Series B                                                  Pentecost XIV          September 2, 2012

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9     James 1:17-27     Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23


Walking into an office, a know-it-all salesman demanded to see the manager without delay.

The secretary informed him, “I’m sorry, he is not here.  Can I help you?”

The salesman snapped: “I never deal with underlings.  I’ll wait right here until the manager returns.”

“Very well”, responded the secretary as she returned to her work.

After a couple hours passed, the salesman became impatient.  Authoritatively he wanted to know, “How much longer do I have to wait?”

Demurely the secretary answered, “About four weeks.  He went on vacation yesterday.”


Good manners make a difference.  But good manners are not a substitute for being a faithful disciple of Christ.  Dwight L Moody was a highly respected English Preacher.  But it wasn’t always that way.  When he began his ministry, he was often criticized.  Why?  Because of his lack of polish and sophistication.  On an evangelistic speaking tour of London, the newspapers reported on his “vulgar accent”, and called him an “illiterate preacher”.  One newspaper even reported that Moody’s work seemed to “degrade religion to the level of the ‘penny gaff’” an itinerant gutter show like “Punch and Judy”.

But the criticism didn’t discourage thousands of people who faithfully attended Moody’s preaching engagements.  Even the Lord Chancellor of England and the former Prime Minister, William Gladstone, attended his meetings.  One man, Lord Shaftesbury, had great qualms about attending one of Moody’s services, but he went anyway.  Though he was put off by Moody’s accent, and scandalized by his use of humor and illustrations in his sermons, he had to admit that Moody’s preaching touched and inspired people in an amazing way.  People from every social class and educational background filled Moody’s services.  Good manners, proper breeding, exemplary behavior, are not the same as good discipleship.

Jesus’ disciples were criticized for their failure to demonstrate proper behavior in our Gospel.  Specifically, they failed to wash their hands before eating.  Now, today, this would be considered poor hygiene.  In Jesus’ time, it was considered poor religious practice.  The Jews had a ritual of ceremonial cleansing which they performed before eating their meals.  Isn’t it interesting, by the way, how many of the Biblically directed practices of the Jews have turned out to be beneficial?  Geisinger has posters about washing your hands all over the hospital, and hand sanitizers by every patient room door.  Geisinger instructions say that to properly clean your hands you should sing the Happy Birthday song in its entirety while sudsing.  Doing so could eliminate most of the common illnesses we come down with.  So, properly washing your hands before eating and handling food might not only keep you healthier, but your family and loved ones too.

The disciples didn’t know about germs and bacteria.  Evidently, they were not very clear on religious tradition either.  But remember, the disciples were not professional religionist when Jesus called them.  They were men of the world, from the backwater region of Galilee.  They didn’t have the polished sophistication of Nob Hill or The Hamptons.   They hadn’t gotten around to reading John Malloy’s book Dressed for Success or Amy Vanderbilt’s Book of Etiquette.  They were rather crude even by the standards of their own day.

But Jesus saw possibilities in them that those who criticized them did not see.  And Jesus decided to turn this into a teaching opportunity:

“Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘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.”


What does Jesus mean by that phrase “teaching human precepts as doctrines”?  Is he not saying there is a difference between good behavior and good religion?  There is a difference between the core truth of our faith and the trappings that have accumulated around those truths.   Christian faith is not a matter of keeping traditions as much as it is caring about people: it is not a matter of sacred ceremony as much as it is living in a vital relationship with the Creator.  The disciples weren’t sophisticated men, but there was nothing wrong with their heart, and that was what counted.

But this is a dilemma that faces the church today.  We constantly have to balance our traditions with our responsibilities to reach out in love and service to the world.  The Lutheran tradition has valued silence, solemnity, and a certain decorum in worship.  Yet there are contemporary forms of worship that use modern music played at higher volumes, use dance and livelier movements to express a person’s faithful response to God.  How do we blend the values of tradition with the dynamic needs of a world in turmoil?  Let me share with you the true story of a church that faced this dilemma between good behavior and proper decorum.

During Mass the priest was reading the Scriptures when suddenly a strange noise erupted in the church.  It was a strange honking and sputtering sound that burst forth and then subsided, only to erupt again.  Every head turned to see what the commotion was.  There was a visitor in the congregation, a middle-aged woman with brown hair and dressed in a white uniform.  She was making the strange noises.  She sat as still as stone, clenching her fists beside her.  She seemed to be exerting great inner energy to stop the noises, but they still came.  The priest went right on reading as if nothing happened.

No one was comfortable with these strange noises in church, but all believed it would never happen again.  The next Sunday, the choir was performing a new and difficult arrangement of “Amazing Grace” and the choir director wanted it perfect.  The choir was doing a great job until suddenly the noises were heard again.  The visitor was back.  The choir got so distracted by the noises, they had to start over again.

After Mass, people gathered to discuss the disturbance in church.  The distraught choir director spotted the visitor, went to her, and explained that even though she knew the woman didn’t mean to make those sounds, they were disturbing worship.  In a trembling voice, the visitor apologized and said that it wouldn’t happen again.  The visitor did not return to church, and some people began to feel that they had been insensitive in objecting to the woman and her strange noises.

Then one Sunday, the priest told the congregation a story.  That week he had visited a dying woman at a nursing home.  As the priest tried to talk to her, the dying woman asked for him to get Estelle.  Estelle was a nurse at the nursing home.  She also happened to be the visitor who had made those strange noises at their church.  Estelle soothed and comforted that dying woman much more than the priest ever could have done.  The dying woman didn’t even notice Estelle’s strange noises.  She only knew that Estelle loved her.

Then the priest explained that Estelle had Tourette’s Syndrome, a condition in which the sufferer may suddenly blurt out strange noises or even obscenities.  The person suffering from Tourette’s cannot control these outbursts at all.  The outbursts often come in response to strong emotion.  When Estelle was in church worshipping, she often felt very emotional, especially when listening to beautiful music.  Unfortunately, this brought on her uncontrollable attacks.  The congregation felt awful.  They had denied her the ability to worship with them because she had disturbed them.  They bowed their heads to pray and ask for God’s forgiveness, when suddenly they heard a noise from the back of the church.  It was a strange honking and sputtering noise, and everyone recognized it immediately.  They turned to see Estelle standing at the back of the church.  A woman walked over and put her arm around Estelle, then led her to a pew.  Another person handed Estelle a hymnal.  Then the congregation rose to sing a hymn, and Estelle sang along, occasionally making her strange noises.  But this time nobody minded.  These had become part of the joyful noises of their worship.

God doesn’t ask us to be the most impressive church, the most prim and proper church, the most sophisticated church.  All He expects is that people will find on the inside of our church what the cross above our bell tower and our altar indicate they have a right to expect – love, acceptance, genuine Christian caring.

That does not mean we excuse or ignore those who show the opposite of a loving, caring, and supportive attitude in church or towards fellow church members.  Good discipline is also a faithful response to such behavior.  Good etiquette, or good faith?  Hopefully we have both, but if we have to make a choice …