It was probably after the second or third time that we celebrated the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, by intinction instead of having Elders pass the plate down the pews that a member said to me: “John, that is really not the way Forest Hill Church does communion.” And they said (and I quote), “Intinction is just so…Catholic! It’s not the way we do things around here.”
I remember the feedback when we started adding Deacons to the possible servers. That seemed a little bit provocative for some. It had always been just Elders.
I remember the comments when a server didn’t wear a tie – a far cry from the days of the required dress code. Anne tells me that when she was first hired the choir practiced processing in perfect two-step formation, or whatever. That is the way it was done.
I’m not making light of this. I’m just trying to be descriptive.
I still get wistful remarks such as: “I love it when our young people lead worship. I just wish they would not wear their ratty jeans and T-shirts. If they are going to lead in worship then they should dress appropriately.” (And there’s a part of me, as a parent, that agrees with that.)
Some visitor shared with me these words after spending a couple of weeks worshiping with us: “Wow, this sure isn’t like my grandmother’s Presbyterian church.”
Likewise, I can’t remember the last couple that I did premarital counseling with that was not living together at the time. That was not the way things were done 25 years ago. In a way, I have to be honest, and say that it doesn’t seem to be that big of a deal, the couples turn out in pretty good shape. But, in another way, Deanne and I did NOT live together before we got married, and we turned out all right too.
I am not intending to be judgmental. Really and truly, whether you believe me or not, I feel the agitation of change, and cutting ties to the way we used to do things, the ambiguity. I struggle a lot with “the way things should be,” and the unintended consequences of so-called progress.
Social and religious norms, policies, rules, expectations of how things are done (because they have always been done that way) create boundaries, provide guidance, create expectations, frame behavior and give identity — which are all very good things.
However, sometimes these norms, policies, expectations, and obligations cause problems. They stifle creativity and, sometimes, can even be downright evil. Social norms and state law created Jim Crow. Rosa Parks was doing what it was unlawful to do to remain in her bus seat when a white person wanted it.
What jumped out at me in the movies “The Help” and “Red Tails” was the reality that white people, for the most part, couldn’t conceive of black leadership, or had a clue that the maids could hear what was being said about them, that they had feelings, let alone families and lives.
For a long period of our history girls didn’t go to college. Girls didn’t have any control over their bodies and choices. It was unseemly, unladylike, unlawful – it just wasn’t done.
So you see the ambiguity we’re in. In some ways these social norms are really important. The biblical expectations are really fundamentally good, and at the same time….oh, sometimes, sometimes.
That is precisely what is going on in this story in Mark. The Pharisees are not bad people. They were religious, they were good people, and they knew their bible. They were simply trying to maintain order, and they were scared to death that if people started going around making up new rules that all hell would break loose! And I understand that! It’s not a bad thing! You know, we’re almost wired to want to stay away from ambiguity. We want clarity!
And I’m sure those Pharisees were thinking: “Why does Jesus HAVE to pluck grain on the Sabbath?” “Couldn’t they have planned ahead?” “What’s he trying to prove?” “Jesus is being so “situational” in his ethics… oh, if you are hungry it is all right to break the Sabbath? If you are hungry is it all right to steal?” Once, you let it go…you’re on a slippery slope!
I am not going to be anti-Jewish – it is all too common to hear “Well, you know those Jews, they are rules based, law based and Christianity is about grace, and freedom.” Well some of the most narrow minded, rule-followers and status-quo keepers are my sisters and brothers in Christ, so let’s not go throwing stones. And the great persuasive tools of obligations, rules, judgment and threats of hell have, in my opinion, done more to drive people away from Jesus then anything. As Gandhi once said: “I love Jesus. I am just not sure I like Christians.”
Making change versus keeping the status quo. Breaking the rules versus following them. This is the issue.
I don’t think there is an easy way out of the tension this passage raises. It is not a problem to be solved but a weighing of competing positive and negative claims to be balanced – tradition and policy versus freedom and innovation. Gate-keeping v. permission giving. The dilemma of the Pharisees is the dilemma of the Session, is the dilemma of parents, is the dilemma of students, and just about everybody else.
I do, however, believe that Jesus offers some hint of direction to us. His action is not cut off from the bedrock of tradition. He knows his scripture too. Jesus was a Bible nerd. That story of Abiathar who ate the Bread of the Presence is hardly a well-known Bible story – today and probably back then. There are four verses in Leviticus 24 and one mention of the Bread of the Presence in Exodus 39. I had to look it up, never heard of it before. But you can see what kind of Bible reader Jesus was. To Jesus the Bible didn’t limit and proscribe – he engaged with the living word so he could come up with something creative and new and freeing He didn’t just line up bible verses..he was much more creative than that. For Jesus, the bible opened up, and was the foundation for, imaginative enterprise!
It is important for us who call ourselves “Christian,” who are compelled by the story of Jesus, who seek to follow Jesus, (who sets us free for freedom! As Paul reminds us, not obligation) to know our Bible – it is the root of our tradition. That is why we put so much emphasis here at learning how to read and engage with the living word here at Forest Hill Church.
And the Bible is LIVING word. People, pay attention! It is not a rule book! It is not a science book! It is not a history book! It’s a proclamation of good news book. it is an agitating word, a compelling word – not to be taken lightly – but not because we need to be frightened of punishment for not getting it right. Jesus himself said that the whole teaching of the Bible came down to this: love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. And you and I have to figure out how to try to do that in real time. It’s not always easy, but it can be kind of fun, and it’s sometimes situational.
I want to remind you that we worship Jesus Christ and seek to follow him. And the Bible to us is like the manger that holds the precious baby so that we can bend over and peak in and love that little baby. But we worship Jesus not the Bible. And we honor the Lord not by following rules but by following him into the complexity of choices, into the wheat fields, so-to-speak, of life.
“Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.”
Think about that! That is a remarkable and powerful saying and places us in precarious freedom. Sabbath – God’s great day of rest – was given to us as a gift! All of life, every day, days of work and days of rest – moments of introspective and compassion, of doubt and certainty are all gifts from God…GIFTS not obligations.
Life is gift – everything is gift… you are gift, I am gift – so we have to lighten up and loosen up and forgive and realize that we might actually make mistakes. Faith, like creativity, is not neat but all within the boundaries of God.
And so I guess I want to say that you and I have to get more comfortable with ambiguity and imprecision, even as we seek to clarify and be precise. It’s not one or the other. It’s a both/and. Clear as mud, right? But it is healthy – because life is hardly neat and tidy and controllable, no matter how much we seek to do the right thing we may not!
I am glad we get to eat from the Bread of the Presence that is before us now; Christ is in our midst. So come and eat and be fed – because at the end of the day, no matter the ambiguity, no matter the complexities . . you gotta eat!