S (Scripture): Matthew 15: 10 Then [Jesus] called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. 11 What defiles a person is not what goes into the mouth; it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles a person.”…17 “Don’t you understand that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach and then passes out into the sewer? 18 But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these things defile a person. 19 For out of the heart come evil ideas, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. 20 These are the things that defile a person; it is not eating with unwashed hands that defiles a person.”
O (Observation): The Pharisees are angry because Jesus is upsetting the apple cart. Jesus is picking apart their weak and frail system of religious laws. So many generations of Pharisees focused on EXTERNAL measures to change INTERNAL problems (faith, obedience, etc.). The problem with this approach is that an external measure does NOT change the internal brokenness. And try as they may, the Pharisees just could NOT save humanity through their laws.
Jesus points out that the heart is the seedbed of humanity’s defilement. The Pharisees now feel threatened because their system depends on them controlling the religious masses. Their control lies in the nature of the system. Control the rules, control the people. And without the people, they have no control or power. Jesus threatened all of this for the Pharisees, who saw salvation in a set of laws, rather than the Messiah.
A (Application): The feudal system. Organized religion in America is very much related to the feudal system. We have bishops and other elected leaders and a hierarchy that is built on the need for serfs to serve the “higher ups.” Yes, this is a cynical view…but one that I have struggled with.
Over the last few decades, folks have been leaving the organized (Protestant) denominations. Oh, and when they leave, their money goes with them. What do lords need in a feudal system? People and Money. When the people and money go, lords tend to panic. The Pharisees panicked when Jesus started teaching the people that the system they were in would not save them. The external laws would not satisfy their internal need – the need for salvation.
Now, the Church has an opportunity to recall who saves us. Is our system saving us? Or is Jesus Christ the one to save? Well…our system calls us to rely on Jesus Christ alone for salvation.
So, what does that look like? Do we throw out the whole system? I don’t think so. Do we start over completely? I don’t think so… So what can we do?
First, I think we listen to validate the worries of those in the church. Listen to their longings and hopes and dreams as God’s people.
Second, we start to look at what Jesus focused on in his ministry: Living in relationship with God, with close friends (disciples), and going out into the community to heal and teach and preach. UP-IN-OUT is the short-hand we use to reflect these three dimensions.
Third, we instill the understanding that in our baptism, God equips each and every one of us to be spiritual producers and not just consumers of spiritual goods. This step is really hard for the organized church. We are used to hiring the spiritual experts to do the spiritual work for us. In the congregation I serve, I am constantly trying to find ways to help our members discover that God has a calling for each one of them. Sometimes that is an individual call, sometimes it is a communal call. But we are always listening for the call and we are always working on the response.
I think the organized church wants this. I really do. I just think the nature of the system draws us away from personal responsibility for our faith. I think the discipleship way (which is a bit more organic) reminds us that while the organized church is there to support what we do as disciples, the organized church (EXTERNAL) does not REPLACE the connection that God instills in us in our baptism (INTERNAL).
Where have you seen the organized church work? Where have you seen it fail? What role are you playing in the struggle? What is God up to here in this struggle?
P (Prayer): Lord, help us to see the organized church as a vehicle for calling us to be the church in action. Help us to see that we are called to help each person of faith to struggle with his call and to help her discern a response. Amen.