Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Readings: Isaiah 29:11–19 | Ephesians 5:22–33 | Mark 7:1–13

Text: Mark 7:1-13

In the time of Jesus, the Pharisees were the religious guard for the nation of Israel.  After the time of the Exile, and coming out as champions for righteousness after the Maccabean revolt, they held the Scriptures in the highest regard.  However, they also took it upon themselves to “make a fence around the Law” by adding rules and regulations that would curb the possible disobedience of God’s people Israel.  These were recorded in the Mishnah.  They called it “oral Law” and conveniently left out the part that they were not actually given to Moses, and therefore did not have divine authority.

Let’s hear again how Jesus responded to this:

“Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,

            “ ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me;

in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’

You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”

And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ 11 But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban” ’ (that is, given to God)— 12 then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, 13 thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.”

The problem wasn’t the traditions themselves.  After all, they encouraged piety and obedience to the Word of God.  The problems were: 1. They made obedience to these traditions binding, as in you would be guilty for not holding to these things; and 2. Some of them were actually in conflict with the Word of God, and they chose to obey the tradition!

This kind of use of binding tradition flourished in the Christian church before the Reformation.  Many such traditions had been handed down, such as the laity only receiving the Body of Christ when taking Communion; requiring celibacy for all priests and nuns; treating the Mass as something that could make peace with God or shorten a dead relative’s sentence in purgatory (another human tradition); or forcing people to go to private confession and list all their sins. (See a list in the Augsburg Confession Articles 22-28)

There are two helpful truths the Lord has for us in this account, which help keep the church on earth from error.  The first is that Christians are not bound to any practice which is not established by “Thus saith the Lord.”

What are the essentials?  I’ll let the Lord Himself tell us: “Make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matt. 28:19-20); “Repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in [Christ’s] name to all nations” (Luke 24:47); “Truly, I say to you, whatever you [the Church] bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matt. 18:18); “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” (John 13:34); “Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” 27 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, 28 for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matt. 26:26-28)  Preaching the Gospel of Jesus, Baptism and discipleship, Confession, Christian love, the Lord’s Body and Blood—these are foundational.  But how those are carried out has been applied in many different ways.  What’s central to all of it is that the Word of God has the first and last say. 

It’s good for us to be reminded about the right role for human tradition, especially since we are Christians who observe many handed-down traditions: the use of creeds, candles, chanting, hymnals and orders of service, a church calendar, and vestments—just to name some.  Are we wrong for using them?  Are others wrong who do not use them?  We’re quick to say, Of course not!  But then sometimes, we find ourselves looking down on our brothers, and think “if only they really had knowledge, their worship would look like ours.”

Some 50 years after the Reformation began, there were similar disagreements over which and how many of the old traditions to keep.  Our forefathers wrote about this in what’s called the Formula of Concord (something I’ll be using as a preaching series soon).  About human traditions, they wrote, “We believe, teach, and confess that no church should condemn another because it has fewer or more external ceremonies not commanded by God, as long as there is mutual agreement in doctrine and in all its articles as well as in the right use of the holy sacraments”  Yes, there are the essentials, which God clearly spells out in His Word.  But anything of human origin is not something to judge each other about.  We can have fruitful discussions about the benefits of traditions or how clearly they magnify the Word of God. But never should traditions take the place of the Word of God and Christ who unites us.

The second lesson is a reminder that it is never right to set aside the Word of God and replace it with human constructions.  Our problem (and I speak collectively as a human race) is that we tend to be fundamentalists.  I mean, tell me what the bare minimum is and that’s what I’ll shoot for.  Just memorize the Six Chief Parts of Luther’s Small Catechism, but nevermind if you ever read the Bible for yourself.  And on that point I think we’ve fallen into error, even as the heirs of the Scripture-alone Reformation.  It’s much more appealing to just go to tradition because that’s what we’ve always done, and we don’t have to think really hard about it.  Confirmation, marriage, funerals, and church membership are all things that have been abused.  We’ve given these rites a life of their own, sometimes apart from or opposed to the Word of God.  Confirmation isn’t commanded by God, but woe to the pastor who doesn’t “graduate” the 13-year-olds of his congregation.  Marriage belongs more to the state than the church, but often the symbolism that was meant to magnify Christ becomes about the poor sinner who is the bride.  Funerals are rarely times to meditate on the preaching of the Law and the joy of Christ’s resurrection.  Instead they are occasions to eulogize the deceased and bask in sentimentality.  Church membership from the early church was about confessing what is taught at this church and received at this altar, but for as long as many of us can remember, many have treated it as membership in a social club with doctrine being a far second.

We need the wisdom of Jesus, and for His Word to set us straight again. From the Old Testament lesson:

You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay, that the thing made should say of its maker, “He did not make me”; or the thing formed say of him who formed it, “He has no understanding”? Is it not yet a very little while until Lebanon shall be turned into a fruitful field, and the fruitful field shall be regarded as a forest? In that day the deaf shall hear the words of a book, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see. The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord, and the poor among mankind shall exult in the Holy One of Israel.  (Isa. 29:16-19)

The Lord does an amazing thing…for the misguided Pharisees and for Christians of every age, and even us.  He came and did an amazing thing.  What people had wickedly turned upside down, He set right.  To people, deaf and lost in the gloom of their own religion creations, the words of God’s Book are revealed.  He opens the Scriptures, and in them Christ is revealed.

People crave rules to know if they’re on the right road.  But God craves people’s heart.  He doesn’t want our heart far from Him, because if it that’s the case, no matter how many motions we go through, they’re meaningless.  It’s this phony excuse for Christianity that troubles so many who just get fed up with religion.  But the Lord abounds in steadfast love: “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him” (Psalm 103:11) He is gracious to forgive our errors and guide the people of His Church to act faithfully.

When Christ’s Church clings to Him by faith, then the traditions are not empty or contrary.  They actually exalt Christ—they teach, give voice to our praise, convey the reverence and beauty of the Lord, and guide our children.  Tradition simply means to hand down, and this is the faith which we have received from our forefathers and we want to pass down to our children.  May the Lord help us to always hear Him, repent of our errors, and do all things to glorify Him in our lives, and within the community of His Church. Amen.

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Romans 12:9-21)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church & Bethel Lutheran Church, Lebanon & Sweet Home, OR
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost + September 3, 2017
Text: Romans 12:9-21

Christians are strange people in the world.
On June 17, 2015, a young man came to Bible study at a church in.  The rest of the group welcomed him, even though they didn’t know him and even though he was the only fair-skinned person in the group.  After welcoming him and discussing Scripture with him, that young man, Dylann Roof, took advantage of that group and opened fire on them while they were praying.  Later at his indictment hearing, several relatives of the victims asked to speak.  They shared their obvious pain and anger, but nonetheless, they told the man who had killed their relatives, “I forgive you” and that they werepraying for God to be merciful to him.[1]
On the morning of October 2, 2006), another troubled man by the name of Charlie Roberts entered the West Nickel Mines Amish School.  He barricaded himself inside the school and executed 5 children ages 7-13.  In this case, the shooter took his own life, so there was no earthly justice to be had.  In the aftermath, the parents from the Amish community publicly forgave the man who had brutally killed their daughters.  At the shooter’s funeral, the community came together to embrace the shooter’s parents, Terri and Chuck Roberts, and one of the first to approach them was one of the parents who had lost two daughters in the attack.[2]
In a world that thirsts for justice, selfish ambition, and power, Christians stand apart.  The Holy Apostle Paul writes about this alien quality of Christians:
Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. 10 Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. 17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Psychologists and sociologists study trends and factors that lead to why people are the way they are.  Yet, in spite of personal backgrounds and the culture they live in, Christians are aliens.  If it isn’t simply because of family of origin or culture, how do Christians become this strange?
It goes back to little word in last week’s Epistle reading: “Therefore”  “Therefore, by the mercies of God, present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.”[3]  “Therefore” encompasses all that came before: The righteousness of God has appeared, condemning the whole world, exposing the judgment that all have fallen short of the glory of God, but are justified by His grace as a gift in Jesus Christ.[4]  This gift comes to us according to God’s everlasting promise of salvation, secured even for His enemies, for the whole human race even if they should never believe.[5]  Yet those who believe rest in the peace that comes from God.  They have comfort in their continued struggle against their own sin, and because of the peace they have received, they extend that peace to others.[6]
Therefore, because God has shown what true love is, His people love.  Therefore, because God has turned the evil of the crucifixion into the world’s good, His people are heirs of that mighty act.  Therefore, because Jesus endured the cross in hope of our salvation, those who follow Him are empowered to bear all things with hope in God.  Therefore, as Jesus blessed His crucifiers and prayed for their forgiveness, so also we, who are baptized into His crucifixion and death, bless their enemies and pray for their good.
The members of Christ’s Body sing, “I’m but a stranger here; heaven is my home,” and it’s true.  Christians are strangers in this world, not only because they don’t behave like other people, but because they belong to a different place than this world.  When the world and our own flesh are bent on vengeance, justice, and wrath, Christians are for peace and forgiveness.  In a culture that says, “It’s all about me,” Christians are generous and count others more important than themselves.
Therefore, because you have this different identity, this different origin, you think of yourself and others in God’s light.
Never be wise in your own sight” reflects your humility at the thought that you have nothing to boast of before God—not college degrees, not experience, not a pious life, not purer doctrine.  God doesn’t have any favorites, and He doesn’t make distinction, so of course how could you set yourself up as better than any other person?  That also means you’re not afraid to be wrong, to admit your mistakes, your part in making conflicts worse.  Let God be the only one who is absolutely true and right all the time.  You?  Me? Not so much.
God’s therefore also changes how we treat those who have wronged us, not by minimizing the injustice or the damage caused by it, and not even by the other party admitting what they’ve done to be wrong.  It changes how we respond: 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’”  Vengeance comes in many forms these days besides physical. They used to say, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”  The words that have been uttered have proven that playground rhyme false.  In person and online, words cut people down and make them small, insignificant, and worthless in our eyes.
Besides condemning that firmly with the 8th Commandment, “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor,” God has gone further.  By making peace with His enemies, God has undercut the reason we have to accuse others and speak ill of them.  He has made us different by making us people of peace and forgiveness.
Just as that’s true individually, it’s true as a congregation.  Over the past few years, there have been a lot of hurts, betrayals of trust, slander, and broken promises.  There’s no sugar-coating the wrongs that have been committed, some are public and some are not.  Instead, there is the blood of Christ, the sacrifice offered which is the power behind the words God speaks: “I forgive you.”  Just like the parents and relatives of mass shootings—who have every right to be angry, who suffered so much because of someone’s actions—we who are baptized into Christ can say to those individuals who have wronged us: “I forgive you.”
It’s this forgiveness that makes us strangers and aliens in this world, but also what makes us heirs of eternal life.  The mark of us being a Christian congregation isn’t found in externals of the leadership, or worship style, or in how many are at our congregation versus another.  The mark of us being a Christian congregation is that we sincerely forgive and even gladly do good to those who have sinned against us.  We love even our enemies, not with a subtle wish that burning coals would hurt them but that God would keep us all in humble repentance and the grace which God has showered on us in Jesus Christ.  Amen.
[3] Romans 12:1
[4] Romans 3:22-25
[5] Romans 4:16, Romans 5:6-10, Romans 5:18-19
[6] Romans 7:14-15, Romans 8:1-2, Romans 8:26