September 25, 2022 Cobleskill United Methodist Church - Pastor Anna Blinn Cole
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
While he was speaking, a Pharisee invited him to dine with him; so he went in and took his place at the table. The Pharisee was amazed to see that he did not first wash before dinner. Then the Lord said to him, ‘Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You fools! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? So give for alms those things that are within; and see, everything will be clean for you.
‘But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practiced, without neglecting the others.
As a person who likes to garden and cook, my ears perked up the first time I heard this scripture passage. I think it’s probably the only time Jesus talks about herbs! Sad news, though, he’s not cooking or gardening. Good news, he is eating. Sad news again, he’s not eating the herbs, but instead using them as dinner party conversation. The only thing, this is not exactly the dinner party conversation you might expect….
We are in the midst of a series right now called “Back to Basics: Putting the Christ Back into Christian.” It’s pushback against some of the loudest voices in our religion, past and present, that use their faith as a platform for exclusion, judgement, and the power of some at the expense of others. For those of us who believe Christianity is actually more about inclusion, unconditional love, and the common good, we find ourselves stuck in a religion that feels like it no longer fits.
During this sermon series some of us are reading a book together called “Do I Stay Christian?” by Brian McClaren.
The book is broken up into three sections... No. Yes. And How. In the midst of giving 10 very good reasons why Christianity has disappointed and fallen short of its original goal and countering with another 10 reasons why, in spite of its serious failures, there is still hope and a need for people who follow Christ in this world, McClaren uses a compelling metaphor of Christianity as a ship. It’s a ship that has a robust rudder, a big hull, huge beautiful sails, and it’s a ship that is meant for sailing on the high seas. Instead, though, it’s a ship that is stuck in port weighed down by a heavy anchor. In other words, the intentions are grand. The reality is … disappointing.
“By reducing its mysteries to beliefs,” McLaren says, “by codifying those beliefs in systems, and by defining itself by those belief systems, [Christianity] has rendered itself a paradox: a ship that floats but that doesn’t sail.”
In other words, we’ve spent so much time and energy creating a religion of beliefs and rules, we’ve forgotten the revolutionary values Jesus brought in the first place. The question is, what do we do? Stay put and get comfortable with a religion that’s like a stationary ship, jump overboard and swim away as fast as we can, or start pulling at the anchor that’s weighing us down?
Remember the herbs? Let’s go back to the dinner party with Jesus and we may find an answer. A religious insider who held the position of Pharisee, which was a position of power and influence in Jesus’ religion, invited Jesus to dinner. I don’t know if the Pharisee was expecting a light-hearted conversation over a delicious homecooked food, but that’s not what he got. Immediately things got awkward when Jesus refused to do a ceremonial purifying wash before eating. This wasn’t really an optional practice for observant Jews. And it wasn’t so much about germs like our hand-washing practices of today. It was a ritual observance. It was tradition. It was custom. It was the rule. It was part of the elaborate system of beliefs and practices that Jesus’ religion had set up so that the religious faithful could be set apart from other, less pure, people of different faiths.
So I’m sure the Pharisee gave Jesus some kind of sideway look when Jesus skipped this religious cleansing ritual. Jesus was quick with a reply, ‘Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You fools! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? So give for alms those things that are within; and see, everything will be clean for you.”
And he went on with the first of what would eventually be six “Woes,”
“But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practiced, without neglecting the others.”
Woe, Woe, Woe.
What is Jesus saying? Is he saying that it’s possible to take the rules and beliefs of your religion so serious that you tithe even your herbs, but yet miss the bigger point of your religion entirely? Is he saying that we can’t just follow the laws handed to us by our faith and consider ourselves holy? That we must also figure out what the spirit of the law is supposed to be and also do that? Is Jesus saying it’s possible that when you’re so deeply embedded in a religion it’s possible to miss the forest because you’re looking only for trees? Is Jesus saying it’s possible to be a floating ship in the port and think you’ve reached your full potential?
Yes. Jesus is using the example of a dinner party that got really awkward really fast to say, it is really easy to be a religious hypocrite. Where you follow all the right rules and keep yourself righteous and holy and proper, but completely miss the point of actually loving your neighbor. Jesus is saying that our religion, with its belief systems and its laws and rules, has a tendency to make us more concerned about being right and good for our own salvation, rather than noticing all the injustice and hurt in the world around us.
Listen up because Jesus is giving us another of his core and basic messages: Don’t be a religious hypocrite. Our religious practices shouldn’t distract us from God’s true priorities.
So a next really good and related question would be what are God’s true priorities? The Pharisees, wanting to trick Jesus, actually asked him that, too. And Jesus said this: all of the laws and all of the rules that you follow so closely actually hang on only two primary rules. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. If the other parts of your religion are distracting you from these main priorities, you’ve got a serious problem and you might be guilty of sitting on a ship that’s going nowhere.
Here's a modern day example that doesn’t involve tithing herbs.
When we use our prayers as a replacement for action instead of letting our prayers be the beginning of action. How many times have you heard a Christian let their “thoughts and prayers” replace any meaningful action on policy that could go further to transform the situation?
When we as Christians cherry-pick verses out of the Bible and read them out of context in order support a narrow and exclusive understanding of who God loves and affirms. How many times have we seen Christians proud of their literal understanding of the scriptures and the way it allows them to righteously control God’s love?
When we use our presence in church on Sunday to check a box saying that we’re a good person while excusing hateful behaviors throughout the week. We pat ourselves on the back for holding the right beliefs even when our actions don’t add up. How many times have we seen this play out? How many times might we ourselves have been guilty?
To these hypocritical things and many, many more that I didn’t list, Jesus says, woe. Check yourself. If we are a religion so focused on our piety and who’s in and who’s out, we will be a religion that is forever stuck.
Religious practice should not divert us from God’s true priorities.
Jesus believed this: he must practice what he preached. And that meant a deep love for people at the margins (like we talked about last week) and a conviction that religion is hollow and empty if it’s not actually making the world a better place. It’s one thing to find personal salvation, but if you stop there with what you think is a ticket to heaven, then you have missed the point. Christianity isn’t about you. It’s about us. When you die, will you have left this world better than you found it?
There is an anchor holding Christianity down and it’s this religion’s obsession with being right, having strict and unchanging beliefs, and obsessing over the rules at the expense of the Spirit. The ironic thing is that this is the exact kind of behavior that Jesus came to overturn. Jesus is begging us to see the potential of this movement if we’d be willing to change and evolve and use the love he gave us to get unstuck.
This church is trying to pull up that anchor and I commend you for that. We are trying to reframe our existence as a Christ-following community of faith around the core values of Jesus, not just around “the way it’s always been done.”
We are working toward embracing and empowering everyone who’s ever felt like they were at the margins of church or society. We broke ground in May when we adopted a beautiful and bold Statement of Welcome that embraces all God’s children into the full life of this church: gay, straight, male, female, rich, poor, black, white, doubting or certain.
We strive to be responsible with the resources we are given by using our building for justice-seeking programs like support groups, hunger relief, worship, education, recycling, community-building, and second-hand shopping.
We have started to turn ourselves inside out, putting time and energy into programs and events that get us outside of our walls and into the neighborhood, but physically and virtually.
I can feel this church working hard against the current of what is expected of Christians in the 21st century. You see that the baggage of our religion is heavy and that we have a lot of hard work ahead of us, but you are there rolling up your sleeves. We have inherited a religion that is more like an exclusive social club than an agent of change and justice in the world. And by God, we’re going to change that.
McClaren ends that chapter about a stuck ship with a message of hope. “At this moment… more than ever before, the world needs religions that teach us to value and love the planet, to see its inherent value and sacredness apart from the human economy. The world needs religions that teach us to love our neighbor as ourselves, remembering that our neighbor includes the refugee, the sick, the poor, the outsider, the outcast, the other, and even the enemy. The world needs religions that teach us to transform our swords into plowshares, our bullets into trumpets, and our nuclear submarines into artificial reefs. The world needs religions that value love and interdependence, not money and competition. The world needs religions that are anti-racist, anti-authoritarian, gender-equal, and characterized by compassion and wisdom rather than greed, arrogance, and dogmatism. And Christianity could be one of those religions.”
Let’s unbind the sails of this thing and see what it can do when Love is the guiding force.
Let us pray.