Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | August 30, 2015

2015.08.30 “Stop and Look Around” – Mark 7: 1 – 8

Central United Methodist Church
Stop and Look Around
Pastor David L. Haley
Mark 7: 1 – 8
August 30th, 2015

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.)  So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”  He said to them, “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.’
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

– Mark 7: 1 – 8, the New Revised Standard Version

If ever there was a Sunday we might call “ordinary time,” it would be today. Today is an unusual “stand alone” Sunday, in which today’s readings are not connected to those that have gone before or those that come after. We have finished Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, and in September move to the Season of Creation, which Lisl begins next Sunday.

As a “stand-alone” Sunday, it’s a good time for what I call a “Ferris Bueller” moment. If you remember, in the classic Chicago film by director John Hughes, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” Ferris says: “Life moves pretty fast; if you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it.” So – today – we’re going to do just that; stop and look around.  Sam Mutschelknaus did ask me if I was going to sing, “Danke Schoen,” or “Twist and Shout?” The answer is, “No, I am not.”

Circumstantially, it’s also a good day to do so. Today is the last day of the 8:30 service. Ordinarily, we’d go through next weekend, Labor Day weekend, but I’m going to use the opportunity of the long weekend to meet my new grandson and namesake, Carson David Haley, now 8 days old. Again, I’m thankful for Lisl covering next Sunday; if you’re around next weekend and not off meeting new offspring, please attend the 8:30 service, to think with Lisl about our shared home, Planet Earth. And thank you for your attendance at this service this summer; it’s always fun, isn’t it?

As we come to Labor Day weekend, we might differentiate the two tracks our lives will take by one thing, the return of children to school. If you still have young children, you may breathe a sigh of relief, as you no longer have to worry about summer child care and activities. Now life returns to “normal,” whatever that is, during the school year, for better or worse.

Those of us without children or who are retired, may now hit the road, without all those noisy families pushing up prices. With the result being, just as all school-age families return to church, those without children now leave. What’s a Pastor to do?

Well, for one thing, get real. Welcome to today’s congregation, shaped by modern life, in which if you attend church twice a month, that’s normal. I would estimate that on any given Sunday (with the exception of Christmas and Easter), we get only 50% to 60% of our entire congregation. In churches like ours, with families who belong to a clan culture, the absence of one or two extended family can mean a dozen people not in worship.  Again, what’s a pastor to do?

Even though I am the Pastor, I appreciating this, when I look at my own family. My 85 year old mother lives in Kentucky, my son and his family (and my two grandsons) live in Washington, D.C. One daughter is attending college in L.A., and my in-laws are moving to Rochester, MN. My wife works all week, and I work all weekend; thank God (and Steve Jobs) for FaceTime! Is your family like this too? Welcome to the new normal!

Things change; not only worship is changing, but so is Christian education, specifically Sunday School. As we approach what we used to call “Rally Day,” a mythical day in the past in which families and children and youth returned to church, for the reasons I have named it’s started to look more like a rout than a rally. Like worship, due to changing realities – Christian Education and Sunday School are changing too.

In reality, if you judge by the results, Christian Education programs such as Sunday School and youth programs and even Confirmation, have been a failure for about two generations now, maybe more. Of all the children and youth that have gone through this programs, 90% are no longer in church, with many even calling themselves “nones,” claiming “no religious affiliation.” What would we do about our public schools, if they had a 90% dropout rate? Certainly, we would not keep doing it the way we always have.

Add to this the fact that Central is no longer a neighborhood or village church, but a regional church.  Because of their ties to Central, people drive from 5 to 40 miles to attend Central. So when getting here is that difficult, understandably many don’t want to come an hour earlier for Sunday School.

The other aspect of this is that the children and youth who attend here longer go to school together, but come from different schools and school systems, such that their only association with each other is the hour or so a week they are here at church. At an age when peer relationships are absolute, forming any true community can be difficult. Throw in the schedule and competing educational and extracurricular activities, including weekend sports, now required of children, youth, and their parents, and you begin to see the total picture of why our Sunday Schools is declining.

What’s the answer? How then do we change? In two ways.  First, more of Christian Education has to occur in worship, the only time the majority of people are here.  In my sermons, I need to be more simple and more clear, for all age levels.

Plus, worship must be intergenerational, as opposed to one of the greatest mistakes we made, the age-segregated Sunday Schools and youth programs of the past. As children and youth participate in worship here alongside Leone (who will be 100 next month), they have a greater appreciation for the cycle of life, the ages and stages of faith that go with it, as well as a greater connection to generations other than their own. One of the best things about our worship is our integration of children and youth into worship. There is a reason for this; it is how we form inter-generational Christian community that lasts.

But, one other thing. Our Student Pastor this year will be Taekhwan Lee, who now works with Jesus Love and their Children and Youth; so I have discussed with Taekhwan working with our Children and Youth as well, as part of his involvement with our congregation. Taekhwan is also a practicing magician, so I intend to make it a point to ask him NOT to make anybody disappear, or saw anybody in half.

As we head into fall, Central is (always) a busy place. Next month we do Season of Creation. On October 4, our Superintendent, Rev. Dr. Zaki, will be here for our annual Church Conference. Coincidentally, that will be the weekend we do Blessing of the Animals, so put those two together that could make one of our more interesting Charge Conferences, cats and dogs voting against each other.

October is also Central’s 85th anniversary, so we will want to acknowledge that. Later in the fall we’ll be doing our annual stewardship campaign; and not long after that, head into the Season of Advent.

Even apart from that, with five congregations meeting in our building, constant building repairs and budget requests, with occasional pastoral emergencies and weddings and funerals thrown in, Central is always a busy place. I often feel, as Eugene Peterson once put it, that I’m so busy “running the church” that I barely have time for the real work of ministry, listening for the still small voice of God speaking to us, or as we put it in our church motto, “Keeping God central in hearts, minds, and lives.” I often long for time to think and plan ahead, but in the rush of things, it always seems to evaporate. Remember when I talked about the “tyranny of the urgent,” how that which is urgent sometimes crowds out that which is more important? Do you feel that way, in your responsibilities, in your job, in your life?

This – I think – is the point of contact with today’s Gospel, Mark, chapter 7. Like me, you may welcome getting back to Mark’s Gospel, where Mark is always in a hurry and something is always happening, as opposed to John’s Gospel, who has had Jesus going on about the Bread of Life for 5 Sundays now. Let’s face it, in John’s Gospel sometimes Jesus just talks too much!

For the context of what is happening in today’s Gospel, we have to go back to chapter 6. Jesus’ ministry is accelerating, such that he sends his disciples out in mission. They return – and along with them – lots of needy people, in fact so many that Jesus and his disciples don’t even have time to eat. Seeing this, Jesus takes them away on retreat (perhaps for some rest and planning ahead), and even that fails, because the crowds follow, such that by day and night they are overwhelmed by human need; phone calls, emails, people showing up at the door. Welcome to ministry! At least they didn’t have church buildings or budgets they had to worry about!

Even when they did get a moment to eat, what else they didn’t have time to do, was to wash their hands before eating. Now if you have or are still raising children, I’m sure this is a familiar discussion to you, but in this case it wasn’t so much about hygiene (although WE KNOW that is important) as it was about the Jewish holiness ritual. So when the Pharisees completely overlooked the sea of human need and the significant ministry Jesus and his disciples were accomplishing, to focus instead upon their failure to observe ritual hand washing, no wonder it was Jesus’ turn to respond with anger:

“He said to them, “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.’

You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

In other words, their man-made traditions were getting in the way of Jesus’ God-given mission. They were majoring in minors, forgetting the keep the “main thing,” the “main thing;” which was not keeping the social holiness code, but getting their hands dirty by helping people in need.

Of course, we can’t criticize them, and may feel chastened by Jesus’ criticism, because – in our tunnel vision – sometimes we do it too. We love our traditions; I love our traditions – “the way we always done it.”  Our traditions have helped powerfully mediate faith to us, in countless ways. But what if they’re not doing that for emerging generations? What if our traditions are getting in the way of our mission? What then?

Change comes with great difficulty for each of us, and especially for all of us together. We’ve heard all the variations of the old joke: “How many Methodists does it take to change a light bulb?” “Change? Change? My grandfather donated that light bulb!” We love our traditions, not only regarding buildings, but the ways we do things. But what if those traditions are no longer fulfilling their purposes, which is to minister to the needs of more people, new people, and more diverse people.

Not only is change difficult, even knowing how to change is not even clear.  But what it might mean is:

– making worship more understandable and accessible.

– doing Christian Education and Sunday School in a different, more “family-friendly” way.

– canceling all committees in favor of a more nimble way of governing the congregation.

– getting ridding of the pews to make the sanctuary space more flexible for use.

– what if each 5th Sunday, folks didn’t come to church at all, but engaged in some form of community service. (For these comments and suggestions I’m thankful to David Lose, “In the Meantime,” “Tradition,” August 24, 2015)

It won’t be easy. It’s not easy for me. I’ve been in ministry 40 years; I am indeed an old dog trying to learn new tricks. It won’t be easy for any of us.  But we can try.

Karen posted on some of our Facebook timelines (yeah, that’s new too!) last week, this cartoon:GladysChange

“Life moves pretty fast; if you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it.” When we look around, this is what we see. For some of us it looks like death; for others it looks like resurrection, signs of new life.  What about you; what do you see?



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