A Sermon from Licensed Lay Preacher Courtenay McKeon
My husband and I are pretty nerdy people. If we were ever anywhere remotely close to being even kind of cool, that era ended in about 1999. The only reason we know any slang from the 21st century is because we have two teenage sons. One of the phrases we’ve learned from them is to say that something “hits different.” Our 14-year-old usually says “hits different” about food, either about something exotic that he’s trying for the first time or else when he gets something he didn’t expect---like when he bites into what he thinks is a plain potato chip but it turns out to be salt and vinegar. But sometimes he’ll say “hits different” about a movie or a TV show. Like, he’ll rewatch an episode of The Office that he hasn’t seen in a while and say “That hits different now than it did when I was twelve.”
For me, today’s Gospel reading hits different than it did the last time I heard it on a Sunday morning. And that’s because the last time I heard it, it was still the before times, back before we’d ever heard the word “COVID.” Back when “corona” was just a kind of beer. But now that we’ve been living in the pandemic world for eighteen months, it’s difficult to hear this Gospel reading, which talks so much about the effect of what we put into our bodies, without thinking about hand sanitizer and masks and vaccines. In fact, I’m sure there are people in pulpits all over America today who are using this Gospel reading to argue that Jesus said we don’t have to wear masks or get the vaccine.
But public health is not what this Gospel reading is about. To get at the heart of this Gospel reading, we need to step back from this COVID world that we’ve been living in. To get at the heart of this Gospel reading, we need to understand that the Pharisees weren’t worried about the disciples getting sick or about the disciples getting other people sick. They weren’t saying that the disciples were gross or unhygienic. What the Pharisees were saying was that the disciples were unholy because they weren’t following religious practices about hand washing. And when we understand that, we see that this Gospel reading isn’t about hygiene. It’s about ritual and the way we use ritual to connect with God.
The Pharisees had countless religious rituals involving hand washing. They washed their hands when they woke up in the morning. They washed their hands before worshipping. They washed their hands both before and after eating bread. They washed their hands after leaving a cemetery. They washed their hands after getting their hair or their fingernails cut.
Religious rituals like these can be a very good thing. When we engage in them mindfully, they’re a wonderful way to remind ourselves about our connection with God during the course of a normal day. But there are two big potential problems with rituals like these.
The first is that rituals can become performative rather than sincere. When a ritual involves things that we do in front of other people, there’s a danger that instead of focusing on God, we’re going to start peeking around to see if other people have noticed that we’re doing the ritual, or to check and see if other people are doing the ritual too. When we see that people have noticed us doing the ritual, we might get all puffed up, full of an inflated sense of our own superiority. And when we see that other people aren’t doing the ritual, we might judge them to be less holy than we are. This is the trap the Pharisees fell into in today’s Gospel reading, where instead of minding their own business, engaging in their own rituals, and thinking about God, they went out of their way to criticize the disciples.
The second potential problem with ritual practices is that they can become rote. They can become such a habit that we do them totally mindlessly. And when we engage in a religious ritual without being mindful, the ritual has no purpose. We might as well not do it at all.
Because the point of religious rituals is to mindfully make space for God in our hearts, to give God room to fill us up with his love, to let God have a chance to burn away all of that yuck that we carry around inside, those things that Jesus lists in today’s Gospel reading---the deceit, the envy, the slander, the pride, the folly. Rituals should, as the Epistle reading from James said this morning, allow us to “welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save our souls.” Which is not to say that we’re going to have an amazing enlightening religious experience each and every time that we mindfully engage in religious rituals. But engaging mindfully in religious rituals creates the opportunity for that to happen. Whereas if we’re not mindful, and we just perform rituals by rote, we rob God of the chance to transform us.
Our tendency to let religious rituals become performative or to become rote over time means that we need to review them every once in a while to be sure that the ritual is truly serving God.
Here at St. Mark’s, you’re in the perfect position to do that. A new era is starting for you guys. Father Mark was with you for 25 years and I’m sure that many of the rituals you developed together were just as meaningful when he retired as they were when you first started them. But probably there were some that had started meaningfully but had become just habit. You’ve had a chance over this long year since Father Mark retired to reflect on what came before and what might come next. And starting tomorrow, Dawn Victoria will be here so you can share those reflections. So she can share the experiences of her previous ministry. So you can pray together about what the future holds for St. Mark’s. So that together you can develop rituals that will allow God space to enter into your hearts and will allow you to welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. This is your chance as a church family to hold onto old rituals that still have their meaning and to develop new rituals together. Rituals that will hit different. Amen.