When I was thirteen my mother and I stepped into St. George’s Episcopal Church to worship with that community for the first time. This humble church sat unassuming on the corner of an impoverished neighborhood in our suburban city in California. Now maybe it was because that parish was so small and any new face was a cause for celebration or maybe the community was living into its Christian call of radical hospitality, whatever the reason, we were warmly welcomed and quickly folded into the life of the church. We began regular attendance at the early morning Holy Eucharist where a dozen people would gather in the quiet and pray together in joyful solemnity.
In less than a year I found myself as a young high school student centrally situated in the service. When there are only a handful of folks and many tasks to be done, those willing help will often find themselves with endless opportunities to serve. As a recent convert to the Episcopal tradition, curious and willing, I agreed to participate in the altar party. It was a common occurrence that my tasks on Sunday morning included all of the following: carrying the cross, reading the lessons, bidding the prayers of the people, setting the altar, pointing the altar book, and administering the cup. The priest served in the priestly roles, I served in the lay roles, and the few who were gathered as a congregation participated.
Before embedding myself at St. George’s I had been raised up in the Methodist tradition. At First Methodist I had the honor of being an acolyte. Once a month I would don robes to carry a torch, lighting and later snuffing the candles on the altar. Between our duty of ensuring the flame was either burning or extinguished we would take leave of church in lieu of Sunday School where my formation as a Christian began.
Now though there are many similarities between the Methodist and Episcopal traditions, there was enough different that at the time of my conversion the learning curve was steep. My new role in service was much more complex. Over several months the Vicar tutored me in liturgical practices and I was licensed as a Lay Eucharistic Minister by the Diocese of California. I learned the way things were done in the Episcopal Church and how St. George’s practiced the Episcopal way in their particular context.
What was new to me in adolescence has become a central part of my identity. Being an Episcopalian by doing things the way we do things – the way Episcopal liturgy, rubrics, and polity tell us we ought to do things – is important to me. My religious beliefs both theological and practical have been formed and informed by my devotion to and immersion in the Episcopal Church and the way we do things. My faith has also been formed by all the people who mentored me and those I was able to serve.
It is a rare occurrence, usually a wedding or a funeral, that I worship in any other denomination. Honestly, when I do I slip into silent criticism of the way worship is happening because it does not connect me with God in the same way I feel connected to God sitting in the pews of an Episcopal Church.
I inhabit a belief that the Episcopal way is the way church ought to be done. That the way we do things as Episcopalians, even as St. Paul’s, is the best way because it is what I know and what speaks to my heart and helps me feel connected to God. The risk here is that I am taking what I know, my own perspective and assumptions, and universalizing our way as the wayor even more dangerously God’s way.
This is what we encounter in today’s Gospel. The Pharisees, religious leaders of the time, are well studied and practiced in the way to worship and remain in right relationship with God. For the Pharisees the way they know is the way. At that time, it was customary to wash before eating to ensure that one was not defiled in the process. The wayto remain Holy while eating was to wash one’s hands, one’s food, one’s dishes. That way had been passed down through tradition with predecessors carefully coaching the rookies in the right way to worship God. For the Pharisees it is imperative to practice faith in this specific way. In my sanctified imagination the Pharisees are aghast and accusatory when they ask: “Why do your disciples not live according to the traditions of the elders?”
Jesus disrupts their understanding, illustrating that adhering strictly to the way does not make a person more holy in God’s eyes by saying: “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” He chastises the Pharisees: “This people honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrine.” The Pharisees are consumed with what has been constructed through human tradition. They are so focused on their judgement of Jesus’ disciples defiling themselves that they fail to live into God’s commandment to love their neighbor. In this story the Pharisees value tradition over relationship.
Jesus calls us through this text to orient our own priorities by valuing relationship over tradition. He invites us to be honest with ourselves about where we are holding to human tradition and where we are being obedient to the commandment of God. A few chapters after today’s lesson in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus teaches us the Greatest Commandments. “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” God cares a whole lot more how we care for each other than whether we are following the rules of our institutions.
Our Epistle and Gospel this morning are in direct conversation with each other. It is as if the author of the letter is speaking directly to the Pharisees in the Gospel. It is clear that the early Christian recipients of the letter were struggling in the same way as the Pharisees. How does one honor God with their lips and their hearts? What does a religion that honors both tradition and relationship look like?
The Epistle writer makes their meaning clear: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” In other words, God is more concerned with our relationship with the rest of humanity than whether or not we are following all the rules. Loving our neighbor is how we truly honor our religious tradition. God delights in us when we put people over polity.
Looking back, my formative church’s invitation to take part in worship was more about being in relationship with and serving the community than whether or not every step of the liturgy was executed correctly. Though the formality instilled a sense of sacredness, the true holiness was in being one in Christ with the gathered body.
Jesus’ invites us to examine whether the tradition of the elders as expressed through law lives into our call as children of God. It extends far beyond our religious practice into or personal and civic life. The way we choose to do things is not always necessarily rooted in the heart of God. We can take the question of whether are hearts are with God into every choice we make: our spiritual practices, the way we plan our lives, parent, spend our money, vote, choose our employment, or communicate. We can choose to love God and our neighbors and let that inform what tradition we place value in.
Those who follow God’s commandment “being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.” Put relationship over tradition be blessed. Do what is right and good and be blessed.