The Season after Pentecost: Proper 17, Year B

or91Piety and Worship

  • Song of Solomon 2:8-13
  • Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10
  • James 1:17-27
  • Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

This Sunday begins a four-week, semi-continuous reading of James. In today’s portion, this letter speaks of God’s person and gifts as being pure, encouraging followers of Christ to keep themselves pure, unstained by the world. We are to be “doers of the word, not only hearers.”

In Jesus’s time, the Pharisees were also focused on purity. They had a problem with Jesus in how he did “not” following the purity laws of cleanliness; in this case Jesus and his disciples ate without washing their hands!

Peter Lockhart, on his blog “A different heresy” writes:

Now to understand this a little better we need to know that this is not about hygiene this is about religious purity. What is at stake is how the law and the Old Testament is interpreted and understood. If I were to make a contemporary comparison I believe it is not too unlike debates concerning how worship is conducted or about who is appropriate to exercise leadership in the church.

The rules of the Scribes and Pharisees were legalism to the nth degree – trying to make sure people stayed holy. Now Mark appears to ridicule the practices of the Jews when he goes onto mention other ritual washing of pots and cups and so on and so forth. In a sense Mark is challenging what could be a kind of Old Testament fundamentalist stance.

We face many areas of “fundamentalism” in our culture today. The world we live in, while remaining the same in the whole scheme of creation over the millennia, seems to be rapidly changing – technologically, socially, and culturally. But what needs to remain the same no matter what is occurring around us is our faith and relationship with God. Our holiness and righteousness are gifts from God through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. James writes, ‘every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.’ 

Our worship is an outward sign of giving thanks to God. In the sharing of Eucharist we are a living and breathing example of thanksgiving. We remember God’s actions through history and in our lives. And how we do this has also evolved over time.

Each of us practice our own type of “piety” in worship that comes from our tradition. Some of us prefer to kneel during the prayers, including the Eucharistic prayer, as was a tradition of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer (stemming from medieval times). Others prefer to stand during prayer, as a symbol of thanksgiving to God, a practice of the early church. This “new” tradition arose with usage of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. Is one right or one wrong? No – it is our heart and motivation toward our relationship to God which makes us “clean.”

The history of liturgical change through the reform of the Book of Common Prayer has shown how the church has sought to be faithful to our theological and ethical convictions. In essence, liturgy is the work of the people. As Episcopalians, we use reason to connect Scripture and tradition to culture, changing human experience, and new knowledge. From the first Book of Common Prayer of 1549 to our current 1979 book, as well as Book of Occasional Services and supplemental texts, such as Enriching Our Worship, we continue to be cognizant of how we worship. And this too will be adapted and changed, as the 78th General Convention of The Episcopal Church called for a revision of our prayer book over the next dozen or so years.

James’ concern is that as Christian we keep our focus not on the things that oppose God but the generosity of God to us. And our worship is one of many ways that we can give thanks to what God has done for us as well as what God has given us.

For reflection:

  • How do today’s Old Testament passage and Psalm set the tone for understanding our relationship to God?
  • How would you characterize the attitude of Jesus toward the observance of religious practice as expressed in the Gospel passage? What is the true value of observing particular religious rituals? What spiritual practices or forms of worship from your own tradition are most meaningful for you and why?
  • How can we keep the “pure” religion described in today’s letter from James?
  • Jesus draws distinctions between those things that are essential to true faith and those that are not. As we look at the life and practices of the Church today, how can we know what is essential for us a followers of Jesus?

About Sharon Ely Pearson

Wife, mom, grandmother; author, educator, consultant; trying to make a difference one action at a time. Christian formation has been my vocation for 40+ years - and counting!
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