When Religion Gets in the Way

When Religion Gets in the Way

We continue our series journeying through the Gospel of Mark. As part of this series, we will be led through the shortest – and earliest written – Gospel from beginning to end. Guided by Mark, we will focus on Jesus’ radical way of defying social norms and religious traditions. In doing so, Jesus teaches us a way of grace and love.

Additional Readings
Each week, we will include additional readings to help us work through the entire Gospel of Mark.

  • MARK 6:30-44
  • MARK 6:45-56
  • MARK 7:1-13
  • MARK 7:14-23
  • MARK 7:24-37

This Sunday’s text may feel peculiar. Why would these religious leaders be criticizing people for the way they wash their hands? Is this simply about hygiene? Or is it something more?

In first-century Palestine, the religious elite had developed an expectation that priestly holiness should extend to all faithful Jews. However, Jesus turns this expectation on its head by reminding his listeners that our inner thoughts and motivations matter. In doing so, Jesus defies the religious leaders and traditions of the time, and offers a lesson on human nature.

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 (CEB)
1The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus 2and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. 3(The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. 4When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)

5So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”

6He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:

“‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
7They worship me in vain;
their teachings are merely human rules.’
8You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”

14Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. 15Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.”

21For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”

Consider these questions:

  1. What’s a church or religious tradition that you remember from early in your faith life? What stands out to you? Is the memory positive?
  2. What’s a church or religious tradition that you think has lost its value? Why?
  3. How do we sometimes honor God with our lips rather than our hearts?

Post-Worship Update on 8/13

Audio from the sermon can be heard below. Due to a technical malfunction, no video is available.

Sunday’s message was challenging in its attempt to consider the ways religion has been harmful. Our non-theist siblings and those designated as “religiously unaffiliated” – those who are nones and dones – are rightly critical of ways that religious institutions have done harm.

We recalled the recent story of racism in the harassment of Taylor Dumpson, the first African-American woman elected to serve as President of the student government at American University in Washington, D.C. While the specific events surrounding Ms. Dumpson’s harassment may not have looked as though they were inspired by religion, we must see the core causes and blasphemous uses of sacred texts that continue to incite racism and racist acts today. One illustration is in the position stated by the state of Virginia in the landmark Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court decision on interracial marriage in 1967. Virginia’s position included this ruling by a trial judge and cited in the decision:

Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And, but for the interference with his arrangement, there would be no cause for such marriage. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.

Of course, this is one example among countless others of religious support of racism. Our own United Methodist tradition has a difficult history, even causing schism in the denomination in 1844 as the Methodist Episcopal Church, South (MECS) split off from the Methodist Episcopal Church over issues of slavery. Even when these denominations reunited in 1939, racism remained in the segregation of traditionally black churches in the Central Jurisdiction, which was finally brought to an end in 1968.

I think it is critically important for us as religious persons to confess our sins, to acknowledge when we do harm, and to re-commit ourselves to loving God and loving our neighbor. We must do so in the ways that we continue to do harm, surely in the ways we continue to harm our LGBTQ siblings as evidenced in our recent General Conference.

But there are bright spots as well! Our friends at Reconciling Ministries Network are inspiring a growing number of congregations and groups toward inclusive work and ministry. The global church has also spoken out against racism, against sexism, against able-ism, against classism. Indeed John Wesley’s avid support for the abolition of slavery can be found in his work, Thoughts Upon Slavery in 1774, and Wesley’s final letter in 1791 encouraged William Wilberforce to continue his efforts to abolish the slave trade.

Unless the divine power has raised you up to be as “Athanasius against the world,” I see not how you can go through your glorious enterprise in opposing that execrable villainy, which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature. Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God be for you, who can be against you? Are all of them stronger than God? O be not weary of well-doing! Go on, in the name of God and in the power of His might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it.

Consider these questions:

  1. Where do you see religion and religious institutions doing harm in this country and the world today? How are you seeking God’s guidance in how to respond?
  2. Where do you see religion and religious institutions resisting evil and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves? How are you personally doing this?
  3. Where do you see religion and religious institutions doing good in this country and the world today? How are you seeking God’s guidance in how to participate?