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Proper 22, Year B

Acceptable Worship

Readings: Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Adapting to change is a constant theme in life. It is human nature not to appreciate change. Consider the number of jokes about changing. We have all heard many versions of the ‘light bulb’ joke. How many Anglicans does it take to change a light bulb? Anglicans don’t change. It is true that as Anglicans in a liturgical setting we can get upset when something changes in the rituals. The ritual may not even make sense, but we want it to continue. Heaven help the person who tries to make a change!

I know this from personal experience. I could find a few examples from this congregation if I really tried, but it is much safer to look back to a previous congregation which shall remain nameless. When I first arrived in the parish they enlightened me about some of their “rules”. The best one was that the flowers on the altar were not to exceed the height of the arms of the cross. Since the cross and the flowers were all on the altar, it was no mean feat to arrange the flowers. They had a ruler back in the sacristy and if the flowers were too high, they simply lopped them off and stuck them back in the vases. The day I realized we had to find a way around the rule was the day we had four inch gladiolas sticking up out of the arrangement. There was no way to change their mind about the ‘rule’, but they adapted wonderfully to putting up sconces for the flowers and putting the cross on a ledge far above the altar. It also gave me much needed space on the tiny altar.

Rules can be a good thing. We need to follow the rules of the road if we do not want to end up in an accident. A classroom would be chaos if there were not rules of conduct. We live in community. If there were no rules on how to conduct ourselves, we would not exist as a society.

But there is another kind of rule. We also choose our own rules of conduct depending on the company that we keep. There are rules about how to dress. When I went on my first job interview as a teacher I wore a hat and gloves or I would not have been hired. In the 60’s if you saw a VW van with “Make love, not war” bumper stickers and a long haired driver wearing granny glasses you knew that they were hippies. In the 80’s, if you saw a BMW driver wearing Gucci shoes and a Rolex watch you knew that you were observing a yuppie. Think of some of the markers that people have today – nose rings, low slung pants, multiple earrings, tattoos.

Change is not a problem relegated to the 21st Century. In Jesus’ time it was a problem. Talking with women in the street was against traditional rules. Talking with foreign women was completely out of the question. Approaching lepers was not done. Healing on the Sabbath was a ‘no no’. Eating without washing your hands was unconscionable. There were many rules to follow. Some of them made sense. They brought order into the people’s lives. Some of them simply marked them, set them apart for who they were. Their observance of the Sabbath, food taboos and circumcision were the things that set the Jews apart from the Gentile world. Jesus did not regard the laws as bizarre or outlandish. He understood them. But at the same time he knew that it was the shema, loving God with heart and soul and strength that was the essence of Judaism. He knew that following every cleansing ritual prescribed by Jewish law would not make a difference to society. He knew that it was about more than simply following the old traditions. He knew that they needed to put their faith into action if it was going to be effective, if it was going to bring them closer to God, if they were going to live out their faith. He knows that what is needed to identify the people as God’s people is an authentic faith and a sense of justice and love. He knows that it far more about people choosing to do the right things, not because they are following the rules, but because they want to do the right thing. They want to do things because they are convinced that it is the right thing to do.

So what is it that marks us as Christians? The Gospel reading challenges us to do some honest self-evaluation. It is not through ritual that we serve God. Common sense should dictate to us whether or not what we practice as ritual has any merit. What brings us close to God is not how we practice our faith, but how we live it. Jesus pointed out the hypocrisy of their practices to the Pharisees. He let them know that they were more concerned about the enforcement of rules than the human situation. They were dependent on knowledge rather than faith. Their practices were more important than the purpose they served.

Again and again we hear Jesus take moral issues out of the realm of mere action and into the deeper realm of motivation. How many times must we forgive? It doesn’t matter. What matters is that we are forgiving people. Do we say grace day after day, praying for the needs of others, but never contribute to help change their plight? Do we bring names of the sick and suffering to the altar Sunday after Sunday but never go out to minister to them? Do we have a rich liturgical life but do none of the real work of the church? Do we think that we serve God by going to church on Sunday, or by spending time in private prayer, or through our financial support of the church? These may indeed be signs of a Christian living a Christian life. But they do not change the fundamental question. “How is my heart towards God?”

“There is nothing,” Jesus says, “that goes into a person from the outside which can make that person unclean. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that makes one unclean.” Jesus is affirming the holiness, the sacred nature of all creation.

A little child has been playing in the garden. He is covered with dirt from head to toe. He runs over to you and plants a big kiss, saying, “I love you.” How like that child we are. God loves us and we approach God with a grimy kiss. God looks through our messiness and our dirt, looks through all of these things that are wrong and sees innocence and a desire to please. God accepts our grimy kiss and is pleased with our coming, no matter what our condition.

So we must constantly ask, “Is our worship acceptable to God?” It is if we come, no matter how grimy, as children of God and go out cleansed, restored, and forgiven as servants into the world.
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