(Sermon Audio Here. Note: we were outdoors without a sound system, so the audio is likely to be louder than usual.)
We’ll continue in the gospel according to Matthew this morning—we pick up the story in the middle of chapter 15. At the beginning of this chapter, Jesus runs into a group of religious leaders who ask him why his disciples don’t follow the tradition of ritual hand-washing before they eat. This was more than getting the dirt off your fingers before you used them to eat—it was a personal purity ritual meant to ensure you weren’t accidentally consuming something unclean.
Jesus comes back at them rather harshly: “and why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” He gives a couple of examples and calls them hypocrites. He even quotes Isaiah at them:
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.
That’s where we begin.
SCRIPTURE: Matthew 15:10-20
This whole chapter revolves around what it means to balance tradition, obligation, Scripture, and the needs of contemporary life together.
The Pharisees tend to get a bad reputation among Christians—mostly because of events like this, when Jesus calls them hypocrites and John the Baptist calls them snakes. But in that time and place, these were the people charged with upholding tradition, with ensuring that the people knew how to be faithful to the Law, with ensuring the faithfulness of the whole people of Israel. In many ways, they had an ancient version of my job.
In addition to the Law and the Prophets and the writings of what we know as the Old Testament, there were several other books that governed church tradition—and for Jews, still do today. The Mishnah, the Talmud, the Targum—all of these were commentaries from generations of rabbis, debating what a particular commandment means and how best to follow it. This is how contemporary kosher rules came into being. This is how ritual hand-washing became a thing.
But some of these rules, meant to protect the people from accidentally sinning, became oppressive to ordinary, everyday people. The rituals took time and energy, and resources—like a lot of extra water—that were not easy to come by. To be able to keep all of these rules was a privilege, not always possible for the people struggling to get by.
Jesus does not upend tradition for the sake of being rebellious—but Jesus also does not tolerate any appeals to tradition that come between the people and God. Just because it’s ‘the way we’ve always done things’ doesn’t mean it’s the best way, or the way we need to keep doing things.
And that’s what Jesus’ pronouncement here is about.
While the Pharisees were concerned with one particular method of purity and unquestioning adherence to tradition, they had lost sight of the reason for their work, for their faithfulness—to help the people grow closer to God.
When Jesus turns to address the crowd that had gathered, he gives a rather crude explanation. What goes in will eventually come out. This is true for food, but also for matters of the heart—which is much, much more serious.
We’ve all heard the phrase “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
But anyone who’s ever been to middle school, or stood on an elementary school playground, or read the comments section on an internet article, knows that this will never be 100% true.
We may be resilient, but we as humans are not invincible—not against sticks or stones, and not against hateful, shaming, or harmful words.
But what Jesus is saying here is even harsher, in some respects. Just as we are not invincible against others’ words or actions, neither are we as God’s people automatically immune to causing harm, in word or in deed.
The religious leaders in Jesus’ time couldn’t question their traditions because they believed their intentions—their motives—to be good.
When I arrived at seminary, on the very first day of orientation, the Dean of Students stood at the front of our classroom and drew a large square on the board and called it the Leadership Square…or something like that. Then, he divided that square into four parts.
The first quadrant, he said, is the things you know that you know. The things you’re confident about when you walk into a room.
The second quadrant is things you don’t know that you know. These are the skills and gifts that you haven’t yet developed, but they’re there.
The third quadrant is the growth quadrant—these are the things you know that you don’t know. The things you’re working on, learning about, investing in.
The fourth quadrant, though, is the things you don’t know you don’t know. The questions you don’t even know to ask. The blind spots you don’t know you have, the things you’ve never learned before.
And I remember very clearly what he said next: that fourth quadrant is what will make you dangerous.
Because even though most of us in that room would go on to work in churches and nonprofits with the best training and all of our excitement and enthusiasm, he needed us to know at the outset—day one—that we are all capable of causing irreparable harm even though we have good intentions.
We can do a great deal of damage with what we believe to be true words.
We can do even greater damage when our kind words do not match up to the truth of our actions.
The Pharisees had all sorts of good intentions. Purity was the best way they knew how to close the gap between the people and God. Ritual, rules, and structure were the best ways they knew to ensure faithfulness, to fence in the people so they wouldn’t accidentally sin and cause themselves to be impure.
So it’s easy to read this story and say “well, I’m not a Pharisee obsessed with ritual purity, so I’m fine. I believe in grace. It’s fine.” It’s easy to believe that if our intentions are good and right, then our words and our actions will automatically follow suit. If we pour what we believe to be good into the world, then it will be received as good, right?
But who gets to decide what’s a boundary, and what’s a burden?
Who gets to decide when something that had been a rule for the good of the people has become to oppressive to continue? When there is disagreement about what faithfulness means, when we’re trying to balance thousands of years of history and tradition with contemporary readings of Scripture and our own everyday lives, who gets to decide where the center is?
That’s the question of the centuries. Humans have fought wars over this. We’ve survived revolutions and reformations when someone didn’t like the answers.
But this story never ceases to remind me of two things: first, that I will always have blind spots and mixed-up intentions. I’m responsible for remembering that I will always have something new to learn, more questions to ask, more
Second, that it’s my responsibility, as a leader in the church, to make sure I’m paying attention to the voices on the margins. When I sit at a table of decision-makers, it’s my responsibility to ask: ‘who’s missing?’ When I invite God’s people to faith and faithfulness in a particular way, to ask ‘for whom will this be a boundary, and for whom will this be a burden?’
For example: I can preach sabbath and rest and a theology of abundance and enoughness all I want, but that won’t change anything for a single parent who has to work 7 day weeks, probably at more than one job, just to make rent and get some groceries. What would be a gift to those of us who are workaholics would be a burden to others.
We have a responsibility, as Christians, to ensure that the impact of our words matches up with our intentions. And when the two don’t match, it is not the responsibility of the person who’s impacted to change. It’s ours. When someone says that I’ve hurt them, I don’t get to decide that I didn’t.
This is what it means to do Christian discipleship in community—learning that we are responsible to God and to one another, being continually challenged and transformed further and further into the image of Christ, so that we may always know more of the heart of God.
And I believe, more firmly than ever, that the heart of God is saturated with love. If God didn’t love the earth, if God didn’t love humanity, if God didn’t love Hanover, then She would’ve abandoned us to our own self-destruction a long time ago. But I also believe that God’s love demands that we speak truth and good into the world. I believe that this love demands that we confront both our own personal sin and the injustices and inequalities enshrined in the systems we’ve built. I believe that we must call out good when we see it, and call out evil even more loudly.
Throughout Scripture, a blessing is more than an encouraging word. It’s more than a gift given to us in a time of need. It’s more than a parking space close to the door.
To bless someone is to empower them to do God’s work in the world. To love as God loves. To see as God sees. To be transformed and to be agents of transformation.
So today, as we mark the beginning of a new school year for some of us, and the beginning of a new season of learning and growing together as disciples, we’re going to bless our backpacks. Or wallets or purses or bags, or whatever it is you’ve brought today.
And my hope is, that whenever you wear or carry these things, you’ll be reminded that you have been blessed, so that you can live and love like Jesus. I hope you’ll remember that your church family is always here to encourage you, to help you learn, to pray for you and grow with you.
So if you’ve brought a bag to be blessed, bring it right on up here. You can wear it or hold on to it, or you can set it on the floor.
Now, everybody else, raise up your hands in this direction. Feel all of your love and encouragement and good things pouring out of your fingertips, into these backpacks and their people.
Loving God, be with these people – students and teachers, parents and grandparents, workers and helpers.
Be with them and help them as they begin a new year of learning, teaching, growing, working, and serving.
May their minds and their pencils be sharp; may their lunches never be forgotten at home; and may their erasers help them to remember that mistakes are okay – in fact they are an important part of the process.
God, thank you for glue sticks and homework folders and laptops and crisp new notebooks waiting to be filled; thank you for schools and offices and libraries and coworkers; thank you for gift of curiosity and for your Wisdom that is all around.
Gracious and loving God, we ask you to bless these bags and the people who carry them.
May they never be forgotten in strange places; may the burdens in them be light; and, may the bodies that bear them be strong, and growing, and whole, and blessed, ever blessed, by your love.
In the name of the great Teacher, whom we follow together, Amen!