The Blessings of Ritual

 A Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Year B – September 2, 2012

 David H. Knight, Priest Associate


Lord, we thy presence seek;
may ours this blessing be;

give us a pure and lowly heart,
a temple fit for thee. 

                                            Hymn 656, fourth stanza,  words by William John Hall


Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of Lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.  In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.                                              James 1:17-18.


Ritual is important in our lives. There are rituals we observe as a nation, rituals we observe in our own families, and ritual we observe in the church. These rituals provide us with stability as you and I recall things that have been part of our lives over generations. Today, for example, we observe Labor Day weekend, a weekend characterized by the rituals of picnics and cookouts. Its national significance goes back to 1882 and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It is appropriate on this Labor Day weekend that we pay tribute to the American worker who has been, and continues to be a source of so much of the nation’s strength and freedom.

 And then, there are family rituals that remind us of things that go back generations. Our recent vacation on Martha’s Vineyard reminded Jeannie and me of an ancient family ritual that was repeating itself with this present generation. Our 11- year-old grandson, Christian, and his parents Steve and Beth, had brought a young friend of Christian’s along with them for the week they were with us. His name is Barrett. He and Christian are like brothers. Their room at Newby Hill was the large bedroom over the master bedroom where we were staying. Each night at bedtime reminded us of the summers some 30 years ago when Christian’s father was that age. Stephen and his three brothers occupied that same room and Jeannie and I occupied the same room beneath them. A generation ago, each night above us, we would hear laughter and thumping as the brothers jumped from one bed to another.  Each night, after a period of time, their father would grow weary of the racket upstairs as we were trying to get to sleep beneath them. Each night—and I swear it was every night—I would go up the stairs a couple of times and I would say, Quiet down up there and go to sleep. I love you!” with no result. A subsequent trip to the foot of the stairs would follow. This time I would bellow, “Knock it off up there and go to sleep!” Immediate silence would follow my order—a blessed silence—as I would go back to bed. As soon as I was back in bed, however, the laughter,  the thumping, and the jumping would resume until finally, finally, bless their hearts, their precious little heads would fall to the pillows and they would be asleep—and as those little angels slept, that blessed silence would last throughout the rest of the night until morning—when the laughter, and the thumping, and the jumping from bed to bed would once again resume. A generation later, Christian and his friend this summer were honoring this ancient family tradition.  It brought back great memories for Jeannie and me. You see, some things just don’t change. What are some of the family rituals that you remember?

 Rituals take many forms and have an important place in our lives.  In their proper perspective, rituals can bring stability when so much around us is changing so fast.

 There are the rituals we have in the church, ones that go way back in time.  Our ritual for Holy Communion, for example, goes way back in time to the early church when Christians had to meet in secret for fear of being persecuted. The faithful met at locations marked with the sign of the fish, a secret symbol.  Their ritual began with a gathering welcome.  Then passages from scripture were read followed by reflections on the meaning of the scriptures as well as singing of psalms and hymns.  Prayers followed for those in need and for the concerns of the community. Then there came the Peace.  Alms or offerings were gathered. After that, they broke bread together.  Sound familiar? That’s pretty much what we are doing this morning. The form of worship has stood the test of time, yet as John said in his sermon last week, the development of our rituals have included fancy clothes and ecclesiastical structures that were perfected in the Medieval period. Yet as John said last week—and it bears repeating in light of today’s readings as well—there is something more important than those things—something that keeps us here, worshipping and serving.  Over the years many rituals have become so important that even one’s salvation, it seems, would hinge on whether or not one adhered to them even while the poor, for example starved. 

 Today’s readings each deal with the matter of ritual. In the Book of Deuteronomy we hear the words of Moses when he said, “So now, Israel, give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe…”  In the letter from James there comes the caution that it is not sufficient just to hear the words found in the ritual. What we do in caring for others is what matters. What we do in confronting injustice matters.  Mark, in his Gospel warns us that we can hold on to human traditions in such a way that we can abandon the commandment of God. All these lessons are centered around ritual, but with strings attached. In the gospel reading this morning we find the Pharisees and some of the scribes who notice that some of Jesus’ disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, they were not washing them.   They ask, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” Jesus, who was not known for beating around the bush, 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.”

 Jesus puts ritual simply for the sake of ritual in its place. He asked them then to think about what was more important, the ritual of washing hands, or the feeding of those who are hungry? He is asking you and me now to think about what is more important in our lives.  Is our compassion for one another more important than the motions through which we go in our rituals?  What matters most to us? Doing God’s will or simply holding on to traditions, precious and helpful as we think they might be?

 The world has changed a whole lot since the time when Isaiah was speaking to the people of Israel and as well, since Jesus was addressing his remarks to the Pharisees and some scribes. But you and I have not changed all that much from the way people were then.  It is still possible, as Jesus is saying, to for us to preoccupy ourselves with the ritual, wanting things to be the way they always were and never wanting anything to change while at the same time ignoring what it may be that God is calling us to do and to be in our own day.  Our ritual in the Episcopal Church is replete with beauty.  Our ritual can offer to us a stability that can keep us centered while so much is changing around us.  Partaking of Holy Communion at the various transitions of our lives, for example, can serve as a reminder of Christ’s ongoing presence in our midst during these times and our Prayer Book makes provision for that tradition.  Our Book of Common Prayer is full of prayers that address our many conditions and our deepest needs.  Our ritual such as we experience  is intended to strengthen our souls and empower us to and go back to the tasks and duties of our lives renewed so that we can be doers of the word and not hearers only.

 How, then, does our ritual as we experience it in the music and hymns, in the word of God and in the spoken word, the prayers and sacraments inform and inspire our charity?  It could be something as simple as a seed planted through something preached from the pulpit. The other day, for example, someone mentioned to me something that Eleanor had once said in a sermon when she was speaking of charity to strangers in need.  This person was telling me how what Eleanor said put a new perspective on the simple act of Christian generosity toward those on the street corner who are homeless and hungry, people we are likely to ignore. What she heard in that sermon had remained with her. With permission I share a recent experience she had.  Last Saturday, she and her husband were pulling away from a restaurant in Short Pump on their way to grocery shopping at Martin’s. At a red light at the corner of Pouncey Tract and Broad, she saw a man sitting at the curb holding a sign that read “Homeless Viet Nam Vet.” She lowered her window. The man came over to their car.  She reached out and handed him some cash. Now some might say that she was foolish, but she said to me that the look on his face as he said “Thank you so much” spoke volumes to her and to her husband. You see, so often the benefit is to the giver.

 And how, then, might our ritual as we experience it in the music and hymns, the word of God, the spoken word, the prayers, and the sacraments, inform and inspire our charitable giving as it takes form, among other things, through our financial pledge of support for the mission and ministry here at St. Mary’s, a ministry in which God invites us all to share?  I think of what one of the great bishops of the Church, Bishop Alexander D. Stewart of the Diocese of Western Massachusetts used to say. A great preacher, pastor, and administrator, Bishop Stewart was also well versed in the anatomy of the human body.  He knew, for example, and often reminded us that the most sensitive nerve in the human body is the nerve that connects the heart to the pocket book. And he was right.  The benefit of giving is to the giver as well as to the ones who receive. And Moses said to the people of Israel, “Give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the LORD, the God of your ancestors is giving you.”  To us that could be saying that as our ritual informs and inspires us to do the will of God when it comes to our financial stewardship, our lives can be enriched beyond all measure, for the benefit is to the giver as well.

 This coming week, as you and I go out into the duties and pleasures of our lives, may the ritual that we experience in our worship help us continue to develop a meaningful connection with God and with one another, as well as to those who we might meet for the very first time. May the ritual of our worship deepen our sense of God’s presence and power among us so that you and I may be doers of the word and not merely hearers. May we may find God’s blessing in our doing and in our giving. As James writes in his letter,

 Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of Lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.  Amen.