Sunday, September 3, 2006

Thirteenth Sunday in Pentecost
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
Psalm 15
James 1:17-27
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Jehovah, who shall sojourn in they tabernacle? Who shall dwell in thy holy hill?

The tabernacle was not meant to be a dwelling place for humans. After Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt and to the holy mountain where they received the law, God directed Moses to build for Him a tabernacle in which He could dwell amongst the people of Israel. Now, the word tabernacle actually has a military meaning, it was a tent in which soldiers rested between battles. The tents were set close together. This gave the soldiers a feeling of solidarity and security. They were so close that could hear one another snoring. They could rest because they were there for one another – one body bound together with a common purpose and goal.

The Israelites were setting out on a long and difficult journey. It would last forty years, as a million or so people traveled through the dangerous wilderness until God deemed it time for them find rest in the Promised Land. He was not about to let them go through this journey alone. So, He commanded Moses to build a tabernacle, a tent, where He might dwell amongst His people for this time. He established His presence so that they would never forget that He was with them through the tough times, through the heartache, even through their doubts and uncertainty.

The tabernacle held the most sacred items of Hebrew faith. The Ark of the Covenant, with the stone tablets of the Law, a jar of manna, Aaron's staff of authority all were placed inside the holiest part of the tabernacle, the Holy of Holies. It was also used as a meeting place. It is where the Israelites gathered to hear the Word of God. It was at the tabernacle that they offered sacrifices and worshipped God. It was at the tabernacle they found rest. Yet, it was not the tent in which they dwelt. As a matter of fact, the Israelites feared God in such a way that they did not even want to hear God's voice. They asked Moses to be God's mouthpiece, to go into God's presence for their sake. They wanted a mediator, someone who could stand between them and God. They liked the wall.

When they finally stopped wandering, God's people set out to build a permanent place in which God would continue to dwell in their midst. The temple followed the same design and was used much in the same way as the tabernacle, but it was made of stone instead of cloth. The tablets were kept inside the ark which was kept inside the Holy of Holies. There were also scrolls containing the six hundred and thirteen laws which were designed to help Israel live rightly. These laws were good. They promoted healthy living, justice and right relationships between people. Some of the rules look odd to us because modern science and technology has helped us to understand what is happening in the created world and we can overcome the danger.

Modern science has also helped us to see the benefit of living by these rules. We all know that we should wash our hands often to help keep from passing or receiving germs that can cause us to be sick. Florence Nightingale was a nurse who discovered – or rediscovered – the importance of this simple practice. She encouraged sanitary conditions for the sake of both the patients and the medical staff. A sanitary facility meant life for many who might have died from their wounds during war. Today we take these sanitary rules into our hospitals, our kitchens and our schools. Jesus is not telling us in today's Gospel message that we should not wash our hands.

The Old Testament lesson begins, "And now, O Israel, hearken unto the statutes and unto the ordinances, which I teach you, to do them; that ye may live, and go in and possess the land which Jehovah, the God of your fathers, giveth you." The words 'statutes' and 'ordinances' are legal terms that describe the Word of God. In other versions you will find these words used interchangeably or with other words such as 'rules, 'decrees,' 'laws,' 'regulations,' and 'teachings.' It might seem redundant to use two works here, but John Wesley writes, "The statutes –The laws which concern the worship and service of God. The judgments – The laws concerning your duties to men. So these two comprehend both tablets, and the whole law of God." So Wesley saw this repetition as defining the aspects of the rules we are to follow – rules that demonstrate love of God and love of man. We can find a similar division in the Ten Commandments – those laws that concern our relationship with God and those that concern our relationship with one another. These laws were a gift given by God to His people. They were meant to help us to live in community with God and with our neighbor.

The Old Testament lesson continues, "Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish from it, that ye may keep the commandments of Jehovah your God which I command you." Most of us, particularly the readers of this devotional, are pretty good at reciting the Ten Commandments. We learned them in Sunday School or in our catechetical classes. We've taught them to our own children. We might fudge the numbers a bit and we might not have the scriptures memorized verbatim, but we most surely can name the ten commandments God has established for our lives. We are even pretty good about following these rules. We are much like the young man who could say that he kept the ten perfectly.

However, the Law is given as more than simply a list of rules for us to obey. It is a way of life we are called to live. In Martin Luther's Small Catechism, the rules are expounded to include not only the "thou shalt nots" but to also include a positive manner in which that commandment can be lived. Take, for example, the commandments against murder. Luther suggested that God not only does not want us to kill, but also that we should do everything within our power to protect our neighbor's life. Most of us can easily say we have not killed our neighbor, but have we done everything we can to ensure that he or she has life? We may not physically take our neighbor's things, but do we do everything we can to help our neighbor keep what is theirs?

"Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, that shall hear all these statutes, and say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people." These laws are not established as a way to keep the people down as are so many human regulations, but rather as a way to lift the people and the nation up. They were given to guard and protect the people of God, to make them and to keep them whole. Our relationship with God and our relationships with one another are vital to our wholeness. The laws are good, right and true. God's laws – God's Word – are complete just as it was given. There are no laws of any country that are more perfect, or more righteous, or more just than the laws of God. In these statutes and ordinances are found true wisdom. We should not think ourselves more wise than God to add to or take away from what He has given.

Unfortunately, we like to take God's Law and use it in a way that benefits us in some way. Take, for instance, the example Jesus used in today's Gospel lesson. The tablets, the Ten Commandments, tell us to honor our mother and father. This means not only treating them with respect in our words and actions. It was the responsibility of sons and daughters to ensure the care of parents as they grew old. This meant giving them whatever they needed for life – food, shelter, love.

However, there was a rule, a tradition of the elders that said that a son could dedicate his wealth to God. He took a vow stating that everything he owned belonged to God. Though the money did not need to be used for religious purposes, the vow was a loophole around the commandment to honor mother and father. He could rightly say that it was God's and that it would not be used for the care of his parents. He could dishonor his parents while supposedly honoring God. The traditions of the elders were held higher than the Law of God.

I wonder how Jesus might have approached this lesson if the Pharisees had come to Jesus with a slightly different question. Would it have been different if they had asked, "Why aren't your disciples walking according to the word of God?" However, they were not concerned about the disciples' relationship with God. They were concerned about something much different. Jesus was opening the doors of the kingdom of heaven to people outside the Jewish nation. He was offering God's grace to Gentiles, to the unclean and to the sinners. He was inviting them into the tabernacle, 'them' being all those who do not live up to the expectation of 'the law.' Jesus showed them that they had a skewed view of God's grace. The gift He'd given had become a burden and a wall that divided people.

They were not to add to the Law or take away from it. They were doing both. They added to God's Law by creating rules that kept people from worshipping God. They took away from it by justifying their unfaithful actions with traditions created by men. God does not love us because we have obeyed His commands. God loves. He showed His love in many ways and then He called His people to live in that love. He gave the rules that help keep His people in that love. God's love then flows out of the life lived according to His rule so that others might be invited into the presence of God.

David asks, "Jehovah, who shall sojourn in they tabernacle?" As we read through the answer found in this week's Psalm, we grieve our inability to live up to that expectation. Who is there that walks rightly, works righteousness, and speaks truth in the heart? Oh, perhaps we do so at times, but even one slight failure makes us unworthy. Which one of us can really keep that tight reign on our tongues? How often have we done evil – even if the evil has been our lack of doing good – to our neighbor? Who has never taken a bribe of some king – or caused someone else to take one (like our children)? We can't live up to these expectations; we can't be one who shall sojourn in the tabernacle.

Yet, Christ came to invite us in. As a matter of fact, the tabernacle itself was just a foreshadowing of what Christ would be and what Christ would do. He is the true tabernacle and His incarnation set the Living God amongst His people not as a tent or a building made of stone, but as a man of flesh and blood. He came to dwell with His people, not hidden away but so that all could come and share in the bread.

It is amazing how though we have finished the series of stories from John about bread, we still have a reference to this food in today's lesson. In this case the disciples are eating bread with defiled hands – dirty hands, against the traditions of the elders. Jesus answered this problem with a parable. "Hear me all of you, and understand: there is nothing from without the man, that going into him can defile him; but the things which proceed out of the man are those that defile the man." Dirty hands do not make us unclean as the Pharisees might think. Instead, it is those man made rules that divide and burden the people, the additions and subtractions to the law, and all those things that destroy our relationships with God and others that make us unclean.

For the Pharisees and those like them today, absolute obedience to rules and traditions is what makes it possible for a man to enter into the tabernacle of God. However, it is impossible for us to live up to those expectations. It is not by our works that we can dwell in the presence of God, it is only by faith. And faith is a gift of grace from God.

Yet faith that does not manifest itself in works is useless. What good is it for us to enter into God's tabernacle – enter into a personal relationship with Christ – if we do not actively live in that grace? The gift is from God, and just like the Law, is given for more than a personal benefit. God does not give us faith solely for our salvation. He gives it so that His love will flow out of our lives into the world. He gives it so that others might see and know that He is indeed God.

James writes, "Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deluding your own selves." In other words, it is not enough for us to know the Ten Commandments by heart, able to recite them from memory. We are called to actively live in and out of those commandments. It is not enough to know we are to worship God only. If we are doers of the Word we will worship God only. It is not enough to know that we should not murder our neighbor. If we are doers of the Word we will live and act in a manner that will bring them life.

We get pretty caught up in rules, rules that are all too often designed to bring division between people. The rules are established to keep people out, or to keep people in. Take, for instance, the rules of a fraternity. The only way to be a part of the group is to follow the rules. At times those rules call for demeaning and humiliating actions. The only way a person can become part of the group is to prove perfect obedience. Yet, the actions are not always worthy. At times they are even dangerous to self and others.

God's law was not designed to be demeaning or humiliating. God's law brings freedom from living within such communities that would require such actions. Instead of being a part of a closed group, God invites us to dwell in His tabernacle which is open to the world. Instead of living within a closed set of rules that burden and oppress us, God gives us the perfect Law that frees us to live in love and hope and grace. James writes, "Pure religion and undefiled before our God and Father is this, to visit the fatherless and the widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world."

God calls us to be religious, but not in the manner of the Pharisees who lift man's laws and traditions above God's Word. He calls us to a pure religion, a religion running on faith. We are called to dwell in the tabernacle – Christ, who is God dwelling amongst His people – and to be the kind of people who not only know the Law, but also live it fully. We are called to be people who do not add to the word or take away from it, who take care of those in need and who live a life that is good, right and true according to God's word. Thanks be to God.

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