Saturday, August 29, 2015

The rules are not necessarily the rules

Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Today’s Gospel story is about the Pharisees’ reaction to the way Jesus’ disciples were eating. We don’t really have similar rules about food, so let’s talk instead about the way people have dressed over the last hundred or so years, and the way we have responded to those changes. 
A hundred years ago, women wore ankle-length dresses with gloves and hats to match. They were stunned when the younger generation chose to wear knee length dresses and rolled their stockings below their knees.
When I was a young mother, we all dressed up for church. Men wore suits and women wore dresses or skirts and sweaters. Many women still wore hats every week, but they were not as common as they once were. I still remember the uproar the first time the pastor’s wife wore a pantsuit to church on Sunday.
A pastor found himself in big trouble with some congregational members when he wore sandals as he led worship on Sunday morning. To be fair it was Michigan, not Florida, and the sandals were a well-known very casual looking brand. But, Jesus wore sandals!!  
I was at a Kiwanis meeting and heard the tsk-tsk in the voice of a person describing the apparel of a young woman who had attended a state-wide convention wearing shorts and a pull-over shirt. Apparently, she has a different view of business casual than others do.
So, obviously, the dress code in America has changed a lot over the last hundred years. The reaction to new clothing styles is often a gasp of dismay and rejection. That is our normal reaction to most new ideas. Either we say, “Oh, yeah, I love it.” Or we say, “No way, Jose. Over my dead body!”
… “Over my dead body” is just the response the Pharisees give when they observe Jesus and his disciples eating with unwashed hands. At first glance, this may be simply a comment about a lack of applying soap and fresh water (or hand sanitizer!). But the explanation from Mark tells us that this is about dining-related rituals. The Pharisees and scribes are astounded that the disciples are not following the rules.
Jesus gives his own challenge in return, calling the Pharisees ‘hypocrites.’ For the Pharisees, the rules about eating have always been the rules. When we do a little digging, it turns out the rule about hand washing applies to priests doing particular rituals, and not to regular people for regular meals. But, the original purpose has been forgotten many years before this time, and the Pharisees are looking for reasons to accuse Jesus.  
But, Jesus’ challenge to their accusation goes far beyond a little spat about hand-washing. He is reminding everyone about Isaiah’s call for God’s justice for all people. He reminds them that God cares about what is in our hearts, not on our lips. What matters to God is not what we eat, or how we eat it. What matters to God is what comes out of our mouth – love and respect for God and for neighbor.
… In order to love well, we may need to break some long-established rules about how we worship. The rule used to be, we dress up for church. Today, especially in Florida, the dress code is often more casual.
The rule used to be, everyone knew their way around a hymnal, and knew which page to turn to next. Today, many people use electronics more than paper books and are confused by the complexity of a Lutheran hymnal.
The rule used to be, only certain kinds of music could be used in worship. For the last 200 years, nearly every generation has produced its own music with a different rhythm. Some of that music has made its way into worship: folk, rock, country, jazz, hip-hop, global, African spirituals. The new rule is, include several kinds of music in a worship service.  
The rule used to be, invite people to our church because it’s a family, or the music is great, or the preaching is awesome, or the Bible study group is so much fun. Today, the rule is to tell the story about when Jesus showed up in our lives. This rule changed because many people have never been to church, because their parents and grandparents have never been to church. They simply don’t know why it is important to have a relationship with God.
… It can be tempting to judge other people – or even ourselves – by some rules. There are always opportunities for failing to live up to the rules. Some of those rules are good and we should strive to obey them: they were made by God. Put God first; don’t tell lies about your neighbor, don’t steal, don’t cheat on your loved ones, don’t murder, don’t want what you can’t have.
But some rules are made by humans and need to be challenged or adjusted in new situations and cultures. A simple example: It’s a rule at 10am worship that acolytes light the candles and extinguish them. At the end of worship, the acolyte extinguishes all but one candle and takes the light from it before extinguishing it. At 8am, the candles are lit before worship and extinguished after worship by whoever is setting up or clearing the altar. Much less dramatic, but it is the 8am rule.
Many churches have rules about who is welcome at the altar to receive Holy Communion. You must be a member of that church or that denomination; you must be baptized; you must be a certain age; you must have an understanding of the meaning of the mystery of communion (though no one really understands it). At Hope, we have a different rule: we say, Jesus is the host and all are welcome at the table.
There are many rules, some on the law books, some just written in our culture, about who is welcome in the US, who is worthy to hold certain jobs, who deserves a helping hand through a hard time. Since Jesus welcomed all sorts of people, we follow him when we welcome all into our midst and challenge the rules which exclude them.
… This week, pay attention to the rules you obey. Do the rules make all people feel loved and welcome by Jesus and by you? Which rules might be worth a second look through Jesus’ eyes? Which rules are simply habits that you have never thought about before?

Please pray with me. Jesus, you welcomed all to your community. Sometimes, that meant challenging the rules. Forgive us when the rules lead us away from you. Help us see that some of our rules need to be revised to enable us to love the way you love. Amen