Willing to Change?

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

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and 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.) So 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?” He 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; in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

Prayer – Gracious God – it is comforting to know that your love for us is steadfast as the world we live in seems to change from day to day. Part of our challenge is to be open to change rather than stuck in the ways we have always done things. Help us to see that change is about growth and not about fear. Help us to be willing to risk and to follow and to be transformed – amen.

Welcome back to Mark!  After what felt to me like a sermon series, and I can imagine to you as well about ‘bread of life,’ I know at least I’m ready to go somewhere else in our walk through the ancient stories of our tradition.  But what an odd place to land – right in the middle of an argument so routine it feels a little strange that hand washing was such a big deal in ancient days. I don’t know about you but I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who participated in this argument before – you know about washing hands before dinner.  In fact, it was a pretty routine argument at our house.

That surely can’t be what is happening in this passage, can it, an argument about washing hands before eating that has probably been repeated in each and every home?  Yes and no – yes, it really is about the practice of washing hands; and no, as is often the case in such arguments, there is the thing under the thing that we don’t always see.  With our kids, maybe they forgot. Or, maybe they’ve decided that even Valerie and I think this hand washing thing is important, but not so much for them, and while they’re at it, maybe they are tired of all the rules at the house.  So maybe washing hands is less about forgetfulness and more about testing the old way of doing things.

The same thing is going on in Mark this morning.  It’s not just about washing hands, it’s about the tradition and ways we have always done things.  Which is the point the Pharisees press: “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders?” they ask, somewhat aghast that Jesus and his disciples are running rough shod over tradition.  What is at stake, then, is not just a specific practice but the larger question of authority, tradition, the old, practiced way of doing things. Why was Jesus pushing folks to change the ways of the elders, the ways of tradition?  

Jesus is pushing back at the Pharisees not simply about tradition, but about the way we have always done things.  Our everyday, ordinary decisions about how our traditions are contributing to fulfilling our mission to the world.  What if we were willing to tinker with our traditions here at NACCP? Perhaps changing worship order in order to make worship more understandable and relevant in our ever changing world?  Or what if I dropped following the lectionary in favor of moving through the narrative of the Bible? Or what if we utilized a committee structure rather than letting the elders do most of the work?  Or what if each fourth Sunday folks didn’t come to church at all but rather engaged in some kind of community service here in the Anderson area? Or what if we utilized technology within worship, or maybe even contemporary music?  Or what if . . . In other words, are we willing to change the ways we have always done things?

This past week I was at Montreat for training around the idea of Transitional Ministry.  One of the most powerful understandings I had during the week is that what used to be ‘interim or transitional ministry’ was when an installed pastor left the church and the ‘interim’ went into to help the congregation grieve the past and get ready for a new pastor.  Today, transitional ministry happens every day because if we aren’t willing to change, ready to reflect our context and culture the church will become even less relevant in the world today.

So this got me to thinking about my own sacred cows and the sacred cows here at NACCP.  For me, I use the lectionary when I preach because it challenges me to look at a variety of passages for reflection and preaching each week – and yet, more often than not, I choose the gospel passage because it is an easier tradition.  For me, as if you haven’t noticed, I use the same benediction each week. Is it because it is easy to remember, or is it because I don’t want to come up with something new each week? Or is it because it comes from the OT and I first heard it at a Methodist church and it stuck with me?  Or is it because it gives me a very real moment to look into each of your eyes to communicate that I really do believe that I want God to bless each every one of you while holding you in God’s grace, mercy and peace?

What are some of the sacred traditions here at NACCP?  Certainly being recognized as an inclusive, progressive community – so our identity is certainly a big part of the tradition here at NACCP.  Including a secular reading or poem or thought as one of the readings is certainly part of NACCP’s rich tradition as well as the discussion. I changed the timing of the discussion to following the sermon so I could have more conversation rather than waiting until after the worship service – and for the most part, you have adapted to that change.  Easter service in the labyrinth, the Christmas pageant, using language of love and forgiveness as part of communion – are just some of the sacred traditions here. These are traditions that are important to the history of this congregation and the question I ask myself that I am sharing with you – what are we willing to change and what are we unwilling to change?  What traditions are so important to this congregation that no matter whether it helps us achieve our mission or not, it preserves our sense of orderliness of the world and shores up our identity and therefore can’t be touched?

What changes are we willing to make in order to reach folks who aren’t breaking down our doors?  What would need to change, we might ask our kids/grandkids, neighbors, co-workers, community colleagues, etc., in order to make our worship and congregational life more understandable, accessible, useful and helpful?  By asking these types of questions we might begin to put mission before tradition.

I ask these questions as we as church begin to move toward Robin coming in as our new pastor at the first of the year.  There has been a lot of change over recent years here at NACCP – are we done with change and just want to settle down? What are we willing to change?

Being willing to change is not an easy journey.  You’ve probably heard the old joke, “How many Presbyterians does it take to change a light bulb? CHANGE? CHANGE? My grandfather donated that light bulb!”  We love our traditions. I love my traditions. They have helped to mediate the faith to us in countless ways. What if they are not doing that for folks today the way they did for us in previous days?  What if we’ve come close to worshiping the traditions instead of God they were supposed to point to? And what if Jesus is calling us to put our mission – whether we care for our aging parents, feeding the hungry, opening our doors to the homeless, making our building available for an after-school tutoring program, sharing the gospel with folks much of the church rejects, partnering with the community to care for more of God’s children, whatever – what if Jesus is calling us to put our mission ahead of even our most sacred and cherished traditions?  What then?

There is no doubt in my mind after watching acute changes in people’s lives in the hospital that change creates anxiety, fear and uncertainty.  I’ve also learned that change opens the door for new possibilities that we may never have imagined if there wasn’t openness to the change. This church has long prided itself on engaging the questions with a willingness to seek answers.  So here is the question – what are we willing to change??? May God bless us in our discernment – thanks be to God.