Rev. Janet Hunt, a Lutheran minister in America tells the story of an incident early in her ministry at her first church, a smallish rural congregation. She says:
The people there were kind and they were kind to their pastor.
When she began her ministry there, she quickly learned it was their tradition to simply come forward for communion in a line, and to receive the bread and wine while standing.
She writes that it never occurred to her to even ask why they did this. And so it was that when the season of Lent rolled around, she thought to suggest another way...that for the season leading up to Holy Week and Easter perhaps they could celebrate holy communion by receiving it kneeling at the rail before the table. Lent, after all, as she had learned in seminary, is a season of repentance, and kneeling would be especially appropriate.
In her own words she writes the following:
“And so on the first Sunday in Lent we knelt for communion. I'll never forget that morning as the kind and good people of St. Paul Lutheran Church did as their pastor asked. Winifred, the matriarch of the congregation, sat on the right hand side near the back. She was a round faced woman whose wrinkles had been etched from years of smiling. Indeed, she was not young and her knees were not what they used to be. After most of the rest of the congregation had come forward, Winifred made her way to the front as well and knelt with all the rest. I remember wincing to watch as she struggled to get up again. And it hit me that this was why the people of St. Paul Lutheran Church did not kneel to receive the sacrament. It was out of kindness. If Winifred could not kneel, then no one would. The next week we quietly returned to standing as the bread and wine were shared.”
Rev. Janet Hunt ends the story by asking the question: “Why do we do what we do?”
Is there a reason and a meaning behind our traditions? Are they motivated in the final analysis by kindness?
Our Gospel passage that we read today is all about first century Jewish traditions
The context is that a group of big shot Pharisees have come up from Jerusalem to investigate the troublesome matter of Jesus and his growing band of followers. Word about Jesus had clearly begun to spread beyond the backwaters of Galilee down to the capital of Jerusalem. He had created enough of a stir and unsettled enough people in Galilee that leaders in Jerusalem felt the need to take a closer look at him.
The first thing they observe and are quick to point out is that Jesus and his followers are failing to observe their sacred Jewish traditions of ritual washing. They eat without washing their hands in the elaborate and detailed way passed on in their tradition.
Now, it is important to note that what we are dealing with in this passage is not matters of hygiene, but rather matters of what they considered holiness and unholiness.
The religion of the Pharisees had become obsessed with issues of ritual purity. Over time the ritual washing of hands and other items had grown more and more elaborate and come to regarded as signs of holiness. Those who washed in this way were ritually clean and holy, and those who didn’t were ritually unclean, and unholy and anything they touched would be tainted with impurity and uncleaness.
Interestingly, the Greek word for defiled hands is actually the word common. They were eating bread with common hands, hands that were not ritually pure. It suggests that the common things of life are somehow not holy.
By contrast, the way Jesus lived suggests that God’s blessing already rests on the common things of life. God meets us in the common, ordinary things of life. God’s holiness is already here, already present in the ordinary, in a common shared meal with friends.
And in a sense that is what Holy Communion is about. It is a celebration of God coming to us in the ordinary, common elements of bread and wine. The Christian faith is meant to be an earthy faith. Holy Communion is meant to be a celebration of the God of the common and ordinary things of life. The earthy elements of bread and wine (everyday items in 1st century Palestine) remind us of Jesus and how he lived his life: he nourished people with his love, and brought joy to people through his warmth.
There should be no reason to exclude ourselves from Holy Communion if we feel common and ordinary because Jesus himself ate meals with common ordinary folk, eating with common hands. There is already something precious and holy about you simply by virtue of the fact that you are God’s creation.
In contrast, with their special elaborate rituals, one could even say, with high and noble ideals, the Pharisees were trying to make everything holy, but in the process failing to see the holiness that was already present.
Jesus responds by calling the Pharisees hypocrites, which comes from a Greek word referring to actors on a stage. They were like actors on the stage playing a role in a made-up, man-made holiness. Their holiness was all outward show. Like wearing the external clothes and masks of actors.
By contrast, Jesus points to matters of the heart that are far more important than anything external.
Jesus calls us to seek a purity of heart, a purity of intention and a purity of action rather than a man-made outward, external purity.
I am reminded of Jesus’ words in Matthew: “Blessed are the pure in heart, For they will see God”.
And in Titus 1:15 "...to the pure, all things are pure."
The Dalai Lama once famously said: "My religion is kindness". In our reading from Micah 6:6-8 we see the prophet Micah has a similar conception of the heart of Jewish faith and religion: that it is ultimately about kindness and humility.
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
When we live our lives with a simplicity and a purity of heart, in other words, with hearts that are loving and kind, then we discover that all of life, even the common and the ordinary is already holy. AMEN.