Meadowbrook Congregational Church
“Holier Than Thou”
Rev. Art Ritter
September 2, 2018
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
Laura and I are planning our winter vacation trip to Vero Beach, FL. It has become an annual event. We have spent time at the Disney Vacation Club there for the past seven years. We have occasionally thought about going somewhere else but we now know the place so well and find the environment so relaxing that we are not prone to make a change without good reason.
While we are on vacation there, we fall into a routine, a routine that perhaps others would not find so enjoyable. But we love it! We get out of bed in the morning, grab a quick and light breakfast and head to the exercise room for a workout. Following the workout we change clothes and go for a powerwalk on the beach. The walk is relaxing but not at a relaxing pace. We challenge ourselves, trying to go just a bit further each and every day, walking one way for at least an hour and then returning home. After our walk we have lunch and then change clothes again for a couple of hours at poolside. This is the time for relaxation and reading and perhaps a cold beverage. Late in the afternoon we take another short walk, perhaps around the grounds or on the beach, this time a more leisurely stroll, listening to the sound of the water or noticing the color of the flowers. Then it is time for dinner and evening entertainment at the resort.
We didn’t actually plan this to be a routine. Perhaps it is some of my regimented personality rubbing off on Laura. It just kind of happened. The routine has become a habit that we really don’t want to break. It is amazing to think that we can so easily fall into such a pattern. Sometimes I worry a bit that doing the same thing over and over again might be taking away from the excitement of new adventures and the learning that comes from new experiences. Yet I suppose that we are all creatures of habit, easily becoming accustomed to doing things the consistent and comfortable way.
I think we do the same thing in church. During the past couple of weeks I have been reviewing the church calendar with Abbie Holden, our office manager; and with Colleen Foster and Marcus Peterson; and with Advisory and Trustees and Deacons. We have learned to count on the comfortable predictability of doing certain things at a certain time each year. It is a safe way of planning and it keeps you organized. You place events on specific dates and you become hesitant to see them change. It worked well once or twice so we need to keep doing it at the same time and in the same manner. Things become a tradition without you intending them to be. I believe that is true of other things in the church. The order of worship. The setup of Fellowship Hour. The color of paint on the walls. The hymns and choral music. The temperature at which the thermostat is set. The places where people sit in worship. The times of meetings. The way we serve The Lord’s Supper and take up an offering. Mickey Anders writes that most churches take these routine things and raise them to the standard of a sacred tradition.
There is an old story joke about how many Congregationalists it takes to change a light bulb? The answer is, “Change? Change? My grandfather donated that light bulb?” We love our traditions.
As one who values routine, I tend to cherish tradition. Tradition connects us to the past and honors that which has gone before. In the musical Fiddler on the Roof, the character Tevya sings the song “Tradition,” remarking that our tradition tells us who God is and who we are.” That is indeed the positive aspect of routine and tradition – when it is a practice that continues to point to the greater reality which is behind it.
In the Scripture lesson from the gospel of Mark, the Pharisees and Jesus are having a difference of opinion in regard to tradition. The Pharisees were upset that Jesus and his disciples did not wash their hands correctly before they ate. They did not do it in the ritually correct way. While we believe in hygiene and cleanliness, we might find such ritual hand washing to be a bit silly and unnecessary. But the ritual had some meaning for the Hebrew people and was an important connection to the past. It was a way of sanctifying and blessing the ordinary act of eating. By not washing their hands correctly, the Pharisees believed that Jesus and his disciples had sinned.
From our backward glance at Biblical history, we have labeled the Pharisees as somewhat bad people. They were always giving Jesus a hard time about his interpretation of the law and seemed to be setting legalistic traps for him. They had this “holier than thou” kind of attitude that often offends us. Yet the Pharisees were perfectly sincere in what they were doing. The laws they followed and the rituals they observed were designed to add a religious dimension to everything they did. The problem was that they had forgotten to remember the religious dimension. Their system of ritual and legal performance had grown so strict that it had taken control of them. Everything they did hinged on the concern that they might be breaking a law or that they might not appear holy and distinct. They became afraid that if they failed to follow a law or if they allowed others to break a law – if the tradition they believed in would somehow be broken, then their entire faith would die out. They became fearful of change and of others in a world that was changing rapidly around them. Jesus pointed out that while they remained clean on the outside, their fearful suspicion of anything that ran counter to their established routine kept them unclean on the inside. He saw through their dead tradition. He condemned tradition that became more important than the things they represented. Their “holier than thou” attitude prevented them from embracing God’s holiness.
I remember a woman from the first church I served in Toulon, Illinois. She was truly a keeper of tradition, a member of the Board of Deacons and Sunday School committee. It was her task it seemed to make certain that everyone, including the minister, did thing the correct way, the way it had been done before. The woman designed and constructed the church’s Advent wreath and took great pride in making certain it was in its proper place on the altar and was used in the proper way. One year, on the first Sunday in the season of Advent, I asked a young family to light the candle of Hope on the Advent wreath. The family was quite new to town and very new to the church and included a little girl, about five years old, who was pretty excited that she was going to be allowed to handle an acolyte’s wand and light a candle. I had mailed the family the appropriate reading and had met with them before worship to discuss which candle to light. When the time came for the little girl to light the first Advent candle, excitement might have overcome her. She lit the candle that was supposed to be lighted the second week of Advent. While probably half of the church didn’t realize the mistake, the woman in charge of church ritual and the Advent wreath certainly did. She let out an audible gasp that could be heard for miles. It was almost as if a Pharisee were yelling “Unclean, unclean.” While I tried to laugh off the situation, the family was embarrassing and hurt. Despite the efforts of many people to encourage them, after that day they did not return to our church.
As Jesus challenged the Pharisees, so Jesus’ words challenge us as to how our rituals, our traditions, our acceptable ways of believing might actually prevent us from finding the holiness of God. Sometimes we busy ourselves so much with practice and labor that we lose touch with God’s heart. Perhaps we are so comfortable in what we do and what we believe that we spend more time judging the wrong actions and beliefs of others instead of seeking a greater faith relationship ourselves. Does our participation in meaningless routine mask our inward disposition to God? Where in the church are we so busy that we have lost the sense of the sacred? What habits and routines have become more than tradition, instead used now as a marker of right and wrong, a force of stability that minimizes change and the opportunity of the Holy Spirit? Have our practices become more important that our mission? Where in our lives has our faith with God become so secure that our own beliefs cannot be challenged? Are the things that we do, the standards that we use to measure success, and the opinions we hold about events happening around us – are they a part of us simply because they have always been that way? What routines and traditions have worn you down so much that they have desensitized you to the very heart of God?
The good news today is that our God is more concerned about who we are on the inside than the routine and traditions we observe. God hears prayers that are shouted and silent, prayed standing up or sitting down or standing upon one’s head. God delights in our worship no matter what room we worship in, what instrument is being played, what song is sung or what clothes we are wearing. God understands our heart, no matter how dirty our hands are. Our God is a God of new wineskins, of new things and possibilities that break through the comfort of conformity. When God moves in our midst, we have to be changed and we cannot remain the same. God wants to do a new thing and we need to be open to it. We must listen and respond to the word of God for this new day.