Text: Mark 7:1-13, Isaiah 29:11-19 W 12th Sunday after Pentecost
No Additions, Corrections, or Deletions
In the name of him who makes the deaf to hear and the blind to see, dear friends in Christ: there exist some universal truths that pretty much everyone knows and takes for granted. There’s this one, for example: it is the nature of power to corrupt; and the nature of absolute power to corrupt absolutely. (I guess that’s actually two universal truths.) And there’s this one: it is the nature of bureaucracies to grow. I’m sure you’re familiar with these. Another universal truth you might not know but that will strike you as intuitively obvious is that it is the nature of churches to accumulate stuff.
I’m talking about items that come from well intentioned donors. Maybe they’re redecorating, down-sizing homes, or liquidating the estate of a recently deceased loved one. In the process they come across items that they no longer have use for but are deemed too good to throw away; and they think, “Maybe the church could use this.” And so the church becomes a depository for office items, furniture, baby things like cribs and changing tables, small kitchen appliances, and just about everything else under the sun. Especially likely to be donated are items that have some kind of religious theme: pictures of Jesus or of other biblical scenes, objects d’art with prayers or blessings written on them; that sort of thing. Images of the Ten Commandments are common; but why is it (like on the bulletin cover) that they always show the tables of stone that Moses received written by God’s hand in Hebrew with Roman numerals? I’ve never understood that. Sometimes too there are new items donated, often in memory of loved ones. Especially popular are things to adorn the sanctuary: crosses, candlesticks, communion ware (never mind that the church might have three sets already).
And, of course, the question never is whether the church wants or needs the items in question. Simply because they are gifts to the church, the church is expected to receive them graciously. No one has the temerity to say, “No thanks”; and once the gift is given, no one has the courage to get rid of it for fear of offending the donor (or somebody else in the donor’s family – even four or five generations after the fact).
And please don’t misunderstand me; I’m speaking about churches in general. I think we’re pretty good about this around here. This is the reason we have the Needs Committee: to identify what the church actually wants and politely decline what it doesn’t need. It’s because of the universal truth that churches accumulate stuff that we have a Needs Committee. Most churches don’t have one, and so the stuff accumulates. I spoke to one pastor at the ongoing education class I recently attended who said his church holds an annual rummage sale. Everyone brings all the junk they have cluttering their attics, closets, and garages (presumably mostly the stuff they couldn’t sell in their own yard sales). Then they have a sale that benefits the church. But here’s the kicker: items not sold are kept for next year. And this has been the church’s practice for forty years or more. So every potential storage space in the church is stuffed tight with junk: TVs from the 50’s, old dinette sets, rusty bikes, hideous stuff that no one wants and no one will ever want. A few years back they had to build a storage shed to house the overflow. Now it’s full and they’re talking about building another larger one. Obviously this is an extreme case; but it beautifully illustrates the universal truth that it is the nature of churches to accumulate stuff.
Another universal truth is that it is the nature of churches to lose things. This happens mostly with items like folding tables and chairs, kitchen utensils, and those big roaster pans. Somebody will be having a family reunion or get together and they’ll think, “Well, no one’s using it; and in a way I’m a part owner since I’m a member of the church. And I’ll only have it out for a couple days.” But then, though their intentions were good, they get distracted and delay and don’t bring the items back right away. And then it gets forgotten. And no one knows they’re missing until the next big church dinner – or more likely, when the next person wants to borrow it for their family get together. Then there’s panic. They send out an APB to find whatever it is; but they don’t because it turns out the person who borrowed it is in Arizona for the winter.
So, two universal truths: churches accumulate things and they lose things … and not just things. Another truth is that something very similar happens with the various teachings and practices of the church. What gets added are traditions, which are not necessarily bad things. Traditions are good when they are biblical and help to communicate the Gospel clearly. Unfortunately, there’s a tendency for the church to accumulate unbiblical traditions that cloud or distort the Gospel. These accrue like barnacles and forests of seaweed on the hull of the great ship of the church, impeding its progress, and making its message slow, sluggish, and ineffective. At the same time there are deletions. These are biblical truths the church should be proclaiming that have fallen out of favor for some reason. They’re not current with culture … not politically correct; like, for example, the Bible’s teaching on the distinct but complimentary roles the Lord has assigned to men and women at home and in the church, which we heard in today’s Epistle lesson. And what happens in time is that these deletions become traditions in their own right. We get used to not talking about them. And before long they pass from the church’s collective memory. These deletions are like torpedo worms tunneling into the hull causing leaks, ruining structural integrity and strength, and, if left unchecked, eventually causing the ship to sink.
And it’s important to note that the people who do the adding or subtracting do it with the best of intentions. They think to improve faithfulness, further the church’s witness to outsiders, or boost the sanctification and Christian character of members. But you know what they say about good intentions: the road to hell is paved with them. (There’s another universal truth.) And behind any addition or deletion to biblical truth, it’s always Satan who is at work to confuse, obfuscate, corrupt, twist, and turn the Gospel message—subtly, perhaps at first; but his unchanging goal is to deceive people at key points, to undermine critical components of the Gospel, and destroy peoples’ trust and confidence in Christ. I’ve said before that a statement can sound very good and biblical and be 99% truthful and still be 100% wrong. The same is true of traditions. And Jesus said you do many such things.
It’s also been going on for a long time. It was, for example, apparently quite early that God’s people left off using the Divine Name that the Lord gave Moses in Exodus chapter six. Some bright person got the idea that a way to keep the Second Commandment about not taking the Lord’s name in vain was never to speak his name to begin with. “If I never say the Divine Name, I can’t be accused of using it inappropriately.” The tradition stuck and God’s name became too holy for anyone to say. They thought of themselves as being pious for so honoring the name of the Lord – which might sound good; but it’s so wrong. I mean, if someone tells you their name and asks you to call them that, they’re going to be rather put off if you insist on calling them something else. God gave his name to his people for them to use – just as we learned in the catechism – to call upon him in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks. So the non-use of the Divine Name was every bit a violation of the Second Commandment as was its vain use.
In today’s Gospel reading, we see Jesus trashing some of the traditions of the Pharisees. First was their obsession with ritual washings. To be sure, the Lord ordered certain items (and persons) to be washed as part of some religious ceremonies – usually it was the priests and the items they used in worship. The Pharisees reasoned that if it was good for those holy articles, they’d be so much more holy themselves if they applied similar ritual washings to their hands and the items they used in daily life. They thought they’d be going the extra mile, thus proving to God how much they wanted to please him – as if the holy life consisted in outward acts of piety rather than in trusting in God’s forgiveness and grace, and then redeemed and forgiven, with a grateful and changed heart going forth and doing acts of mercy and love. We see quite the opposite attitude displayed in the pious sleight of hand the Pharisees used to avoid supporting their parents in their dotage. “Mom, Dad, it’s like this: I’d love to help you out; but you see, I’ve dedicated all my worldly wealth (when I die) to the Lord. And let’s face it, in the grand scheme of things he rates a lot higher than you. So, if I helped you I’d be robbing from God own treasury. You see? It’s really better that I not give you a dime.” And so they held to the myth of their own goodness at the loveless expense of their parents’ wellbeing, their pious tradition overriding the command for children to honor parents.
And such thinking didn’t stop back then. Consider how things were at the time of the Reformation. Then it was widely held that the holy life consisted of the observance of all kinds of accumulated traditions. There were penances, pilgrimages to sacred shrines, satisfactions to be made for sin; there was the whole monastic system; you had masses for the dead, prayers to saints and to Mary, on and on—there was no end to it. And all the while the basic truths of the Gospel were being clouded over and nearly forgotten. And I’m sure that all of these things started with people who were striving for a greater level of holiness in their lives; but these things mushroom and grow and take on lives of their own. What begins with good intentions ends up swallowing up the Gospel message. I probably don’t need to say that most of these things still survive within Roman Catholicism today.
But it happens on Protestant side of the house too. Here, among the churches that sprang from the Reformation, there is the widespread tradition of Rationalism. It’s a tradition that says if it doesn’t make sense to me, it can’t be true. There can’t be any unsolved mystery. A good example of this echoes the question we heard in last Sunday’s Gospel reading when the Jews, speaking of Jesus, asked, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” In the tradition of Rationalism, most of our Protestant friends say, “He can’t, therefore he didn’t really mean it.” It’s amazing isn’t it? In Jesus God can take flesh. He can walk on water, still storms, raise the dead, and feed thousands with a few loaves of bread – but he can’t figure out a way to give us his flesh to eat. They end up doing the same thing with Baptism, taking what God gave as a comfort and assurance for people – a pledge of his grace and forgiveness in Jesus – and they turn it into Law; an act I do to show my submission to the Lord. In both cases they rob people of the assurance the sacraments are intended to give to sinners of their forgiveness in Christ and turn them into meaningless, legalistic traditions. This is what Isaiah is talking about when he says, “You turn things upside down.” The same thing happens when religious teachers try to make the Theory of Evolution compatible with the biblical creation account. The fact is they don’t fit together; something’s got to give – and what will give is the biblical teaching of not just creation; but also of the fall, and the nature of sin, and therefore also salvation, re-creation, and on and on. Again, we can hear Isaiah: “Shall the vessel of clay made by the potter say to him, ‘you did not make me’? These days it is the tradition of many Christians to do exactly that.
But, of course, these things are easy to identify in others; what about closer to home? How are we doing the same thing? Well, here’s one: I recently read an article by one of our pastors about the Lord’s Supper. The writer was disparaging the use of those little individual plastic cups for communion. To tell the truth, they’re not my favorite – I personally like the message of being united in Christ that the shared common cup sends; but this guy essentially said that to use the little plastic cups was to deny the real presence of Christ in the sacrament. His point was that if you really believe the cup contains the blood of Christ, you’d insist that it be placed in the fanciest, most expensive chalice you could possibly afford as a way to honor him. Makes me wonder what the church did for the first several centuries before they had fine communion ware. And you see what this leads to: “I love Jesus more because I use a nicer chalice than you” or “Our church is better than yours because we would never dream of putting the blood of Christ in disposable plastic”. Along the same line, I’ve heard that some of our pastors are now prostrating themselves – that is, lying face down – before the consecrated elements as an act of adoration. I’m sure they have good intentions. They’re trying to stress the real presence of Jesus; but it sounds to me a lot like what’s called Eucharistic Adoration, that is, worshipping the sacramental elements as is done is some churches – which is a flagrant abuse of the sacrament. I mean, Jesus didn’t say take this and worship it. He said take it and eat it. That’s what the sacrament is for: eating and drinking Christ crucified for the forgiveness of sins.
Leaving those we would call “high church” who want to add pomp and ceremony to our worship tradition, there are folks on the other end of the spectrum who want to remove parts (or all) of the liturgy and substitute them with their own new traditions – which almost always have been borrowed from decidedly non-Lutheran sources. Look, the reason various churches do things differently is because they believe different things; and by adopting their practices, we unwittingly throw out the sound doctrine upon which our practices are based and adopt theirs.
And here’s what it is: whatever we do or don’t do, we are establishing or continuing certain traditions – whether we intend to or not. I mean, if we do something people aren’t used to once they say, “Huh? What was that all about?” But if we do it two or three times, it becomes the new tradition. So I think it’s time for some self examination in this regard. We need to ask: What are our traditions here in this church? Are they biblical? Do we understand them? If not, we need to ask, “Why are we doing this?” You should ask the same questions about the way you express your religious traditions at home: your daily prayers, your devotional reading and meditation, your family devotions, and prayers at meals and with the children at bedtime. And we need to ask where are all these traditions we are using or establishing leading us? Is it to greater reliance on Christ and him crucified? Or to something else? Are they directing us to Jesus or to look at ourselves?
By God’s grace we have been handed down a wonderful tradition in the Lutheran Confessions. They contain a solid body of doctrine that’s both biblical and that elevates Christ and his cross, and always keeps them in the center. Are we using them? Do you even know what the Lutheran Confessions are? We’ve been handed down a rich, liturgical tradition, and a resource of sound, biblical hymns that clearly proclaim the Gospel. Are we using them? Now, I’m not saying that there is no room for innovation and creativity. These too are gifts that God gives to us and that should be put to use; but we need to ensure that as we incorporate any new thing or decide to omit some old thing that there are no additions, corrections, or deletions to the pure undefiled Word of God and the saving message of Jesus Christ and him crucified. That and that alone is what makes the pastures of the church fruitful for the Lord. That’s what causes the deaf to hear and the blind to see. That’s what opens the Book of truth that’s otherwise sealed and misunderstood.
And that, my friends, is a tradition worth hanging on to and cherishing – and well worth passing down to the next generation. May God give us the grace to do so in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria!