  Observation of the laws provided for a certain order to life and society; like we tell confirmation students, the Ten Commandments, which are the core of the law, were not intended as “or else” prohibitions.  They were meant to provide safe, orderly boundaries for life, consistency of behavior, what’s appropriate and inappropriate, acceptable and unacceptable.

When Jesus ate with those who were perceived as being unclean or allowed his disciples to eat without first observing the prescribed ritual washings, he was seen as disrespecting this tradition, actually disrespecting  their identity as Jews.  That could be a legitimate criticism, one that we can relate to.  For example if I go to a Catholic church I don’t go up for communion.  I think I should be able to.  I disagree with their policy on communion, but I don’t say to myself, “They’re wrong; I’m going up anyway.”  It’s a matter of respecting their tradition, respecting who they are as Catholics.

There is some legitimacy to the complaint of the Pharisees.  So what was Jesus’ problem?  I’m pretty sure he wasn’t against washing hands although I’m sure more than one kid when, after hearing this story in church or Sunday School and being asked by his parents at dinner time if he’s washed his hands has said, “Nope.  Jesus says I don’t have to.”  Nice try, but I don’t think that was his point.

Jesus was teaching that traditional practices, while they may have great significance, are not the be all and end all and are not what makes you who you are. Respect for tradition has its place and does play a role in forming identity and in providing order in a community, but it can also become idolatrous, especially when instead of providing safe boundaries for life, it primarily becomes a means of keeping people out of the community creating exclusionary boundaries between insiders and outsiders.

Jesus’ “civil disobedience,” if you will, was directed at becoming so concerned with traditional practices that one loses sight of what worship of God is all about and what God pleasing practices really are.  For Jesus that had more to do with having one’s heart in the right place than with having done all the proper ritual washings.  That’s the point he was trying to make.  Outward rituals alone did not make one holy.  Still, I think we misread this text if we use it to say that Jesus was opposed to all such rituals.  They can and do have great meaning if they serve the original intent of involving God in all aspects of life.  They have great meaning if they do help to keep one’s heart focused on God and off of those things that tempt one to stray.

Our own liturgical, ritual practices have great meaning if they help us in worship to be mindful of God’s presence.  If they distract us from God’s presence and God’s will for us as we relate to others, then they become a problem.  If we use our traditional practices as a means of positively judging ourselves and negatively judging others, we miss the point.  And just observing all the rituals and traditions of the church doesn’t make one a Christian either.

Traditional practices are not necessarily good or bad.  They’re good if they move our hearts toward dependence on God; they’re bad if they become a “to do” list that we think will make us holy.  As is always the case, while what we do has great significance, ultimately it’s not what we do, it’s not about us, it’s what God does for us.

One of the verses that I pray regularly is from Psalm 51, one of the great penitential Psalms, the Psalm of Ash Wednesday.  “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit with in me.”  In seminary we memorized this in Hebrew.  In Hebrew the verb that is translated create can only be used with God as the subject.  Only God can create a clean heart.  By the grace of God we are given the gift of a clean heart as we are washed in the waters of baptism, one of our liturgical rituals.  At that point we receive our identity as children of God.

All that we do from that point on, all of our widely diverse customs, traditions, rituals and practices should be for the purpose of cooperating with this gift of grace, living out our baptism, living life with a clean, God centered heart.

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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