September 2, 2018 – Pentecost 15 B

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

1Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around [Jesus], 2they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3(For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 5So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
7in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
14Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

—–

I have a friend named Peter with an untraditional hobby. He travels around the world and has made friends with people who share this interest. He has written a book and has honed his craft to a fine art. It requires focus. It requires time. It requires patience. It requires a steady hand. And it requires rocks. My friend Peter balances rocks. This sermon slide is a picture of one of his creations.

He tried to teach me, once, how to do it. It’s very difficult because, throughout the whole process of balancing rock on top of rock, you have to be very aware and concerned with where the center of the rock is. The center, as I remember him explaining it, is the place within the rock which will not move and can support the weight of the rock above it. The trouble, though, is that the center keeps moving as you add rocks to the tower. The center of the tower relies on making sure that the tower maintains balance over the first rock. Stray even a little bit and the creation will come toppling down and, as happened to me on nearly every attempt to mimic Peter, it likely landing on a finger or toe in the process. This process of balancing rocks, which he does with ease, was very hard for me. The skill that he has worked so hard at is learning how to discern where the center of the rock is.

The same is true, I believe, of our life of faith. When we lose focus, when we forget what our center is, we can find the whole thing toppling down around us (and causing some damage in the process). We can get distracted and lose the center in a number of ways. Sometimes the thing which distracts us is something that happens to us – an illness, addiction, project, or accident which draws our attention away from God and toward. Sometimes, it’s something we do willingly – getting wrapped up in something which seems harmless at the time but eventually begins to overtake the center. Lose your focus, lose your center, and you lose your reason for being. Jesus is criticizing the Pharisees in our gospel today for losing their center and the way they did it, he explains, is that they have mistaken the traditions and laws of the elders for the work and word of God.

If you’ve been in church a while, you’ve probably heard stories of Jesus and his confrontations with the Pharisees. They often get a bad reputation from these encounters we read. But the reality is that Jesus likely had a lot in common with them. They were a sect, a denomination (if you will), within Judaism of that time which was seeking to reclaim the faith of Israel in the midst of trying times. They were attempting to win the nation back to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, reorienting the path of the Israelites back to the way of God and away from the worship of political and military power. They were enthusiastic, charismatic, and nobody questioned their dedication to their task. However, in their fervor and desire to live in a way which glorified God, they lost their focus and they picked up some baggage. This baggage came in the form of laws and regulations, following traditions rather than God’s intentions. According to Jesus, they were so focused on the traditions that they forgot what God’s intention was.

So before we begin to think ill of the Pharisees or (God forbid) the Jewish people as a whole, we need to recognize that we have lost focus at times, too. What we may like to relegate to other religious movement of the past is still very true of Christians today. Many times, as people of faith, we have lost focus. It’s a bit of a cliché, perhaps, but the lesson still stands that many are focused on issues of carpet color and song choice more than they are focused on the mission of God and the gospel we proclaim. We get caught up concerning ourselves with how people live, working to govern, prohibit, or control them, instead of concerning ourselves with keeping our focus, keeping the center of our faith.

And what, you may be asking, is that? What is the center of our faith? The center of our faith is found in Jesus Christ. Jesus, the Word made Flesh, God with us, who healed, taught, and modeled for us what this life looks like. Jesus, who loves you so much that he chose to die for you rather than heap more laws onto you. Jesus, whose love for you extends even beyond time, sin, and life itself. This is the love which bought for you eternal life, through the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ. The center of our faith is that you are loved, that you are forgiven, that you are gathered together with God and in God and of God. That comes first and that changes everything.

Then, instead of picking up baggage and piling on religious law and regulation, we can begin to see, like the author of James did, what true religion is: “to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1:27) That’s what our faith is about – keeping our focus and caring for others. If either of those things are out of line, then, like my hapless attempts to balance rocks, the tower of our faith will fall down. That is the center. That is our focus.

Part of this process of keeping our focus is recognizing that not every tradition, not every rule, not everything we pick up along the way is helpful or beneficial. Maybe something made sense at the time, maybe it was useful, maybe it even gave us a sense of freedom and joy, but now has become a confining and stagnant practice. And the hardest is part, perhaps, is that we’ll disagree on what is worth keeping and what is distracting. In times like this, especially, we draw our attention back to the center, back to the focus of our faith: Jesus Christ. Living in light of his love and grace for you, we seek to follow his example – to practice care and love for others (even those deemed unworthy or unwanted by our culture or ourselves), to speak the truth to power, to sacrifice for the sake of others, and to recognize that God loves all of creation (even the people we disagree with).

This is a difficult task. Keeping our focus is hard, whether we’re talking faith or rock balancing. It’s hard for us to find the center and remain in it. But I hope you find comfort knowing that God does not have that problem. Jesus remains focused on saving the world. The Holy Spirit remains focused on moving and surprising us. God remains focused on bringing forth a kingdom in which the weary find rest, the hungry are fed, the sick are healed, and the orphans, widows, outcast, and lonely are cared for. God is focused and God holds you. You are known and loved forever and always. That’s our focus. That’s our center. Amen.

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