by Ken Gehrels
Gospel: St. Matthew 15:1-20
Never underestimate the power of tradition.
If we haven't got it, we're making it.
It's big and it's there..... For all of us.
Like the athlete on the day of the big game - grabs hold of a series of rituals that she's built up over time. Sleep so long. Got to eat this particular type of breakfast. Best when you show up for the event so much before hand. Put on your equipment in this order.
Exactly the same every time.
Why? Just because. Helps the mind to focus. Gets her ready.
There are the rituals of the wedding day. Got to be careful what I say here so some bride-to-be doesn't go wakko and beat on me after the service. But those of you that have been there know the drill. The florists. Hairdresser. Get the nails done. Get dressed. Dad comes. Wait till right time. Off to church. Don't let him see you. On and on it goes: old and new, borrowed and blue..........
Tradition and ritual.
Know what the big danger is? These things can tend to accumulate over time. Layer over layer they develop, like a winter's ice build-up on the back steps. And eventually helpful or pleasant tradition and ritual turns into burdensome clutter.
Instead of helping, it gets in the way.
We trip over it.
Or it becomes all we see.
Sort of like the slow accumulation of stuff in a house. Those of you that have moved recently or are facing a move know exactly what I'm talking about. Start to pull things together and inevitably somewhere along the way you begin to moan, "where did we get all this junk?" Bit by bit you've picked it up over the years. All served a purpose at one point. And now it's everywhere. So much that you're beginning to trip over it. And the painful process of weeding through it begins. What to keep and what to ditch.
Or think about the rearview mirrors you see in some cars. Lots of people have something dangling there. Occasionally though, you run into people that seem to accumulate one dangly thing after another. A big blob of sun catchers, kittens, rabbit feet and air fresheners swing around - so many sometimes that you've got to wonder how the driver can see the road. But don't suggest they take something down. Oh man, no way!
I'd like to invite you to join me in reading a bible passage where Jesus does precisely that with the leaders of His day - suggests that they've got too many things dangling off their proverbial rear view mirror. They've accumulated too much clutter in their religious house and are beginning to trip over it -
and he, as it were, hands them a big green garbage bag and tells them it's time to clean house.
MATTHEW 15: 1-20
Two traditions come front and centre. Both of them actually rather decent when they were first developed. Like the hand-washing thing. Jewish religious bosses send a delegation from head office to nail Jesus. His disciples were marching out of step. And the officials wanted to know why.
Originally the tradition developed as a symbolic way of a devout Jew showing that he was sorry and repentant of any way in which his behavior may have defiled him in the sight of God. Washing before the meal was a great opportunity to do it. But over time clutter developed. In fact, one of the religious manuals of the day actually had a whole chapter devoted to the process of hand-washing. They were tripping over it. Couldn't see past these rules dangling in their face.
And there's this talk about corban. The basic tradition was that a person was able to dedicate part of his wealth to the service of God. He would declare that wealth "corban," reminding him and everyone else that this was set aside for God. Done out of gratitude for all that the Lord had done for him.
What a wonderful thing!
But time passed and the rules began to accumulate, layer upon layer, like so many barnacles on a seacoast rock. To the point where one historian records a particular fellow devoting a huge chunk of wealth "corban." But then his parents had a change of fortune, and needed that money. The Pharisees, however, said - "Sorry. You made the pledge. No take backs!"
Became a huge controversy, apparently, and may very well be the incident that Jesus was referring to. If not, it was something very similar.
What began as great and God-honoring traditions ended up as cluttered, vision obscuring disasters. Everyone got all worried about what to do and what not to do, the right and wrong, the good behavior and bad, the "in" thing and that which was "out". So much so that they forgot what it was all about in the first place.
Like driving down the road and spending all your time looking at those things dangling off the mirror, forgetting to look past them and out the window at the traffic around you.
The Pharisees had become distracted from the core of it all; they'd lost touch with the heart of the matter. And Jesus had to shock them back to their senses by ripping the stuff down.
Now, it'd be real easy for us to shake our heads and leave here saying what someone said on the news this week about a hunter who mistook her horse for an elk and shot it -- "What an idiot!"
It would be equally easy for us to think of a million and one examples where other people have developed clutter.
Like one of my buddies who pastors in another denomination. Told me about a leader from his circles who ministered a couple of generations ago. He was a rather flamboyant kind of guy by the name of Horner. The guy was preaching at some rally, flailing away with his arms and got caught up in his tie. In the heat of the moment he ripped the tie off and flung it away.
Guess what happened? Within a few years there were sermons preached about the evil of ties. Nobody who followed Rev. Horner was allowed to wear such an evil piece of clothing. The tie.
How many examples can you think of?
Lots, I'll bet.
Let's not play the finger pointing game. Let's look inside ourselves, instead.
Because we all can accumulate spiritual clutter in our lives. We can all hang up things that dangle before our eyes and distract us from what we're really supposed to be looking at and focusing on.
What's that, you ask?
Well - please take your hymnbooks and open them up to p.1018. There's a responsive reading I'd like you to join me in reciting. It's taken from words of Jesus - his response to someone who wanted to know what really mattered.
"Jesus - if all the clutter were carted away, all the distractions ripped down, what would be left?" Know the response?
Let's read it together:
Leader: What is the great and first commandment?
People: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.
Leader: What is the second commandment like it?
People: Love your neighbor as yourself.
Leader: What does this mean?
People: Love is the fulfilling of the Law.
Leader: To what does this call us?
People: To a life of faith working through love.
[taken from Mt 22.37-40]
Love - of God, and of those around us.
Everything else builds up as the various layers around that.
Have a look at the bible passage again. Verse 8.
"Their hearts are far from me" says Jesus.
That was the problem.
Flip it around and you see the solution - "Hearts near to me"
Hearts near to Jesus Christ.
That's what our Holy Lord is talking about.
That's what He's after.
Finally - THAT'S what really matters!
The challenge for us is to keep concentrating on that -
- in the way we live as a structured community as a church
- in the way we carry on as individuals.
As we develop our ways of doing things, our rituals and traditions, making sure we don't let things get all cluttered up, obscuring our vision or causing us to trip.
When we go about the business of being a Christian, taking the time to make sure that what we do actually DOES keep our hearts close to the heart of God, and help others find that same closeness.
When we live our private lives, making sure that we're not so caught up in all those activities and busy-type things that keep us going - so caught up that we forget about THE most important item -- our Saviour, Jesus Christ, who wants us to have an intimate relationship with us -
wants to have heart-to-heart times, talks and walks with us.
And, know what? It's real easy,
to get distracted away from that.
Not just in the world of faith, but everywhere.
Like in hockey. What's the main point? Working together as a team to put the puck in the net more often than the other team. But often folks get tied up with stuff like "How much stick work can you get away with before it's called slashing?"; "how much clutch and grab is OK before it's called holding?"
Think about living as a Christian.
Institutionally we can get all wrapped up in a knot on things like what's legit
in a worship service and what isn't; what sort of behaviours may a person engage
in before she or he is disqualified from serving as elder or deacon; what sorts
of Sunday activities will we support and where will we frown on them
-- all that kind of stuff.
How many times per Sunday should we be worshipping?
Or as you live your personal faith life:
In the dating scene - wondering what's legit and what isn't? How far can you go and still call it Christian dating?
In the way you spend your money - how much should you give to the church? What sorts of toys are OK to buy? How big may your house be without being called extravagant and unstewardly?
In the things you do for fun - going to the theatre, dancing, card playing - are they in or out?
How much time each day should I be spending at bible reading & prayer?
And what happens is that we get all focused on do's and don'ts. What's in and what's out. What fits and what doesn't.
Not that there shouldn't be any such items. Jesus doesn't say that. Remember what we recited together.
Look at what He supports in Matthew 15.
Very clear, straight forward stuff.
But too much time looking at do's and don'ts gets all our attention and energy focused outward - on the fringes. We get all worried about the fences. And there is natural pressure that pulls us towards the edge; away from the centre.
We get all concerned about "How far can you go and still be "IN"?"
Now you're in.
Oh, oh!! Now you've stepped over the line and are out of bounds!
The Bible's clear message from the lips of Jesus Himself is that our attention is NOT to be focused on the edges; our faces should NOT be turned to the outside. He wants us focused INWARDLY; facing the CENTRE.
Instead of asking, "Do Joanne's actions mean that she's crossed over the line; Has Daniel gone out of bounds - no longer "in"?"
Maybe we should be asking "In which direction is Joanne faced? Which way is Daniel moving - towards the centre, or away from it?"
For at the very centre of life itself is the Creator of Life - Holy God and our Saviour Jesus Christ. The heart of God desires that we would face Him and move ever closer to Him.
And if we can live that way - concerned more about the direction in which we're faced and in which we're moving, than about where precisely we're standing - if we do that, a lot of the unnecessary and cumbersome baggage we've accumulated over time won't matter quite so much. We won't trip over it so easily. It won't obscure our vision of "Loving the Lord our God with all our heart, and our neighbor as ourselves" quite so much.
May the Holy Spirit guide us to really live this out!!
God is glorified more by hearts that are turned in His direction, and hungry to move closer to His divine heart.
The life-changing message of Christ that we share with each other and eagerly extend to others is not one of do's and don'ts in some huge code, but the amazing news that Christ's heart is filled with enormous love for us, so great that He was willing to die in order to bring us to a space in life where we could turn our hearts towards Him and find a connection, find a home, find a friend, find eternal life.
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