A Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 17B) + September 2, 2018

St. Catherine’s Episcopal Church
Chelsea, Alabama
Sunday, September 2, 2018

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 17B)
First Lesson: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
Psalm 15
Second Lesson: James 1:17-27
Gospel: Mark:7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Now, O Lord, take my lips and speak with them. Take our minds and think through them. Take our hearts and set them on fire for your Gospel. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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I have a confession to make.

Some of you know this about me already, but others may not. So, here goes.

My name is Father Eric, and I’m an Auburn fan. It’s true. I bleed orange and blue.

Some people become Auburn fans later in life, but not me. This was something I was born into. You’ve heard the term, “cradle Episcopalian”? Well, I’m a “cradle” Tigers fan. I even have evidence to prove it- a commemorative Coke bottle from 1983 when Auburn won the SEC Championship.

Yesterday was the first football game of the season. Every time I watch the Tigers play, I’m reminded of how much I love Auburn and how deeply connected I am to the town and the university.

I’m reminded of my time as a student there and how much it’s impacted my life over the years, not only academically but also spiritually. As most of you know, I graduated from Auburn several years ago with a bachelor’s degree in music education, but it’s also where Chelsea and I first discovered the Episcopal Church. St. Dunstan’s, the campus ministry at Auburn, has been and always will be a very special place for our family.

When I watch the Tigers play, I’m reminded of the unique traditions and rituals that surround the campus during football season and the spirit of unity that they inspire- traditions like waking up early on Saturday mornings to find the perfect tailgate spot, going to the University Bookstore for game day buttons and orange and blue shakers, going to the Tiger Walk before the game begins and dancing behind the marching band as they play “Eye of the Tiger,” or simply shouting, “War Eagle,” as other Auburn fans pass by. And, of course, the list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning our beloved oak trees at Toomer’s Corner.

Come to think of it, I think there’s a reason why people jokingly refer to college football as a religion in the South. There’s some truth behind that statement, isn’t there? It doesn’t really matter which team you pull for. We all have our special traditions, whether you’re an Auburn fan or an Alabama fan or any other kind of fan. For many of us, the game day traditions and rituals we enjoy during this time of the year have been around for as long as we can remember. We grew up with them, and we’ve carried them with us through the years. We have memories of game days past that we hold especially dear. Some of us even organize our calendars around game day weekends.

Traditions and rituals can be very powerful. Like the sacraments of the Church, they serve as outward and visible signs of something much bigger and much more profound working within us. They connect us deeply to feelings and experiences that can often be difficult to explain or comprehend.

When I think of Auburn and the traditions that so many of us celebrate during football season, the first word that comes to my mind is “community.” We come together for these events to experience community, to feel a sense of connection with other people who share a common interest, and, of course, to rally in support for our favorite teams. The traditions and rituals that we enjoy aren’t intended to be ends in themselves. They point us to something greater. They point us toward the heart of the community. Without the community, things like going to roll the oak trees at Toomer’s Corner after a home game victory or dancing in the streets at the Tiger Walk would be meaningless.

Yes, the traditions and rituals that we love can be very powerful, but if the only thing that we’re interested in is maintaining those traditions without considering the meaning behind them or how they might transform our lives, it can cause us to lose sight of what they were intended to do in the first place- to point us toward something greater and more profound.

Like most Jews at the time, Jesus understood and appreciated the power and importance of traditions and rituals in the life of the community, but he also understood the temptation of allowing those traditions and rituals, those outward and visible signs, to become more important than the inward and spiritual graces to which they were pointing.

His education in the Jewish faith would’ve taught him that adherence to the Law of Moses was much more important than maintaining and observing manmade rules and traditions, such as the requirement to wash one’s hands before eating. In our Gospel lesson for this morning, when the scribes and Pharisees question Jesus for allowing his disciples to eat without first washing their hands, he quickly admonishes them and calls them hypocrites. Just to be clear, Jesus is not criticizing the tradition of washing ones hands before eating. He’s criticizing the religious leaders for putting the importance of maintaining human traditions before the commandments of God.

In our lesson this morning from the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses says to the people of Israel, “Give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you. You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God with which I am charging you.” A couple of chapters later, Moses charges the people of Israel with this commandment: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”

Jesus came, not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it and to remind us that nothing is more important than being faithful to God and obeying God’s commandments. No tradition. No ritual. Nothing is more important than loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves.

As Episcopalians, I think we have to be especially careful not to allow our means of worship, the traditions and rituals that we hold so dear, to become ends in themselves.

There’s no doubt that we love our liturgy. I love our liturgy. In fact, it’s one of the things that drew me to the Episcopal Church in the first place. It’s one of the most unique and beautiful things about our tradition, but we completely miss the point of what the liturgy is intended to do when we treat it as merely words on a page. Yes, the words are elegant and poetic, and those elements of worship that we experience with our senses help us draw closer to the divine presence of God. But, the liturgy is not really about us. It’s about what God is doing in us and through us. It’s about the work of the Holy Spirit, transforming us from within and preparing us to go into the world to proclaim the loving, liberating, and life-giving message of Jesus Christ. Without the inner work of the liturgy, without that deep, transformational work of the Holy Spirit, the traditions and rituals that we love so much become meaningless.

The inner work that God desires for us takes time and patience. It also requires a willingness to be open to the movement of the Spirit and to consider the ways in which God is speaking to us through the liturgy. For example, when we say the Prayers of the People each week, how is God at work and what is God calling us to do when we leave this place? How are those prayers shaping our lives and the decisions we make? When we say the general confession each week, how is God at work and what does it mean for us to be completely absolved of our sins? How can we share that same compassion and mercy with others? When we receive the holy mysteries of Christ’s Body and Blood in the Eucharist, how is God at work and how are we being called to serve as the Body of Christ in the world around us?

These are important questions for us to consider when we come to worship each week.

The traditions and rituals that we love are beautiful and worthy of celebrating, but without the inner work to accompany them, our worship is nothing more than empty words and gestures. Next Sunday, during both morning services, we’re going to have an Instructed Eucharist, and the purpose of this service is not only to learn a little bit about the history of where our liturgy comes from but also to learn about the theology behind it. It’s designed to help answer the question, “Why do we do what we do?” I invite you to come with an open mind and an open heart as we explore that question together and hopefully come to an even deeper understanding of God and God’s work in our lives through the traditions and rituals that shape us. Amen.

Click here to listen to an audio recording of the sermon.

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