Proper 17, Year B, 2015
As a college student in Tuscaloosa, I regularly attended Canterbury Episcopal Chapel. The worship service at Canterbury Chapel was fairly traditional. They used Rite II prayers, played hymns to the sound of an organ, they used the right kind of wine for communion—Tawney Port. You know they did all the things good Episcopalians are used to.
However, they did something in particular that almost made me fly out my pew one Sunday. I couldn’t stand it anymore so I went directly to the priest to make my complaint. I told him, “Why are we using the contemporary version of the Lord’s Prayer and not the real Lord's Prayer?!" You know the one Jesus himself said, the one that says, “Our father in heaven.” Our father can’t just be in heaven—he arts in heaven—or something like that! I needed my thees and thous to pray!
Ken Fields, the chaplain at the time, sort of chuckled and told me that he’d get right on it. I didn’t believe him (he was a priest after all) so I returned the following Sunday, sat in the front pew, and stared him down when it came time for the prayer. And you know what? We said the traditional form of the Lord’s Prayer! I was well on my well to becoming a liturgical snob—Don King can attest to this. I am also proud to note that Canterbury Chapel still recites the traditional form to this day.
I wonder what your little quirk is when it comes to the liturgy. What in the liturgy distracts you from worshiping God? I know I am opening the flood gates here. While I want to know, I can’t promise I’ll do what Ken Fields did and change things up.
Maybe the more important question is why do these little quirks get in the way of your encounter with God? You might ask, “Why am I hanging on to these traditions so tightly?” Maybe more importantly, “What can God teach me through my little liturgical quirk?”
(Resurrection Angel Mosaic at St. Paul's)
The religious traditions that the church has created over the years, in all their particularities, do have the power to move us to encounter God’s spiritual reality—a reality most of us can’t get in touch with without religion. God knows that we need religion to stay in touch with him so God calls us to worship him in beauty and in truth—some use contemporary music with guitars, others like more traditional music with organ, some like praise hour, others prefer a more quiet and meditative style.
The traditions regarding worship that I learned to embrace over the years are indeed vehicles to encounter God and God’s spiritual reality; they do allow my heart, mind, and soul to grow into a deeper knowledge and love of God. The use of the traditional Lord’s Prayer was how I prayed to God. At that time, any other version of the Lord’s Prayer created a distraction in the way I worshiped.
The structure and tradition that was found in worship created and allowed for a sacred place in the midst of the chaotic life of a college student. However, I soon began to realize that I was worshiping our liturgy more than I was worshiping our God. In a way, religion became a means to and end when the human precepts that I held so tightly didn’t draw me closer to the Word of God.
All this being said, I believe there is great beauty and grave danger in the way we as humans understand and create religious traditions in the Church. The beauty is seen in how religion has the power to move us closer to the heart of God, to God’s reality. The danger is seen when religion is used to push others away from the heart of God. And God knows, we all know, how often religion has been used to keep people out. I pray that God delivers us from the same evil.
In today’s lesson we see that the Pharisees and scribes respond to centuries of religious tradition when they ask Jesus, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” The Pharisees and the scribes were not upset at Jesus because his followers ate using dirty hands or because they had bad table manners but because they did not share the same table tradition as according to Jewish tradition.
It would be easy to look at today’s lesson and simply conclude that Jesus was right and the Pharisees were wrong. Jesus was indeed right for responding to the Pharisees question by saying, “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” Jesus is indeed noting how their religious traditions are attempting to push others away from an experience with God. However, when trying to understand this passage, it is important for us Christians to remember why the Jewish people adhered to such strict laws and traditions in the first place.
During a time when pagan religion was the norm, the Hebrew people needed a way to show others that God had set them apart from other nations. They needed a way to show the world how their God was different. In a society that worshiped false idols, they needed a way to preserve their faith in one true God and maintain their identity as children of God. God wanted his chosen to do this not so that they would hide from the world, rather so they would be inspired to be God’s light in the darkness, so they would lead all nations into the light of God.
They kept to these traditions because it was their understanding that right worship and obedience to the law led to right relationship with not only God but also their neighbors—even their Samaritan neighbors. In the same way, we as Episcopalians adhere to a similar ethos in our understanding of God as reflected in our liturgy and worship—fundamentally we as Episcopalians claim that right worship leads to right relationship with not only God but also our neighbors—even those who aren’t religious.
Jesus remembers Isaiah and says, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.” Jesus is warning the Pharisees and all of us who identify ourselves as religious people that we are prone to worship our traditions over the God who calls us to worship.
Jesus is saying that when your religious traditions call you to judge rather than to love, then you are missing the point. If your traditions lead you to a place of self-righteousness, then that might be a good time to re-think some things.
The Pharisees do have one thing right—God is calling his chosen to be different. God is separating us and marking us as people of God. God is calling us to offer an alternative way to live in this world—a way that leads to compassion and love and not condemnation and judgment.
At the heart of our worship is the discovery of a God whose love knows no boundaries. At the heart of our worship is a God who transforms the unclean hearts of all people—especially us religious people. At the heart of our religious traditions is a God who calls us to live according to the spirit Jesus, a spirit of humility and service and compassion and not a spirit of pride and self-righteousness because we are in and they are out.
During my time at All Saints’ in Birmingham I worked closely with someone who was the director of a non-profit. Her philosophy was simple. She was fond of saying, “Instead of figuring out how to say no to someone in need, I try to figure out how to say yes to someone in need.”
And to the people who came for help this was good news because most of these people were used to hearing why they weren’t good enough to get proper medical care, education, psychiatric treatment, and so on. Even the people who were eventually told no were grateful because at least they had been treated with dignity and respect.
Ultimately, God’s call to set us apart is not a call to create a group of people who are isolated from the world so that they can live in comfort and prosperity. God isn’t marking his chosen as different so we can hold our chosen status over the heads of the lost and tell them why they aren’t good enough.
Instead, God call to worship gives us a vision of who God is and a vision God's dream that says only when those who are isolated from the world, only when those who have been told no again and again, only when the lost sheep are brought into the fold will this world live in harmony. God calls us to worship because God is trying to figure out a way to say yes to all of us. And God has figured out a way through the blood of Christ that draws the whole world to himself.
Our worship of God will inevitably call us to encounter the unclean no matter who dignified and beautiful our worship is. First of all, our worship of God Almighty reminds us that we are unclean—our own lies and hypocrisy are exposed when we come before the perfectness of God. Even those who look like they have it put together on the outside are fighting a hard battle to keep clean on the inside. But the good news is that Jesus sees past our masks and even sees past those who are eat with defiled hands, and touches our hearts with love.
God gives us religion not as a tool to exclude people or as a tool for self-justification—i.e. I am a good church goer and they are not. Rather, religion at its best is a tool to draw us and others into the knowledge and love of God. And when our hearts know this truth, when we know that God has taken hold of our lost and wandering heart, how can we stop from reaching out to the lost in this world to tell them about the good news of God in Christ?
Good news that says, God is trying to figure out a way to say yes to all people, news that says no one is too dirty for God, news that says you are loved no matter what anybody says about you—even the religious people—and you know God loves you because God has given you the same name as his Son—beloved child of God. Amen.