Old Testament: Solomon (2:8-13)
The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice. My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.”
The Response: Psalm (45:1-2, 7-10)
1 My heart is stirring with a noble song;
let me recite what I have fashioned for the king; *
my tongue shall be the pen of a skilled writer.
2 You are the fairest of men; *
grace flows from your lips,
because God has blessed you for ever.
7 Your throne, O God, endures for ever and ever, *
a scepter of righteousness is the scepter of your kingdom;
you love righteousness and hate iniquity.
8 Therefore God, your God, has anointed you *
with the oil of gladness above your fellows.
9 All your garments are fragrant with myrrh, aloes, and cassia, *
and the music of strings from ivory palaces makes you glad.
10 Kings’ daughters stand among the ladies of the court; *
on your right hand is the queen,
adorned with the gold of Ophir.
The Epistle: James (1:17-27 )
Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures. You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing. If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
The Gospel: Mark (7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23)
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus, 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.”
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
In today’s gospel reading, a group of Pharisees come from Jerusalem and enter into another confrontation with Jesus. It’s a familiar scene. It happens time and time again in the gospels: Jesus versus the Pharisees. But what was so wrong about the Pharisees? For the most part, nothing.
While scholars disagree about the beginnings of the Pharisaic movement, it seems to have had its origins at least a couple hundred years before the birth of Jesus. That was a time when the practice of Judaism was under attack and was sometimes subject to persecution. Those who became the spiritual ancestors of the Pharisees risked their lives in order to be faithful to their beliefs and traditions.
In the centuries that followed, they held to the core of their faith but also adapted to the changing circumstances in which they and their fellow Jews found themselves. In order to be faithful to Torah, they held both to the “written tradition” of the scriptures and also to a more stringent “oral tradition,” passed down through the generations.
Jesus’ own teachings were very much in keeping with the Pharisaic tradition. He sided with them in affirming a life after death, the existence of angels, and an eventual resurrection of the dead. His approach to ethics and his teachings on love appear to be derived from the Pharisaic teachings. He seems to have learned a lot from them, and he and they had much in common.
In addition, some of Jesus’ most prominent disciples were Pharisees, including St. Paul. In the New Testament, Paul never says that he used to be a Pharisee before he came to believe in Jesus. Instead, he proudly declares that he is a Pharisee; but now he is a Pharisee who accepts and proclaims Jesus as God’s Messiah.
So why was there such a conflict between Jesus and at least some of the Pharisees? It seems that at issue was the group’s strict emphasis on following the law, both written and oral, to the letter. Jesus’ interpretation of the bible was significantly more lenient, more open, than theirs. And Jesus focused on issues and practices that were of central importance in biblical teaching, rather than those that were secondary, at best. Over and over again in the gospels, he focuses on the needs of people rather than just on supposed legal requirements.
The conflict between those who emphasize strict obedience to laws, on the one hand, and those who choose to focus on the heart of religious tradition and on the deeper needs of people, on the other, continues in all ages, including our own. Over the past few decades, we have seen it taking place, and taking a toll, in all major Christian denominations, including our own.
In those struggles, those who resist change, like the Pharisees who opposed Jesus, like to appeal to “tradition.” Tradition is important. Along with scripture and reason, it is part of the Anglican approach to our faith and life. But there are at least two important things to remember about the use of, and misuse of, the word “tradition.”
First of all, people often use the word “tradition” as if it were synonymous with “what I am familiar and comfortable with.” Instead of viewing a topic or practice within the great tradition of the Old and New Testaments plus the 2000 years in the life of the church, they narrow it to refer only to what they have known in their lifetime, as limited as anyone’s lifetime necessarily is. Yet some of the practices with which many of us grew up and to which we were once accustomed, while they might be beautiful and well-loved, are not the genuine, richer, authentic tradition of the church. It’s the difference between genuine tradition, on the one hand, and traditionalism, on the other. The late church historian, Jaroslav Pelikan, distinguished between the two this way (The Vindication of Tradition): “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”
In the 16th century, the Reformation sought to return the church to its true tradition; but its efforts only went so far. During the 20th and now the 21st centuries, new insights into understanding the scriptures and deeper insights into the real, long-term tradition of the church have continued that work. And we are far from finished. In fact, to use a familiar expression, the church is “semper reformanda”: always in need of reform.
Secondly, there are some on both sides of major issues who tend to equate the proper Christian response to those issues by choosing between what is part of our tradition, on the one hand, and what is required to address the changing needs of a changing world on the other – as if those the two were mutually exclusive. But in commenting on today’s gospel reading, New Testament scholar Lamar Williamson has asserted (Mark, p. 136): “the text calls us beyond arguments over what is old and what is new to a concern for what is vital.”
As a church, we need to be willing to ask ourselves, on an ongoing basis what is vital: what is truly essential to the mission that God has given us, and what is secondary and therefore expendable. And we might have to ask ourselves whether there is anything in our life together, even something that we personally enjoy and treasure, that might in some way be detrimental to achieving our central mission. And if there is, we need to be willing to let go of it.
As we prepare next Sunday, with our worship and picnic in the park, to begin the 81st year in the life of St. Mark’s Church, we enter once again into opportunities to open ourselves up over the coming year to a new and deeper understanding of scripture and of our genuine, long-term tradition. And we do so in order that we might better align the work that we do, and the ministries that we offer to the community, with the work that God calls us to do. We do so, as our reading from the Letter of James (1:22) puts it, that we might truly be “doers of the word and not merely hearers.”
That is something that we sometimes tend to forget. Our natural tendency is to focus on the attention-getting, big, even monumental events in our world. But for the most part, the small initiatives, the often unnoticed acts of kindness and self-sacrifice are the ones that make the greatest difference in the lives of people.
We at St. Mark’s obviously don’t have the capacity for solving the problem of hunger in our community, but we can and do make a significant difference in the lives of the families and individuals who come to the Food Pantry at St. Paul United Methodist Church through our gifts of food and money and through our hands-on service there. We cannot solve all the problems and issues faced by the low-income elderly in our community, or even those of the residents of Canterbury Court; but we can and do touch their lives in healing and life-giving ways by serving lunches, by providing amenities to improve their lives, by caring for their gardens, by helping to host special events, by joining with them in some of their activities, and simply by being there with them, providing them with a caring presence and with a sense of dignity and respect. We cannot address all the needs of organizations in our area that provide vitally important services for some of our struggling neighbors; but we can and do work countless hours on events like our Yard Sale, so that, each year, we might have several thousand dollars to give away in order to support their efforts.
Anthropologist Margaret Mead once insisted: “Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” That assertion reflects, not only what Jesus taught, but the very principle by which Jesus himself carried out his ministry. And that, in itself, strongly suggests that it is a good principle for St. Mark’s Church to hold to as we continue to carry out our ministry to God’s people.
The work that we do might seem at times to have modest results. Seen within the context of the seemingly endless needs of the people in our community and our world, they might seem small. We aren’t changing the whole world or even our local community in a dramatic way. But, with God’s help, we are touching and changing lives, maybe one or two people at a time. And, as we do, it is imperative that we remember that, in the most effective parts of Jesus’ ministry, that is exactly what he did. This fall, we will be hearing in our gospels about more of those life-giving encounters. It is our privilege, we who have been baptized into his death and resurrection, to share in that ongoing work.
Our response to God’s love, given to us in Jesus, is most probably never going to have the impact of Solomon’s building of the temple. But, unlike his work, which lasted only 400 years, our small services, done in Jesus’ name, are critically important parts of building the kingdom of God which lasts forever. Building that kingdom is the work that Jesus began; and, by God’s grace, it is now our work as well.