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Personal Piety (Mark 7: 1-23)

Rev. Candasu Vernon Cubbage

In recent years piety has become one of my favorite words and not just because the word pie is embedded neatly within it. Yes, I do love pie, but this affection is about more flakey pastry and delicious fruit filling. The curious aspect to my love of the word piety is that I used to hate it. Well, maybe not hate, but I found it distasteful.

I always thought pious people spent all their time praying and acting holy – whatever that looked like. I never aspired to be pious and frankly I thought my being pious was a lost cause. I thought I was far too flawed, too week, too human ever to be considered pious. The truth is I still am flawed, weak, and human, but I’m also pious.

Pious actually means having an earnest wish to fulfill religious obligations. I really do want to fulfill my religious obligations. So I gave up my hate of piety and transferred my distaste to the sub-genre of personal piety. Personal piety means that one-on-one Jesus is my savior kind of relationship that can appear to exclude others – hence my discomfort. I do have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, but as far as I’m concerned it’s not worth much if it doesn’t also include my relationships with others, and not just others who think and believe the same as I do.

All that to say, I’ve given up on personal piety in favor of a more inclusive piety. Except, I can’t quite let go of some of those old personal piety hymns. They have become a part of me. Even though I’d like to go through the hymnals and change all the pronouns to our instead of my, because I really do believe we are never in this alone.

One of my favorites that I just can’t give up is by Ms. Fanny Crosby. “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine! Oh what a foretaste of glory divine!”

But my favorite verse is the third verse.  “Perfect submission, all is at rest.  I in my Savior am happy and blest.  Watching and waiting, looking above, filled with His goodness, lost in His love.”   

It took me a long time to let go and submit. There were long years, decades even, of resistance to giving up my autonomy. I couldn’t seem to let go until I began to understand that I wasn’t submitting to God’s authoritarian control. I was submitting to God’s tremendous, transforming love. When I stopped fighting and surrendered I found I was able to rest, really rest, and allow God to bless me. I was lost in his love. This is my story. This is my song.

Of course it can be your song too. I don’t own it any more than I own Jesus.
This is our story. This is our song. We’re praising our Savior all the day long – together. It’s all about relationship. All of us together in relationship with God.

But all too often we sing our song of praise to God and then we forget about perfect submission and echoes of mercy before we get to our cars to go back to our everyday lives. It’s sad really. We say one thing, we even mean it at the time, but then we set it back down and do something else. This is what Jesus was talking about when he called the Pharisees hypocrites in the story we read from Mark’s Gospel this morning. Jesus quoted Isaiah to the Pharisees saying, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.”

I’m afraid that far too often we do honor God with our lips while our hearts are far from God.
We say the right things, especially on Sunday morning, but that’s not always how we act in our daily lives – our real lives. We lift our eyes to the heavens and proclaim to the Lord, “You alone are God!” But then we look back down on the world before us and we do what we feel we need do to get ahead, or at least to maintain our current position in society.

We ask, “Is it really so wrong to want good things to eat, or for our children to be safe, or for our futures to hold some security?”

No, of course it’s not wrong to long for those things.

The problem comes when we allow our desire for control over our lives to guide us instead of allowing God’s word, which tells us to love one another and pray for our enemies and feed the hungry and visit those in prison, to guide us. The next thing you know, we’ve taken actions that started out as merely convenient, or which supported our desires, and made them into rules to live by. Eventually those rules were codified and we began to remember them as coming straight from God’s lips.

Modern people didn’t start that fire. The problem of teaching human precepts as doctrines is an old problem – thousands of years old. That’s what was behind the argument in this passage from Mark.
The Pharisees were in a twist about the disciples not washing their hands before they ate.

Handwashing before meals was essential to the Pharisees and they were aghast that the disciples were ignoring this doctrine.

Generally, our first reaction to hearing this is, well, yes the disciples really ought to wash their hands before they eat. Were they brought up in a barn? Everyone knows they should be washing their hands before meals, or they should know.

But the point of hand washing in this story is not about personal hygiene. It is not about how much you scrub or whether you use cold or hot or tepid water and a full squirt of antibacterial soap. The point was the ritual.

You could scrub your hands like a surgeon and be as clean as humanly possible and they wouldn’t qualify as clean hands because you hadn’t been through the whole ritual. It wasn’t soap and water that made your hands clean, it was the ritual. It was a ritual that made you pure and thus acceptable in the eyes of God.

This ritual of hand washing had been a tradition from way back and the Pharisees insisted on enforcing that tradition. This story is not about the disciples having grimy hands. This story is about Jesus and his disciples bucking authority and authority’s tradition. The Pharisees demanded to know, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders?”

Jesus wasn’t about let that drop. He threw it right back at them. “Tradition? What about the tradition (commandment actually) of honoring your father and mother?”

See the Pharisees had finagled a loophole in that tradition/law. They declared their wealth an offering to God and therefore they were not subject to having to use their wealth to support their parents. I don’t really get how that loophole supposedly worked, but that’s what is going on here.
You know how loopholes are. You take a law that specifically says one thing and you twist and turn it until it says something else – sometimes until it says the complete opposite, or at least enough of an opposite that you don’t have to abide by it.

Yeah, we get that. We aren’t fond of all our traditions, especially some of the hard and fast traditions that have become laws, so we find loopholes to get around them. Then there are other traditions we hold on to as if our salvation depends on them.

Of course we all know that our salvation comes from Jesus Christ and doesn’t depend on traditions. So what difference do some of these laws and traditions really make?
Does it matter if you wear a garment made from two different types of thread? Is it really such a big deal if we enjoy bacon and shrimp?
What is the purpose of ritual handwashing?

How do these things, traditional as they may be, support our mission?
Often the answer to those questions is, “Well, it’s the way we do it and we’ve always done it that way.”

Okay, but how does it support our mission today?

To determine whether or not our traditions support our mission, we first have to understand what our mission is.

What is our mission? Anyone? Bueller?

Jesus specifically directed his disciples to go out and baptize and make disciples of all nations. He did not tell them to win or save souls – the Holy Spirit does that. Jesus told them to baptize and make disciples.

Okay, I think we have a general understanding of how to baptize, but how do we make disciples?
To be a disciple we need to know Christ, the person we are following. We need to understand at some level his message which he boiled down into two laws: Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. We need to go do that. We need to love God and love our neighbors and love ourselves. We need to prepare and equip each other to love God, their neighbor, and themselves. And we need to encourage each other in loving God, our neighbors, and ourselves. Period.

All the things Jesus taught and demonstrated can be categorized under the headings of loving God, loving our neighbors, and loving ourselves. That is who we are to be and what we are to do.

But over the years we have acquired our own traditions that to us mean “church”. There are all kinds of things that many of us think we cannot be church without, even though Jesus never said anything about them when he proclaimed our mission and sent us out to complete that mission.

Jesus never said anything about: Worship at 11 am on Sunday morning Choirs or particular hymns or organs Sitting in a pew

Would we still be fulfilling our mission if we didn’t have this building? No building is it essential to who we are or what we are called to do.

Are spoken sermons essential? We need God’s word and we need it proclaimed, but expositional or narrative sermons are not the only way to get those points and experiences across. We are already bucking against some of our traditions.

All are welcome here regardless of race or gender or any “ism” around. There’s no real dress code here either. We don’t necessarily expect worshippers to arrive in their Sunday best, nor do we avoid them if they do come dressed to the nines.
We’ve changed those traditions, at least for this congregation.

But what other traditions are we willing to change is order to fulfill our mission to make disciples? Is there something we can to do make our worship here more understandable to those who were not raised in the Disciples of Christ tradition, or those who were not raised in any church tradition? What might happen if kids were welcome in our worship, and by that I mean what if there was anything in the service they could relate to – anything. What if we met later in the day?

What if we regularly had fellowship together?

What if we removed the pews and sat in chairs that were more comfortable and that could be rearranged into different configurations?

What if communion was a love feast, a meal we shared together, instead of a loaf of French bread and some Welch’s?

What if once a month we didn’t have worship at all but spent that time doing some sort of community service together?

I’m looking out at your faces and let me tell you, many of them are panicked or even angry. Relax, I’m not saying we absolutely need to do these things. I’m just saying what if we did them? There are all kinds of things we could do differently.

Our first reaction might be, “No, no, these are our traditions!” Well, that’s what the Pharisees were saying. “NO, these are our traditions.”

Jesus questioned whether or not the traditions still served to further the mission. We need to question that as well.

Do our traditions still serve the mission to love God, love our neighbors, and love ourselves?