Text of the sermon preached on Proper 17B (August 30, 2015) by the Rev. Katie Hargis at St. Cornelius Episcopal Church in Dodge City, KS.
Song of Solomon 2:8-13
After 6 weeks in John’s “bread of life” chapter, we’re finally back in the Gospel of Mark. But what an odd place we’ve landed in today: right in the middle of an argument so routine that it feels peculiar to read about it in the Bible. I mean, I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure I’ve not only overheard this argument before, but actually participated in it. About washing your hands before dinner that is. In fact, it was a fairly routine part of the day when I worked for 3 summers as a church camp counselor at the Episcopal summer camp in Oklahoma. We even had songs that we would sing as we marched the 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders to the bathhouse to wash their hands.
Surely that can’t be what’s really going on in this passage, can it? An argument about washing hands before eating that has probably been repeated in each and every one of our homes? Well…yes and no. Yes, it really is about the practice of washing hands. No, as is often true in such arguments, there is often more going on beneath the surface than initially meets the eye. With my campers and with your kids, they probably just forgot. Or maybe they decided that even though the counselors or Mom and Dad think this hand washing-thing is important, they don’t, and, while they’re at it, maybe they’re tired of all of the rules that Mom and Dad are making. So maybe not washing their hands, is less about forgetfulness and more about testing their parents’ authority.
That same exact thing is happening here. It’s not just about washing hands, it’s about the tradition and authority behind that practice. Which is the point that the Pharisees press: “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders?” they ask, somewhat aghast at the implications of Jesus and his disciples running roughshod over tradition. What is at stake then, is not just a specific practice but the larger question of authority. It seems that in short, the Pharisees want to know, just who does Jesus think he is to flout the tradition of the elders?
Just a quick side note, while I’m not arguing with the way that the lectionary writers have pieced together today’s gospel reading, sometimes I find that it is crucial to put back in the verses that the lectionary omits to make it easier to see the bigger picture. Because it’s not simply about authority, but authority linked to a behavior. Our everyday, ordinary decisions about how we treat each other. Which is why Jesus throws the “tradition of the elders” thing back in their faces. You want to talk about tradition? Jesus asks. Then let’s talk about tradition — make that a commandment! — of honoring our parents. Seems pretty straight forward to me, and yet you’ve found a religious loop-hole by which you can declare your wealth an offering to God and thereby not have to share it with your parents!
In other words, Jesus is challenging them as to how their traditions contribute to them fulfilling their mission. And this is where this week’s odd passage comes to fruition with our life as a community. I mean sure, we probably like to think that we aren’t as fussy about tradition as Jesus’ opponents were — but the famous last 7 words of every Episcopalian seems to be “we’ve never done it that way before.” I’m sure if I were to suggest that we begin tinkering with some of our own traditions — perhaps if we changed worship to make it more accessible to visitors and people who aren’t used to the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer. Or what if we stopped using the lectionary and began to choose our own readings from the Bible for moving through the narrative? Or what if we moved away from having a committee for every single thing we do in the church, in order to focus on a more streamline way of governing the congregation? Or what if instead of spending time and money on flowers for inside and outside of the church and watering the grass, we spent the time and money on community service projects? Or what if…the lists could go on and on.
You all probably get the idea. We each have our own traditions that are more than traditions. They are the markers of what has been accepted as right and wrong. They serve to give us a sense of stability. Although, I feel like I should point out that our traditions do change and evolve over time. At those specific moments in our lives, they just appear to be unchanging. This passage serves to both relativize our traditions — should we really hold them sacred? — while also pushing us to the far more important concern of the law to help us care for each other. And when I say care for each other, I mean not only with an inward focus on us as a congregation, but also looking for and finding that outward focus — of those outside of the walls of St. Cornelius Episcopal Church in Dodge City, KS.
At the heart of it, this passage is really asking us to look at some of our practices/traditions and ask whether they’ve become more important to us than our mission as a church.
Now you may be sitting there wondering where God is leading us today with these specific texts and this sermon. And believe it or not, in challenging us to look at our practices and traditions, there is in fact good news!
This passage is a jumping off point for what I hope can be some very fruitful discussions for us as a church community. St. Cornelius has been here as a worshipping community for 127 years. That is good news. We have wonderful leaders in our congregation in everyone here. That is good news. That we survived the last 3 years without any full time clergy. That is good news. But the best news? Is that we get to have these challenging conversations about our traditions and what our mission is as a congregation. That we are at the point where we can begin having these fruitful conversations — not just among ourselves, that is our St. Cornelius family, but also with those who aren’t coming to church. We get to talk about what we need to do or what we might need to change in order to live into our mission as a church. Now THAT is the best news! And where does that conversation begin? We might start by asking our kids, neighbors, co-workers, and so forth, in order to figure out how to make our worship and congregational life more understandable, accessible, useful, and helpful. By asking these questions, we might begin to put mission ahead of tradition.
This won’t be an easy journey, of course. You’ve all probably heard the old joke, “How many Episcopalians does it take to change a light bulb?” “Change? Change? My grandfather donated that lightbulb!” We love our traditions. I love our traditions. They have helped to mediate the faith to us in countless ways. But what if they aren’t doing that for everybody? What if we’ve come close to worshipping the traditions instead of the God that they were supposed to point to? And what if Jesus is calling us to put our mission — whether that is to care for our aging parents, feeding the hungry, opening our doors to the homeless, making our building available for after school tutoring or English as a Second Language classes, sharing the Gospel with folks that much of the church rejects, partnering with the community to care for more of God’s children…whatever it may be — what if Jesus is calling us to put our mission ahead of even our most cherished traditions? What then?
Now, in seminary they teach us that when we go into a new church we really shouldn’t make any changes in the first 6 months to a year, unless they are cleaning up the music and liturgy. And I think that is a pretty good rule of thumb. I don’t believe that today’s gospel is asking us to change everything about ourselves. We are a liturgical church. It’s what we do, but there may be ways of making our liturgy more inviting and friendly to outsiders. I don’t believe today’s gospel is asking us to change everything about ourselves, but rather is asking us to sit down and look at the way we fulfill the mission of the Church.
If you look in the back of your Book of Common Prayer, there is a section called the “Catechism” which is a basic outline of our faith. In the section about the church on page 855 it asks the question, “What is the mission of the church?” The answer? “The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” The Church pursues its mission as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love and it carries out its mission through the ministry of all of its members.
In the coming weeks you’ll have the opportunity to sign up to attend a House Meeting at someone’s house from the congregation and we’ll have these conversations about how we — and when I say we, I mean all of us at St. Cornelius — can carry out the mission of the church. What does it take for us to be able to do this? What does it take spiritually? What does it take stewardship wise? And when I say stewardship, yes I mean money, but I also mean the stewardship of giving not only our treasures, but also our time and talent. Time and talent are just as important. Stewardship is a discipleship issue. Developing our own spiritual lives is a discipleship issue. Beginning to have these fruitful conversations about putting our mission as a church at the forefront and not letting our traditions get in the way of that — that is a discipleship issue.
What are we willing to change? And, perhaps just as importantly, what are we unwilling to change? What tradition is so important that no matter whether it helps us achieve our mission or not — it preserves our sense of the orderliness of the world and shores up our identity and therefore can’t be touched? Today we are challenged to look at our traditions and to begin that fruitful conversation about how we can be disciples and fulfill the mission of the Church.