September 2, 2012 - The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

14 Pentecost, Year B
The Rev. R. Bingham Powell
James 1: 17-27
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

When you sit down for a meal, do you say a prayer before eating? Do you bless the food or give thanks before you take your first bite? And if so, why? 

As a child, we always said a prayer before meals as a family: 
Bless, O Lord, this food to our use, and us to your service, and make us ever mindful of the needs of others. Amen. 

Or at lunch, a slightly more kid-friendly blessing: 
Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest, and let this food to us be blest. Amen. 

As a young child, I never thought much about why we blessed our food; it was just a ritual that we did as a family. But when I got older, you know, like eight or nine, it seemed like a nuisance. I was hungry, and I wanted to eat. Why did we have to wait? The food did not seem any holier as a result of our blessing. And it seemed like the only reason to do it was because we did it. It was a rule, a made-up rule for its own sake. A human tradition if you will. And so, when I wasn’t with my family, I stopped doing it. 

And then, in my early twenties, a tragedy hit. A friend’s child died, and it was the first time I had ever experienced something like that. It was devastating. I was devastated. That night, I was having dinner with a friend, a friend who was not particularly religious, and for the first time, I asked if we could bless the food before we ate it. I don’t know where that sentiment came from, but I had this deep sense that I wanted to bring God into that sorrowful moment, and somehow, a blessing over the food would help do that. And ever since, saying a blessing before a meal has made sense to me. The ritual of blessing food was no longer about simply following a pointless rule, but about centering myself in God. The ritual was about making even the simple daily act of eating a holy thing. God, the source of all life, who gave us this food, is present with us as we eat and drink, and a prayer or thanksgiving before eating seems like a wonderful way to acknowledge that reality. 

Why do your disciples not wash their hands before they eat, the Pharisees disdainfully asked Jesus? Jesus and his followers did not follow the rules that others thought they should follow. Who knows why the tradition of hand-washing before eating came about - and, of course, it has since come back around for very good health reasons! – but, by that time and before we learned about germs, the ritual had lost its meaning. To Jesus and the disciples, the ritual had become nitpicky and meaningless. The ritual was followed simply because it was a rule, not because the rule had any meaning left in it. And this made-up rule was now used to condemn others, to look down upon them. Jesus saw those who were being critical as hypocrites. He quoted the prophet Isaiah, “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.” And then he added, “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” In the name of God, they followed a human-invented ritual; yet, at the same time, they ignored the weightier matters of God’s law. As the prophets regularly pointed out, the worship is pointless if we forget the rest. We are not loving God, if we are not loving our neighbor. It is easy to imagine the words from James being directed toward these same Pharisees and scribes of today’s Gospel: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” 

Jesus is not saying that ritual is intrinsically bad. He is saying ritual is bad if we forget to also do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. Ritual can even be good, if it helps point us towards those greater things. For me, ritualistic practices are important. I am an Episcopalian after all. How could I think otherwise, when I come and engage in the ritual-laden liturgy of the Episcopal Church week after week? The order of ritual, whether it is saying a blessing before eating a meal, or saying prayers when the sun rises and sets, or coming here and worshipping in a prescribed way with others on a weekly basis, are all important for keeping me focused on God, and focused on that which God wants us to do. 

However, we have to always keep these important words from Jesus and James and the prophets before us. And thank God for our liturgical ritual that does in fact keep these words before us. I don’t know how easy it would be to keep coming back to these challenging words if we did not have the rituals that we have that tell us to read these Scriptures on these days. 

These critiques that we hear in Scripture today are directed at us whenever we start to let the ritual get in the way of that to which the ritual points: God. If the ritual becomes good for its own sake, then we have gotten lost in the woods and need to find the trail again. If the ritual is used as a club against our neighbor, instead of leading us to love our neighbor, then we need to really take these words to heart, and re-evaluate what we are doing. 

My sisters and brothers in Christ, embrace rituals and practices that help lead you to God, but do not worship the rituals and practices themselves. Worship the God to which they point. Honor God with your lips and your heart. Remember the warnings of the prophets. Engage in that true religion that is pure and undefiled before God by caring for those in need wherever they may be. Love God and love your neighbor. Amen.