What Rules?

St. Philip Lutheran Church
29 August 2021 + Lectionary 22b (Pent. 14)
Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Rev. Josh Evans, preaching




Most mornings, when I first open Facebook, at the top of my newsfeed is a section called “Memories.” On this day, 1 year ago… 3 years ago… 7 years ago… and it shows me what I posted or may have been tagged in that day. It feels a bit like opening an old family photo album to see memories of days and years long past.

Last Wednesday, I opened my Facebook page and happened to see photos from my senior year of seminary – when I served as sacristan of the seminary chapel for the second year. I’m pretty sure the photos were staged, but you can tell I am right in my element … standing in front of open cabinets and bookshelves, showing our new Director of Worship around the sacristy – shelves full of lectionaries, colorful liturgical binders, and other books, cabinets filled with multiple sets of communion ware for different occasions, and the closets where all our vestments are kept.

There was a place for everything and everything in its place. A sense of order and orderliness. Rules that dictated when we used which communion chalice or set out which banners.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the rules we set up, arbitrary as some of them might seem. Some rules are actually quite helpful and not arbitrary at all – like wearing a face mask in order to protect our neighbors. But I’m wondering about the rules that we establish – idolize even – that might get in the way of what really matters.

The Jewish people of Jesus’s day – including the Pharisees but certainly others too – had their own rules, not unlike some of our own rules for religious observance. We read some of them in today’s gospel story: Wash your hands before you eat. Wash whatever you buy from the market. Wash the pots and kettles you use to prepare your meal.

Their rules for washing seem to make a lot of sense – maybe more so than usual, living as we do in the age of sanitizing and disinfecting.

So when these few Pharisees and scribes noticed that some of Jesus’s disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them, they wonder why.

Before we even get to Jesus’s response though, I’m struck by what he doesn’t say. There’s a detail at the beginning that sticks out to me – “some” of his disciples… only “some” of his disciples were eating with defiled hands. Which means that the rest of his disciples followed the rituals and rules of their faith and the tradition of the elders that they had been taught.

Now, Jesus himself was a faithful Jew. He surely knew the tradition of the elders too. He would’ve noticed which of his disciples were following the rules and which were not. But he never pointed it out. Jesus never corrected anyone or called them out for not doing what their tradition said they “should” be doing.

That’s a curious thing. Did Jesus not care? Or: did Jesus have something else in mind?

My biggest source of anxiety when I visit a new church is figuring out how communion works. Every church has different rules.

Do we come forward on our own, or do we wait for an usher to dismiss us? Do we file past in a continuous line, or do we kneel? Which cup is grape juice and which is wine? What if I need a gluten-free wafer?

The insiders know just what to do, but newcomers – like me – are sure to stick out like a sore thumb. Which is why I’ve come to appreciate clear written or verbal directions for receiving communion. It might sound repetitive to the member who’s been coming for 20, 30, 40 years, but for the newcomer, it’s an act of hospitality and welcome.

I wonder if that’s similar to what Jesus had in mind when he chose to keep quiet about his disciples’ varying practices around ritual washing.

It’s never fun to be the one called out for doing something differently – as though it’s somehow “wrong.” I wonder if Jesus is creating a space of hospitality and welcome – a way of making sure everyone belongs. Maybe that means letting the “rules” – as well-intentioned as they might be – slip from time to time.

Does it really matter if the right color banners are out in the chapel? What would happen – really – if we used the “wrong” chalice for communion? What if I decide to kneel for communion while everyone else shuffles by in a continuous line?

Jesus still shows up, and God is still present.

In this space, when we say “all are welcome,” it’s not because of anything we do – but because of what God does.

God welcomes us and makes a space for us here – no matter who we are or where we’re from, whether we know the “right” rules or customs or traditions, whether we think we belong or not.

Here, in this place, God welcomes all, strangers and friends, rule-followers and rule-breakers, long-time members and first-time visitors. God welcomes all of us and sets a place for us at the table of life.

Thanks be to God.

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