Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23; James 1:1-17
Once upon a time, in many homes in America, Sunday would arrive and we would fulfill our time honored ritual of going to church. I can’t speak for you Yankees, but in the south, no one gave it a second thought. Church was what all the “good Christian” folks did. We put on our Sunday best and went, not just to church, but to Sunday School. It was years before I realized the first Monday in September was Labor Day. I thought it was a holiday because it was the day after Rally Day. Anyone remember Rally Day? It was that special day in the church when two critical things happened. First, it was Promotion Sunday. But more importantly it was Recognition Sunday. Those who had perfect attendance during the past year would receive a pen. Multi-year repeaters would receive special pens recognizing their faithfulness. I remember going to see my grandmother once and showing off my pen that stated I had not missed Sunday School in five years. She pulled out her pen. It flowed with emblems showing she had not missed Sunday School in years higher than I could count. I gazed upon her in amazement. She obviously was a really good Christian.
I haven’t seen attendance pens for a really long time. I assume some denominations have continued that ancient tradition. Being both a pastor and Christian Educator, there is a sadness in my heart that our Sabbath observance is not celebrated like it was years ago. I have come to realize, but not fully accept, that Sunday is no longer exclusively God’s day. With the cultural demands of sports and travel, these days hardly anyone would receive a perfect attendance badge. And while it would be so easy for me to preach a sermon, on this my 61st Rally Day, on the virtues of Sabbath Keeping, the text this morning raises a red flag that can not be ignored.
Jesus seemed to always find himself at odds with the church goers. The Pharisees, a highly visible religious group, each wearing their perfect attendance pen, were appalled that the disciples of Jesus had failed to wash their hands properly before eating lunch. Every good Jew knew that there was a ritual to be performed before bread could be eaten. In fact every good Jew knew there were a variety of disciplines performed each day to guarantee one’s holiness before God. These traditions were not to be forgotten or broken.
Jesus did not have a problem with the Jewish disciplines. More than likely he washed his hands in the manner benefitting a good Jew…. just the way he had been taught by his grandmother. What concerned Jesus was the manner in which the Pharisees rebuked the disciples. If the disciplines of one’s faith leads to arrogant words, are we not defiling the original intentions of God’s all inclusive covenant that we love one another? If we are quick to speak, and slow to act, aren’t we doing more harm than good?
Sometimes I believe that the spoken word is highly overrated. As the NFL, the new religion of America, prepares to occupy its Sunday temples, I realize the celebrated preachers of the sport, men such as Coughlin, Belichick, Tomlin and Reid are never short on words of instruction, encouragement and criticism. But even they would agree with the author of the book of James who said, “Be ye doers of the word and not hearers only.” No matter how big our reputation, no matter our list of credentials, in the end it doesn’t matter if we are just “all talk”.
A couple of week ago a number of us were standing around a pile of 75 cinder blocks. We knew those blocks needed to be carried up the steep path before us. We stood around for a few moments trying to device a plan. Should we each grab as many as we could carry? Should we spread out creating a long chain? If so who was going to take the steepest part of the hill. As we debated our strategy, the pile of 75 blocks shrunk to 69 as three women, THREE AMAZON WOMEN, each standing at least an inch or two over four feet and weighing in an amazing 100 pounds had already made one trip and were headed up the mountain a second time. Speechless, we each picked up what we could carry and followed their example.
Imagine what might happen if the church of Jesus Christ stopped talking and started walking. I wish our entire membership was at church every Sunday. I wish we would have as many folks at Sunday School as we do in worship. I have found my Sabbath disciplines to be an important part of my life. But shouldn’t the highest goal of our life be, “loving God with our heart and mind and our neighbors as ourselves?” The author of the book of James counsels us to a practical morality that is quick to listen and slow to speak. He emphasizes this by saying “religion that is pure and undefiled is this: taking care of the orphans and widows in distress.” What we do matters. What comes out of our mouths can make a difference, for good and for ill. But our actions speak louder than our words. Words may touch our emotional life and help us anticipate tomorrow. But our actions establish the structures that build our world. Action adds value to our words and gives them life.
How did I come to believe this? I heard it on Sunday Morning listening to the Holy Words. But I also witnessed it on Monday through Saturday working beside folks who weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. Today, this Sabbath day, we have come to hear the word of the Lord. We have come to celebrate the Holy Feast which is highlighted with the command, “Do this in remembrance of me.” When we take the bread, we are doers. When we drink from the cup, we are doers. Then on Monday, when we help someone who is lonely; Tuesday when we deliver a load of wood; Wednesday when we visit the sick; Thursday when we fill the back packs; Friday when we play together; Saturday when we carry bags of food at the Pantry, we are doers. We are physically giving thanks that God has opened our heart and our eyes to the needs of our community. On Sunday, we return to this holy place, to once again hear the word, to once again praise God, to once again hear the joys and concerns of our congregation, to once again remember that “every generous act of giving, every perfect gift, comes from above.”
Last night I was watching a movie with my grandson called The Lorax, an animation film based on a Dr. Seuss book. The story is about a young boy, hopelessly smitten by love, wants to find a tree for his beloved a generation after all the trees have been cut down for commercial exploitation. He travels to find the mystical Lorax who might know how to find a tree. The Lorax tells him how the tress were destroyed. About the time I was really getting into the film, my daughter announced it was Andy’s bedtime and we could finish watching the movie at a later time. I was devastated. What happened to the trees? Where did all the animals go? Would the young boy find a tree and win the hand of his beloved? And what did the word “unless”, chiseled on the rock outside the Lorax’s house, mean? As my grandson was cruelly being dragged off the bed I asked, “Andy, what does the word “Unless” mean?” He said, “Granddaddy, everyone knows that unless someone cares, bad things will always happen.”
“Be Ye Doers of the Word.” Amen.