This sermon is based on the lectionary readings for Sept. 2, 2012: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 and James 1:17-27.
All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and entrances, and one person in their time plays many parts.
I tend to think Shakespeare got that one right. The whole world as one big stage and all of us people in it just play-acting. Putting on a show for this situation or that one. Making sure we got it right. This motion here, that topic there. There are situations pre-scripted for us and ones we improvise. This mask here, that one there. This hat or that one depending on your role in this scene. Teacher, parent, child, student, adult, doctor, worker, servant. If you do this, you’re part of this group, if you do something else, you’re part of that group.
Today’s Gospel talks about the pre-scripted versions of religion—specifically the ones that decide if you’re part of this group or that one. The Pharisees, seeing the disciples and knowing that Jesus and his followers are Jewish, remind them of their customs. Wash your hands before you eat. Keep that which is common away from yourselves, that you may be more holy.
What are they talking about? I suppose to understand this play we should discuss the setting...
In this case, tradition dictated that to be clean one must wash. Makes sense. This wasn’t a functional thing, though, with soap and water to get rid of the dirt and germs. It was ceremonial. A bit of water cleansed you so that whatever you put in your mouth would also be ritually clean and you would stay pure. That was the sort of washing the Pharisees were talking about. The disciples, however, are eating without that water on their hands.
So, the Pharisees point it out. The disciples are not adhering to the social code handed down from past generations. Time-honored tradition, the way it’s always been. One little condition. It’s really not even that much of an inconvenience, really. A little water, a few moments, and we’re all fine again.
How often do we do that? Need people to do things our way? The way it’s always been? The way it was last year? How easily to we react to correct those who do something differently than we do?
Well, Jesus has something to say about that. And guess what? It’s NOT that tradition is bad. Jesus doesn’t say that at all.
What Jesus says is this: we’re not playacting. Not here.
It’s not about the masks you put on to fit into this or that group. It’s time to take off the masks—in this case, of tradition—and look at the character motivation underneath it. Hear again the words Jesus uses: hypocrite, intentions. This is about motivation. This is about meaning.
It’s not about the right lines or the right gestures, it’s about motivation. It’s about what’s behind those lines and actions. Is it that desire to remind ourselves of God and God’s presence among us in our lives or is it about making sure everyone else follows our rules? Goes through the motions? Keeps everything the way it’s always been? It doesn’t have to be just about tradition, either. We could also ask whether we’re making changes something just for the sake of drawing new lines.
As the reading from James says, those who go through the motions and forget about living God’s word and presence are like people who look in a mirror and then forget what they look like—Maybe they do put on a mask and then forget what they are reflecting.
Well, today Jesus reminds us.
It’s not about the masks we put on. It’s not about projecting a particular front or putting on a certain manner or routine. It’s about having integrity. It’s about knowing what we’re reflecting, who we’re reflecting, and showing that by what comes from inside us.
What does come from inside us? Things go through us and are placed on us from the outside, yes, but what comes from within? Most tangibly, our words and our actions. Jesus reminds us that these need to be meaningful—we need to understand what we do and why we do it. Our words and actions should never be empty gestures. We are called to live with a bit more integrity than that.
Now, does that mean that we forget tradition? Of course not. Tradition connects us to centuries of faithful generations, and many of the traditions are designed to reinforce our relationship with God. That’s really important. But just like change for change’s sake doesn’t make sense, tradition for tradition’s sake doesn’t make sense anymore, either. Putting conditions on God’s unconditional love doesn’t make sense. That’s when it becomes a mask and we need to look beneath it to see what’s there.
This isn’t a place for masks. It’s a place for meaning—for reflecting the light of Christ within us. How each person does that is going to look different because we’re all different people. But we work to live with integrity—here in this building and outside of these walls. This part of our lives—this Christ within us—permeates every part of our character and affects what we do here and everywhere else.
So we are challenged this week—when we speak, when we walk out to the world around us—what comes out of us from within? What are those things that we say and do, and why do we do them? What is our motivation in each case?
You don’t have to have a microphone and a room of people to do this. Habits build. Whatever you say or do will slowly influence your attitude and later words and actions. Whether we work to make others fit into our conditions, or reach out to show God’s unconditional love to more of God’s world, it’s important to notice what we do or say and why we do that.
I can assure you that at some point, something you say or do will be noticed by someone you don’t expect. Whether a kid, co-worker, complete stranger at the gas station, whatever, someone will see what we do and infer from that who we are and who is reflected in us—good or bad.
So, if “All the world’s a stage,” we need to figure out our character motivation. Because it’s not about the mask, the costume, or the makeup. We’re on an improvisational stretch here, and before the curtain goes up, we need to know what’s beneath our character’s surface in order to know what our character will do.
If we start from the inside, the outside will naturally follow.