True worship shapes our hearts into God’s heart, and is seen in our lives of love in the world.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 22 B
Texts: James 1:17-27; St. Mark 7:1-23 (adding back the cuts of 9-12 and 17-19)
Dear friends in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
This isn’t about ritual. It’s a heart problem.
James says, “Be doers of God’s Word, not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” Jesus agrees, quoting Isaiah’s speaking for God: “this people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”
James’ whole sermon addresses people who claim faith in God but don’t show such faith in their actions, particularly in caring for those in need. Jesus, like James, points to the separation between the leaders’ proclaimed faith and their real actions in the world.
This raises uncomfortable questions we’d rather avoid: does your faith change your life? Do your faith practices shape how you live as God’s ambassador in the world?
It’s a mistake to avoid that discomfort and think this is all about ritual.
Remember, the tradition the Pharisees so carefully protected intended to do exactly what Jesus wants. After the exile, the Jewish people had to learn a different way of being faithful, and following God’s Torah. Their leaders developed many traditions and rituals to help the people walk with God as God desired.
Jesus apparently allows his disciples not to do one of those traditions, to eat without doing the ritual hand-washing first, and the leaders believe this proves he’s not from God. Jesus deflects this by pointing to another problematic tradition.
“Corban” meant sacrificial offerings made to God, commanded often in the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus’ problem was obeying this command at the expense of another, more important one. So if you told your parents you couldn’t help them because you’d sacrificed your cow already and had nothing left to give, that was permitted. (But actually, the Jewish Mishnah, formulated after this Gospel was written, also does not permit this.)
Jesus cares more about the heart here. An offering to God that prevents someone from taking care of their parents shows there’s something wrong inside. It’s not about whether we wash hands or not. Jesus says that what’s inside us matters more than what we do outside.
Which becomes an important question for this congregation.
Mount Olive is very familiar with external traditions and rituals handed down over time.
Our worship is deeply rooted in the Western Catholic tradition, which was the central practice of the Lutheran reformers. In recent years we’ve also received many blessings from the East, and not just our new vicar. Decisions about the shape of our worship are always made in conversation with the great tradition.
To do this worship, we pay close attention to how we do our ritual. If, as Mark mentions today, you’re looking for rituals for washing cups and pots, we have them. Our Altar Guild handbook is 96 pages long, comprised of 13 sections. From the washing of cups and plates and linens, to the setting of the altar in all seasons, we’ve got it covered, along with beautiful photos and charts. Our handbook for liturgical servants is 26 pages long, and helps us train those who fill six or seven hundred jobs involved in leading worship through the course of a year.
So the question for us as a congregation is, to what end is all this care about ritual actions?
And our answer is, “because God is worthy of such care, worthy of such praise.”
We attend to beauty here because God is the giver of all beauty, and we seek to reflect that gift back to God. We train our liturgical servants so those who lead worship reflect our love of God by their respectful preparation. We have an extensive Altar Guild handbook because caring for the things that we use in worship is a way of caring for the God we worship, the Triune God who is worthy of all praise.
We do these things because when we worship, we sense we are standing on holy ground. Worship opens us up to the mystery of God’s presence in our lives and in this world, and feeds us with God’s Word and Sacrament for our lives in this world. We expect to meet God here. We experience in silence and in song, in Word and in Meal, in prayer and in preaching the Holy Spirit’s moving in our hearts and so we praise the God who gives us life.
But, like the Jewish people, our practices are also meant to help us know who we are and how we walk with God in this world.
So: do they? Does our practice of faith actually help us walk with God in this world? Are we doers, as well as hearers? Does honoring God with our lips actually shape our hearts?
If we do all we do here, and leave worship each week unchanged, something is seriously wrong. Tradition, ritual, worship can be rich blessings and shape us as disciples of Christ. They also can become the only thing we care about, for their own sake.
Jesus asks you to “listen, and understand” this point today: What God cares most about is what is in your heart, and how that flows out into your life. Everything evil, Jesus says, comes not from external things, not even rituals or traditions, but from inside. Your life as Christ in the world is precious to God, and changing your heart is the focus of God’s desire. Transformation from within, one person at a time, is how God intends to reign in this world.
That’s how you know your worship is faithful, when your life is transformed by it.
If you go from here different than you were before you came. If your heart is shaped by God’s grace and love when you experience it in this place, and you look different, act different. Because your heart is different.
James says today that true religion is to care for orphans and widows in distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. We’d say the same, that true liturgy shapes us into people whose lives bear witness to God’s love in concrete ways. If you leave worship today and go down the hall and are drawn to write a letter as part of Bread for the World’s offering of letters, worship has shaped your heart. If you feel compelled after worship to think carefully about your life and your assumptions, and make changes in how you live, worship has shaped your heart. If the grace of God you experience here causes you to become grace where you are out there, worship has shaped your heart.
We know this in our bones here. Because we expect to experience holy ground in this place, we’re not surprised when we experience holy ground everywhere in the world. Because we expect God’s grace to fill our hearts in this place, we’re not surprised when we experience our hearts changing into grace outside these walls. Because we expect to meet God in this place, we’re not surprised when we meet God on the streets.
This is what we seek each time we come here: new, clean, re-shaped hearts, hearts that are the heart of God.
All the sinfulness that fills your heart and mind is cleansed not for its own sake, but so you are free in God’s love to be God’s love. You live in the presence of God so that you become the presence of God in the world. All the evils Jesus lists today, all our list of society’s evils and pain and suffering, all will go away as your heart is changed, and mine, and eventually every one of God’s children.
And this new heart is pure gift from God. Every generous act of giving, James says, every perfect gift we give, is from above, from God. You already came here expecting to meet God today. Now God’s Spirit will do the rest and draw you fully into God’s life, with a new heart ready to bear God’s love to the ends of the earth.
In the name of Jesus. Amen