Scripture: Mark 7:1-13
Title: Honor & Love

Last Sunday afternoon I attended the opening celebration service of Open Hands Mercy Station Stephen. Mercy Station Stephen is located in the church building of St. Stephen United Methodist Church. The Bishop, Larry Goodpastor was there to give a brief opening address. Bishop Goodpastor made this point. “Churches are not supposed to be involved in missions. A church is supposed to be a mission.” A church is supposed to be a group of people who come together to serve others for God’s glory. This idea of what a church is often clashes with our traditional idea of what a church is supposed to be. Change is hard. The kind of change Bishop Goodpastor is talking about requires a shift away from doing church to being a church. It’s the same kind of tension in this morning’s passage from Mark 7. How do we make the distinction between what we have traditionally done and called “church” to the mission and ministry Jesus Christ has called us to today?

In this morning’s passage the Scribes and the Pharisees believed they knew what it was to be good Jew. From Mark 7:1-5 I take it the Pharisees had this idea to be a good Jew meant following God’s law down to the letter. I believe there was a fear among the Pharisees and Scribes about what would happen if the Jews did not obey God’s law. The most traumatic event in the life of the Jewish people was the diaspora where God allowed Israel’s enemies to conquer Israel and cart her people off into exile. The ten northern tribes never returned from Assyria, and only some of the Jews returned from exile in Babylon. The prophets of the Old Testament had made it very clear. The reason the enemies of Israel defeated Israel and destroyed Israel’s cities was because Israel had not obeyed God’s law. In good faith the Pharisees set traditions in place which were stricter than God’s law in an attempt to prevent people from breaking God’s commandment. The Pharisees did not want God to send the Jews into exile again. However, in setting these new traditions the Pharisees and the elders put even more distance between the Jewish people and the Lord God Almighty.

It’s sad but churches do this too. As individual churches we have our own traditions about how the worship service is supposed to be run, and what is supposed to be done with the cross at Easter. We have traditions about stained glass windows, and hymnals and what Christmas Eve service is supposed to look like. As a pastor some of the worst fights I have ever had with church people have been over the church’s traditions. I have discovered our need to hold on to our traditions grows as we grow older and as our stress level increases. Especially, with the reality of so many churches closing we get scared – we get scared. When we get scared we feel out of control. When we feel out of control we want to hold on to the things which make us feel safe. We look for something sure and stable to hold on to, and guess what? We have had these traditions for a while now. Our traditions can look pretty safe. After all, we’ve always done it that way. I’m not going to say we put our traditions ahead of the commandments of God, but I am going to say when life gets hard it’s not as easy to keep God and God’s commandments right in front us. Our fears about our current situation put our traditions in the way of the Gospel. Our fears about change move our hearts far from God. This is what Jesus had to say.

 “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” (Isaiah 29:13).
“You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”

Now you may be thinking, “Common, now Jesus. There was a time when You blessed this ministry and our church grew! How can you condemn these traditions now?” (pause) I don’t like to speak for Jesus. My words pale by comparison. However, this morning I am going to make a guess. I am going to guess the traditions we cling so tightly to today were the result of growth in the spirit at an earlier time in our church’s history. Since our church is not growing now in the same way it once did I think it only fitting we ask God, “Where and how are You, Lord, asking us to grow today?

I think the place to start is with God’s commandments instead of our traditions. Usually I quote Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 when I talk about God’s great commandments, but this morning I would like for y’all to grab your pew Bible and turn to Matthew 22:34-40. In this passage Jesus had silenced the Sadducees so the Pharisees came with a lawyer. The lawyer wisely moved the conversation away from the subject of traditions and asks Jesus this question; “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law” (Matt 22:36)? <pause>

This is a great question. For the Jewish people asking what is the greatest commandment is supposed to be a textbook question like, “Who is the President of the United States?” However in Jesus’ hands the question is more personal. God is Jesus’ Father. I imagine for Jesus loving God is a more personal thing the way loving our mothers (next week is Mother’s Day) is a more personal thing than knowing who is the President of the United States. Shouldn’t the greatest commandment be personal to all Christians? Shouldn’t the first and second greatest commandments be more than an answer we were taught to memorize as children? How might our lives be different if we allowed these two commandments to become personal? The greatest commandment is to, “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt 22:37). “A second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:39). These commandments are important because they lay out the priorities by which our whole lives are to be governed. Simply put the greatest commandments are to; Love God first. Love ourselves as God loves us. Love others as God loves us.

We are to love God enough to want to become like Christ in everyway possible. The Holy Spirit makes all things possible so there is no use in coping out. Yes, Jesus is the Son of God, and more than that God. No, we are not God. However, through the power of the Holy Spirit we can be a good deal more like Christ. As Christians we are created and called to be disciples whose purpose is to become more like Christ with every breath we take. As we become more like Christ we are to better understand how much God loves us; and the way we see ourselves changes. As we better understand God’s love for us the way we see others changes. Pretty soon we realize we have a lot of work to do. Perhaps the first things we should get to work on are our fears and our church. What we do here on Sunday morning can no longer be about what makes us feel safe, comfortable or secure. What we do here can no longer be about satisfying the obligations of our traditions because that’s what makes us feel safe. What we do through the life and ministry of this church can no longer be a response to fears about closing, or paying the bills. What we do when we come together as a group has to be about one thing and one thing only – serving God by serving others.

Serving God by serving others in our best attempt to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ is what we are called to do. Let us recall the great commission from Matthew 28:19-20 “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Let’s have an Amen if y’all agree with this statement. The great commission should be the measuring stick by which all of our ministries are assessed. Amen? Amen! Amen?! Amen!! How do our traditions reach the people who need to be reached outside these walls today? Where do they help people come to know God for themselves? Where do our traditions get in the way? Traditions coming before the commandments of God are what put the Pharisees in hot water with Jesus. Do we want to be in that same boat? This morning’s passage calls us to take a hard look at the traditions we cling to and ask ourselves if they are getting in the way of the Gospel work we have been called to today. Let’s ask ourselves what is more important: our traditions, or spreading the Gospel? As we look around this room, how are we measuring up?

In the name of Jesus Christ,