“Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves.” [James 1:17-18, 21-27]
“I do not know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: The only ones among you who will really be happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.”[Albert Schweitzer to a group of American students]
Our country has just witnessed one part of our American tradition and in the coming week we will witness the second part of this tradition — every four years our two major political parties gather in convention to nominate candidates for President and Vice-President. No doubt the substance of these traditions has changed over the past 40 years or so … and the form of the tradition may change in years to come ….. but the tradition remains.
On Monday we will experience another national tradition — a holiday on the first Monday of September to honor working men and women — and to honor the dignity of work.
Tradition is a part of life — for some, a family tradition might be donuts or pancakes on Sunday before or after mass —- for some, it is a nap after lunch on Sunday.
In today’s Gospel, [Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23], Jesus is not knocking tradition —- he is challenging empty traditions i.e., rituals without meaning — Jesus is knocking “going through the motions without engaging the heart” …..
Initially the law was rather simple — the ten commandments — the first three to set right order in our relationship with God — and the next 7 to establish civility in our relationships with one another. Laws eventually evolved into a maze of legislation that required religious professionals —- Pharisees — to interpret the law. However, their dedication to the minute details of the law skewed their judgments and sensibilities to the point that they were more concerned about the letter of the law — and they forgot the spirit BEHIND the law. So — observance of the law was more about external rituals and less and less about interior holiness.
Jesus had to remind his disciples that cleanliness arises from the purity of their aspirations and motivations and not from soap and water. The faith of a true disciple of Jesus must spring from a heart dedicated to God and not from mere human lips.
St. James idea is to: Welcome the word, hear the word, and be doers of the word …. HOLINESS is not about how one holds his/her hands in prayer, it is about hearing the word, praying the word, and then rolling up the sleeves and using your hands to be of service to others so as to HONOR GOD.
Believers cannot be true to the word and to the WORD, if we allow our piety to devolve into empty, external ritual.
AGAIN — ritual is important … ritual says a lot and means a lot. Our worship would be a lot faster if we began our service with the bread and wine already on the altar. We could finish quicker if instead of passing the basket, worshippers simply dropped their offering in a box as they entered the church. BUT, THE RITUAL of having the bread and wine presented speaks of the gifts coming from he people and for the people. Having someone from the community accept the tithe of the people … handing over the tithe …. is an act of worship. RITUAL IS IMPORTANT …. we want to DO THE RITES RIGHT.
But true worship must be warm, welcoming, uplifting, inspiring — people must leave worship charged up, strengthened, enlightened …. we must return home feeling like we were part of a group of people who believe …. people who have hope …..AND RITUAL ITSELF cannot do that ….there must be spirit and truth …. light and life in what we do.
Conscious of disease, we are warned over and over to wash our hands many times a day. This is an important ritual. But, no amount of hand washing will cleanse an evil heart. There is not a soap on the market that will wipe out the germs of meanness and selfishness. THAT KIND OF CLEANSING COMES FROM A LIVING SPIRIT of truth and conversion.
If we get the rituals of worship right, we feel bound to God and to one another. If we get the rituals right, our hearts are filled with joy. If we get the rituals right, we want to help people in need, If we get the rituals right, we want to do justice. If we get the rituals right, our homes will be less stressful and more caring.
Ritual should help us to put our desires in proper order. Ritual does not need to dampen emotion and feeling. Again, ritual helps us to get it right. If I have not love — in doing what I do — real love, visible love, tangible love …. not just the words of love — then my ritual is empty — the noisy gong and clanging cymbal.
FOR THOSE WHO LEAD WORSHIP: if I do ritual and have not love, then I am a proud, soaring eagle who sees the world from a very lonely perch.
Our church and our nation are going through challenging times today. We cannot afford to just go through the motions.
What does it mean to be on our knees in prayer? What does it mean to take communion worthily? What does it mean for us to pay fair taxes? What does it mean to offer Medicare and Social Security to senior citizens?
These are words we know quite well: prayer, communion, taxes, medicare, social security. What do these words really mean for me, for our Church, for our nation?
As we pay attention to the rituals or worship, as we preach from the pulpit — are we dealing with doctrines of faith or human traditions?
In addressing the people before him [Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8], Moses called the people a “truly wise and intelligent people.” I wonder: are we wise and intelligent, really? Are we living and acting in wisdom and with knowledge?
Without ritual, we fall apart. Families without traditions look for reasons to be together. Families with traditions are drawn together over and over again. Jesus did not oppose rituals, ceremonies, traditions. However, he did oppose substituting rituals for authentic religion and ceremonies for compassion toward others.
Some folks say we should not wear white or seersucker after Labor Day. Maybe this is correct. Maybe this is a fashion faux paux. Hopefully in the coming days and weeks, we will worry about things a little bigger than that. We can wear the right clothes, look pious, memorize our prayers, ……. and still be far from God.
A story is told about Rabbi who was imprisoned. He was given a set amount of water and set amount of food each day. Because he was more concerned about doing the ritual ablutions before he ate, he was left with very little water to drink. He ended up dehydrated and quite ill ….. but he had kept the law. Somehow, I think God would have wanted him to drink the water …. somehow, I think good religion has to include common sense and a use of wisdom.
God does not want us to use the law to hurt ourselves or anyone else.